The flavour of ...; Balsamic vinegar from Modena

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The Independent Online
The medieval city of Modena in northern Italy is famous for three things: Luciano Pavarotti (born there), Ferrari cars (made there) and balsamic vinegar (produced there, and drizzled over salads and strawberries all over the world).

For centuries, making the aromatic dark liquid was very much a family affair, using juice from the white Trebbiano grape. The barrels were matured in attics and the vinegar was passed down the generations for personal consumption, or for precious gifts, sometimes even part of a bride's dowry.

It was only as recently as 1967 that balsamic vinegar came into the market- place, when the town council of Spilamberto organised a competition for producers as part of its traditional St John's Fair. Soon a consortium was established to promote the production of traditional balsamic vinegar, which may still be sold only in bottles bearing the producer's name.

The vinegar has now become an essential ingredient in the kitchens of the world's finest chefs. The food specialist Charles Carey, who began importing balsamic vinegar into the UK in 1980, puts its popularity down to its versatility.

"It combines the traditional flavours of northern Italy with modern cooking techniques," he says. "And now the supermarkets have discovered it and Delia Smith uses it, everyone is lapping it up."

However, he is worried that our love-affair with balsamic vinegar may be going a little too far.

"In the US, apparently, they are trying to make their own, clear white balsamic vinegar, because chefs don't like the way it colours sauces and dishes. That sounds positively ghastly to me."

l St John's Fair, which still includes a balsamic vinegar competition, is held each June in Spilamberto, 16km north-east of Modena (details: Modena Tourist office (0039 59209520).

l Charles Carey's company, the Oil Merchant, imports and distributes balsamic vinegar. For stockists or mail order, call 0181-740 1335. Prices are from pounds 4.74 for a 500ml, five-year-old bottle to pounds 75 for a 50ml, 40- year-old bottle.

l His main supplier is La Vecchia Dispensa in the village of Castelvetro, 6km outside Modena. Across the square is a restaurant, Al Castello, run by members of the same family, where "they put balsamic vinegar on everything - Parmesan cheese, veal, even vanilla ice-cream," says Charles.

Modena is also famous for...

Cherries ... from the nearby Vignola area. In April they have a cherry blossom festival.

Parmesan cheese: the province of Modena produces a quarter of Italy's total.

Pork: pigs are traditionally reared on the by-products of the cheese- making process. A popular dish is zampone, pig's trotter boned and stuffed with mincemeat.

Nocino: a walnut liqueur that is only produced by local families who jealously guard their recipes.

Nikki Spencer