To kickstart our blog in style, we interviewed Davide Lonardi, owner of Villa San Donnino and the producer of one of the most authentic balsamic vinegars in Italy, known to many as the traditional balsamic of Modena.
Davide, how did your passion and then profession begin in the world of balsamic vinegar?
It all began in 1947, when my grandfather bought the Villa San Donnino property, and found some barrels in the attic, those barrels containing traditional balsamic vinegar.
In detail, he finds old barrels from the 1800s, which already contained a very old product at that time, from those first barrels the production for the family begins, and the grandfather’s passion and experience has been growing more and more and has been handed down over three generations.
Was it really a coincidence or the hand of fate?
Even if my grandfather found them so almost by chance, it was not exactly a strange coincidence, in fact in Modena many wealthy families such as the San Donnino family produced the balsamic vinegar themselves for their own consumption.
Furthermore, it is an entirely Modenese tradition that families create new barrels, the so-called “battery” in the important event of the birth of a daughter, (or a son) to make them mature with the growth of the new family member and to donate them as a dowry at marriage.
How is a battery composed?
The battery consists of at least 5 barrels all of different sizes, usually of 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 liters. The difference in size is very important in the aging process, because the producer will have to add part of the cooked must, from the large barrel to the smallest one in order, to fill them, since every year the barrel loses almost 10% of the product, given that the barrels are open on the surface, and these are placed in the area of the attic which is hottest. Like hourglasses of different sizes, the aged cooked must passes from the large to the small barrel, at annual intervals, until after 12 years the smaller 10-liter barrel can be used, not totally but in a small dose, to produce the traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena.
Are there still families that produce it for their own needs?
Yes, of course, it is a very strong tradition. It is also very interesting to note that this tradition also fascinates our foreign friends who once discovered this tradition, often during a visit to Villa San Donnino, they too want to create their battery, often to celebrate an important event, and we at Villa San Donnino we make it and keep it for them.
Davide, you are really telling us about a magical world, it seems to hear tales of alchemy by listening to you. We would like to kindly ask you to explain the differences between the balsamic vinegar you have talked about so far, the traditional one, and to explain the differences with the product that everyone knows around the world, the balsamic vinegar of Modena.
The product is completely different, so the biggest problem is making people understand the differences, the positive side is that the product is so different that those who enjoy the traditional can’t go back to using the industrial one.
The traditional is the result of an aging of 12 years and comes from a very laborious process.
Until the commercial product was created, the traditional was a product made by wealthy families because it was very expensive and laborious.
Compared to the commercial product, it is important to remember that grapes not produced in Modena cannot be used for the traditional product. Only cooked must must be used, and therefore not vinegar. Aging must be 12 years. The traditional is called Affinato when it is aged 12 years, and Extravecchio when it reaches an aging of 25 years.
At the end of the 12 years, the product must be approved by a special commission of traditional balsamic experts, they will analyze the acidity and density and if the product passes this first test, we will continue with the tasting … through an olfactory, visual examination .and gustatory
If the consortium approves, it will carry out the bottling and application of the PDO label (Protected Designation of Origin) and from that moment the producer will be able to apply his own label, which must have been approved by the consortium, and thus proceed with the marketing of the product.
How did your passion for balsamic come to sell the product abroad?
At the beginning of 2000, my wife Cristina and I found ourselves having a beautiful production and we decided to open the doors to tourism.
Tourism was an initiative linked to the Villa itself, since it is a splendid example of Art Nouveau style and therefore fits perfectly as a tourist attraction.
The Villa San Donnino and the production of the traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena have thus created a union that has attracted about 13,000 tourists to visit Villa San Donnino.
Thus an activity was born from a passion.
Then came advice from the market, from chefs, who for example asked us to produce a high quality balsamic vinegar like the traditional but cheaper, so we created Nerone, which is now sold in various countries.
Among the tourists, Villa San Donnino has also been the destination of very famous people such as Mark Zukemberg, Pierce Brosnan, Oliver Stone and many others.
What are the difficulties for an artisan to coexist in a market where a very commercial product is preferred?
We have a positive and a negative factor, there are on the market a very famous product of the balsamic vinegar of Modena, and the DOP one which is almost unknown, there are millions of bottles for the balsamic vinegar of Modena, and only 100,000 bottles for the traditional among all producers per year.
It is clear that commercial balsamic exists as an economic version of this special tradition that Modena has offered to the world. This commercial success has in turn helped Modena to be able to express its passion for balsamic to the fullest, but those who try the traditional cannot go back to using the commercial product, balsamic vinegar.
Other curiosities about traditional balsamic from Davide Lonardi
We could add the importance of the bottle designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro (a designer known above all for cars, including Ferrari), unique by law and therefore an essential element to buy the true traditional of Modena.
I would also give importance to the fact that the traditional can be used on all dishes, taking care not to cook it, that is, it must be used raw. In addition, there are studies, including by the University of Seoul, on the properties of balsamic vinegar for those who have problems with cholesterol, for example. In traditional balsamic there is no alcohol content as the barrels are open and all the alcohol that is formed with fermentation evaporates.
Finally, I would like to underline that it is a very ancient product, the term “balsamic” of which appears for the first time in a register of the cellar of the ducal palace of Modena in 1747.