This august La Vecchia Dispensa was honored to become a part of “Acid Trip. Travels in the world of vinegar” – a book about vinegars by a talented journalist, photographer and writer Michael Harlan Turkell.
Taking advantage of this occasion we are very excited to share with you the part dedicated to La Vecchia Dispensa:
“The next morning I took the 740 bus from Modena to an acetaia in Castelvetro, about forty minutes southwest. After driving through flat countryside, I was dropped off along SP17, and the bus driver pointed up a hill to a piazza. Zigzagging across the Guerro River and up a steepincline drive, I arrived at the base of a clock tower. Across from it was a building with a marquee on the facade that read La Vecchia Dispensa, which translates to “The Old Pantry.” There, Simone Tintori warmly greeted me.
He seemed to me to be more of an emissary than a salesman. Often, when you’re meeting with someone about their commercial product, you get swept up in their scripted banter. In contrast, Tintori is very open to having a dialogue. He’s fourth generation, his sister isn’t in the business, and he doesn’t even have his own batteria; only one barrel bears his name, but it’s for personal use. We gossiped over Ponti, a company that used to be a pharmaceuticals but is now part of “big vinegar”, and Acetum, probably the biggest balsamic supplier in Modena, if not the world. Because of these IGP monopolies, a need has arisen for better middle.market producers.
The production of higher-quality balsamic is increasing markedly, while, at the same time, production of a lower-quality balsamic is decreasing – a good thing, because it indicates a more informed customer base, but it should be noted that this trend creates a much more competitive market for vinegar producers. This doesn’t discredit how good (and economical) a midrange bottle can be. La Vecchia Dispensa’s eight-year aged balsamic is a great everyday balsamic. It strikes that balance between affordability and quality. Their vinegar sings a signature high-end note of cherry wood; the wood for their barrels comes from Vignola, the cherry capital of Italy.
At our meeting, Tintori brought out what looked like an apothecary box containing half a dozen vinegar bottles labeled in handwritten cursive. It felt like a reformist, even slightly steampunk, way to display balsamic, but does making it look old-timey make it more authentic? Tintori doesn’t produce the newly trendy balsamic glazes or balsamic creams, but he does call those products balsamic in deference. At this point, trying to re-educate consumers on what is and isn’t true balsamic would be too much of an uphill battle, in his view; Tintori is trying to change the balsamic frame of reference.
The city of Reggio Emilia is like a brother to him, one with whom he has a love-hate relationship, but at the end of the day, they’re still family. The word campanilismo, which translates to “parochialism” in English, illustrates the sentiment. The sense of community in each town is strong, but in some ways made stronger by the competitiveness with neighboring towns over petty debates, such as who has the tallest building or the best wine. In fact, I have found that while abroad Italians are likely to mention the town they’re from, believing it’s too broad to say “I’m Italian”.
However, Simone says they’re not competing against a neighboring city anymore; rather, they are facing a global market. For him this means regions have to stick together to promote their shared traditions. It’s like crémants, that are dilicious, superb Cavas from Spain, and Champagne is from the Champagne region of France, and “champagne” from anywhere else is a con. Simone’s goal is to unite a class of balsamic vinegar makers that care more about credibility with an emblem of authenticity, trusting the market will follow.
A 100 ml bottle of DOP balsamic in the 1970s used to cost one-third of an average monthly salary in Italy. With inflation, it would cost about 350 euros on the shelf today. Even once the market was flooded with IGP, the demand for DOP balsamic remained inelastic. Over time, though, the on-sale price of DOP decreased but the cost of production didn’t, and people didn’t know the difference, so what’s the value of paying for tradition? During a recent business trip to Germany, none of Tintori’s clients asked for DOP, or even IGP, they just wanted to taste “balsamico“. That’s like asking for “wine” without stating what kind. Calling balsamic a “vinegar” may even be considered a misnomer, since it starts from cooked wine, which is distinctly different from any other vinegar.
We left Tintori’s tasting room to ascend a winding staircase – one as seemingly sleep as the clock tower I’d passed in town – to a nondescript room where the barrels are stored. The unobstructed, panoramic view of leas and distant villages from the open windows was breathtaking in its splendor – completely worth the strenuous climb to reach it. “