In a nutshell: Cooked grape must, the raw ingredient of balsamic vinegar, artfully aged for four years by one of Modena's master craftsman.
Saba is an age-old condiment, which can trace its lineage all the way back to the Ancient Romans.
At its simplest, it's a syrup made with cooked grape must, which looks like balsamic vinegar and taste a lot like it, too – though it isn't aged in barrels of different woods, the way that balsamic is.
Giovanni Leonardi is flying the flag for this traditional product today, using grapes grown on his own farm, near Modena.
He grows white Trebbiano and red Lambrusco grapes – the only varieties permitted in proper balsamic vinegar.
These are picked by hand, during September and October, to ensure only the best bunches at the peak of their ripeness are selected.
They’re then gently squeezed, so that the bitter-tasting polyphenols from the skins, stalks and pips don’t influence the final product.
Within 24 hours, the juice is cooked in an open-air copper cauldron for at least a day and a half, until it has lost around 70% of its original volume.
Most of this cooked grape must makes its way into the battery of barrels used to make balsamic vinegar. Meanwhile, some of it is drawn off to become saba.
Giovanni ages this draught for four years, to produce a rich, complex condiment whose a fruity character reveals hints of sweet plums and raisins.
It is the perfect modern example of an ancient product, finely crafted by an artisan at the top of his game.
How to use:
- As a condiment, drizzled over roast beef or lamb or grilled fish.
- With extra virgin olive oil as a pre-dinner dip for crusty bread.
- In a marinade. Try it with steak or chicken destined for the griddle pan or barbecue.
- With dessert. Its perfect balance of sweetness and acidity means a little drizzle will work wonders over strawberries or a bowl of vanilla ice cream.
Details: Available in 250ml bottles.
See the other products in the Don Giovanni range: Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena DOP; Balsamic Vinegar of Modena IGP; Balsamidea Balsamic Condiment; and White Balsamic Condiment; and 12-Year-Aged Cherry Balsamic Condiment, a 2-star winner at the 2019 Great Taste Awards.
About Acetaia Leonardi:
During spring and summer, the Leonardi farmhouse is a tiny island of terracotta among a sea of lush green. Whichever way you look, rows and rows of grapevines stretch off towards the horizon.
These are the white Trebbiano and red Lambrusco grapes that are the only varieties permitted in making balsamic vinegar, which is produced in small quantities, upstairs in the farmhouse’s attic acetaia.
“It’s an ancient recipe that has been handed down from father to son for at least four generations,” says Giovanni Leonardi. At its heart is the balsamic battery – an array of barrels in the farmhouse’s attic, made from a range of different woods.
“Each wood has its own purpose,” says Giovanni. “Oak gives notes of vanilla. Cherry adds a fruity taste. Juniper bestows spicy notes. Acacia brings honeyed flavours. And chestnut gives it the distinctive rich, dark brown colour.”
The cooked grape juice can spend decades in this battery of barrels and it is Giovanni’s responsibility to judge just the right time to move his precious product from one barrel to the next.
“My role as an assaggiatore, or taster, means I have to be constantly studying, observing and tasting our balsamic vinegar in all the different stages of its production,” he says.
When it’s ready, some of Giovanni’s vinegar is sent to the Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico di Modena, the guardians of traditional, artisan-made balsamic vinegar, where it is bottled and stamped with a seal of authenticity.
Giovanni also bottles some of it himself, which he sells under his Balsamidea brand – passing on some of the savings accrued from not sending it to the Consorzio.
He also produces a white balsamic condiment – great in salad dressings – and truly unique products, such as his cherry balsamic, which spends 12 years in only cherrywood. This rich, aromatic vinegar was rightfully awarded 2 stars in the 2019 Great Taste Awards.
Then there’s his IGP-accredited Aceto Balsamico, in which he judiciously blends a proportion of his cooked grape must with red and white wine vinegars, mostly made using grapes grown on the farm.
“It’s a zero-kilometre, closed-loop production,” Giovanni says. “Everything is done here, from growing and harvesting the grapes, right up to the final ageing and bottling.”
Giovanni is proud to be an ambassador for such time-honoured, artisan-crafted products. “Nowadays, everything is so flat, so many industrially produced products are the same. I try to make a difference,” he says.
“That’s why I get such satisfaction from guarding and carrying on this ancient tradition. I’m thrilled to be a depository of these recipes that have been handed down my family for at least 150 years.”