And you are telling me you haven’t heard of Modena? Well then, it is only the most famous little town in all of Italy. There are no tourists here but that makes it more authentic. Modena is the Balsamic Vinegar capital of the world. It can only be made in this small little city for all of the world to enjoy. The province which Modena is located is also 20 minutes from the city of Bologna which is the culinary capital of Italy (invented lasagna, tortellini, Spaghetti Bolognese and many other treats). Twenty minutes to the west is the city of Parma, the home of Parma ham and Parmigiana Reggiono (indisputably my favorite all time cheese and king of my cheese drawer). The drink of choice here is Lambrusco red sparkling wine which is the locally produced favorite. But let us get back to the Once Upon a Time beginnings…
At 7am I was up and ready to get to the Venezia train station, destination Modena via Bologna. The day was another painful excursion (what ever happened to those lovely few months when I had everything planned, booked, reserved and ready to go in my little folder?) I waited in the Venice station for an hour until my train arrived heading to Bologna. The two hour train was lovely as I finished my scandalous romance novel and stared out into the acres of flat agricultural land along the horizon. The connection to Modena is only 20 minutes from Bologna and as soon as I arrived in the small city I realized I was in trouble.
NO ONE SPEAKS ENGLISH HERE. I spent 2 hours trying to find my hostel. I had no map, no address, no phone number. Kill me now. I finally found an angel from heaven (a shoe store owner who lived in New York for two years). She walked me to the main piazza where the tourist information is located. I walked in to find another angel at my disposal (seriously I was about to cry 30 minutes before hand as I was on the verge of fainting and crying). I spent the next 2 hours with the 20 something year old who helped me book a Balsamic Vinegar farm tour. Things were looking up as she smiled and offered me a free bottle of San Pallegrino. She took me over to her computer and let me book my next destination. A hostel in Florence. This is a random unplanned visit as I planned on going to Sienna but after my horrendous first hours in Modena I decided to stick to the big cities where people speak English and there are more things to do. I am here for the food, who am I kidding! All of this work, simply to eat some cheese and fermented grape vinegar. I think it will be worth it!
I had a few hours before dinner so I had a quick shower and bolted to the famous Ferrari Museum (Ferrara is 10 minutes from Modena). The cars look expensive (I am sorry but I don’t actually have an appreciation for these things like most men do). The place is full of antique Ferrari’s and models of all the newer editions. I know many friends who will be incredibly envious of my non chalant visit. Modena is considered the car muscle capital of Italy. The home of Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini! From the museum I walked to the downtown square where I passed the famous Military Academy. A five minute walk later I walked into the Grand Piazza which is famous for its beautiful cathedral (which was doing the ding dong thing as it stroke 6pm). A great treat was the huge paparazzi and party going on in the square. A couple had gotten married just minutes before and people were throwing flowers and beckoning them into a beautiful Ferrari Sports car littered with red roses. Italian weddings, I dig them.
I spent a great few hours relaxing in a small little Italian restaurant called Taverena del Servi. I spent 20 euros on a lovely traditional Modenese dinner in the lovely wine vault ambiance of the place. Everything from Modena has to have Balsalmic Vinegar smothered on it, rightly so. The damn hidden cover charges bug me here in Italy. They add 2 or 3 euros to your bill for items you don’t necessarily eat or want to eat. In the case of this little establishment I was happy to pay 2 euros extra for fresh foccia and a welcoming glass of dry white spumante. I ordered a plate of sliced Parma ham with Parmeggiano cubes drizzled with 25 year old Balsamic syrup. My main course was a plate of fresh Tagliatelle with Ragu (tomato meat sauce). For dessert I had a bowl of vanilla gelato with fresh strawberries and thick Balsamic syrup. Through the entire meal I smiled and giggled as I finished an entire 0.5 L bottle of Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro (the local beverage of choice. A red wine spumante. I loved the little bubbles). I wandered back to my hostel and thought how my day had gone from horrible to wonderful in just a few hours. Food will do that to you. My room was like a sauna and I had a rather dull sleep which consisted of a lot of groaning and rolling in bed. All I wanted was to sleep in a vat of ice, no go.
I wake up in the morning with a tiny little breeze gracing my skin (much appreciated) and walked to the reception to inquire where I could get to a supermarket. Crap, the guy laughed at me as it is Sunday in a small town in Italy. Nothing is open. I decided I could probably get through the day not eating anything as long as I ate the last few cookies I bought in Venice and the nasty translucent tap water courtesy of my bathroom down the hall. Thanks be to God I found one little cafe open that sold a huge 1.5 L bottle of ice cold spring water for one euro fifty. I gulped until I could no longer, nothing like good ol clean and crisp H2O. I walked up to the train station to buy myself a return ticket to this little town outside of the city where my Balsamic Tour was going to take place. Once again I was faced with a crowd of locals who spoke no English.
As if a gift from God, a man with an English accent offered to drive me to the farm. He was the nicest guy I have met yet. I hopped into his Lamborghini and he spent the next hour driving me around the city telling me the history of all the buildings. I told him I was all about food and he grabbed my map and told me about the famous food market I must go to and his favorite restaurants. He was born in London and traveled through Canada when he was 25. He has lived in Modena for 20 years and travels all over the world with his company (he had just returned from China and Japan). My favorite little stop on the way to Albartero was the little house which the famous Three Tenor member Saint Poverati grew up (yes they call him a saint). I was so happy to have met him as I would never have been able to get to this place on my own. To think I was going to take the bus. He and I got lost for an hour in the town of Albareto (even though you can drive through it in 2 minutes). We finally found the address and buzzed in and the gate swung open. My heart jumped as we drove into a huge beautiful Renaissance farm house surrounded by grape vines. I hopped out of the car and he talked to the wonderful 70 year old lady who would be my tour guide. I bid my new friend farewell and sat down under the shade looking over the farm fields and playing with her 3 blind dogs. The farm is called Azienda Agricola Galli and it is the quintessential Italian countryside spot to visit. She offered me a small cup of cafe and we sat for 30 minutes chatting in her broken English and my non existent Italian.
I learned the following. The family grows two grapes. Lambrusco red wine grapes and white Trebbiano grapes used for Balsamic Vinegar creation. There are two official kinds of Balsamic Vinegar. A 12 year minimum aged and a 25 minimum year aged. The 12 year is called Aceto Balsalmico de Modena and 46 million Liters are made in the town each year for the world to enjoy. The more expensive variety called Modena Balsalmico Traditional has 100 000 liters produced each year. The 25 year aged is 65 euros for a 30 mL bottle and the 12 year aged is 35 euro. As I only had 20 euro she sneaked into her farm house and found a bottle that had not been certified by the controlee of the region. She had bottled it herself and gave me the 12 year aged for 20 euros even. I can’t wait to have a wine and cheese party (parma ham as well of course) when I get back to school! She walked me into her beautiful farm house and rambled on about the history of the building and then walked me upstairs (where it is very hot, essential for proper Balsamic aging) and showed me the cask room. She gave me a lovely balsamic tasting using a glass like turkey baster and wine glasses (which she enthusiastically forced me to drink). The room is full of little alley’s consisting of five different sized barrels. The largest barrels receive the first cooked must and as the years go by they are transferred into smaller barrels with different kinds of wood casks (oak, cherry, chestnut etc…) Every November the vinegar is rotated and moved into the next barrel until it reaches the 12 or 25 year mark where it is poured into small glass viles when it is inspected by the contree and sold on the market. Balsamic vinegar is fabulous. Here it tastes like sweet candy and flows off a spoon like thick maple syrup. We walked back down to the veranda where she gave me a plate of rolled omelet, parma cheese cubes and crackers; all drizzled with her finest vinegar. As I munched down she told me about the history of Balsamic Vinegar and family tradition.
Whenever a child is born the parents buy five barrels of vinegar. Over the years they rotate them and continue to ensure that the finest quality is produced. When their child marries they give this “nectar of the Gods” to the other spouse’s family as a wedding gift. I thought that was so enchanting. Food here acts as a cultural tradition, an incredibly important part of life, as it should be. I pinched myself, I couldn’t believe I had managed to get myself a private tour of a local and very well known Modenese Balsamic farm. This little warm feeling in my heart, and gitty jitter in my soul is exactly what culinary tourism is all about. Before I left she walked me through her vast farm and showed me the fruit and vegetable garden, the white and red grape vines and her walnut trees. Before I jumped in her land rover (as she insisted she drive me back into town) she gave me a shot glass of Nocino which is a local Walnut Whisky. No wonder she had so many walnut trees, this liquor is intense and nutty as it gets. Hopping into her car I bid the farm farewell and she dropped me off at the local pool where I intended on spending the hot summer day. I gave her a two cheeked kiss along with my many thanks.
Then the day went downhill, what else is new. I realized after I bought her vinegar I had no cash left. I couldn’t get into the pool as it was 6 euros entrance so I tried to find a cash machine and my heart dropped when the ATM returned my card. Had I run out of money already? I walked all over town and tried three different ATM’s, continually getting the no go signal. I had a bit of panic course through my blood and yet again had another life lesson in how to calm myself down and focus on the good. I thought it a good idea to find a nice lovely shady spot to read. I walked into the Public Park which has a nice little pond full of ducks, big fish and turtles. Entering the park there is a huge sign which made me laugh out loud. It has green circled items such as “do pick up your dogs shit, do not litter etc…” My favorite being “do not sing/opera”. Who prohibits opera singing in a national park? Especially the home town of Poveratti, nuts. I got a bit fidgety and wasn’t in the mood to sit under a tree and read so I followed my hunger cravings and walked all around town trying to find a decent restaurant on a Sunday afternoon. That was a task, a tricky one but I succeeded in finding a nice little spot right on the piazza adjacent to the cathedral. The place is owned by the funniest Italian family. Only one of the family members spoke English and she was a big burly woman, twice my size, reddish brown ringlets of hair with a large silk pink blouse and a voice that could silence an army. I first introduced myself as she was running down the street with a broom chasing a Roma beggar who continually bothers her clientele. She spit on the street and gave me a big smile when she saw me and said AMERICANO! I said CANADA! She ran at me and gave me a big hug. “My uncle, he works in Montreal.” Brilliance, I knew this meal would be excessively good.
She introduced me to her nona (the old grandma) who makes all of the restaurants food by scratch. I got a bit of a tour of their back kitchen and saw many lovely sauces and stews on the boil. I sat out on the cobbled piazza under a big umbrella ready to go through the Italian Culinary notions. I knew that the next 2 hours would be filled with silence as I was alone, yet screaming with ecstasy inside. I surely would be drunk post pucker pleasured so I lay back and got ready to treat myself (shoving my VISA into my pocket as to prevent any fumbling when the time was ripe).
I started with a 0.5 L of Lambrusco, my new favorite wine. Cold, deep red, frothy and sweet. A lovely cold wine to slurp at your leisure (and dear me was I being leisurely). I had a basket of fresh foccia brought out and asked for a bottle of Balsemico Traditional de Modena (25 years aged). I have learned to enjoy and demand life’s wonderful treasures. The dark purple/black balsamic oozed over the fresh salty bread and I was in heaven.
My first course (Primo patti) was the traditional Modenese tortellini (invented 20 minutes down the road in Bologna) with cream and parma ham. My second little dish was out of this world. Talk about fresh ingredients; a plate of roasted garlic, capers, olive oil and roma tomato’s with shaved Fillet Mignon beef topped with parmeggiano shavings and drizzled with top notch Balsamic. I was on the tipsy, and it was about 4pm at this point. I decided to indulge in a bit of home made gelato and walked over to make my selection. I paid for 3 flavors and my new dearest Italian henchwoman insisted I have another for free. I walked down the street back to the hostel passing the neo renaissance cathedral which has two interesting little saints learning out onto the sidewalk. I decided to sit and burned my ass in the process (who knew the sun could really heat up rock staircases enabling someone to fry an egg al fresco?). The gelato melted all down my shirt and face (it was hard to focus with the heat and buzz. Crema, baccio, peach and coconut are a great quatro combination). Sitting in a more appropriate shaded step by the church I stared down at my feet which were sitting right on top of a rocky cobbled street. Who knows how old these rocks are, how ancient is the very spot I am sitting. Weird questions like that raced through my head. As I looked down at my dirty Birkenstock tanned feet I noticed bits of risotto rice, rigatoni and plenty of cigarette butts. As I stood up to survey my surroundings it became evident that the entire street was full of rice and rigatoni! Evidently someone had gotten married recently and I had missed the carb throwing fest! Walking back to my hostel in the dead heat I tried to figure out what the first English phrase Italians are taught in school. Hands down it has to be “I dont speaka de English.”
I hobbled into the hostel and lay flat on the tile floors of the common room which was blasting the ever so odd Robbie Williams video Sin Sin Sin (he is so ridiculously huge in Europe it isn’t funny). The remainder of my afternoon and evening consisted of somewhat of a marathon. I spent the next 7 hours reading my new book Everyone Worth Knowing by the author of The Devil Wears Prada (which has solidified in my mind that I was born to work PR). Where does the “marathon” bit come in you ask? Ever 30 minutes or so I was forced to have a shower in order to cool my incredibly hot body down. I had a total of 13 showers from 5pm till 12 midnight. Cold, freezing cold showers are the best medicine when you are living in a sauna of a city. Thus my last night in Modena consisted of sprints of reading followed by ecstatic ice cold showers. Every time I closed the shower doors my face would instantaneously run into a smile as I pushed the ten second timed shower nozzle. Three seconds later, like clock work the medieval shower facilities would spew out luscious cold H20. I jumped up and down in the shower to find the best streams of cold fluid. Hopped out of the shower, watched the steam rise from my body and went back to my room to read. Repeat that 13 times and you realize why I call it a marathon. In the middle of the night, once I had finally fallen asleep from heat exhaustion my wacky room mate from Albania woke me up as he slammed the windows shut. Could it be, I tried to use my ears properly and in fact heard thunder. Thanks be to God it rained (a bit late) and I woke up in the morning with a cooled town and enjoyable breeze passing through the shades.
I jumped out of bed at 7am and ran down to the market which I was told I had to visit before leaving. The place was half finished setting up but I enjoyed taking several pictures of huge cheese stands (Parmeggiano wedges the size of a tire, buffalo mozzarella the size of soft balls), fruit stands, butchers and antipasto specialty stores. I walked back to the hostel and packed up my things in my room to be embraced by my ever so weird room mate. My impression of Albania is that the country is full of dim witted individuals. This guy drove me nuts the entire time I was in the hostel. He would say “you from America?” I would reply “No Canada”. His face would spark up and say “Ah New York City, very good” with a huge smile and big thumbs up. He sings to himself (really loudly) and pretends he is from Italy. I think I may miss him for a minute or two but I am sure I will get over my room sharing wack job.