Modena, Italy is the city that Italians think about when they think about food. For me, that was enough to make me book a foodie tour while I was there. Sure, there are plenty of beautiful buildings, famous artwork, historical stories – but I was in Modena for three things –
Parmagiano-Reggiano Cheese (this isn’t the Parmesian that comes in a green can, Americans!)
Traditional Modena Balsamic Vinegar
Lambrusco – the famous sparkling red wine of Modena (yes, sparkling red!)
I arranged my tour through Emilia Delizia – out of all the tour companies available, I liked these guys for the way they set up their tours, for the personalized nature of the tours, and also because we had nice interaction via email. All of those things added up to my booking with them and meeting my guide, Gabriele, at 8 am in Modena.
The day began with Gabriele offering a nice overview of the food of Emilia Romagna, the history of the region, and a short drive to a small dairy outside of Modena where Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced. The cuisine of the Emilia-Romagna region is both robust and refined consisting of smoked meats, cheeses, wines, vinegars, and pastas such as tagliatella and tortellini. I had taken a pasta cooking course back in May, so this tour was going to be focused on the wine, vinegar, and of course, the cheese.
Emilia-Romagna really hit the gastronomic big time back in the 1800’s when food writer Pellegrino Artusi when he detailed the region in his book The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well which spoke about the various regions of this and other parts of Italy. Artusi was a native of the region and described the food as not just being healthy and delicious but also good for the soul!
At the dairy, the cheese master kindly let me view the whole process, ask what may have been silly questions, and take plenty of photos. You may remember the images of huge wheels of cheese falling during the recent earthquakes in Northern Italy – that was the prince of all cheeses, Parmegiano-Reggiano aka Parmesan Cheese. This cheese is considered such a perfect food that it is sent to outerspace to provide the calcium for astronauts and thus avoid the loss of bone density which comes from extended periods in weightless environments.
I’ve always been a big cheese lover, but seeing the process, made my appreciation grow. It begins with the grains grown on the dairy which are fed to the cows that live at the dairy. This is a truly regional product. The making of it goes back to the year 1200 and has remained much the same since that time. The only place that this cheese can be made and certified is in the small region south of Mantua and bordered between Parma and Bologna. The cows, the grain, and the cheese master all need to be from this region.
The milk has to be fresh from the cow (within two hours of milking) in order to be used. The milk is placed in vats and overnight the cream separates. It takes more than 4 gallons of milk to make 2 pounds of Parmigiano-Reggiano and it is all artisanally made. The milk is then heated in copper cauldrons where it begins to do the work of curdling. Next, the milk curd is broken up into small chunks using a giant whisk, then it is cooked and allowed to cool. The curds drop to the bottom and using a pair of sticks and a large spatula – the cheese ball is lifted out and cut into two masses, dropped into molds and pressed to remove excess moisture for several days.
Next the cheese is soaked in a salt bath for about 20 days before being removed and allowed to age for 1 to 3 years. Only at this point is an expert certifier brought to inspect the cheeses – if they pass, they get the fire brand – this is the ‘Parmigiano-Reggiano Consorzio Tutela’ oval mark you will find on the finest cheeses. Those that don’t make the cut, are marked with horizontal bands which indicate they are of an inferior quality (though still delicious). We tried a 12, 24, and 36 month cheese – of them all, I preferred the 24 months as the flavor was strong with hints of nuts and sweetness but not overpowering as the 36 month was. The 36 month is special and should be reserved for specialty cooking – although with a drop of sweet balsamic on top, a single piece comes close to cheese divinity.
Our next stop was a family home where traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena has been made for several generations. I should point out that the Balsamic Vinegars that most American’s have tried are very different from these. While most vinegars are made from wine, traditional balsamic is made from unfermented grape juice. Again, this is a product that must be completely regional – the grapes are usually grown by the family who makes the Balsamic.
The process begins with the grapes which are crushed and then added to a battery of hard-wood barrels which impart varioius flavors to the vinegar as it ages – how long? The minimum is twelve years! There are two certifications 12 and 25 years. The process takes place in the attic of the house.
We were met at the gate by Carlotta, the daughter of Giorgio and the newest in generations of Balsamic producers. As we stepped in the house, the overwhelming sweet smell of the Balsamic met us as Carlotta led us to the attic where battery after battery sat slowly concentrating. The barrels range from large to small and over the course of years the vinegar reduces from the open tops – each year a bit of the previous years grape juice is added until after 12 to 25 years – voila! A barrel of a few gallons is ready to be consumed or sold. Seriously, 25 years to make a handful of bottles.
Carlotta walked us through the entire process and showed us the batch her father began when she was born. She is 26 now and so the Balsamic Vinegar ‘Carlotta’ has recently come available. The amazing thing is that the woods of the barrels import a strong taste to the Balsamic so that a Balsamic that was kept in only sweet woods like cherry or ash offers these flavors. Similarly, the Balsamic that sat in Juniper tasted strongly of the berries and aroma of the juniper trees.
The Balsamic ‘Carlotta’ was sweet and delicious and she confided in us that she likes it best dribbled onto vanilla ice cream! We were able to taste a variety of 12 and 25 year old Balsamics while we were there and then we had the chance to buy a 100 ml bottle. You can imagine how much a 25 year old vinegar that yields only a handful of bottles will cost – the minimum for a 12 year was 45 Euro and this went up to 180 Euro for the Balsamic that won the 2011 best Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena award – which means, it is the best in the world. To be honest, my wife would have killed me for spending that much on a tiny bottle of anything – so I had to pass, but those on the tour with me were quite happy to buy multiple bottles. I was tempted but could see my wife’s wooden cooking spoon coming at me, so regretfully said no.
By this point, we were all ready to drink a little wine so we then drove out some long country roads to an organic agrotourismo on the outskirts of Modena where we wandered the vineyards, learned the process of the making this famous sparkling red wine.
We enjoyed a farmer style lunch with a local dairy man, a couple of farmers, and the owner of the vineyards. Lunch was a delicious homemade pasta, several types of cheese, smoked meats from the region, and of course Lambrusco. This wasn’t my first time drinking it, and to be honest, I was looking forward to it .
Lambrusco is a bubbly red wine that is served young. In fact, in the 1970’s and 1980’s the wine was considered to be the wine of the young – unfortunately, this led to a loss of reputation of what is a very nice wine as it was relegated to the land of those who think of it as inferior. While there is a lot of Lambrusco di Modena that will please your palette and provide even the most haughty of connoisseurs with enjoyment – this particular vintage wasn’t it as evidenced by the fact that of three bottles opened for nine men, none of them got finished. Or maybe we were all a bunch of teetotalers…
That being said, however, the lunch was wonderful, the vintners were gracious in showing us how the Lambrusco was made, and as an ending to a wonderful food tour it was almost perfect- because what foodie doesnt’ love strolling through Italian vineyards or drinking homemade grappa with the farmer who grew and fermented it?