By Anita Lee Breland
Emilia-Romagna is Italy’s breadbasket—an ideal destination for food-centric travel! Some of the country’s best-known exports are from around Modena, in the heart of the province.
Parmigiano Reggiano and balsamic vinegar have proved to be great travelers far beyond Italy. Modena offers myriad opportunities to sample the region’s cuisine. To make your foodie trip through northern Italy exceptional, try these.
Dine under three stars
Looking to put three Michelin stars in your travel crown? Try Osteria Francescana, where Chef Massimo Bottura tells the food history of this part of Emilia Romagna on each plate he serves. Listed as one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants for the past four years, Francescana offers an entrée to a complex regional cuisine. My husband and I opted for a nine-course tasting menu of fish from local rivers and estuaries, enriched with echoes of the region’s well-known meats and cheeses. Perhaps the most intriguing plate was a molecular treat of flavors and textures: Parmigiano Reggiano at five ages of maturation, from 12 to 36 months.
The sommelier recommended a reasonably priced red wine that matched superbly with every course on the menu. After dinner, we were invited to tour the kitchen and wine cellar, and offered a taste of the best of the best: a single drop of highest quality aceto balsamico traditional di Modena.
Visit an acetaio
Modena is the birthplace of what amounts to an elixir: balsamic vinegar aged in a time-honored manner, in the attics of local producers’ homes. Visiting Acetaia di Georgio was a highlight of my stay in Modena, honing my appreciation of a rare, enigmatic and highly regulated condiment. Aceto balsamico traditional di Modena is not for salad dressing, but rather a piquant condiment to be dribbled in minute quantities over shards of Parmeggiano Reggiano cheese, or strawberries, or even vanilla ice cream. Up to 25 years’ aging brings out the flavors imbued by a series of successively smaller barrels made from different woods: juniper, oak, and cherry, to name just three.
Watch Parmigiano reggiano being made
The Modena area is the center for production of one of the world’s great cheeses, Parmigiano reggiano. The work that goes into it is as impressive as the cheese itself, and I spent an enjoyable morning observing the process at a local production center. It takes advance planning, so be sure to register your interest with the Consortium for parmigiano reggiano cheese in Modena several weeks in advance.
Sample “cucina della nonna”
Trattoria Aldina, a simple lunchtime restaurant housed in two rooms in a building across from the entrance to the Modena market, offers visitors a chance to eat like a local. We followed several workers in bright orange overalls up the stairs, and made our choice from single-sheet menu: tortellini, a platter of sliced pork loin with potatoes, and a side of spinach. Dessert was equally homey: a fruit tart, handmade earlier in the day.
Take a cooking lesson
If you want to get your hands into some flour, eggs and oil, try a cooking class. My one-on-one session with a chef in a restaurant kitchen capped my stay in Modena. On our first evening in town, my husband and I enjoyed the first of many plates of tortellini with balsamic vinegar at Da Danilo, a popular taverna. The pasta packets were stuffed with spinach and ricotta, and folded just so. Two days later, I was in the kitchen with Elena Gramegna, chef at La Piazzetta del Gusto (I) in Nonantola, not far from Modena.
It was a hands-on, lively session. As we made the pasta, Elena treated me to local cookery lore, including how thin to roll the dough: “my grandmother always said it should be thin enough to see the church spire through it!”. Soon, she finalized the presentation, poured glasses of wine and joined us for a simple, delectable lunch. Afterward, for a sweet finale, we were treated to a dessert sampler.
A perfect cap to my foodie exploration of Modena!
About the Author:
Anita is an avid traveler who delights in sharing her discoveries of cultural traditions around the world. She is on a never-ending quest for good food and the people who make it. Anita’s Feast is her blog about food, art and culture.
Photos courtesy of Anita’s Feast