‘A WORK OF PAS­SION’

Pasta and bal­samic vine­gar are labours of love in Emilia-Ro­magna

Ottawa Citizen - - TRAVEL - SEAN MALLEN Sean Mallen’s visit to Emil­i­aRo­magna was sub­si­dized by Bologna Wel­come, which did not view or com­ment on this ar­ti­cle be­fore pub­li­ca­tion.

In the bak­ing heat of a cloud­less Ital­ian sum­mer af­ter­noon, Daniele Bon­fatti opened the door to a dimly lit room lined with rows of dark, an­cient casks. We stepped in­side and were en­veloped by a deep, rich fra­grance that filled our lungs with a thick com­bi­na­tion of sweet and sour. It was the aroma of black gold in the mak­ing.

We were just out­side the town of Mo­dena, the city named on ev­ery bot­tle of bal­samic vine­gar. But the cheap stuff that we buy at gro­cery stores bears only a pass­ing re­sem­blance to the won­drous prod­uct crafted by Bon­fatti and his part­ners at Ac­etaia del Cristo.

“Come on up, but be care­ful of your head,” he said, invit­ing us up the stairs. Bal­samic is tra­di­tion­ally stored un­der the roof, the bet­ter to take ad­van­tage of the sum­mer heat that pro­motes fer­men­ta­tion. Beads of sweat popped out on his fore­head as he lifted a cloth over a rec­tan­gu­lar open­ing in one of the casks.

Bon­fatti dipped in his fin­ger and with a smile of sat­is­fac­tion showed us the dark, syrupy fluid that is his life’s work.

“We have bal­samic in our blood,” he said. “It’s more than vine­gar.”

Ac­etaia del Cristo is one of the largest pro­duc­ers of the finest aceto bal­sam­ico, the brand des­ig­nated DOP-Denom­i­nazione di Orig­ine Protetta (pro­tected des­ig­na­tion of ori­gin), the kind that can only be sold in dis­tinc­tive 100 ml “giu­giaro” bot­tles. The kind that sells for well over $100 in Canada.

In his tast­ing room, Bon­fatti of­fered us a few drops in a ce­ramic spoon (never use me­tal to taste fine vine­gar). He ad­vised us to sniff first to take in the aroma, then use your tongue to press the liq­uid against the roof of your mouth to best ap­pre­ci­ate the com­plex­ity of the flavours.

As a cli­max to the ex­pe­ri­ence he driz­zled a few drops over vanilla ice cream. Yes, vine­gar on ice cream. It was ex­quis­ite.

Mo­dena, the home of bal­samic vine­gar, is in the heart of Emil­i­aRo­magna, an Ital­ian re­gion that has given an ex­tra­or­di­nary ar­ray of culi­nary joy to the world. Think pro­sciutto, think Bolog­nese sauce (which they call ragu) and think Parmi­giano-Reg­giano cheese.

We vis­ited to eat and to try to learn more about their ge­nius for cui­sine.

“It’s the love for food,” ex­plained Mon­ica Ven­turi. She and her sis­ter Daniella run an ar­ti­sanal pas­ta­mak­ing shop, Le Sfog­line, in the heart of Bologna — the cap­i­tal of Emilia-Ro­magna — a lovely and an­cient city and the home of the Uni­ver­sity of Bologna, the old­est in the world. We were speak­ing in the cramped work area be­hind the counter. Two women were rolling out and cut­ting pasta for tortellini and tagli­atelle. The Ven­turi fam­ily ver­sion of ragu was heat­ing in a pot, a recipe handed down vir­tu­ally un­changed from mother to daugh­ter for gen­er­a­tions. There was not a mea­sur­ing cup in sight as in­gre­di­ents were added in­stinc­tively, all of which were sourced lo­cally.

The sis­ters pointed out the dis­tinc­tive colour of the eggs, the spe­cial qual­ity of the “Triplozero” flour and the dis­tinc­tive primura po­ta­toes they use in their gnoc­chi. Daniella was peel­ing them by hand and squeez­ing them through a spe­cial­ized masher. The only in­gre­di­ents were po­ta­toes and flour.

“It’s like a mir­a­cle!” said Daniella as she sliced the con­coc­tion into del­i­cate lit­tle pil­lows of gnoc­chi. Later, back at the nearby Met­ro­pol­i­tan apart­ment ho­tel, we tried the sis­ters’ pasta with some of their ragu and it was merely the best we had ever tasted in our lives. We savoured other de­li­cious ex­pres­sions in Bologna at Al Cap­pello Rosso, Al Rovescio, Os­te­ria Bot­tega and A Balus.

Their choice of cheese, nat­u­rally, is an­other lo­cal prod­uct that is a world trea­sure: Parmi­giano-Reg­giano. At the 4 Madonne dell’Emilia cheese­mak­ers near Mo­dena, we watched a process that was de­vel­oped by Bene­dic­tine monks in the 12th cen­tury. Although it was a shiny new fa­cil­ity, the work­ers still used an an­cient tool, a spino, to stir the curds.

“There is a me­chan­i­cal ver­sion, but the cheese­maker doesn’t like it be­cause it’s not the same,” ex­plained our guide, Fed­er­ica Ron­delli. “This is a work of pas­sion.”

It is a pas­sion that faces many in­fe­rior im­i­ta­tions in the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket­place. But in the tast­ing room we sam­pled crumbly chunks of the real thing and re­solved from that time for­ward to never set­tle for less than the real Parmi­giano-Reg­giano.

BOLOGNA WEL­COME

Nightlife in the heart of Bologna fo­cuses on food.

BOLOGNA WEL­COME

In Emilia-Ro­magna, the tra­di­tional ragu (Bolog­nese meat sauce) is typ­i­cally served over freshly made tagli­atelle pasta. Recipes are of­ten handed down through the gen­er­a­tions.

SEAN MALLEN

There are many im­i­ta­tors, but there is only one real brand of Parmi­giano-Reg­giano cheese, pro­duced in a spe­cific part of Emilia-Ro­magna.

SEAN MALLEN

An un­ex­pect­edly ex­quis­ite treat: fine bal­samic vine­gar on ice cream.

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