‘A WORK OF PASSION’
Pasta and balsamic vinegar are labours of love in Emilia-Romagna
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.
Nightlife in the heart of Bologna focuses on food.
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.
There are many imitators, but there is only one real brand of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, produced in a specific part of Emilia-Romagna.
An unexpectedly exquisite treat: fine balsamic vinegar on ice cream.