Letters from Italy
By: Susan Van Allen
It’s rare to open the door to your home and be greeted by a cold blast of air that reeks of grape must that’s been fermenting for twenty-five years. The sharp smell sends such a tingle through your nostrils your eyes water.
But that’s what happened to me when I visited the villa of Giorgio Barbieri, who produces balsamic vinegar in his attic, or acetaia. My time with Barbieri was part of a three-day adventure in Emilia-Romagna, set up by Cooking Vacations International, where I got a backstage look at the region gourmets consider to be home to Italy’s finest cuisine. Here, along with balsamic vinegar producers, are dairies where Parmigiano-Reggiano is made, pig farms where Parma ham and proscuitto originate, orchards where prized Vignole cherries grow, and vineyards where Trebbiano grapes are cultivated.
I was based in the medieval town of Modena, at the modern Three-star Hotel Estense, perfectly located just steps away from the town’s historic center. This pedestrian only zone has a gracious, elegant vibe which centers around the Piazza Grande, featured recently in the funeral of Modena native, Luciano Pavarotti. Foodies flock here to enjoy the town’s impressive markets and shops and to eat excellently prepared regional dishes, including taglietelle with Bolognese sauce, tortellini, and pork sausage.
Though it was fantastic to mingle with the natives in the shops and restaurants, the highlight of my stay was to get one-on-one with the folks who produce Emilia-Romagna’s culinary treasures and get an insider’s peek at time honored traditions that have kept the quality of food here exceptional for centuries.
“One conducts an acetaia, one doesn’t own it … it’s a living thing,” Giorgio Barbieri told me, as he showed me around his vinegar loft. At 6′ 8", the genteel, slim, retired national volleyball player is a master conductor. Using a giant glass dropper, he meticulously decanted vinegar from one antique barrel to another, while explaining the vinegar-making process he learned from his grandmother. This involves judiciously transferring grape must from year to year, to barrels made of different woods, so a variety of flavors are absorbed into the liquid.
Barbieri is one of fifty-five producers approved by a government-run consortium to make what is considered the only real balsamic, labeled Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, and stamped DOP, which stands for Denomination of Protected Origin. A rigorous testing process must be undergone to meet the consortium’s standards. Barbieri’s vinegars, which he ages from twelve to twenty-five years, have always passed inspection.
“I’ve never had real balsamic vinegar before,” I said, amazed, when I tasted a demitasse spoonful he offered me. The thick, syrupy condiment burst with a balance of sweet and sour flavors that didn’t come close to what’s called balsamic in the states.
“It’s also the best thing for a sore throat,” Barbieri’s wife, Giovanna, told me, as she served lunch in the downstairs dining room. The dishes she’d prepared were all complemented by her husband’s balsamic—including pumpkin tortellini with sage butter and an arugula and apple salad. “Soldiers used to carry vials of it into battle, to use in case they got injured,” she added, drizzling a thick stream over chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
The origins of Parmigiano-Reggiano can be traced back to the fourteenth century when Bocaccio wrote in the Decameron about a Land of Plenty, describing a hill of the region’s famous hard cheese. When I visited a Parma dairy, rather than a hill, I saw what Italians call a “Cheese Cathedral”—a vast warehouse where wheels are stacked to mature for twelve to thirty-six months, and the smell Italians call Piedi di Dio (God’s feet), is heavenly.
The young husband and wife team who ran the dairy were (like the Barbieris) friendly, but had little time to chat, as they were hard at work in the cheese-making process that has remained basically unchanged for 800 years. Like balsamic, government standards for Parmigiano-Reggiano are strict. It must be produced in a designated zone from cows fed only on locally grown hay or grass, and cheese-making has to begin within one hour after milking. Throughout the aging process, inspectors scrutinize each wheel to make sure it’s worthy of the DOP label.
Winemaking has been going on here since the Middle Ages, and I got a taste of it at Maria Bortolotti’s home, overlooking her vineyards. As we sat in her dining room and her son poured samples of the organic wines he produces, Maria insisted on giving me a taglietelle-making demonstration.
Like magic, she mixed egg and water with a mound of flour and in no time transformed the golden dough into thin delicate strands. Sure enough, there are even rules for pasta here: a taglietelle strand must measure eight millimeters wide. Maria proudly showed me with a ruler how hers were right on target.
I couldn’t resist applauding. She bowed her head—like all the natives I’d met, showing a sacred respect for a tradition that has made this delicious region deservedly famous.