Italy part 2: right to left
One moment we were admiring Roman soldiers parading through the palace in Split; one fast ferry ride later, and we were negotiating one-way systems around Ancona. Tricky, but worth it – we were soon happily tucking into excellent pasta, fish and verdicchio at the Villa Amalia, and pretty sure we were back in Italy. On the first part of our Italian trip, we’d had some wonderful experiences, but felt as though we’d barely scratched the surface. So this time, we were determined to get to the bottom of things. Just what does make Italian food different? Why is the prosciutto here different to the pršut we’d just been learning about in Croatia? And you can call it “balsamic” if you like, but isn’t it just vinegar?
The next morning we set out through Le Marche in search of the Valle Nuova agriturismo, where we met and quickly got to know Giulia and her parents. When we arrived, she’d just given herself a nasty burn making apricot juice in the kitchen, but this didn’t seem to have dampened her enthusiasm; we were soon deep into discussions about flour-milling (she does her own) and recipes for green walnut liqueur (we’ve now made our own – more on that later). In fact, I think this is pretty much how we spent most of our time – learning family recipes (secret, I’m afraid), visiting the local unpasteurised milk vending machine, checking out the vegetable patch, and generally getting quite attracted by the whole lifestyle. Makes you think.
Next we had to head in the general north-west sort of direction in order to get to France; and as luck would have it, it turned out that this took us straight past Bologna again. So we went back for coffee at Terzi – just as incredible as before (try the chocolate & candied orange espresso; seriously, do) – and an evening of free food provided via the splendid Bologna aperitivi system. It’s simple – buy a nice drink (perhaps a spritz, they make them well around here), sit outside admiring the view, and help yourself to all the fancy free food you like. Hard to see the downside of that.
But Bologna was really just a stop-off to regroup and get our focus together, before taking on the mighty gastronomic megalopolis of Modena/Reggio-Emilia. Here we had serious work to do: but we’d brought a culinary bear, and we weren’t afraid to use him.
First, a vinegar day, visiting traditional balsamic vinegar makers in Modena (Acetaia di Giorgio) and Reggio (Acetaia Picci). Both of them were very friendly and informative, and we learnt way too much to fit in here, but here’s a few select factlets: MOH-denna, not mo-DEE-na; the word to look for on the label is “traditional”; and (here’s the clincher) it’s basically pekmez. Seriously, it is: you take some grape must, let it ferment a bit, and then let it evaporate a bit (well, OK, a lot) – and that’s it. A bit more complicated than that really, of course – lots of complicated barrel systems – but if you showed some really good gold-label syrupy balsamic vinegar to a Turkish pekmez-maker, I reckon he’d recognise it.
(Annoyingly, almost nothing you’ll find in shops in the UK is actually made this way – it’s all made out of white wine vinegar, giving it a sourer, harsher taste. If you find a bottle with “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale” on, buy it.)
Next, the full day of cheese and meat. We started with Parmesan at XXX, and were blown away by what big business it is these days: microchipped cows with individual feed control, robots to clean and turn the cheeses while they age, a special cheese stock exchange to determine deals and prices (perhaps inevitably now dominated by Wal-Mart), and cheese banks with their own finance systems (not to mention airconditioned facilities for storing millions of cheeses). Although it all still comes down to the individuals who make the curds, by hand, every day.
Next we followed the cheese to the La Sfoglia pasta workshop in Reggio, where they get through several enormous wheels of it every week making their stuffed pasta. Their main earner is agnolotti, what with that being the local shape, and Italians being such determinedly regional eaters. They explained the subtleties of the different shapes and different regional names, showed Anna how to make them, revealed their secrets right down to the TetraPak egg, persuaded us that sweet pumpkin ravioli is a good idea, and even let us join them for lunch outside. All the different versions were quite distinct, and all quite delicious (especially with the local sparkling red Lambrusco, which we got quite converted to). Thank you.
This being northern Italy, there’s no chance of taking some time off for a siesta after lunch, so we moved on to Gianferrari up the road, who make the prosciutto variant culatello. You’ll often see this marketed vaguely as the “best kind” of prosciutto, but it’s essentially half of the traditional ham – one of the two muscles. It’s becoming more and more popular, as the average Italian family becomes a bit smaller – it’s easier to get through a culatello at Christmas than a whole ham. They make it in a similar way, curing it using salt, some spices, and the wind that blows through their carefully situated warehouse. And it is quite delicious.
Again, thanks go to the Gianferrari family for giving up so much of their time to talk us through everything, show us around, and answer all our annoying questions. This goes for everyone who we met i
n Modena and Reggio – we couldn’t believe how generous people were with their time (and their products), going out of their way to help. Many thanks to all concerned.
Of course, we’d spent so long discussing the finer points of pig-curing that we ended up arriving extremely late at our next port of call – the Cascina Barin agriturismo, near Alba all the way over in Piedmont. But we made it in the end, and after an evening of frantic phone calls, confusion over directions, and in the end, Giuseppina coming out to find us in her car, woke up to the best breakfast we found anywhere in Italy. We learnt a bit about hazelnuts, a bit about truffles, and fulfilled our two main objectives: to drink some Barolo (thanks to Mauro Veglio), and to eat some Slow Food at its headquarters in Bra. (Speaking of which, excellent food – but the people at Giorgio and Picci would have been distinctly unimpressed by the non-traditional quality of the balsamic vinegar on the tables.)
So there was just one thing left to do before crossing the border into France: stop at a supermarket to pick up a few litres of pure (well, 97%) alcohol. Probably illegal back home, but entirely normal here, and just the thing for making your own liqueurs – and we had a feeling the green walnuts in France would be just coming out …