day 11 :

wednesday, 24 may

This morning we traveled to the town of Modena, arriving at Acetaia San Giacomo to learn about balsamic vinegar and how it's made. The generic term “balsamic vinegar” is used for several different types of products, some sublime, but most mediocre. All balsamic vinegars start with lambrusco and trebbiano grapes, but depending on the fermentation and aging process, you end up with significantly different end results. At the low end, you have aceto balsamico di Modena; this description can be used for any balsamic vinegar, made anywhere (not just in Modena), and with any quality. For a step up in quality, look for aceto balsamico tradizionale di Reggio Emilia — there is a single consortium of about 15 producers that make this product, producing approximately 37,000 bottles per year. And then we come to the high-end: aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena D.O.P. This type of vinegar is made by two consortiums of about 150 producers, with an annual output of approximately 115,000 bottles. To achieve either high-end designation, the grape must is cooked over a fire to caramelize the sugars and concentrate the vinegar, and is aged for at least twelve years. When a producer wants to sell this vinegar, a tasting consortium verifies that the product actually tastes like it's been aged for twelve years or more — it's not good enough to just put your vinegar in a barrel and take it out twelve years later; the quality must be evident, or you don't get the label. You may have seen fancy bottles of balsamic sold in high-end stores that have a red wax seal on top of the bottle, but don't be fooled — the red wax doesn't signify anything! Check the seal on the front of the bottle, and look for a gold seal (certifying that the balsamic was aged for a minimum of 25 years, and verified by a tasting consortium), a silver seal (at least 20 years old), or a red seal (aged at least 12 years).

To reward our attentive listening this morning, our hosts let us sample four types of balsamic — “everyday” balsamic (only aged a few years), red-seal, silver-seal, and gold-seal balsamic. The quality and richness was simply amazing; the silver- and gold-seal balsamics were particularly sweet and syrupy, thick in consistency, with an incredibly complex taste. After some deliberation, we bought a bottle of silver-seal balsamic; to our palates, there wasn't enough of a difference in taste between the silver and gold versions to justify the extra cost for a bottle of gold-seal balsamic. After getting back home, we put a spoonful of the silver-seal balsamic into a bowl of fresh summer strawberries, and were oh-so-glad we brought this balsamic home. So simple, and so good. Fortunately, also sells this balsamic, so we won't have to travel anywhere to purchase more.

Next, we visited a dairy farm in Emilia-Romagna to learn about the cows that produce the milk for Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Nearly 100% of the milk produced in the region goes into making Parmigiano, so they actually have to import milk from other regions for drinking. In order for cheese to be called Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Italian law requires that the milk come from cows that graze on hay in Emilia-Romagna; otherwise, even if the cheese looks and tastes like Parmigiano, it can't be called that. At the farm we visited, the 70 cows there produce enough milk to make four wheels of cheese per day. For the entire region, 3 million wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese are produced each year. (Here's your middle school math problem solving question: how many cows live in Emilia-Romagna?)

At this point we were hungry! Fortunately, Giuliano had arranged lunch for our class at Antica Trattoria Cognento, a wonderful classic trattoria near Modena. For the pasta course, we were excited to try our new favorite Emilia-Romagna pasta dish again, tortellini in brodo. When dessert arrived, Giuliano shared a secret about the red coloring in our zuppa inglese — it's traditionally made from a bug, which when crushed, yields a crimson dye.

Back at Villa Giona, we started work on tonight's menu:

Wednesday Dinner
  • Tortellini in brodo
  • Il bollito misto con peperonata, salsa verde, mostarde - boiled meats served with a number of different accompaniments
  • Gelato di melone - Melon ice cream

Tips from the evening:

  • Il bollito misto
    • We used Cotechino sausage in this recipe. This was an enormous (perhaps 4" in diameter) sausage, and was absolutely delicious.
    • The chicken takes less time to cook than the pork, so start cooking the pork first. Also, cooking the pork first imparts move flavor to the chicken.
Wednesday Snack
  • Bufalo mozzarella - fresh mozzarella aged 4 months
  • Tellegino - soaked 30 days in brine, then aged 4 months
  • Grana di bufalo - very similar to Grana Padano, except it's made with buffalo milk; aged 28 months
  • Cinghale (wild boar) - sausage that we brought from Gaiole in Chianti
This was served with a Domenico Clerico Barolo wine flight. All wines were made from 100% nebbiolo grapes.
  • 2001 - very fruity nose, but it still tasted young, with an acidic taste
  • 1999 - some fruit and earth on the nose, generally good
  • 1998 - had an unpleasant tin/aluminum nose

General things learned tonight:

  • Wood cutting boards are safer than plastic cutting boards for raw meats. Tests have shown that wood harbors less bacteria.
  • The D.O.C.G. requirement for Barolo wines is that they must age for at least three years, two of which must be in barrels.

Cool tool

  • The new OXO rotary grater can be stored in the refrigerator with the cheese sealed inside, so it's easy to grab and use.

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