Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, Visiting an Acetaia

On our second day in Modena, Italy, we drove south toward Bologna, specifically to the town of Vignola, in search of traditional balsamic vinegar. The morning started with a light sprinkle and we were hopeful the sun was coming out just for us because we had travel all that way for a lovely vacation. The GPS took us through narrow roads to a small town in the middle of the fields as the rain picked up clouding the view ahead. “You have reached your destination,” the GPS lady said, after we turned in to a residential neighborhood. The gated house looked too small to be a factory, of anything, let alone vinegar, but the name on the wall “La Cà dal Nôn” confirmed we had indeed reached out destination.

We rang the doorbell and a few seconds later the gates opened and from behind came out a woman, “Hello, my name is Mariangela,” she said, “welcome to our acetaia.”

We walked to the back of the house where two vine-trees wrapped around a pergola, I pulled out my umbrella and hunched over myself to conserve warmth as the morning turned colder. Mariangela pointed to the vines, “These are our two old ladies, we had three but one died suddenly,” she said as she padded on one of the vines, “these are Lambrusco vines, from my great grandfather’s time.” They still produce some fruit, she told us, but any stressors can kill them. “The rest of our grapes come from the vineyard not far from here,” she said.

The light sprinkle of rain and the cold air were no match to my faux leather jacket and I kept shivering, enough that she suggested we went inside to the tasting room. I laid my umbrella on the floor and walked toward the plastic chairs set up classroom style around a table full of balsamic products in front of a chalkboard with a drawing of the balsamic making process. “Let’s start with the name of our acetaia, the word nôn means grandpa in dialect,” she said, “and means house, so this is ‘the house of the grandfather’ since it was my great-grandfather who established the acetaia.” 

Culture and Balsamic Vinegar, a bit of history
Traditional balsamic vinegar is a product ingrained in the culture of Modena and the Emilia Romagna region, where the locals have produced it for hundreds of years, and kings and emperors loved and praised its unique flavor; luckily for us, Mariangela shared her contagious passion and exquisite knowledge of the history. The story goes that ancient Romans used to make a honey-like grape syrup called Saba all through the empire using the grapes of each region; in Emilia Romagna they used Lambrusco and Trebbiano grapes, mainly. To make Saba, they cooked the pressed juice of overripe grapes in large copper cauldrons to evaporate water and concentrate the sugars yielding a dark brown syrup; Mariangela told us that scholars believe that balsamic vinegar came from the fermented saba that underwent a vinegarization and aging process.

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the perfect apple-almond cake photo

There’s something about fall that screams baking! During the summer months I run away from the oven with terrorizing memories of the sticky and sweaty kitchen years I endured as a baker, but as soon as the backyard fills with leaves my little inner baker wakes up.

apple-almondcake

The falling leaves and crisps nights make it irresistible for a warm and sweet baked good right out of the oven, together with a cup of coffee and a good book. The heat of the oven helps me warm up the house in the absence of a fire-place, which would make this story seem more fairytale than it really is; and if I had a say, my fairytale would include year-round mild weather and an ocean view.

Fall’s slow death into winter also slows life, or at least it feels that way. I rediscover books with folded pages and pencil notes from before the rush of summer. A bit dusty, but not at all forgotten, they guarded their message and waited for me and our daily afternoon coffee, or evening glass of wine. 

One of those books I’m a few pages from finishing is Best Food Writing 2015, a yearly compilation of food-related essays, which has been done for more than a decade now, by Holly Hughes. I got hooked on these books a few years back when my interest shifted from cookbooks {yes, i still buy some of those} to food writing as narrative, a way to tell food stories. 

As I planned for this post, an essay from this book came to mind, “The Imperfect Family Kitchen,” by Debbie Koenig.

The essay begins with: “Food writers are lying to you,” yikes! and I agree, for the most part. She talks about the behind the scenes of recipes development {or recreation} and food photography, and the reality we don’t show on blog posts like this…Nope, I don’t have any pictures of dirty dishes for you, sorry.
We ‘lie’ because ugly pictures don’t sell, and pretty pictures DO, they attract people to follow and click on a link. 

When I first started this blog, my pictures were ugly, as not pretty or appealing, my goal was to share a recipe and a story, and didn’t understand that the photos made a difference. There were many reason for my bad photos {not to say they are absolutely great now, but better} besides my lack of skill.  My kitchen is dark, with orange-yellow maple cabinets and dark green-blue counter tops. My pictures reflected that, even worse when I’d turn the lights on to photograph dinner the yellow hue would translate onto the photo. 

honeycrispapples

Hours of reading about food photography and a full week of deconstructing and reconstructing my office made my photos crisper and cleaner. The office became a white box, I took the carpet off and installed plywood planks on the floor, and painted walls, floor and ceiling a crisp white, to bounce the window light and not alter the color of the food. 

My pictures don’t reflect the dated refrigerator, the broken-down microwave, or the prop I use to keep the oven door close because the hinges don’t work. They show an “edited” idea of how cooking really happens here. Don’t get me wrong, I love my kitchen and many great meals successfully come out of it, including this apple cake, but how many people really want to see a load of bad pictures full of reality? 

germanapplealmondcake

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