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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Race to Fall

It has been a race, 500 Km style. We have been everywhere in the past few months, it seems. Massachusetts, California (twice), Wyoming, Austin, and camping in the mountains. Canning and preserving the summer harvest have consumed the weekends at home. And work, including a couple invitations I had to speak in conferences, have accelerated the passing of summer.

In the midst of all the traveling and summer craziness,  we decided to start a backyard landscaping project, done exclusively by us. Including digging out all sprinkler system pipes and changing their routes, removing the old, dried sod, tilling the ground, digging a 9’x11′ area and building a patio, planning and planting a brand new xeriscaped garden, shoveling 4 tons of sand and 8 tons of rock, and planting new sod.

basil plants

The project is partially done, after 5 weekends, plus numerous bruises and blisters. But the patio still looks like a junk yard, with shovels and other tools scattered around, piles of dirt next to trenches holding the new pipes, half dead plants after the first freeze of the season, and ghost-like tomato plants covered to force the fruit to ripen before the season is over.

picklingcucumber zucchiniplantwithfrostbite

Why such a drastic project you might ask?

Water. Continue reading Race to Fall

Pig Talk

The 289 lb pig carcass laid on the chef’s counter, cut in half from torso to tail, bagged, and headless. The head, I heard, sat in the walking refrigerator outside the restaurant, where the delivery person from the farm left it a few minutes before I arrived.

Part of the curriculum of the class I taught during spring semester included meats and fish, and the art of butchering, a knowledge not associated with those of us who spend our time with flour and sugar, and building cakes and tarts, and I had a few weeks to learn a lifetime of skills.

Pig trotters

For weeks, I had recurring nightmares of butchering the animals into inadequate and unrecognizable pieces, or having the slippery fish coming back to life to chew my fingers off as I tried to skin it in a classroom full of students.

At that point my choices were:

  • Call in sick the day before each protein class and risk loosing my job,
  • Take sleeping pills so at least the nightmares would go away, even if my skills didn’t improve,
  • Spend hundreds of dollars buying entire hogs and countless fish, plus the refrigeration system to store them
  • Or, Find experts who could instruct me in the art of butchering

Continue reading Pig Talk