Friday, March 19, 2010


I'm getting behind on my blogging! But here is the update on my latest mini-voyage to Modena! I went with my apt mate, Matteo, and a few American girls from the program. Modena is only 25 miles away so it was a really quick train ride. It looks a lot like Bologna - meaning it has porticoes - except it's smaller, has more open spaces, and some different architectural styles. It's also well-known for the production of 3 things: Ferrari's, Maserati's, and traditional balsamic vinegar, or aceto balsamico tradizionale!

A main road through the city:

The first thing we did was take a stroll around the city, and walked by the Este family's palace that was transformed into a military academy, an outdoor marketplace, a Jewish synagogue, and the impressive Romanesque Duomo of Modena, dating back to 1099! When we went inside to visit, there was a mass going on. This is the oldest church I have visited with the notable exceptions of the churches in Ravenna, which date back to the 400s and 500s AD. Unfortunately, the famous bell tower, which is often presented as an icon of Modena, was covered with scaffolding and white sheets due to construction. While in the piazza outside the duomo, I heard some old men speaking in the distinctive Modenese dialect! The facade of the duomo is shown below:

The next main phase of our day was lunch, which was delicious and left me wanting more, as usual. Then we embarked on our quest to find a traditional balsamic vinegar factory, or acetaia. We were not sure what kind of building we were looking for - we only knew the general area, and we were working on a recommendation by one of the Brown in Bologna Italian teachers who is friends with the owners of the acetaia.

Eventually, we found our way there and it turned out to be the coolest thing ever! The place is called Acetaia Giorgio, and it's owned by this nice man Giorgio and his family. Even though we showed up without a reservation or a phone call, he was nice enough to give us a full tour of the balsamic vinegar making process, as well as a variety of samples to taste! Below is the first room we saw:

Let me try to briefly describe how this process works, using the set of barrels above as an example. The casks are filled with an acidic distillation made from grapes grown in the area around Modena. Then, they are aged 10-25 years in an attic, where the temperature is allowed to vary from hot to cold naturally throughout the year. The balsamic vinegar absorbs flavor from the wood that holds it, and the acid slowly gets neutralized by an oxidizing process. As you can see, there is a handkerchief on top of each barrel. They are actually all open to the air, and under each piece of cloth is a decent sized square hole cut out of the wood. As water evaporates from the barrels, the flavors within the balsamic vinegar concentrate over time, and the volume decreases. Every year, new distillate from the "mother bottle" gets added to the largest barrel to replenish it, then some of the largest barrel gets added to the next largest, and so on until the smallest barrel gets filled. The balsamic vinegar in the smallest barrel is what gets bottled, because it has passed through all the other different barrels and has the richest flavor.

Another nice thing: note the name "Carlotta" on the wall and the year "1986." This comes from the old tradition of starting a set of casks whenever (but clearly not only when) a female baby is born. By the time the balsamic vinegar was fully aged, the daughter would be of marrying age, and the casks of delicious (and expensive) balsamic would be her dowry! Setting aside the plight of women forced into marriage, that's a pretty cool dowry.

Next came the TASTE TEST! I would blown away by the richness of the flavor, and how much you can taste the distinct sweet, sour, and wood flavors. You can also tell, from my amazing action shot above, how thick the balsamic vinegar is! We only tasted a tiny little bit from each of the four bottle, but even a tiny drop of it packs a powerful punch!

After the acetaia, we discussed going to the Ferrari museum, but ultimately decided that it would be too much of a hassle, and we'd try to go back another time to get a tour of the Ferrari *factory* by a friend of a friend. Wonder if that will happen...

Till the next time!