Nobody indulges the five senses quite like the Italians. Taste, obviously, with their cooking, drenched in tomato and cheese, wine, and olive oil. Touch, with their sensual fashion, a drop of sexy summer sweat, the texture of expensive leather. Smell the aroma, the thick espresso, the scent of garlic swirling in the wind along with the glittering dust of Roman history. Hear the roar of a sports car, a heated argument about politics, the vines rustle in the slow aging breeze. And see it all through my eyes, this week, as I head north to Modena, to race Lamborghinis and Ferraris, eat the finest cheese, slurp inky black Balsamic bliss, and bake in the shadow of the Coliseum.
It’s been nearly 18 years since I was last in Italy, a post-high school European trip with my two best friends. We were introduced to boozing and women and toga parties and looked much like the thousands of tourists I encounter at Rome Airport, camera case slung around the shoulder, shorts and sandals, ready to spend the next two weeks in high season line-ups. I asked my mom to stitch a large black biker patch on the back of my bright blue anorak. It had a large skull wearing a bandana and read: “Lawless Rebel”. I was an idiot then, but no more than anyone else new to travel, like a grape that has yet to ripen. I have avoided Western Europe these past five years because of the exorbitant cost, the tour buses, the fact that I saw all the sites before, and have had little desire to see them since. Paris, Rome and London in summer is a circus for psychopaths - a tourist mob foaming at the mouth with swelled, star-struck craziness in their wine-stained eyes. After a two-hour debacle to rent a car, surrounded by elastic family units stretched to their breaking point (Daddy, when we can leave the airport, daddy?) we finally escaped inside a tiny blue Peugeot 107, bolting out of Rome north on the 130 km/hr autostrade. The road to Bologna is immaculate, the farmland manicured like a Bonsai. Cheap pizza at road stop somehow tops the best pizza back home, as if some sort of Italian magic is added to the dough, a magic wand waved across the cheese. A few hours of effortless driving, give or take a stop for directions, and we arrive in Modena, the yellow glow of the late afternoon bouncing off the cobblestone of the downtown piazza. Park at the Hotel Estresse, take three breaths, and let the brain catch up to the body that left Georgia via Istanbul at 2am the previous morning.
If you look at any bottle of Balsamic vinegar, you’ll see it comes from Modena. Like Champagne, it can only be called Balsamic if it comes from a particular region, but unlike champagne, there’s a vast difference between real Balsamic vinegar and the stuff you have in your kitchen. Who doesn’t salivate at the prospect of dipping warm bread into a plate of extra-virgin olive oil, dribbled with the oil black sweet-sour vinegar? It’s been produced in this region since the middle ages, using a technique that incorporates a daisy chain of wood barrels, a complicated process of cooking grape must, but most of all time. It’s not exactly vinegar either, but more like a sweet, thick grapy goop that can be sipped neat or poured over ice-cream. And you’ll know the stuff you have is “industrial” because chances are you didn’t pay $100 for a 100ml bottle, as you would for certified Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena.
In an old farmhouse that has been making Balsamic for centuries, the matriarch simply cannot believe I am a Virgino Balsamico. I have never had the good fortune to sample the real stuff, the ridiculously expensive stuff. She leaks some 25 year old family recipe goodness onto a small plastic spoon. My tongue touches the liquid, my palate explodes. It tastes like everything good in the world. It tastes like the finest wine enjoyed at a perfect sunset. It tastes like rich chocolate when you’re needing a sugar burst. It tastes like peace in a war zone. She refills the spoon and I suck it back, willing the memory of the vinegar from the polished plastic. Upstairs in the attic, where Balsamic is usually aged, she explains how it is made (to enhance and flavour the meat of a future article). Downstairs is a feast of Italian cooking: a brick of soft gorgonzola, fresh olive bread, a variety of meats and cheeses, blood-red cherry tomatoes, eggs, and two bottles of expensive Balsamic Tradicionale, to be dribbled over it all. You never cook with it, you never waste it, and you can eat it with just about everything. Industrial Balsamic is wine vinegar with colourant, caramel and flavouring, and is certainly an able substitute to the real thing. Unless you happen to know anyone who enjoys spending $100 on their salad dressing.
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