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It’s a crisp October day in the Emilian town of Modena, and Caroline and I are ringing the bell on a stately white home. Was this really the place? We came here to experience the traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena, one of the greatest delicacies in all of Italy, and I was expecting, well, a factory.
Out steps Franca and she ushers us up to her balcony, filled with giant barrels filled with dark, syrupy liquid.
This attic is the headquarters for her family’s art and business.
The Real Balsamic Vinegar
Forget everything you know about balsamic vinegar. The stuff that you toss on the salad is nowhere near the caliber of the real stuff.
Traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena, or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, is something else entirely. This fine vinegar is aged a minimum of 12 years and comes out like syrup — a sweet yet savory syrup that turns all other flavors up to 11.
Tradizionale is the key word here marking the difference between the fake stuff and the real stuff. Most interestingly, the vinegar must be produced within the town of Modena itself, due to its unique microclimate. Even making it in Bologna, a 30-minute train ride away, is impossible.
Franca produces her balsamico in barrels made of oak, cherry and chestnut woods. Each year, a small amount is removed from each barrel and the remainder is topped up with that of the next oldest barrel, and the next one with the next-oldest barrel, on and on. This goes on for a minimum of twelve years.
Franca’s family has had a long history of producing aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena. As with many artisinal food products of Emilia-Romagna, the balsamico must be tasted by local judges. Franca’s mother was one of the first-ever female balsamico tasters!
“I’m here to educate,” Franca tells us. “I don’t want the industry to die.” Our visit is free, arranged by the Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico di Modena. While Franca isn’t making any money off our visit, it’s a service she provides to people genuinely interested in this unique product.
She then gives each of us tastes of both balsamico varieties. It is divine.
It’s not cheap stuff — a small bottle of Franca’s 12-year-aged balsamico, identified by its beige top, goes for 40 euros ($55); a small bottle of the 25-year-aged balsamico, identified by its gold top, goes for 70 euros ($96).
That said, you only need a little bit to get the flavor. Franca likes to use it to top a frittata made with eggs, cooked dry spinach, parmigiano, breadcrumbs, a bit of salt, and sometimes fried onions. A drizzle of balsamico is added three minutes before the cooking is finished to let the flavor soak in.
She also likes making deviled eggs, mixing the yolk with balsamico, mayonnaise and tuna.
Personally, I can’t get enough of fresh parmigiano topped with luscious droplets of balsamico. So simple and so perfect.
The Opposite of Location Independence
Franca has three children. Of the three, only one, a daughter, still lives in Modena and is poised to take over the family business. In fact, Franca’s son lives in Malaysia and begs his mother to bring balsamico and parmigiano reggiano cheese when she visits. “Those are the only two things that he wants,” she tells us with a smile.
What if I were bound to my hometown in the same way? What if Reading, Massachusetts, were the one and only place on the planet where, say, a world-renowned breed of rutabegas could be harvested? What if either of my parents were the last in a long line of producers, and only my sister or I could take over the rutabega farming?
I know a handful of people from high school who have happily settled in my hometown, some even buying property in the same districts so their kids can go to the same elementary school. Good for them, and Reading really is a nice place to raise a family, but I have no desire to live there myself.
So would my sister have to give up her life in New York to take over the family rutabega business? Or would I have to give up my globe-hopping life? What if neither of us wanted to?
Would we sell the business, inevitably ending a family tradition spanning generations?
My whole adult life, I’ve been chasing the dream of location independence: the ability to work from anywhere, to see as much of the world as possible. What if I had to choose between preserving the tradition of my family and carving out a life of my own?
I don’t know what I’d do.
More than anything else, this visit has made me want to talk to Franca’s children and find out how they feel.
That said, if you’re forcibly rooted to one place, Modena isn’t the worst place to be. It’s a lovely, beautiful city. In fact, out of the medium-sized Emilia-Romagna cities of Modena, Parma, Ferrara, and Ravenna, I think it’s my favorite of the four!
If you’re visiting Emilia-Romagna, this is such an easy side trip by train. Even if you’re not coming for the balsamico, come to check out the town.
I also got one of my favorite pictures from Italy here:
NUN ON A BIKE! NUN ON A BIKE!
Caroline and I found a great cafe called Rossosapore. I love the balls of mozzarella in the bucket underneath the permanently running water fountain!
Modena’s cathedral is UNESCO World Heritage-listed. Emilia-Romagna has quite a few great cathedrals — I love the ones in Parma and Ravenna — but Modena’s is spectacular, a tiny and bright marble chapel inside a looming dark monolith. Well-worth a visit.
I left Modena with a new appreciation for this fabulous vinegar — as well as more questions. When your family is a producer of such a fine and unique tradition, what happens if you don’t want to take over?
Essential Info: If you’d like to visit Franca or another producer of traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena, contact the Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico di Modena. Contact them through this form and they will arrange a free visit for you.
Modena is a 30-minute train ride from Bologna. It’s also 30 minutes from Parma, and you could easily visit both cities on a single day trip from Bologna. You can find hotels in Bologna here.
Never travel to Italy without travel insurance. It will help protect you financially if anything goes wrong. I use and recommend World Nomads.
My day in Modena was covered at my own expense, though I was hosted in Bologna as part of Blogville. This is a Blog Ville campaign, created and managed by iambassador in partnership with the Emilia-Romagna tourism board. AdventurousKate.com maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site.