Speaking of markets, and as I am currently writing a book about fruit, here are some “exotic” fruits now grown locally in Italy. Italy has some famous citrus types (read about popular fruit types here or here), including one which was introduced to this area 23 centuries ago (long before the formation of Italy as a country).
Annona (custard apple): A quick google search brought me to the annona, a cherimoya or custard apple, that is now being grown in Calabria, a southern region in Italy.
Bergamotto (bergamot): I mention this because people may not know that this is the citrus that is used in Earl Grey Tea. Ninety percent of the world’s bergamot oil is produced in Italy. As far back as 1709, the bergamot has been pressed to extract the essential oils, for use in perfume, most famously Chanel No. 5.
Diamante citron in Italian or esrog from Calabria (etrog). This citrus is essential in the Jewish sukkot ceremony and has been grown in Italy since the the third century BCE (before current era).
Cacchi or lotta (persimmon or sharon fruits): Introduced to Italy in the early 20th century, these are grown in Campania.
Ficodindia dell’Etna (prickly pear): the fruit of the cactus. The black pits inside are very hard and peeling this fruit can hurt your hands.
Kiwi: This brings to mind that the kiwi is now grown in Italy. Italy is the second or third largest exporter of kiwis. I see kiwis at the market all the time in Rome. They grow them right outside Rome so they are even at my zero kilometer market that I mentioned last week.
Melograno (pomegranate): Supposedly Persephone ate six pomegranate seeds when she was in the underworld. Her mother, Demeter, the earth, made a deal with the god of the underworld to let her go. But because she had eaten six seeds, she could only be above ground for six months of the year, and that is why we have the six months of spring and summer. Pomegranate seeds are like jewels and work well in salads and on meats, but the juice is what most people like. To remove the seeds, one can whack the cut pomegranate with a wooden spoon and the seeds come rat tat tatting out like shots.
Cotogna (quince): The cutest name for a fruit that is so sour. It is better as a jelly or jam to be eaten with cheese. In Latin America, this is often paired with fresh cheese and the fresh milky mildness of the cheese goes well with the brown gummy bear texture of the cooked quince.
Finally, a native exotic.
Nespola (medlar): This is exotic but native to Italy. These strange dried looking fruits are winter fruits that are only ready to be eaten when they are soft and wrinkly. Then you peel them and eat the mushy brown interior. The taste is sort of like a fruit paste or dried figs. Just not as tasty.
And finally, if you want to read about the “equatorial” fruit growing now happening in Italy, read this article from Euronews.
In Rome, people still shop at their local market. Every “rione” (“REE-own-eh”) has a local market (Some rione can be as small as 20 streets by 20 streets). A local market is the kind of place where you will see older ladies in their house dresses pulling their shopping carts. You will never see a lady in a housedress in a grocery store. For some reason, for a certain generation, shopping at a grocery store requires putting on more formal clothing (Another great thing about Italy is that there are so many people in their 70s, 80s, 90s, and beyond). A local market will be mostly fresh produce and products with some of the other amenities available out of convenience. Clothing stalls seem to be a big thing that crops up at these markets. Most markets will also have bakeries and places for a quick bite.
Here is my list of top ten markets and why. At the bottom is the market where I like to shop.
Mercato Trionfale (“Tree-ohn-FALL-eh”), Via Andrea Doria 3 (you can read about here): This is the biggest and oldest of the neighborhood markets, completely covered, with parking underneath. There are rows upon rows of metal box stands. It’s not the most attractive place inside. Some of the nice things about this market are that there is a stall where you can bring your own bottle to fill with wine, there are zero kilometer produce vendors at the back of the market (useful to know in August when the farmers markets shut for August vacation), and there are international produce vendors at the front of the market (one or two). Trionfale is open every morning, except Sundays. The market hours are 7 am – 2 pm, but if you arrive after 1 pm, many of the stalls will be closing for lunch (But, a warning, the vendors will be hangry). Also, many of the vendors will give you samples and some even speak English (not the samples). At the entrance to the market, there is a stall that usually has porchetta (“pork-et-ah”), the famous pork roast, out for you to buy.
Nuovo Mercato Esquilino, Via Principe Amedeo 184: This market is located near Termini train station. This area of town is the “Chinatown” or Banglatown or whatever one calls the international part of town. The market is much bigger than it appears with what appears to be markets within markets. There are stalls selling produce and groceries from Bangladesh, India, Senegal, China, Kenya, Philippines, Italy, and other parts of the world. They also sell halal food. I have even seen rambutan for sale here. There are also fresh fish stalls and the local coffee bar truly feels like another part of the world where this is a refuge for men (there are women in this one, by the way). The market, as well as the whole area, does not feel as clean as one might like but I guess that adds to the charm. It reminds me a bit of the markets of Bangladesh, which could all have been improved with a change of lightbulbs to something less neon and stark.
Nuovo Mercato Testaccio, Via Benjamino Franklin: This market is quite different than all the others, also perhaps the cleanest of the markets, or at least feels so because of the good lighting. The roof allows in light and the stalls are painted white giving the market a new feel. It is also fairly new as it was relocated here in 2012. The old version of this market was the largest butchery in Europe. The unusual thing about this market is that it has many eateries making it like a food hall, a trend that has not really taken off in Rome. Due to the food stalls and the eating area in the middle, this place is popular with food tours and lunchers. Testaccio market also is the location of a recycle food program where the unsold food is given to the needy. This is the most “way trendy” of the places. Lots of food tours and publicity from international magazines and TV shows.
Mercato Rionale Coperto Nomentano, Piazza Alessandria: This market is inside an attractive building from the 1920s, with a high dome. This market has both produce, pizzerias, and some stalls with clothes outside. It is not huge but a good size for a local market. You can find almost anything you want in here. I think I bought a paring knife and a bowl. There are several bakery stalls in this market as well.
Mercato Italia, Via Catania 70: This is a large market in a part of town that is not touristy and not international. Also, it has a bakery run by two young guys who play rock music and make excellent lasagne. It was like visiting Rome as one might imagine it was. Zero tourists. I’ll be back.
Mercato di San Cosimato (Trastevere), Piazza San Cosimato: This market is slightly different from the others because it is outside in a square in Trastevere. There are some permanent box stalls but the majority of the stalls are fruit and vegetable stands that set up some tables and umbrellas every day.
Mercato di Campo de’ Fiore, Piazza Campo de’ Fiore: Surely the most romantic sounding of all the markets, located in a former field of flowers. This is the uber touristy local market. In the morning, the hold-out vegetable sellers are still there, slowly losing out to the ever dominant tourist tat and limoncello vendors, toasted nuts, and fresh-juice-at-five-euro-a-glass touters. This is an outdoor market in a square that was used for executions (people seem to ignore the statue of the hooded figure) because it was the only square without a church (which to me is the opposite reason as far as I can see). The location can’t be beat. Also, some of the vendors sell exotic items like lychee and round cucumbers from Apulia. In the evening, this square becomes a boozy open air bar, sticky with spilt drinks and hair product from the 80s.
Mercato Rionale Monti, Via Baccini 36: This is the smallest and oldest of the local markets, but it is also quite special. In the center, it has a reading area with shelves with books, a children’s area, and a few tables. The book selection is both in English and Italian. This market also has a pasta stall with a window where there is active pasta making in action. Although this market is basically a square, it even has a gift shop, a speciality Apulian stand, a fish vendor, a butcher, baker, two vegetable stands, a basic grocery stall, and a coffee machine that stands in for a coffee bar. This market is also open until the evening on Thursdays and Fridays, making it even more convenient for the locals.
Mercato Rionale Prati, Piazza dell’Unità 53/Via Cola di Rienzo: This is another 1920s building high to the ceiling and attractive. Another market that is not huge but big enough. It is a bit overgrown by the abutting buildings but you can find it if you try.
Città dell’Altra Economia, Via di Monte Testaccio (not far south from Testaccio Market): This market is part of a much larger event space. The market is in the large open space and comprises ten to 20 market stalls. If you live near here, then one could shop here. Especially if you like the outdoors farmers market atmosphere.
Now to the most famous farmers’ market, a zero kilometer market, where I like to shop.
Campagna Amica (Coldiretti is the cooperative that runs these markets all over Italy) in Via San Teodoro 76, Sat & Sun, 8-3, sometimes called the Farmers Market at Circus Maximus because it is located nearby: This zero kilometer market is as local as you can get for Rome. Everything produced here, from milk, meat, artichokes, and oil, and all are from within 100 kilometers of Rome.
In the back courtyard, there are a couple of eateries, including a fried seafood food truck. If you follow me on Instagram, then you will have seen that I like to check out this market every few weeks to see what is in season. It is not my local market, but it is all about local food. This market attracts a lot of TV crews and special events.
As I go to more markets, I may update this article but this gives you a start if you wish to go to a local market. In general, it is better to go to the market at 9 am if you want to avoid the crowds. 11 am if you like the crowds. After 1 pm, forget it.
***** Fabio, the owner contacted me and corrected the addresses and explained why his has two restaurants — one is the summer location. Thanks, Fabio, always nice when people improve the information on my blog. *****
Imagine taking the extra large, mild tasting, sweet Amalfi lemons… and serving them with pasta inside. Well, I finally had it. My Italian teacher kept bringing it up as a delicacy that we had to try. I imagined it, an oddity in a lemon. The months went by and due to a pandemic and other such things, it took a while for us to find a date for Pasta Trombolotto!
Finally, the date was set. It was October. The restaurant in Sermoneta was reserved and off I went. Sermoneta is a perfectly preserved medieval town about 30 minutes (by train + car) south of Rome. I looked at the bus route to the town, but one really needs a car to get there. Sermoneta (it is named for the vast amount of money paid for the town) is a dying town as all the young people are moving away. Hence why it’s perfectly preserved. It’s often used as a film set. But, the town needs more than that to survive. It needs tourist dollars.
This conundrum between dollars and reality will come up later in this story.
The town is gasp-worthy beautiful. Tourism (as mentioned) has not stained the town with too many billboards and English menus. Even the postcards were non-touristy. Who prints a postcard with an overcast sky in a town of gray stone? That seems like a fail of marketing 101. There is no parking in the town so one enters a pedestrian haven. The town is hilly and cobblestoned so bring good ankles. As we ooohed and aaahed at every archway and turret, we imagined how marvelous this must be in sunlight. Or maybe the veil of night made it more dramatic?
Finally, we went to the restaurant famous for Pasta Trombolotto. The owner, Fabio, is charismatic and undeterred by a lack of comprehension. There are two famous Pasta Trombolotto restaurants in Sermonetta and he owns them both. One is called Simposio al Corso (it is the winter location) and Il Giardino del Simposio (open April to October). We went to the Il Giardino del Simposio located at Via Conduttura 6. The location at Simposio al Corso which is near the entrance to the town and located deep underground. The summer location, Il Giardino, is a patio overhung with lemon trees. It feels a bit magical.
We had wine, we had appetizers, we had main dishes, dessert, and coffee, but what I recall was the pasta. That’s why we were there. It was the main show. But, it was not served inside a lemon. Frankly, I was torn. Because it was not lemon season (March), our Pasta Trombolotto was not served in a lemon. It wasn’t served in lemon shaped crockery. Not even on a yellow plate. Not that it wasn’t dramatic.
Fabio coddled and seasoned every serving individually in a pan, table side. Trombolotto is a herb and lemon infused oil. It’s good and certainly one of the most seasoned things I’ve had in Italy (remember that simple is the key here), but without the Disney-esque lemon container… well, this is why I was torn. I like that they keep it seasonal and authentic. But, part of me, the marketing maniac, wants them to at least get lemon shaped bowls with lids. Ya know?
The owner is trying to make the town famous for this dish. He is resisting offers to take his show to Rome because he wants people to come out to Sermoneta for the Pasta Trombolotto.
If you are ever in that area, I recommend going. The address for the winter location is Corso Guiseppe Garibaldi 33, Sermoneta. The summer location is at Via Conduttura 6. The phone number is +39 339 2846905 anytime of the year.
And, and, just to add more to this story, the owner will show you an oil that you cannot have… because you are not his grandpa. It even says it on the bottle… like the best of experiences, there is always another story.
As the new year rolls around, whether one is eating grapes, lentils (As the Italians do. Apparently, they also believe that wearing red underwear will bring you good luck as it is a vibrant color.), or carrots to bring good fortune, the new year is about starting over, finding joy and prosperity. The pandemic has lead to the great resignation as more and more people, with the luxury, choose to leave their nine to five daily grind. Supposedly, most people are not happy with their jobs. I have, in my travels, been fortunate enough to meet people who love their jobs. Alessandro is one of those people.
Last summer, when we were in Positano, we wanted to go on a boat ride. With a pandemic raging, we wanted to be alone on a boat. With a captain. My friends had just arrived from the overseas. They wanted to organize a boat ride, sun and water. We set off for the beach at the appointed time. At the checkin counter, the staff showed us a photo of the boat that they had chosen. A lifeboat type with limited shade. It was 100 degrees. For 400 euro. No roof. No toilet. Possibly an invisible tiger.
I vetoed it. We opted for the bigger boat with a toilet. I didn’t want to be on a dinghy with jet-lagged friends fighting over shade and nowhere to pee.
Alessandro was our captain. The boat was immaculate and Alessandro was absolutely the sweetest guy. He pointed out good swimming spots, Saracen forts, historical locations, homes of famous people, and other points of interest along the coast. He was happy to share his knowledge of the area (where to stay on Capri, etc.) and to chat about whatever you felt like asking him. Even if you ask him about his life as an Italian. Or why he commutes on a dangerous mountain road. Also, as an added bonus, he plays good music and will even take requests. Alessandro has another life as a music producer so ask him about that!
If you are interested in celebrity yacht spotting, he can name almost all the famous yachts you will see (and play along with you in guessing how many millions they cost). He has been a boat captain for seven years so he can drive the boat with the merest touch of a finger. To add to his charm, Alessandro also served us Prosecco in a dramatic and environmentally friendly way (take the tour to find out about that — it will make you see why Alessandro is the sexiest man alive). He will serve you but, of course, does not drink himself. After your swim, he will even hose you off in a manner that is so bashful and gentlemanly. He is adorable. Another thing about Alessandro. He loves his job. He really does.
Back to the boat review. It may seem expensive. I think it cost 700 euro for four hours (with the toilet, Prosecco, towels, captain, etc.). But on the other hand, it’s really really private. There are ferries, but I recommend a private boat tour.
The boat company was nice and even waited thirty minutes to start our tour when my friends needed to go back to the hotel for their sunglasses. I waited at the yacht club on the beach and chatted with a club member (I laugh because the club was a bunch of chairs under umbrellas and the club member explained that even though he has a tiny boat, he has to be a member of the yacht club to moor at the beach. He drank a Corona and smoked while chatting. That seems a metaphor for pandemic clubbing.)
We had an hour off the boat, in Amalfi, but next time, I would forego that and stay on the boat with Alessandro. It is a lovely way to pass the hours.
All in all, worth the price. Date of experience: July 2021. No tigers seen.
I’ll admit that when we got to the dock, I initially wanted the bald pirate for a captain (in the photo, you can just see him in the orange shorts). He looked like he would be full of trouble and lore (but I am not sure he spoke English). But, in the end, I am glad that we met Alessandro. He steered us well.
The movies have influenced pop culture so much that when people think of Italy (which is gorgeous to visit on its own merits), people want to visit the towns where films made them famous or were imagined. So which of those places do I hear about most? Italy has a famous film pedigree from long before Under the Tuscan Sun (Fellini, Leone, etc.). But, in more modern times with the acceleration of social media, the obsession with overall mystique about Italy and “the sweet life” is here to stay. Here are some of the films and locations that you may want to visit, not including Italian films.
La Dolce Vita, Rome, and more specifically, the Trevi Fountain. Anita Ekberg famously so bought in to the idea of the sweet life that she moved to Italy after frolicking in the movie. (This movie introduced the word “paparazzi” to the English language).
Roman Holiday. This film may also make you want to visit Rome. Rome houses Cinecitta, the Pinewood Studios or Hollywood of Italy. A place where one can visit many places and times all in one filming location (and some of the set pieces may actually be real!). At almost any time, there are films being filmed in Rome. Even during the pandemic, the Gucci film was on location in down town Rome.
The Godfather, Taormina, 100 miles east of Palermo, the capital of Sicily.
Room With a View, Florence, Hotel degli Orafi was the set for the “pensione” with the view.
Gladiator, in Tuscany Val d’Orcia. The soundtrack and the scenes of the protagonist longing for elysium (paradise) so he could reunite with his family, is some of the most haunting and beautiful cinematography out there. I often want to add Lisa Gerrard’s score to my Instagram posts but I don’t want to add a sad note to the beauty I see.
Enchanted April, filmed at Castello Brown in Portofino, on the Ligurian Coast north of the Cinque Terre. This is where the author stayed in the 1920s.
Under the Tuscan Sun, Cortona, but filmed in Villa Laura. This film seems to be the end-all of wistful movies about Italy.
Eat, Pray, Love. Rome and Naples. This book and movie had the added bonus that it was non-fiction so it made la dolce vita seem even more attainable.
But, there are other places that could be on a movie pilgrimage. In Positano, one can stay in the hotel (Albergo California) which stood in for an apartment (perhaps even the room!) where the heroine in Under the Tuscan Sun met her romantic interest, Marcello. In Verona, one can visit Juliet’s house! Also, many a James Bond movie and Mission Impossible have had scenes in Italy. Not to forget, Indiana Jones, and now that I think of it, so many more.
All over Italy, there are villages that seem like movie sets. For example, near Rome, is a town called Sermoneta (named after money because it cost so much to buy the town) which is a perfectly preserved medieval town.
As it is once again artichoke season, I have been thinking about them again. There is more to this thistle than one would think. There was once an artichoke mafia and the head of that was called the “The Artichoke King.” This was way back in 1920 in America. The mayor of New York, at the time, La Guardia (that guy who got an airport named after him) took a hard stance against the mafia. In his words: “A racketeer in artichokes is no different than a racketeer in slot machines.”
Scale by scale, We strip off The delicacy And eat The peaceful mush Of its green heart.
The artichoke was also considered an aphrodisiac for many centuries. Marilyn Monroe was the first official California Artichoke Queen in 1949.
The artichoke is related to the cardoon, the artichoke thistle, which is part of the sunflower family.
I had a realization last winter — the microwave is an excellent steamer. I discovered this after I had heard about this from some cooking show or another. Previously (and perhaps because I had a mother who did not own a microwave) steaming artichokes involved that weird satellite dish steamer, scalding steam, and balancing the atomically hot metal thingy with heavy artichokes. Now, I simply wash and steam (I like to let my artichokes have a good drink of water when I bring them home so that the leaves plump up). Then into the microwave for about five minutes per artichoke depending on the size.
Today, there is no longer an artichoke mafia but the artichoke type most commonly sold in the US, are the kind with the hairy heart. I wish they would switch to the kind that has an edible heart.
The valley of Bologna-Modena-Parma is known as food valley. (It’s also known as motor valley because Ferrari and other luxury cars companies are located there.) Most of these recommendations were from Joyce of Vinotalia and Carmelita of Cook Italy. Plus some from my cousin and Google.
Where to stay:
Locanda del Feudo, in Castelvetro, near Modena: Recommended by Vinotalia, this is an all-in-one place with hotel, gourmet restaurant, and foodie experience. Without having to drive home. Also, where La Vecchia Dispensa is located for a balsamic tasting and lesson.
Sotto I Sasso, a farm stay south of Modena. You will be out in the countryside but it’s peaceful and the restaurant onsite is delicious. The host is so personable that you will feel like you are a personal guest. It’s hard to find but worth the search (left of the parking lot! When you go, you will know what I mean).
Il Terrazzo Di San Colombano, in the center of Bologna (Via Parigi 13). They are on Booking but send a whatsapp message to +393470581371 and the owner will respond (you will get a better price too). Located on a quiet side street, includes paid parking, and a terrace. You can enjoy not driving as you wander the streets of Bologna. Don’t be wigged out by the maid.
Towns to visit aside from Modena, Parma, and Bologna:
Volta Mantovana: not actually in Emilia Romagna but just north in Lombardy. It was a wonderful discovery recommended to us by a fruit seller on the side of the road.
Parmesantour: Red Cow dairy in Emilia Reggia. The tour costs 5 euro. Call to arrange. It is only in Italian. Red Cow is a unique dairy in a world of unique dairies. They only use milk from the local red cows.
Balsamic tasting (if you can’t go, learn some of what I learned by reading my article about balsamic here):
La Vecchia Dispensa: Recommended by Joyce. 30 for the deluxe tour, shop is great. In English. An excellent way to learn about the process.
Also, Acetaia Matteo, is delightful family run business, but the tour is only in Italian.
Lambrusco at Fattoria Morretti. Ask Joyce from Vinotalia or the host of where you are staying. Most can arrange the tour for you. Many vineyards have a shop where you can just show up and taste.
In Volta Mantovana, do a wine tasting at the Enoteca Gonzaga. It’s in a beautiful castle. The sommelier actually knows his stuff and is not just a bartender. I think his name was Paolo but when tasting wine before noon, the names all blend together…
Food to eat: Emilia Romagna is famous for their mortadella (bologna), tortellini, ragu (meat sauce) on tagliatelle (never spaghetti), and lasagne. Almost anywhere will serve all these dishes. Plus, gelato. They also think they invented here in Emilia Romagna. Go to Sable in Bologna.
Trattoria Aldina, Modena. A low-key casual place. Nothing touristy here. Right across from a great market.
Salumeria Simoni deli, Bologna. High quality items to buy as snacks or for a bite.
Enoteca Italiana, Via Marsala 2, Bologna. They have wine tastings and light lunch items.
Sable Gelato, Via dei Mille 3/a, Bologna. Hard to find, located behind a newspaper stand. Worth finding. The owner things nothing is more beautiful that fresh made gelato…
Bruno e Franco, La Salumeria, Via Guglielmo Oberdan 16, Bologna. Buy food to make at home.
Best Secret in Plain Site:
This shop called Aguzzeria del Cavallo, Via Drapperie 12, Bologna. Thanks to Cook Italy for showing us this emporium. It’s ostensibly a kitchen and knife store. But, so much more! We just called it the “horse” store and we were determined to go back.
Fines: A final note. It is hard to visit the smaller town without a car. It’s hard, impossible, to drive in the scenic towns of Modena, Parma, and Bologna, without getting a traffic ticket months later — so many of the streets are restricted to even drive on if you are in a personal vehicle. Sigh. There are cameras everywhere and they will capture your car as you look frantically for how to get out or find parking in the historic centers. But, enjoy it while you are there. Just know that months later, you will get to relive it. (also, if you rent from Hertz, you get a copy emailed to you ahead of time so you can scrutinize the Italian text trying to figure out where you incurred the infraction. It will take many months for the actual paper fine to reach your mailbox).So, advice: park outside the bigger towns of Modena, Parma, and Bologna.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is more than a cheese. No Italian refers to it as a cheese. They call it by its name.
To be the real deal, it can only be produced in a few areas around Parma, Reggio, Modena, and Bologna. You can read about the consortium that controls it here.
But, the other very similar cheese that you find around there is also good. It’s called Grano Padano and in a way, it’s better on pasta. Leave the real deal for eating on its own.
Going on a parmesan factory tour is a study in alchemy. How milk (from two different milkings) can, with a few ingredients, and many turns of the wheel, be turned into something that plays a symphony on your tastebuds, is pure magic.
We went on a tour at the Red Cow creamery in Reggio Emilia. Our guide was a wise professor. He had been making parmesan for more than 60 years, and he still got equally excited about it every day. The tour cost 5 euro per person and was conducted in Italian. At the end of the tour, the professor had us try different ages of Parmesan. Wowza.
By the time we got to the factory (10ish), the parmesan was already at the “getting swung in clothe stage. We saw a lot of balls of white curds being transferred from one cloth to another and rocked back and forth by two guys. Then we saw where the girdle with the shape and writing is applied. Then the salt baths. Finally we were in the aging room.
We saw parmesan so old and crystalized that only presidents get to eat them. We also saw parmesan wheels that had scoring around indicating that they were not perfect but still saleable. Then we saw those with “AA” stamped on them. These are the perfect ones that have been x-rayed. These are only ones that get exported.
These cheeses have 30 percent protein and no lactose.
In the old days, parmesan and other hard cheeses were the “meat” for many Italians.
Italians love food. It is an integral part of their family structure. This is evident in the story of balsamic vinegar. In Emilia Romagna, Italy, balsamic vinegar started out as a daughter’s dowry. No gold, no houses, just the sweet product of 25 years of nurturing. This is no longer the case, but in some families, the balsamic production continues. Some also make it when they have a son.
Traditionally, when a baby girl was born, her father would make a “mother” barrel of balsamic vinegar. There is sometimes a misconception that the grapes used to make balsamic are left over from making wine. Not so. The grapes are crushed into a “must” just like in wine making, but then, a mother yeast (like sourdough starter) is added to the mother barrel. From this mother barrel, a “battery” of progressively smaller barrels are filled.
Normally, one should wait till the daughter got married, or 25 years to started imbibing in the balsamic. If the woman got married before she turned 25, she could decide to leave the battery in her paternal home or take it to her new home. On the old battery frames, one can still see the name of the girl painted on the frame, as these are passed down through generations.
So you aren’t supposed to eat the balsamic before 25 years. But, this rarely happened. Also, the balsamic evaporates. To fill up the evaporated balsamic, the smallest barrel in the battery is filled from the next big one and so on. The largest of the battery barrels is then filled from the mother barrel. Which is itself filled with fresh grape must.
This is how one gets “100 year old” balsamic vinegar (where a percentage of the balsamic is from a barrel made 100 years ago). I tried it and it was too musty for me. The barrels used can be old whisky casks and the barrels can be made from many types of wood. The bunghole of the barrel is loosely covered with a stone and/or a lid with a doily. The acid from the balsamic eats away at the stones so it’s cool to see how strong those bacteria really are.
Now, to what it’s called. In Europe and Italy, one must call real balsamic, “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena” — if it’s from Modena which is one of the few places where the real stuff comes from. The bottles are distinctive so that it’s hard to copy. There are many fakes. Most of what is sold is fake. The real stuff will not be sour and bite you when you try it. It won’t make you gag. The real stuff is subtle and sweet. With a slight tang. It will be complex. It’s also not impossibly expensive. 25 euro for a small bottle. But that’s the kind that one sips on a spoon or drizzles on a piece of parmesano reggiano.
Most of the acetaia (ah-chey-tie-ah) will sell salad vinegar products that you will like. Real aceto balsamico is not for salad. That’s how you can make it last a long time. Salad dressings are better with apple cider or red wine vinegar. Balsamic is too strong. Also, all those thick balsamic sauces in squeeze bottles are not made with the real deal.
Going for a tasting at a real acetaia is eye opening. It really is. We went to three. La Vecchia Dispensa is fantastic as a destination. Great tour, tasting, and shop. It’s in a fancy building and the tower is medieval (it was a jail/dungeon before), in the picturesque Castelvetro (one can also go on the less expensive tour that does not include climbing up into the claustrophobic medieval castle tower). The tour guide also speaks English, well.
At Acetaia San Matteo, you get a family feel and the son-in-law who shows you around is enthusiastic but doesn’t speak English. It’s marvelous but almost has a Swiss chalet feel. We also went to the a place that claims to be the oldest (they claim that their family has been selling it for 400 years) but the museum is now in a new, from 2017, farmstead. Also, their vinegar wasn’t tasty. And the place had a slight theme park feel. Too touristy. Enough about them. Go to Castelvetro and La Vecchia Dispensa.
When we were in the tower for our tour with La Vecchia Dispensa, we could see the photos of the families who maintain their balsamic there. It’s a heartwarming idea of familial love.
Oddly, or perhaps not, most of these places also sell jams and other products.
There is a lot more to aceto balsamico than I imagined. It was also a delight to go to the acetaia with a balsamic fanatic. When we got to the San Matteo location, my Italian wasn’t up to explaining things so I just blurted out “we are balsamic fanatics!” We were welcomed with a big grin.
Carmelita then showed us the formerly great, the famous, the touristy, and the abominably disgraced. She then showed us the still great shops and vendors downtown. Along the way, we had a snack stop and the history of why Bologna, “La Grasso” is translated too literally — the nickname refers to the bounty that is Bologna.
[A note about bologna, boloney — mortadella. It is a whole separate food product in Italy. It can be eaten sliced, cubed, and in a meat pate like a smear. There are required amounts of lardons per product and, of course, there are standards. People eat it like proscuitto. Yes, just like having slices of proscuitto on a charcuterie board… that’s how they eat mortadella.]
Bologna is a bountiful foodie city with warm red brick porticoes, shopping opportunities galore, and enough foodie gems for a month of feasts. One of the best things about the tour was being taken to the “horse” emporium.
Carmelita ended our tour at an enoteca who kindly stored our wine while we went to Carmelita’s newest “project” – a new gelateria called Sablé. Check it out!
Carmelita also offers cooking classes. I found her through a friend, even though I see that she is famous on TripAdvisor. For a food tour, this was the least amount of food that we ate but the pace was very nice for the more mature traveler. It was a relaxed tour. Carmelita is very communicative and will send all kinds of recommendations even after the tour. A tour with Cook Italy is a gently paced tour.
But Carmelita’s standards and critique of the gastronomy scene is fierce and pointed. Carmelita is passionate about those she disdains and even more passionate about those whom she admires. If you want that style of guide, then she is for you.
Here are some of Cook Italy’s recommendations:
Gamberini via Ugo Bassi I Conoscenti via Mazzini Stefano Cardi same street
Sablè – in a Class of its own Cremeria Santo Stefano – via Santo Stefano Cremeria Cavour – in Piazza Cavour
Best little cakes
Regina de Quadri – via Castiglione La Borbonica – via Riva Reno Stefano Cardi as before Gamberini as before
As my friend commented, we had the least amount of food on this food tour. But, we did stop for a quick snack, and then for the light lunch. Also, a balsamic tasting. For three hours, the tour cost 280 euro for the group.
Carmelita will also come after you after the tour to write reviews. Beware. In the nicest way, but you are forewarned.
Italy is famous for its agroturismo, a bed and breakfast on a farm. To qualify as an agroturismo, the farm must actually be a working farm. Many of these places will also have animals. Many are family owned. You can search this site or use other sites, like Google, to find a stay. Some of these farms have a minimum stay and during the peak summer season that may a minimum of a week. Because these farms are actually farms, often someone’s family homestead, the guest accommodations may not as fancy (or air conditioned) as at a hotel.
The concept of an agroturismo was started as a government scheme over 30 years ago, as a way to help the economy and tourism, which is 13 percent of Italy’s GDP. During the pandemic, I have been told, that the quality of the cleanliness has gone up at these farm stays.
Recently, I stayed at two that contrast quite a bit but seem typical of what’s out there.
Sotto i Sassi: Located at Via Castellino 171, Guiglia. Near Modena. You can book them through the usual places like booking, airbnb, tripadvisor, etc. but my tip to you is to whatsapp him (Matteo Bizzini): +39 337 331 802. He speaks English.
The family farm is located up some narrow lanes in the countryside and you may get lost getting there. Use a GPS. And go left around the parking lot with the bench at the end of the road — the road continues to the left but, BUT, do not go up in the field. Not yet. Prepare time to find the place.
Once you get there, Matteo will greet you and help you to your room. The rooms are decorated stylishly like something out of a style magazine. There may be steps. During the pandemic, the breakfast part is a basket placed outside your room in the early morning. The onsite restaurant is not open every night but it’s an excellent restaurant with lots of outdoor (under the trees and stars) dining. The food is so good that it’s a place that people eat here for the food, even if they are not staying at the B&B. Convenient for not having to drive home after dinner, as well. Matteo takes a genuine interest in your stay with him. At dinner, he gave us a taste of his family’s balsamic.
The grounds are free for walking around and there are some majestic gobstopping views. The air is clean and as it’s the countryside, you can hear the animals in the early morning. Sotto i Sassi is the kind of place that I imagined an agroturismo geared for slightly luxury customers. Lots of photogenic locations, nice bathrooms, kitchens, good food, not so fancy that one can’t figure out how to turn on the light (actually there were a lot of lighting options), but nice enough that you felt that you were staying at a deluxe farm. Some antiques and some modern design. Plus, the personal connection to Matteo, always just one whatsapp message away.
Then there is the other sort of experience… The sort of experience where you feel like the hosts were gulag forced into exploiting their inheritance to keep it in their family. A place where the hosts are shackled by their amazing farmstead but can’t enjoy it because they are constantly changing sheets in the rooms. Corte Olfino was such a place. Their website makes it look cosy (I have not posted any photos here of this place — it was cute in a tired sort of way — be a bit suspicious of the website photos) and emailing with them makes it seem like they speak English. The couple who run the place look so unhappy. Well, she does. He seems oblivious to how miserable his wife is. She is harassed and stressed looking all the time. If this beautiful farm is her inheritance, I almost feel sorry for her that she can’t enjoy it.
The majority of the customers are German and they give the place a high rating. The place is interesting looking, like a small village, and the rooms are clean. But, the checkin process and accessing WIFI was difficult. I only found the WIFI code because someone left if on a scrap of paper on the table in my room. Some of the rooms are up in a tower from a fairytale and have a dungeon-like lock that makes it quite annoying when tired (mine had a modern key). The breakfast was fine and included the usual cake (yes, the Italians seem to think that tourists eat cake for breakfast), and toast, ham, eggs, and cheese (Is it this that makes them have higher ratings? The hard boiled eggs? The ham? Apparently it’s the price point and the cleanliness). Yes, they have animals including a llama, and maybe this is why people like this place. The prices were around 68 euro per room per night. So not so high. But, the overall prison feel given off by the house-poor owner made us uncomfortable. Also, the rooms had no sound insulation so one could hear everything going on in the neighboring room.
We felt no need to stay and left early. They owners did not seem surprised and did not want to know why (I paid for the whole stay even though we left early, but I wish they cared why we left early). I guess they don’t need my business. I wish them well and hope that they enjoy their farm when the cash cows are not there…
A word about air conditioning. A place like Sotti i Sassi doesn’t have it but even during the heatwave of the summer, the rooms cooled down by evening. Corte Olfino had AC but we also didn’t need it.
The season is over so you have six months or so to research where to stay next year.
Today is Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, and tomorrow is All Saints Day, a public holiday in Italy, followed by All Souls Day on November 2. The tradition of dressing up and trick or treating is a new import. All Saints Day is part of the Catholic church in Italy. It is also not Day of the Dead which is a big celebration in Mexico.
For those who believe more, for a brief time on All Hallow’s Even and All Saints Day, the dead return to this realm and visit with their loved ones who are still flesh and blood. It’s not scary. It’s a sort of reunion. People will visit their dead family members. Read an explanation here. Like all holidays, it’s build on much older ones. And, of course, there’s a bread for that. The second of November is All Souls Day. Read more about some of the regional foods and traditions here.
The idea of pumpkin as the icon of the Halloween season is also a commercial idea. The pumpkins are a food in Italy and have much more flesh so will be very hard to carve. But, they make excellent food. It is hard to find perfectly orange round pumpkins (but I’m sure that will become a common thing soon enough). As you can see from my photo below, I was more interested in the orange persimmons (sharon fruit so some), walnuts, celeriac (celery root), and the pomegranates.
The impact of All Saints Day in Rome is that the stores may be a bit packed and the traffic bad. How is this news?