Category Archives: Cultural Travel

Carlotta Balsamic

Balsamic Vinegar and Parmigiano Reggiano of Modena, Italy

Modena is the city that Italians think about when they think about food. For me, that was enough to make me book a foodie tour while I was there. Sure, there are plenty of beautiful buildings, famous artwork, historical stories – but I was in Modena for three things -

Italian Cheese MasterParmagiano-Reggiano Cheese (this isn’t the Parmesian that comes in a green can, Americans!)

Traditional Modena Balsamic Vinegar

Lambrusco – the famous sparkling red wine of Modena (yes, sparkling red!)

I arranged my tour through Emilia Delizia - out of all the tour companies available, I liked these guys for the way they set up their tours, for the personalized nature of the tours, and also because we had nice interaction via email. All of those things added up to my booking with them and meeting my guide, Gabriele, at 8 am in Modena.

The day began with Gabriele offering a nice overview of the food of Emilia Romagna, the history of the region, and a short drive to a small dairy outside of Modena where Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced. The cuisine of the Emilia-Romagna region is both robust and refined consisting of smoked meats, cheeses, wines, vinegars, and pastas such as tagliatella and  tortellini. I had taken a pasta cooking course back in May, so this tour was going to be focused on the wine, vinegar, and of course, the cheese.

Emilia-Romagna really hit the gastronomic big time back in the 1800′s when food writer Pellegrino Artusi when he detailed the region in his book The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well which spoke about the various regions of this and other parts of Italy.  Artusi was a native of the region and described the food as not just being healthy and delicious but also good for the soul!

Parmiggiano-ReggianoAt the dairy, the cheese master kindly let me view the whole process, ask what may have been silly questions, and take plenty of photos. You may remember the images of huge wheels of cheese falling during the recent earthquakes in Northern Italy - that was the prince of all cheeses, Parmegiano-Reggiano aka Parmesan Cheese.  This cheese is considered such a perfect food that it is sent to outerspace to provide the calcium for astronauts and thus avoid the loss of bone density which comes from extended periods in weightless environments.

Modena CheeseI’ve always been a big cheese lover, but seeing the process, made my appreciation grow. It begins with the grains grown on the dairy which are fed to the cows that live at the dairy. This is a truly regional product. The making of it goes back to the year 1200 and has remained much the same since that time.  The only place that this cheese can be made and certified is in the small region south of Mantua and bordered between Parma and Bologna. The cows, the grain, and the cheese master all need to be from this region.

The milk has to be fresh from the cow (within two hours of milking) in order to be used. The milk is placed in vats and overnight the cream separates. It takes more than 4 gallons of milk to make 2 pounds of Parmigiano-Reggiano and it is all artisanally made. The milk is then heated in copper cauldrons where it begins to do the work of curdling. Next, the milk curd is broken up into small chunks using a giant whisk, then it is cooked and allowed to cool. The curds drop to the bottom and using a pair of sticks and a large spatula – the cheese ball is lifted out and cut into two masses, dropped into molds and pressed to remove excess moisture for several days.

Next the cheese is soaked in a salt bath for about 20 days before being removed and allowed to age for 1 to 3 years. Only at this point is an expert certifier brought to inspect the cheeses – if they pass, they get the fire brand – this is the ‘Parmigiano-Reggiano Consorzio Tutela’ oval mark you will find on the finest cheeses. Those that don’t make the cut, are marked with horizontal bands which indicate they are of an inferior quality (though still delicious).  We tried a 12, 24, and 36 month cheese – of them all, I preferred the 24 months as the flavor was strong with hints of nuts and sweetness but not overpowering as the 36 month was.  The 36 month is special and should be reserved for specialty cooking – although with a drop of sweet balsamic on top, a single piece comes close to cheese divinity.

Italian BalsamicOur next stop was a family home where traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena has been made for several generations.  I should point out that the Balsamic Vinegars that most American’s have tried are very different from these.  While most vinegars are made from wine, traditional balsamic is made from unfermented grape juice. Again, this is a product that must be completely regional – the grapes are usually grown by the family who makes the Balsamic.

The process begins with the grapes which are crushed and then added to a battery of hard-wood barrels which impart varioius flavors to the vinegar as it ages – how long? The minimum is twelve years! There are two certifications 12 and 25 years. The process takes place in the attic of the house.

Carlotta BalsamicWe were met at the gate by Carlotta, the daughter of Giorgio and the newest in generations of Balsamic producers. As we stepped in the house, the overwhelming sweet smell of the Balsamic met us as Carlotta led us to the attic where battery after battery sat slowly concentrating. The barrels range from large to small and over the course of years the vinegar reduces from the open tops – each year a bit of the previous years grape juice is added until after 12 to 25 years – voila! A barrel of a few gallons is ready to be consumed or sold. Seriously, 25 years to make a handful of bottles.

Carlotta walked us through the entire process and showed us the batch her father began when she was born. She is 26 now and so the Balsamic Vinegar ‘Carlotta’ has recently come available. The amazing thing is that the woods of the barrels import a strong taste to the Balsamic so that a Balsamic that was kept in only sweet woods like cherry or ash offers these flavors. Similarly, the Balsamic that sat in Juniper tasted strongly of the berries and aroma of the juniper trees.

Emilia Romagna Vineyards and WinesThe Balsamic ‘Carlotta’ was sweet and delicious and she confided in us that she likes it best dribbled onto vanilla ice cream! We were able to taste a variety of 12 and 25 year old Balsamics while we were there and then we had the chance to buy a 100 ml bottle. You can imagine how much a 25 year old vinegar that yields only a handful of bottles will cost – the minimum for a 12 year was 45 Euro and this went up to 180 Euro for the Balsamic that won the 2011 best Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena award – which means, it is the best in the world.  To be honest, my wife would have killed me for spending that much on a tiny bottle of anything – so I had to pass, but those on the tour with me were quite happy to buy multiple bottles. I was tempted but could see my wife’s wooden cooking spoon coming at me, so regretfully said no.

Red Modena Wine LambruscoBy this point, we were all ready to drink a little wine so we then drove out some long country roads to an organic agrotourismo on the outskirts of Modena where we wandered the vineyards, learned the process of the making this famous sparkling red wine.

We enjoyed a farmer style lunch with a local dairy man, a couple of farmers, and the owner of the vineyards. Lunch was a delicious homemade pasta, several types of cheese, smoked meats from the region, and of course Lambrusco. This wasn’t my first time drinking it, and to be honest, I was looking forward to it .

Lunch in Italy FarmLambrusco is a bubbly red wine that is served young. In fact, in the 1970′s and 1980′s the wine was considered to be the wine of the young – unfortunately, this led to a loss of reputation of what is a very nice wine as it was relegated to the land of those who think of it as inferior.   While there is a lot of Lambrusco di Modena that will please your palette and provide even the most haughty of connoisseurs with enjoyment – this particular vintage wasn’t it as evidenced by the fact that of three bottles opened for nine men, none of them got finished. Or maybe we were all a bunch of teetotalers…

You can arrange tours while staying at hotels in Modena, Bologna, or Parma.

That being said, however, the lunch was wonderful, the vintners were gracious in showing us how the Lambrusco was made, and as an ending to a wonderful food tour it was almost perfect- because what foodie doesnt’ love strolling through Italian vineyards or drinking homemade grappa with the farmer who grew and fermented it?

 

Vinho Verde cc Image courtesy of Lanier67 on Flickr

Diving into Great Portuguese Wineries

Story by Maria Kruk

Vinho Verde cc Image courtesy of Lanier67 on FlickrThe History of wine-making in Portugal has roots in the period of the first millenium BC. The civilization known as Tartessos is the first that we know of who made wine here.

Abundant historical heritage is not the only thing to recommend Portuguese wineries though as the most promising and incredible tourist attraction in this beautiful corner of Europe. The wines themselves are the greatest argument.

It is nearly impossible not to try some local wines while paying a visit to Porto, Setúbal, Braga, Algarve and many other Portuguese cities alongside exploring urban architecture, both modern and antique. Specific tours round Portuguese major wineries give an opportunity to get acquainted with the most long-standing and progressive national industry. Degustation of Portuguese wines is one of top 10 things to do while on a trip to the country.

To start with, it is appropriate to underline the city of Porto, which gave the name to one of the most distributed and presentable wines in the world – port wine. The story of this drink might be observed in the related museum (Museu do Vinho do Porto), established in Alto Douro – the first proclaimed wine-making area with legally limited borders (since the 17th century). Another place to visit is Vila Nova de Gaia in Porto’s neighborhood, where cellars for port wine storage have been used for almost 300 years. In order to try some local drinks one should visit Solar do Vinho do Porto (“Port Wine Castle”), which is famous for wine evenings and exhibitions. Its port wine list counts nearly 200 items from different parts of Portugal. The prices vary from 1 to 70 euro for a glass.

Barrels at the Wiese and Krohn Warehouse in Vila Nova de Gaia cc Image courtesy of Ken and Nyetta on FlickrEvora is the city of old-fashioned architecture, which was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. However, few people aware of its wine-making history. Antique housings, distributed all over the city, were initially engaged in production of the most elite wines in the country. To date they provide wine drinks, awarded with multiple notable prizes. The secrets of Evora wines are preserved in numerous cellars with the smell of oak barrels and a fragrant grape wine.

Besides the magnificence of Middle Ages sites, Setubal is also well-known wine-making area. In particular, Muscatel de Setubal has received both the national and international recognition. Its history dates back to 1514, when it was highly appreciated by Manuel I, the King of Portugal and the Algarves. The Muscatel production features 80 years of storage in Setubal cellars, during which wine slowly turns into honey.

It is impossible not to admit the specific taste of Madeira wines, the production of which was encouraged by sailors; they added some brandy in local wines to overcome the long sea voyages and, eventually, the development of Madeira wines industry started. In the 16th century this drink became especially popular in the North-American colonies, exported there mainly from Funchal. Nowadays there are about 30 sorts of Madeira wine, the history of which is enclosed in Madeira Wine Institute and Museum. The biggest wine yards and wineries are located in the western part of island, accompanied by the related wine restaurants.

Braga, its Guimarães area specifically, is a place where green wines might be tried. Here they are known as “vinhos verdes” due to a sour taste and green areas of grape plantations. In fact, there are both red and white sorts, which are gladly offered in the old homesteads of Braga, as well as in the local restaurants.

Visit Florence

5 Ways to Experience Florence like a True Florentine

Visit FlorenceFlorence, the birthplace of the Renaissance: with over 70 museums and over 60 churches there is so much to see in a limited about of time and you should see as much as humanly possible. But amidst your museum hopping take some time to live like the locals do and enjoy il dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing). Take in all the city has to offer with the top five ways to make the most of your time in Florence.

1.Move Away from the Tourist Traps

Looking down at Florence
Cityscape of Florence, cc Image courtesy of Wikimedia

When it comes to dining options, convenience and location are top priorities for site seers & Florentines know that. Top tourist destinations like the Piazza del Duomo and Piazza della Signoria are lined with quick and tasty dining options but they’re often more expensive and less authentic. Wander over a few streets and you’re sure to find a quaint trattoria or osteria that will not only be less crowded but also less expensive.

2.Make it to the Market

The San Lorenzo Market is a must-see for anyone seeking a true Florentine experience. Lined with vendors selling everything from scarves to produce, the market is where you’ll get a true feel for Florentine lifestyle. The market is also a great place to interact with the locals and pick up any souvenir you could possibly imagine.

3.Check out the View from the Top

Florence Dome
View from the Top. The Florence Dome cc Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Winding through the narrow streets it’s often difficult to fully comprehend the beauty of the city that surrounds you. The Boboli Gardens in the Pitti Palace, and the Bardini Gardens have great views of the city but perhaps the best view of all of Florence comes from Piazzale Michelangelo. This small piazza is at the top of a hill and provides a picturesque look of Florence at sunrise and sunset. In the heart of the city, you can climb to the top of the Duomo or the Campanile for another great perspective.

4.Save Room for Gelato
No trip to Florence is complete without indulging in gelato, multiple times a day. When looking for an authentic gelateria, pay attention to the color of the gelato. Flavors should resemble the actual fruit they come from. That means banana should be slightly grayish and pistachio should be a pale green, not florescent.

5.People Watch

visiting the Firenze duomofacciata in Italy
Firenze duomofacciata cc Image courtesy of Wikimedia

A favorite past time of Italians, people watching is an enjoyable way to not only truly experience Florence but also way to give your feet a break from pounding on the cobblestone streets. Find a bench in a busy piazza and take in all of the families, fashion, and tourists that wander by. Side note: Piazza della Signoria is my favorite place to people watch!

Bio: Beth Smedinghoff is a travel writer who left her heart in Florence after living there for four months. When she’s not planning her next trip to Italy, she loves helping others get the most out of their travels by sharing packing and airport tips.

Florence and Italy Travel Resources
All the Hotels in Florence
Travel Insurance
Italian Hostels
Rick Steves Guide to Florence and Tuscany 2011
The Food Lovers Guide to Florence