Thursday, October 15, 2009
From My Hometown to Yours: Parmigiano-Reggiano and Aceto Balsamico di Reggio Emilia
Hardly anyone outside Italy has heard of Reggio Emilia. With the exception of Jacques Pépin—who had not only heard of it, but had visited and knew it as the food destination in Italy—most people stare blankly at me when I tell them Reggio Emilia is my Italian home town. So you can imagine my surprise as I watched a recent episode of Iron Chef America—where the secret ingredient was Balsamic Vinegar—when Alton Brown actually mentioned that Reggio Emilia is one of only two places that produce Aceto Balsamico. Not only did it make me proud, but it was pretty darn convenient as I had already begun drafting this article.
Despite the fact that Parmigiano-Reggiano is the number one imported Italian cheese in America, and that Reggio Emilia is a top producer, people—save for Alton Brown and Jacques Pépin—still don't know about my little town. Everyone knows Modena for its Aceto Balsamico and Ferrari headquarters, and Parma for its Prosciutto di Parma, but they just haven't heard of Reggio Emilia, its food, or the fact that it's located right in between these two famous towns.
Italians do know Reggio Emilia and its culinary reputation. In fact, there's a saying in Italy: "If you only have one night in Italy and can't eat at my Mamma's house, go to Reggio Emilia."
I'd like everyone to know Reggio Emilia and its culinary history. So I'll point you to the official website of Parmigiano-Reggiano, where you can watch a short film on the making of the cheese and read about its long history. You can also visit the international site for Parmigiano-Reggiano (look, Reggio Emilia is on the map!).
Besides our world-famous queen of cheeses, in Reggio Emilia we also produce award-winning Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, as Alton Brown rightly mentioned on Iron Chef. Though produced in smaller quantities and much, much harder to find outside of Italy, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia has better flavor than its mainstream, mass-produced cousins from Modena.
I once visited the esteemed Acetaia Cavalli Ferdinando, where I was given a personal tour of the facilities and allowed to taste some amazing Balsamics. When my cousins and I finished the tour, we entered the warehouse where the wine store is located to see what we could bring home. As we walked past the employee kitchen, one of my cousins recognized an old refrigerator and thought it looked just like the one that used to be in my Nonna's home kitchen before I was born. When we asked the gentleman who had escorted us around the grounds, he told us that they had bought the fridge second hand, nearly four decades ago, from a Varolli. We all laughed and couldn't believe it still worked, and that it was indeed my Nonna's old fridge.
The result of this bizarre coincidence was that I was allowed to purchase a "not for sale" bottle of Cavalli Ferdinando Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Extra Vecchio, Oro, bottle number 6, which had won the Consorzio award in 2002. With a normal Gold Label costing about $240, I won't even say how much this purchase set me back, but it was worth every penny to buy the un-buyable bottle that had won such high honors.
I still have some left today because I only break it out for super special occasions, or when I want to impress one of my foodie friends with a rare product from Reggio Emilia that they simply can't get for themselves. It's amazingly thick, complex, sweet and delicious, and I only serve it on its own, a couple drops in a spoon, because Balsamic this good needs no accompaniment. Yet, on this week's Iron Chef America, neither Iron Chef Michael Simon nor the challengers did what one should do with a 50 year old Balsamic, simply serve it in a spoon or drizzled over vanilla ice cream—the two best ways to truly appreciate this gastronomic gold.
There is, of course, more to the culinary landscape of Reggio Emilia than Parmigiano-Reggiano and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, but these two products are a good place to start if you want to get a feel for the food of this little town I call my home in Italy. You can also check out my recipe for rich Bolognese, based on the traditional version of Reggio Emilia, and look for my upcoming recipes for Tortelli and Tortellini en Brodo, both classic dishes from Reggio Emilia. If you'd like to read up on the culinary traditions of my home town, and home region of Emilia-Romagna, the best book by far is The Splendid Table, by Lynne Rosetto Kasper.