A trip to Italy’s Emilia Romagna region isn’t complete without a visit to Modena, home of balsamic vinegar and a whole lot more besides. My recommended recipe for success is to book a food tour. Ours with Taste Bologna combined the perfect ingredients for experiencing the city’s fabulous foodie highlights.
If you’re travelling around Italy by car then Modena has plenty of places to stay, but we based ourselves in beautiful Bologna for the week. The rail connections from there to the rest of the Emilia Romagna region are great so we decided to let the train take the strain. I’ve driven in Italy before and its not much fun! So after a short train journey and walk into the city centre we met Caterina, our food tour guide, in Modena’s main square Piazza Grande.
There were only four of us on the tour and after the introductions she quickly took us away from the square to a quiet side street and the Tiffany cafe bar. It’s just the sort of unassuming local place a tourist wouldn’t normally go into, but it’s known for serving the best Gnocco Fritto in Modena – the first local speciality we were tasting.
Gnocco Fritto is a fried bread made with the typical Emilia Romagna ingredients of flour, water and lard. It puffs up when it’s fried and the best way to eat it is dipped in the froth of a cappuccino. I don’t drink coffee but decided to have one anyway and was glad as it definitely gives the bread a certain something.
Our next stop was Modena’s market, Mercato Albinelli. As with Bologna the market stalls were originally in the main square, but they moved into a lovely glass-roofed building in 1929. It’s a wonderful light-filled place, perfect for wandering around and looking at the colourful produce, pasta and fish on the many stalls.
Having Caterina with us made all the difference as she was able to point out the locally produced items that we wouldn’t find at home and a few unusually shaped ones. The flat peaches were something I hadn’t spotted at the market in Bologna the day before.
The Modena market also has some excellent cheese stalls and that was the subject of our next food tasting. Caterina bought two types of ricotta, two types of Parmesan (which also famously comes from Emilia Romagna) and an amazing looking Gorgonzola. She said that was a bit naughty as it was from just outside the region, but it was too good not to try.
Then she led us to some tables and started to unpack her bag. Out came paper cups, plates, napkins, a cheese knife and a bottle of Saba – a grape juice that is used to make a soft drink that looks a lot like Coca Cola. Saba is essentially the first stage in the process of making balsamic vinegar, but it’s not then aged so it’s sweeter and a lot cheaper. Caterina simply added sparkling water and voila we had a refreshing drink to go with our cheese.
It’s clearly popular with the Modena locals as Caterina then traded a cup with a stallholder for another Parmesan to add to our haul. She said it was important to try three different ages of Parmesan – 12 months, 24 months and 38 months. The way to taste it is to press, break (not cut), smell and then eat. They really were quite different. As the cheese ages there is less lactose so it becomes more crumbly and less elastic and of course it smells stronger.
The ricottas were different to each other too. One came from the mountains and was much creamier. The way to eat the ricotta was with a marmalade like quince paste and some Saba on top. Then finally it was the Gorgonzola, eaten with some Grissini bread sticks so we could really dig in. It was very creamy so not as strong as others I’ve tried.
Next came the main reason many people visit Modena, the balsamic tasting. Ours was at La Consorteria 1966 in Piazza Giuseppe Mazzini, a tiny shop dedicated to traditional balsamic vinegar and stocking the finest you can get from the local producers. It’s an amazing little place with vinegars in beautiful small bottles displayed like perfume.
The balsamics cost a minimum of 50 euros and are very rich so you only taste a small amount on a spoon. We tried a few that were different ages and from variety of producers. They were all amazing. Later we had the option to go back and taste some on an ice cream from the nearby cremeria, but as there’s a lot of ice cream on offer in Italy in we decided on a different choice for dessert.
Before I get to that though our next stop was to taste some tigalle. If you’ve read my Bologna post you’ll know we tried some of these on our first day there, but the ones we had Modena were definitely superior. When we had them in Bologna we thought the bread was called tigalle, but in Modena discovered that’s the name of the stone that it’s cooked on. The bread is called la chersenta which was also the name of the cafe in Via Albinelli where we ate them.
Perfect for lunch, the small flat breads come with a range of sweet and savoury fillings and Caterina ordered us a mixture. The local mortadella meat is a popular savoury choice, but being vegetarians ours had more of the delicious local cheeses and then our sweet one was a compote of locally grown cherries with balsamic.
To wash it down Caterina headed to a wine bar along the road where she borrowed some wine glasses and bought another local speciality, red Lambrusco. Not a drink that’s known or readily available in the UK, but very popular in Emilia Romagna. The bottle we had, Falistra Lambrusco di Sorbara, is made in Modena province and is actually a pale pink rose so ideal for an alfresco lunch in the sun. But my friend tried a proper red Lambrusco one evening in Bologna and really liked that too.
The sweet tigalles were just a warm up for our actual dessert – yes despite everything we’d already eaten there was more to come! For this we walked up to the very cute Antica Pasticerria S. Biago in Via Emilia where we were greeted by a lady with a welcoming smile and a glass of Nocino, a walnut liqueur.
She then gave us endless different cakes to try including almond amarettos with bits of tagliatelle on top, a Torta Barozzi chocolate cake and Crostata, the classic Italian tart. I’m not sure exactly how many we tried but eventually we had to say no more as it seemed she would continue to offer them indefinitely.
That was the end of the food tour and we definitely couldn’t eat any more so we said goodbye to Caterina and headed back to Piazza Grande to take a look at the Duomo di San Geminiano. Modena’s UNESCO listed cathedral was started in 1099 but not finished until the 13th century. It’s very impressive from the outside and well worth taking some time to see the inside too.
There are lots of other churches, palaces and museums to see in Modena – and of course there are some famous Italian car museums nearby too. But it was a very hot day, so we decided to just head back to the train station via Piazza Roma, home to the huge Palazzo Ducale. Originally built by the House of Este family it now houses the Italian Military Academy and it’s cape-wearing cadets.
And that was the end of our fabulous food adventure in Modena. Definitely a highlight of our trip to Emilia Romagna, even though it was quite a while before we could face eating again!
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