Down the Battery

Arriving late to Modena, I look for a glass of wine to put my spine back in order after travelling all day on the train. I’m sure to find a bar near my place in the center. But at 01:00 (Friday night) they are all absolutely and very closed.

Saturday morning I awake to glass recycling, followed by violin. I head immediately to the Mercado Albinelli, the regional food market open mornings.

At the deservedly famous Bar Schiavoni I eat a sandwich of local sausage and “green sauce”, which is a revelation on the genre. The bread melts in the mouth. It’s not filling. And no single flavor dominates. Everything in that sandwich collaborates on delicate comfort. Daily, the list of 5 sandwiches changes according to the owners’ improvisation, which might be a way to keep the joy in hard work. And I eat here every day.

Of course, with the sandwich, Lambrusco, the local wine, sparkling from light pink to dark red, and good with every food or none. Now I understand. If you start drinking at 13:00, you have had enough by 01:00.

I buy 9 kinds of cheese at the Mercado.

On Saturday night the entire town becomes a street party hosted by “The Comune” (city government), with live music or loudspeakers at most restaurants, LED balloons, roving brass bands. At 01:00 the people go quietly home, leaving not a single piece of trash in the streets.

Here’s a tip: If you visit Italy, do not go for “a weekend”. Everything good is closed on Sundays. By definition, if it is open, it is for tourists. They may be Italian tourists, but still tourists. 70% of everything (and all the good restaurants) are also closed on Monday. Prescription: Arrive on Tuesday, go home on Saturday.

I am invited to dinner by a friend born and having lived his whole life in Modena. It’s Monday. He cannot identify an open restaurant. We go to La Lambruscheria, whose owner serves us a Lambrosco with a flavour as light as the color is dark. He recommends a restaurant which has only one foreign tourist in it (me). The outdoor seating is in a covered deck built into a parking lot, with overhead lighting appropriate for working in a warehouse, and urinal smell drifting in.

I watch the 2 mature couples at the adjoining table eating “gnocchi fritti”. I’ve learned by now that it has nothing to do with gnocchi. It’s fried layered bread, puffy when fresh, eaten either for breakfast plain with coffee or, at dinner, used to make small sandwiches by hand at the table, with proscuitto, and possibly some sauces/dips, accompanied by a bowl of raw vegetables (carrot and celery sticks and cherry tomatoes). One of the women asks a lot of questions about the sauces to her dining companion. I ask mine “are they from another part of Italy so they are just learning about this food?” He listened to the voices “no, they are from Modena. But they are receiving it with a lot of interest and attention because they are having a spiritual experience.”

Balsamico is made by a process of seasons: Fall: harvest the grapes, cook the juice to release the alcohol and crystallize the sugar. (This is “saba”, a great product on its own, which Nicholas Beckman taught me to dribble over a slice of Fuyu persimmon with a blanket of Burrata.)

Put the syrop in large chestnut barrels to ferment. In the winter, the fermentation stops. The spring bacteria enter the unsealed barrels to transform alcohol into acidity.

Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (DOP) Balsamico to be certified by the “consortium” (and receive its label and €10/ml price) must age for 25 years through a “battery”. Nevertheless no balsamic has an age, because the barrels are never emptied or cleaned. They still contain the sediment of hundreds of years. Giusti produces 250 l/year. A DOP-rejected batch may be resubmitted the following year.

Giusti also reserves their 50- and 100-year balsamicos for non-corsortium sale at €27 and €49/ml.

A battery contains 5-7 barrels of decreasing size. Each year the smallest barrel’s evaporation is replenished by the next largest barrel, who must also be made of a different kind of wood. The second barrel’s evaporation is replenished from the next largest, and so forth. The new “syrop” is only added to the largest barrel each year, and travels for 5-7 years through the different barrels and woods until it reaches the smallest.

The balsamico companies are also permitted to produce Indicazione Geografica Protetta (IGP) aceto, which is also inspected, but is permitted to include directly wine vinegar and the syrop aged together only one barrel.

The DOP-destined batteries are kept in the attic of the house, with temperature and humidity entirely dictated by the season. The smell is so rich and sublime that it actually compares in intensity and pleasure with the taste. The IGP production is made in a modern temperature and humidity-controlled room, which has an entirely different smell.

The company may sell a range of such acetos with different ratios of sweet (syrop) to acid (wine vinegar), but my perception at the tasting is that it is the taste of wood which is missing from the IGP.

Sometimes, tradition is worth it.

In the US, “Italian food” and “candlelight dinner” are synonymous. My last headache-inducing floodlit restaurant meal is so top-rated (not only by bloggers but also by locals), that I squeeze a precious 30 minutes from the packing juggernaut (kilos of cheese, 6 salami, 5 balsamicos, and delicate pastries –my favourite is the rum-soaked Rosine– already weary about the trip) to try one more time for epiphany, but end up advising another pair of American honeymooners (not to be afraid of Lambrusco and that the tour of Giusti Balsamico is really well worth it for the smell alone) while I watch the waiter squeeze caramel sauce from a commercial plastic bottle onto my panna cotta.

I do not pay good money to do or eat anything under this sort of lighting, especially not industrial caramel sauce.

I accept that there is some other lesson, some other Italy, who has something to say to me. Not the one I came for. One I do not imagine.

 

The cycle of temperature and humidity not only dictate the process of the balsamico, but also the process of the day. I feel the tendrils of heat creep in, and as they do the sounds of the city recede. Then as the breath of the afternoon returns, slowly the sounds of life as well. This surrender to nature has a certain beauty, and perhaps it explains, psychologically, the surrender to the industrialization of food. Or surrender to life. Surrender to the ravages of the global economy.

Every Italian is proud, especially of their home town, especially of the food. And yet that pride does not form vigilance. And like the almost imperceptible arrival of the heat of the day, that industrialization is devastating.

Aware of the distortions of tourism and the market value of “authenticity” indistinguishable by those tourists. I had asked the duena of my departamento where I should buy the Parmigiano Reggiano to take home, and the balsamico. I knew that I don’t yet have enough of a palate to discern for myself really high quality, and I want to make sure that I learn the standard from the best.

“Well the Consortium is a Mafia.” She begins. “But I did the certificate as a balsamic taster.

“Go to the Mercado and find the stand named M____ , next to the F____.Don’t talk to the salespeople, ask for the owner. Tell him you are my friend, and ask for HIS OWN balsamico and Parmigiano Reggiano.

“Now you realize it’ won’t have the label,” she emphasizes.

I understand that the Consortium’s DOP Label is what we call a “symbol-scheme”. ‘Organic’, ‘Fair Trade’, and ‘DOP’ are ways of assuring quality to the customer. But there are many producers who do the same quality and ethics but don’t pay the extra fees and run the administrative juggernaut to get the prooving symbol on their label.

“I understand, that’s fine for me.”

Mr. ______ listened to me and then reached behind a pile of wine bottles to pull out his Balsamico. It was humbly labelled, about 1/10 the price of the consortium’s and totally delicious. Then the parmigiano, which was epiphanic. This was no tongue-tinglingly sour parmigiano. It was delicate and nutty. He offered 24- and 36-month, different and equally delicious. On my insistence, he cut me “small” 1/2 kilo chunks. I asked him where I should buy salami. He dragged me across the market and pointed at his favourite vendor.

This all added up to less than €25.  Back in Berlin I wished I had gone for the regular/family-size quantity of Parmigiano, at every age.

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