This is a post I really should have written long ago, by which I don’t intend anything cryptic, only to say that it contains the stories of over a year ago, crowded out at the time, first by a slew of Venetian festivities, then an avalanche of Japanese novelty. Between the two, this quiet little trip got lost in the middle. Then it was spring, and this mid-winter story seemed out of time.
The same of course this year, here in Rome at least, where the warm sun, puddle-y streets, and changeable skies are pure primavera, but winter is always on its way somewhere, so Australian friends, this one is for you!
Somewhere near Piacenza…
It begun, as stories often seem to, on a stormy winter’s night. I took the train from Venice, and made a couple of changes, to arrive in Piacenza. ‘Firenze’ people pronounced back to me, when I told them where I was going, stressing the ‘F.’ It made me doubt my choice of destination, and, more rightly, despair of my Italian pronunciation. ‘Pia-cen-za,’ I enunciated back, only to be met once again by raised eyebrows and confusion.
Arriving at the station, I’m the only one to step off the crowded train and onto the darkened platform. Doubts re-double, but at least it made for an easy rendezvous with the driver waiting to collect me! Through car windows and windscreen awash with streaking rain I could see nothing at all, the land was flat, but the roads curved, and so I sat in the back and felt rise that peculiar and enveloping sense of complete disorientation that only arriving somewhere you’ve never been before in the black of night can bring on.
A sharp turn left, and through the windows the shadows of a line of thick trunks are just discernable, a driveway, then across a small bridge over the ancient moat and under a large stone arch. The car comes to a crunching halt on the gravel – we’ve arrived. Although no relief from the peculiarity just yet…
Through castle-sized wooden doors, a large but almost empty room. To one edge, a medieval fireplace quietly spits and crackles, and in the very centre of the space, a metal contraption, polished to a high shine, with a sharp circular cutting blade. The driver has left me there, alone with my bag, I hear the car start up and crunch off outside. I approach the device, drawn to it, tempted to touch the blade, is it really as sharp as it looks? Then the flustered concierge dashes in through a side door, and all the weirdness evaporates instantly into thin air.
Within moments, I’m all checked in, and shown up to a beautiful room. Within the hour, my partner on this road trip (and in the rest of life!) has arrived from Milan. Very soon afterwards, the gravelly car park begins to fill, vehicles disgorging eager diners, arriving by the dozen, to eat a meal of parmesan and Parma ham, sliced wafer thin, on the most mesmerizingly shiny meat slicer I have ever seen!
We are at the famous Antica Corte Pallavicina, on the banks of the River Po, and I am not joking when I write that the dinner options are just ham and cheese. A set menu in fact, 6 courses, cheese, all Parmigiano-Reggiano, different ages, different cows, served in different ways, and the same thing with the prosciutto – or culatello to be precise, as it is this highly prized cut of meticulously produced ham for which the Antica Corte is famous.
The dinner game is to experience the differences, taste the variations in flavour with age and breed. At 12 months the parmesan has not fully hardened, it's nutty and not so savoury, but with age, the characteristic umami deepens, the cheese gets very hard and grainier, eventually becoming almost crystallised. At this point it tastes piquant, actually spicy. The oldest Parmigiano-Reggiano is up to 48 months old, although anything aged longer than 24 months earns the title ‘extravecchio.’
The type of cow from which the milk is taken matters too. Most celebrated is parmesan made with the milk of a local breed of red cow, the Reggiana. Apparently, a higher proportion of casein means that the cheese holds more butterfat, lasting for longer and achieving a bigger flavour. Probably true, even if my little under-educated palate may not have been able to vouch honestly for the difference...
The culatello however, is another story. The variation with age echoes that of the parmesan, but is all the more extreme. At its youngest (a mere 12 months or so), the culatello is not too remarkably different in flavour to prosciutto, mild, a little sweet. As the months and years pass however, it becomes fruitier, spicier, and just altogether mouldier, (if that makes any sense at all as a description!), until, like the sharpest blue cheese, it becomes possible to eat only in small portions. It is actually mould after all, that gives culatello its unique flavour, or a particular set of moulds, and the way these grow together in the moist heavy air of the Po river valley.
Culatello is produced only here, in the little strip of lowland that flanks the river, around the town of Zibello, yet it is not until the next morning, when we witness it first hand, that we really appreciate quite what a unique and special ingredient the air of the Po valley really is.
The first hint is the morning light, or lack of it. I’m keen to see where we are, to properly dispel the lingering disorientation of last night’s dark and stormy arrival. But out the window, nothing, a fog so thick, I can’t even be sure that we are on the bank of a river. We seem instead to be trapped, actually engulfed by a cloud. I have to hike the river’s banks to get a glimpse of it, and then it’s not at all what I expected, a desolate sight, bare trees, pooled, muddy water, some very nasty, raven-like birds.
The preternaturally thick fog lends everything a magical air – the sodden vegetable fields, spider-webs beaded with water droplets between every leaf, and most of all, the stables, where the white parmesan cattle chew clumps of hay, a litter of kittens roll around in the straw, and two completely incongruous peacocks hold court over a pile of construction materials. The only place, in my memory, to be stranger by day, than by night, and that’s before we descend the stone staircase, feeling the temperature drop with each step, into the culatello cellar.
On the walls, there are culatelli, layered, overlapping, on top of one another. From every inch of the low ceiling, are fixed the same. Delicious, expensive, thoroughly mouldy hams, packed tight into a pig’s bladder, knitted in place with a web of twine. Hanging hallowed, in the ham dungeon.
In the furthest corner of the room, there is a window. It’s the only window, the only source of natural light, and the only piece of ‘technology’ that exists in the process of ageing these hams. The window is right by the river, and through it the foggy moist air enters, and swirls. If the air outside is too dry, the window is closed. And that’s it. The unique combination of mouldy stone cellar, and dense foggy air, does the rest.
One corner of the cellar is set-aside for the azienda’s most famous clientele. Whole culatelli are by pre-order only, and the wait for one is five years. Little wooden signs name the future owners of these precious hams, and if people such as Alain Ducasse, Rene Redzedi (of Noma fame), and even ‘Principe Carlo’ (better known to us as Prince Charles), figure that it’s worth the wait, they must be right! We add our names to the very end of the list. In five years time, we speculate, we may even be able to afford one!
On to Modena…
The fog stayed with us as we made our way towards Modena. On both sides of the road, fields of frost-bitten brassicas, the rich earth a clumpy deep brown. Only when the low land gave way to little vineyard-covered hills did we begin to climb out of the mist. With each crest-top vantage point the fog appeared again like a sea below, fuzzing the edges of everything, pleasantly blurring the gradation between land and sky.
On the top of one such little hill sits Opera 02, an ancient acetaia, in a minimalist concrete building, where they still make balsamic vinegar the old fashioned way. This means boiling down a mixture of Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes to form a mosto cotto, then adding to this a ‘mother’ or starter culture of extraordinarily aged balsamic. It is not uncommon for the ‘mother’ to be over 100 years old – it’s a ‘live’ product, ever growing, and ever being mixed with marginally younger vinegars, to ensure its continuation.
The fermentation process starts when mother vinegar is added to the new mosto cotto, which is then placed in the largest wooden barrel in a battery of barrels. Each year the contents of the barrel reduce down, and a portion of it is transferred to the next barrel, and so on, again the following year, and the next, until, after a minimum of 12 years you have a small barrel of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena.
Even further still along the decreasing battery of barrels, after a minimum of 25 years, the product can be called ‘extravecchio’ and is contained in a specially designed spherical bottle, sealed with a gold cap. Due to the battery method of production, it’s impossible to say with accuracy exactly how old all of the vinegar in any given bottle of traditionally made balsamic actually is. All bottles sold necessarily comprise a mixture of vinegars of different vintages, with only the very youngest contained being of either 12 or 25 years. Meaning it’s perfectly possible that some elements of the vinegar contained in a bottle of ‘extravecchio’ are much older than the minimum 25 years, even up to 75 years old, depending on the history of the particular battery.
Balsamic vinegar, for the Modenese, is much more than just a condiment, it’s a tradition. Parents start a new battery for each new child, and in the smallest, oldest, barrels of the pungent acetaia, owners hold vinegars that might have been started by their grandparents, or great-grandparents, and possibly even beyond. Balsamic vinegar production around Modena can be dated back to the middle ages, but, in ancient Rome at least, it was around well before that. Though history suggests that back then balsamic wasn’t eaten, but spread instead on wounds as an antiseptic, an origin evident in the root of the Italian word ‘balsamo’ or English, balm, or healing ointment.
A world away from the supermarket stuff, (which is produced by boiling down grape must, then adding some sugar and caramel flavouring), traditionally made balsamic has a naturally syrupy texture, and balanced resinous flavour. It’s not so much ‘poured’ but, as we discover later that day at lunch, ‘metered’ out drop by drop, (and sadly not left on the table for us to distribute at will!). Not surprisingly, it goes beautifully when matched with the other products for which the region is famous – a fine drizzle on a chunk of Parmesan, one or two enhancing drops on slice of culatello. More surprisingly, as the kitchen at Opera 02 proves, it’s also delicious and very unexpected atop a white risotto. My recipe below is a tribute to theirs.
Later, that evening, in the town of Modena itself, we eat at Osteria Francescana. I was aware of the reviews, and had seen ‘the list,’ but nonetheless arrived a little under-prepared. I didn’t bring my camera, certainly I did not expect to meet the chef, (even if this surprise was given away early in the game by the Americans at the next table, autograph books to hand, triple-checking with the waiter regarding the famed Signor’s presence in the kitchen!). The food, it almost goes without saying, was exceptional, and Massimo Bottura, was very very nice, skinny, as I have since gathered he is somewhat known for, and nice. We chatted pleasantly about the nostalgic qualities of mortadella, (exactly my kind of chat), and he patiently explained, as I am sure he must do every night, how he constructs his famous ‘Caesar salad.’
On the plate it looks like just a small, very fresh, beautifully green romaine lettuce, but on the fork it tasted like the most impossibly perfect dream of a Caesar salad that you could possibly dream. Hidden between the leaves ‘injections’ of a concoction of ingredients – I don’t remember the exact number, but a lot – that work together to give the taste of the classic salad, without its texture, which makes a star of the perfect little lettuce. If I get the chance I would very much like to go back, chat some more about mortadella, and eat it all again.
And finally to Bologna…
The last day of our road trip begins in Maranello. At the Ferrari Museum. A stop that I’d prefer to eclipse, mainly because it is a Ferrari Museum, but also because, morally speaking, if you have your arm twisted to go on the inappropriately priced Formula One Simulator machine, and then do so, only to strike a wall on the first corner and not mange to get back out onto the track, you should be entitled to a refund. You just should be.
But to Bologna – home of Europe’s oldest university, the spindly and precarious due torri, endless porticos, and Italy’s saddest dogs. Outside each alimentari, every delicatessen, (and Bologna has more of these than any other city I know), a line of downcast canines, leads attached to a series of hooks, their sad faces a mime of the little cartoon dog depicted on the ubiquitous sign, fastened above, reading “Io non posso entrare,” (I’m not permitted to come in). It’s a sign that you see on many an Italian storefront, but never before has it provoked my sympathy like it did in Bologna. Just inside the large shop windows, right in doggy eye-line, miles of sausage links, actual logs of mortadella, every imaginable delicious piggy product in the broad pantheon of Italian salumi. Poverini. Sympathy being powerful, but fleeting, I, of course, went inside, and went shopping.
In addition to wonderful delicatessens, the streets in the centre of Bologna are crowded with market stalls selling fresh produce. Even in the dead of winter, the pickings are rich, the characteristic clumpy brown earth still attached to stems offering physical evidence that nothing has travelled from terribly far. I choose a speckle-y castelfranco, some whole hazelnuts, and a ripe brown pear. My bags are full of edible souvenirs from the past two days travel (culatello between waxed paper sheets, a crumbly chunk of parmesan, and a little tiny bottle of balsamico extravecchio). After last night’s meal, there is no point in a restaurant lunch, it would disappoint, and just wouldn’t be fair. And so to the park we go…
There’s a nice bench in the weak winter sun, and with me I have a plate picked up at an antique market in Venice. They say that things that grow together, go together, and our lunch, eaten with fingers, is a simple extension of this really… All the tastiest bits of Emilia Romagna, on a single (Venetian!) plate.
Pear, Castelfranco, Culatello, Hazelnut & Balsamic
If you are preparing this dish in a kitchen, and not on a park bench, it’s worth taking a few extra seconds to lightly toast the hazelnuts. They can go straight into a dry pan, shake them around a little and watch carefully as they colour – golden tends to turn to scorched in a matter of seconds. Untoasted hazelnuts are not really hazelnuts at all, and deployable strictly in al-fresco dining emergencies!
On the subject of salad leaves, if pink-speckled castelfranco is a stranger to your local market stall, try endive, chicory, or whitlof instead (the latter being a thing, I think, in Australia at least, even if spell-checker seems to think not). Any leaf really, that is slightly bitter, very fresh, and pleasantly crunchy, will work very nicely.
- 1 ripe, sweet pear – something with a dark skin, like a Bosc or Kaiser goes well
- 1 head of Castelfranco, or an alternative as above. If in season, Tardivo di Treviso could make a good and beautifully coloured substitute
- 8-12 thin slices of culatello, or, if unavailable, Prosciutto di Parma, or San Daniele
- Around 50g of Parmagiano Reggiano – shaved into flakes
- Handful of hazelnuts, skin on if possible – broken up slightly using a rolling pin – lightly toasted in a dry pan
- Extra virgin olive oil
- A drizzle of good-quality aged balsamic vinegar
- Sea salt
Less a question of method, and more of arrangement: start by giving the salad leaves a quick wash and shake dry, then place either on individual plates or one big platter.
Slice the pear in half lengthways and remove the core. Slice each half in half again, and then into a series of thin slices. (If you are not planning on serving straight away, a bit of lemon juice drizzled on the pear slices will stop these turning brown). Arrange the pear slices amongst the salad leaves.
Next, tuck the prosciutto slices into the salad, draping it around the leaves and the pears, and flake across the shaved parmesan.
Add the toasted hazelnuts, then scatter a little sea salt across everything, crunching this between your fingers to break up any too-large flakes.
Lastly, the olive oil – just a thin drizzle – and the balsamic, which I like to be more heavy handed with, letting little droplets form and puddle in the folds of prosciutto...
Eat it outdoors, even if prepared within, ideally with some very cold wine.
Conveniently carry-on sized, the little bottle of ‘extravecchio’ made it home with me, and it is with this that I first made the following recipe. The syrup is beautiful to behold, in its little bubble of a bottle, like some kind of precious kitchen amber, and the taste, difficult to describe, is of grape must, and wood, and time, long, long periods of culinarily enriching time...
However, as I’ve said, those were the pleasures of over a year ago now, and those 100ml, sparing as I was, are long-since gone. The other night I made this risotto again, (to check, for one, that my ancient scribbled recipe notes actually worked), and this time, with no ‘kitchen amber’ to hand, I resorted to a decent supermarket balsamic instead. Reduced down to a syrup over a low flame with a little sugar added to balance the acidity, I really shouldn’t say it was the same, because it wasn’t, but it was still good, and a passable solution when a gourmet acetaia is not to be found, (nor upwards of 50 Euros to be spent on vinegar!).
With regards to the risotto rice itself, the merits of one variety over another, I have very much tried to entertain the idea that there’s a difference – science says something about starch content, starch ‘jackets’ maybe, I think I read that term somewhere, like straight-jackets, but for rice. Carnaroli somehow better than the others, larger jacket size, or some such. It’s likely that the science is right and that I’ve never paid close enough attention, but, big picture as I am in this regard, it seems to me that the more important decision to make is whether you let the rice absorb all the liquid at the end so that the risotto keeps its shape (Milanese style), or serve it looser (Veneto style), to the point where a shallow bowl is definitely called for (but not a spoon – that’s maybe too much!). My heart, as on many occasions, is with the Venetians on this, and I think that it suits this particular recipe to be served on the creamier side too.
Either way, don’t skip the ‘manteca,’ the point at which you turn off the flame, add the parmesan, and a little (actually, a lot) of butter, then cover and let the risotto relax for a few minutes and become gooey. Valuable table-setting time, and a moment to reflect on the brilliance of language that has dedicated a verb to this delicious moment.
- 240g risotto rice – Arborio, Carnaroli, or Vialone Nano, there are others, you choose
- 1 brown onion – chopped finely
- 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
- 60g salted butter
- 220ml white wine
- 1.75 litres good quality vegetable stock – strained through a fine sieve
- 60g parmesan cheese – finely grated
- 80g salted butter – cut into cubes, (to mantecare)
- Sea salt and white pepper
- 6 tablespoons of good quality balsamic vinegar
Bring the strained vegetable stock to a boil in a medium saucepan, then, once boiling, place on a back burner, over minimum heat, to remain at a low simmer.
In a heavy-based pan, melt the 60g of butter together with the olive oil, over a low-medium heat. Add the onion and cook slowly, until very soft, but not coloured (approx. 5-7 minutes). I like the idea of this risotto being very white, as a contrast against the dark balsamic, and because white risottos always seem to look the creamiest, (hence the faffing with strained stock and white pepper). I don’t want to be bossy, but little burnt bits of onion in the all white colour scheme could be a real spoiler here … so fai attenzione!
Next, pour in the rice, and stir vigorously to coat the grains in the butter and oil. Toast for a minute, until the rice has begun to go transparent at the edges, then slosh in the white wine.
Stir to allow the rice to absorb the wine, and then, when absorbed, add your first ladle of hot stock. Continue to stir while this is absorbed.
As each ladle-full of stock is absorbed add another, continuing to stir between additions to coax all of the starch from the rice grains and ensure a rich, creamy texture. (I find that if you keep the wine bottle close by, this step is magically transformed from chore to pleasure. Just a tip that you probably didn’t require a reminder of!).
Meanwhile, if you have any doubts about the quality of your chosen balsamic, sneakily reduce this a little in a small saucepan over medium heat. A just pourable texture best mimics that of aged Modena balsamic, and if, post-reduction, there are still traces of an unpleasant acidic tang, add a touch of fine sugar, and stir to dissolve in order to balance this.
After the rice has cooked for between 16-18 minutes, taste a few grains of the risotto – they should be fully cooked through, but not mushy or beginning to fall apart. If they are not quite there, keep adding the stock, and check again in a few minutes time.
When you are happy with the bite of the rice, turn off the heat, then add the remaining 80g of butter to the risotto in cubes, along with the grated parmesan cheese. Beat these quickly into the rice, then pop a lid onto the pan and leave it to sit for 2 minutes, allowing the cheese and butter to melt, and the rice to become even creamier.
Post-manteca, stir the risotto and check the seasoning. It may not need a lot (or any) extra salt depending on the butter and parmesan, but if it does, add some now. A little white pepper may also be added.
Lastly, ladle the risotto into shallow serving bowls, then, at the table if you’re given to culinary drama, add the syrupy balsamic, swirling this around and around over the top.