Thursday, November 19, 2009


Reggio Emilia, Italy


Soon after discovering the joys of eating white truffles, we left Alba w/ Charlie as our new driver and arrived in the town of Reggio Emilia in the Emilia-Romagna region in search of the one of the finest balsamic vinegars w/o any touring practice incidents (translation: we didn't get lost). 

After we checked into our hotel we met up with our lovely interpreter and guide, Paola, who wore the most wonderful fragrance. A down-to-earth woman with a terrific sense of humor, she bonded immediately with me when I asked about her perfume and found out. “Gia by Armani,” she said in her lilting Italian accent. I’ve been wearing it ever since, but I digress...

First on the guys’ agenda was a dinner shoot at Prater, a local restaurant where the chef prepared everything from soup to nuts (well, from appetizer to dessert) with balsamic vinegar.

Not your ordinary, everyday supermarket balsamic, however, but Italy’s traditional fine balsamic vinegar. The Dom Perignon of vinegars… balsamic vinegar so fine that it’s categorized by red, silver and gold labels. The red label costs upward from $50-75 and is used for salads, vegetables and fish dishes. The silver label, starting around $100-150, is sweeter than the red label vinegar and is used in pastas, fish and chicken dishes. The priciest, of course, is the gold label balsamic ranging from $200-450 and is as sweet as port and often poured ‘straight’ onto desserts like chocolate syrup. And these are small bottles! Just 3.5 ounces! And, because the Italian government regulates this vinegar, the makers must participate in a government consortium “tasting” for color, thickness and taste, after which the red, silver or gold designation is bestowed.

At the restaurant, the guys shot the preparation and final presentation of shrimp and eggplant dishes with red balsamic vinegar; ravioli and pumpkin pasta with silver balsamic vinegar; potatoes stuffed with chestnuts and cheese sprinkled with red balsamic; sea bass with spinach drizzled with silver balsamic; and whipped cheese gelato, tutti frutti gelato and an assortment of berries all topped with gold balsamic.

 And, after it was all beautifully captured on videotape, we dug in. Jason (the cameraman) by now had lost all food inhibitions and didn’t hesitate to try anything. The rest of us never wanted to leave the table, and didn’t, till hours later when the restaurant was closing.

Bright and early the next morning we followed Paola to the L’aceto Balsamico di Cavalli plant where Aceto Balsamico has been made by the Cavalli family since 1920.

Richard, with Paola’s assistance, interviewed Giovanni Cavalli, the proud owner of the company, then the guys taped the bottling and official wax sealing.

After which we were led to a large room filled with the barrels and the taping continue. This is where the vinegar goes through a five barrel aging process as it is siphoned from one barrel to another. Each barrel is made with a different type of wood, adding its own distinct flavor to the vinegar… a process that’s been around for a thousand years and takes a minimum of twelve years before the balsamic is even tasted. Some of the finest red label vinegars can age for as long as twenty-five years; some silver label vinegars have sat in those barrels for fifty years; and the finest gold label vinegar has been known to age for as long a century.

One of my jobs that day was to “set-design” the various bottles and their labels to look like a high-end magazine ad. I found some old faded fabric, draped it on a few wooden barrels, added a few flowers then arranged the bottles on top of the barrels and, voila, they were ready for their close-ups.

After the taping was over, we were invited into the owner’s private “tasting room” for a late lunch of crusty Italian bread, fresh proscuitto and the regional parmigiano reggiano, the best parmigiano (“parmesan”) cheese I’ve ever eaten… plus glasses and glasses of Italian red table.

Because this show was to be aired on the Food Network, Paola was able to get government permission for us to attend the consortium vinegar tasting much later that night. Thrilled at the prospect, we rushed back to the hotel to prepare for the shoot. Translation: we all took a nap.

It was after 10:00 pm when we arrived at a 12th century castle (a castle!) for the tasting and I felt like Cinderella about to enter the ball.

However, as in Lyon, I'd been assigned once again the "sit in the van and watch the equipment" job, but Charlie promised he'd come out to do a shift in about 20 minutes.  I started at the entrance to this formidable medieval castle and let my imagination take over, but my imagination paled compared to what I was about to see.

True to his word, Charlie came out 20 minutes later and I went inside.  The first things to strike me were the amazing murals of landscapes, noblemen and angels surrounded by elaborate friezes and gilded frames that covered the walls and doors of the castle’s wonderfully ornate receiving room. Plates of cookies were set up for all those who entered. I grabbed one (OK, two!) as I spotted the men of the consortium sitting at the tables set up for this event… men who looked as if they had been extras in the Sicilian segment of Coppola’s “Godfather 2.”

 My Cinderella fantasy went out the window as I looked around expecting to see, not Prince Charming, but a young Michael Corleone burst through one of the hand-painted paneled doors. In front of the men were note pads, wine glasses and glass vials that looked as if they came out of my high school chem lab. This was serious business as they smelled the vinegar, held it up to the light, swirled it around and sipped it... all as the camera rolled and Jim (the soundman) recorded what they were saying and Paola translated.

While the guys were shooting, I explored as much of the castle as I was allowed because most of it was crumbling and under renovation.

The rooms were seemingly endless and the remains of pastoral murals and friezes filled each one. I hope I get a chance one day to return and see this castle and its wall art in all its restored glory.

It was well after midnight when the tasting was over and my four guys and I wandered around the deserted piazza marveling at how we’d been transported back in time.

I looked at our van and car and envisioned ornately carved golden stagecoaches (back to my Cinderella images) with proud stallions ready to take us back to our hotel.

Ancient statues of nude warriors stood tall...

and beams of light glowed like candles on the fa├žades of the old buildings, smooth to the touch from eons of weathering.

The piazza “pavement” was cobblestone and not a single tree was in sight. It was very quiet and pleasantly strange and eerie. It was also very late. Reluctantly, we got into our coaches and went back to the hotel.  Tomorrow we were off to Tuscany and the city of Florence for a little R&R where just up the Arno River from the Ponte Vecchio I would have the best cheeseburger since I left the States.


Anonymous said...

Halfway through your post I had to open one of my better bottles of balsamic and take a deep snort. That, along with your verbal imagery and the pics, transported me smack dab to Italy. Nothing like sense memories to comfort the soul. Ahhh!

Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Terrific story and gorgeous photos. I can just imagine the wonderful taste of that heavenly balm. -- The piece deserves to be in "Gourmet"....oops! There's no "Gourmet" anymore. How about "Food and Wine"?

ilona saari said...

Thanx, anonymouses or is it anonymoui? ;o)

I'm still in mourning over "Gourmet" magazine folding.

Richard said...

One of the biggest eye-openers of the entire trip... I sometimes mark my culinary experiece as BAB and AAB... Before Aceto Balsamico and After Aceto Balsamico!

Susan said...

Wonderful post. I'm actually going to use the TJ's balsamic tonight for a brussle sprout recipe by Mark Peel. It's okay when you have to use alot.

ilona saari said...

We use TJ's balsamic all the time and I love it over veggies. What Mark Peel recipe? Inquiring minds want to know.

An fyi- a balsamic trick I discovered - when I want it to taste more like the $100 version (more port-like)- I whisk in a little sugar (or Splenda) and voila - it really brings out the balsamic flavor w/o that strong vinegar-y kick that the inexpensive balsamic and other inexpensive vinegars have.