We call ourselves Modenesi. The Italian side of my family, along with our many friends from the same mountains call ourselves by the name of the province of Modena, which is also the name of the provincial seat. I don’t know many “Modenesi” who are actually familiar with the city of Modena. I know I wasn’t. Recently however, I had the chance to acquaint myself with this beautiful city.
My daughter, you see, has just moved to Modena for a new job. We are all very proud of her perseverance in searching for a position in Italy, even if it means she is far away from us. After four torturous months of her absence, consisting of a major transfer for a North Shore girl with way too many clothes, shoes and toiletries, three strong earthquakes and a Fiat Panda purchase, I decided to bite the bullet and go to visit my 24-year-old baby daughter who wants to act like an Italian, just to see how she’s getting along in this very typical Italian city.
You see, it isn’t that I was disappointed in her leaving us. (Well of course a part of me was disappointed in her leaving.) But this has been a dream of hers for at least five years. “I want to live and work in Italy,” she would say. “Yeah, right, me too!” I would respond. And there we’d leave it. Who wouldn’t want to live in an Italian Disneyland? The land of castle towns, cappuccino, fabulous food, great wine, beautiful people, high fashion, historical and artistic cities like Rome, Venice, Florence? Heck, if I had the chance, I might move there as well!
I got myself on a plane and headed on over to check up on her. Under the guise of visiting my mother’s mountain town and my daughter, I sojourned to Modena by way of Bologna. I rented an eggplant colored Lancia Musa and stick-shifted my way up the mountain to my mother’s quaint little village, where I waited until my princess came back from Southern Italy, where she was spending her “Ferie,” her August vacation, near the Amalfi Coast.
When I finally met her in Modena, she took me out to her favorite bar for an aperitivo — appetizers and before-dinner cocktail. I soon learned that this was how she ate inexpensively, because skinny people don’t need more than appetizers as a meal. I, on the other hand, went to bed a little light in the stomach that night.
The roads in Modena Centro are not square cobblestones like they are in Rome. Here, they are round stones, more like river rocks, that stick up and make it very difficult to walk. Cars rolling over them echo with an alarming flat tire rumble that reverberates between the all-too-close buildings on the narrow streets. I can only imagine emergency rooms filled with thin women with sprained ankles due to these high-heel danger zones.
Like most Italian metropolitan cities of the 21st century, Modena bustles with businesses run by foreigners: including Pakistanis, Indians, North Africans, Middle Easterners, and Chinese. Even in Venice, where I followed my daughter on a three-day work assignment, the touristy leather shops were primarily owned and run by Chinese. My goodness! What on earth has happened to my mother’s Italy of the 1950s? I guess globalization has hit Italy just like it hit the United States. Pazienza!
While in Modena, I took the time to visit a balsamic vinegar loft. At Acetaia Fabbi, I learned that the Fabbi family has been making balsamic for centuries, in pretty much the exact same way. Elisa Fabbi gave me a personalized tour of the family’s facility. One significant feature was clear: families prepare and care for vinegars in a beautiful tradition that benefits future family members. What an amazing gift, that a family could begin making balsamic vinegar which will financially benefit unborn generations! Elisa’s great-grandfather moved their Acetaia to this property just outside of Modena Centro, on the Via Emilia, at the turn of the last century. Besides planting and caring for the white Trebbiano vineyard, he commissioned multitudes of handcrafted barrels in descending sizes which are stored on the highest level of the family’s manufacturing plant, a beautiful palazzo in the outskirts of Modena.
When you enter the plant, you know you are encountering time-honored tradition. This is not a commercial “fake balsamic factory. This is the real deal, a DOP balsamic loft which I was honored to be a brief part of, like peeking into a window of a family’s past. The crisp aroma of sweet vinegar, accented by the scent of fermentation in aged wooden barrels that have served for five generations hangs in the air. The family’s pride reveals itself on the edges of their smiles. How many family businesses can say their ancestors had them in mind when they cooked the must that started these barrels over a century ago?
Elisa explains that her family uses five different types of wooden barrels. She showed me where one of the barrels was leaking, because occasionally they require repair of their metal holding strips. “Many of these barrels are from my great-grandfather’s time.” Elisa explained. But we don’t just throw them away when they occasionally go bad, the “barrelista” creates a new one around the old one if it can no longer be repaired, thus maintaining the integrity of the original barrel interior and its ability to season and ferment the vinegar. On occasion, barrels are refreshed with a wash of fresh must and salt. But it is important to retain the integrity of the interior of the barrel.
Elisa explained how the final, smallest barrel in a descending line of five barrels, in the twelve-year section of the loft, will be emptied of 1.5 liters of vinegar next March or April. Each previous barrel, larger and younger, will transfer 1.5 liters until the first and largest barrel of the line is filled with 1.5 liters of new grape juice that has been cooked at least 16 hours. The new addition thereby dilutes the barrel’s existing contents of several liters of fermented vinegar. If we recall our high school science classes, this process of dilution means that there is still a quantity of very old vinegar in each barrel that contributes to the developing flavor. In each barrel, there exists a “mother” similar to the “mother” sour dough starter, a live yeast, fermenting and developing its contents over time.
Acetaia Fabbi participates in the Modena DOP certification, whereby vinegar is sent to the certification facility for testing in five different categories. If the vinegar passes the certification process, it is determined to qualify as DOP and is bottled in the appropriate DOP bottles. This vinegar is of course more expensive than the same vinegar that has not undergone the certification process. Acetaia Fabbi sells both DOP and non-DOP products. The company is proud to have once won an award for the finest vinegar in all of Modena.
Visits to the Acetaia can be scheduled by calling Elisa at 39059469105, or emailing her at email@example.com. She will give you a personalized tour, and let you taste 5, 8, 12 and 25 year vinegars, and explain the various uses for the different vinegars, and even shares some of her family’s recipes using balsamic vinegar. Expect to buy some vinegar while you are visiting. Prices start at 17 euro for a small bottle of the youngest non-DOP and go up from there as the age and quality increase. I assure you though, you will experience nothing like this anywhere else in the world, which in and of itself is simply priceless!
My combination vacation, touring, and visit with my daughter revealed a lot about the both of us. I found out that we both love Italy tremendously. She however, has made a smooth transition in her decision to experience Italy at a much deeper, richer level. She reprimands me for acting like a tourist, talking loud and wearing big white gym shoes like the Americans wear. She on the other hand, blends right in, walks in heels, drinks tiny demitasse cups of strong black syrupy espresso and an orange sparkling aperitivo. She eats dry biscotti for breakfast and buys her fruit from a fruit vendor that hand picks it for her. At dinner, she orders “un quartino di vino rosso,” which is just enough for one person. She looks and acts like an Italian. She orders me not to speak English loudly, like a tourist, because she doesn’t want to attract attention or to be obnoxious. All these things prove to me that she has figured out how to be Italian quite well, and I could try to learn a few things from her myself.
As I finished up my travels with my daughter, visiting extended family, my mother’s hometown, a fabulous hike up the mountains, a trip to Castelnuovo Garfagnana for Thursday’s market, and numerous fabulous Italian meals, I couldn’t help but realize that my daughter was just fine as she was. She may stay for good, or she may not. It isn’t for me to decide. It is her life, I need to let her live it, and live it she is. May God bless her and all the people before her that had the courage to move someplace different in their lives. And may God let me go visit as often as possible … unless or until I decide to move there myself someday!
If you have a story to share about our North Shore Italians, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to share it with others.