(Image courtesy of Piacere Modena)
Typical Modenese cookery can boast lots and different delicacies. Some are common with the central Emilian culture, others are rare excellences, envied throughout the whole world. Products of extraordinary high quality, where passion and tradition join into something inimitable (and unfortunately sometimes counterfeit abroad).
The symbol of the Modenese table is certainly the tortellino, the delicious “navel” of pastry filled with meat (pork, cured ham, sausage; sometimes Bologna sausage: each family holds its own secret recipe!). They must be eaten in beef-stock with a spoon.
If bigger, they are called tortelloni, usually filled with by spinach and ricotta, served with butter and sage. Of the fresh handmade pasta, the tagliatelle are rough and wide depending on one’s taste, flavoured with meat or ham sauce. The lasagne is baked in the oven, generally made with meat sauce and béchamel. Similar to these, the pasticci are made with other types of pasta (like ziti or maccheroni).
A peculiar and simple first dish, from in Romagna, is passatelli, long coils of a special mixture made with breadcrumbs, eggs, Parmesan cheese and nutmeg.
Among the soups, don’t forget the pasta coi fagioli (beans) and pork rind: it is so nourishing that it is usually taken as a single course. A variant is the so-called chelzagatt, stewed beans and polenta (fried or otherwise).
The second dishes of Modenese cookery are dominated by sausage. The cotechino, served with lentils and mashed potatoes, is an animal bowel, boiled and filled with different types of minced meat (spiced noble parts of the pork and pigskin). Similar to the cotechino, but with a stronger taste and the characteristic pigs feet, the traditional zampone is directly made with the anterior leg of the pig. Both have the IGP seal of quality.
On the same lines, the tricorno (or “priest’s hat”) and the salama da sugo are delicious but less common. The former comes from Parma, the latter from Ferrara (where the Estense court resided before 1598).
Boiled meat, served with mustard fruit and many different sauces, is loved in Modena: the best pieces are capon, tongue (also eated corned), the head, the leg, the pigtail, the ear and the so-called beef ‘copertina’.
Expecially in the countryside, stewed game with tomato and sautéd mixture of vegetables is widespread, just like roast meat, flavoured with the ‘aglione’ (a mix of garlic and rosemary).
In this part, Modenese cookery shows its wonderful particularities: nobody in Modena can deny having eaten “gnocco e tigelle”. The gnocco fritto is an exceptional greediness: a dough made of water, flour and lard is fried – preferibly in the lard itself – so that it blows up and then is served with salami, lard, cheese and also jam. It is eaten even for breakfast, with milk.
It is usually coupled with the tigelle or “crescentine”, disks of a particular type of bread, baked according to the tradition between hot plates. These must be cut open and filled with whatever are fancies to eat them with (like the gnocco). These delicacies are often served with raw vegetables to degrease them.
The borlenghi are typical of the hills: they are extremely thin sheets of a simple dough, cooked on a hot plate and filled with lard and Parmesan cheese.
Also the other baking is good, like the gnocco, a well risen and soft bread, sometimes enriched with cracklings.
Salami has the most important tradition in Modena. First of all, the prosciutto (or raw ham) is less famous than the Parmesan one, but has recently conquered the DOP seal of quality. Cracklings can be fresh or hung, made with the scray ends of pork, eaten with the fingers like French fries. The coppa di testa is a valuable product prepared with the pigs head; culatello and fiocchetto are lighter; finally, mortadella originating from Bologna, but it is likewise excellent in Modena.
There are many types of salami, with large or small pits of lard (like in the classic “cacciatore”). Lard or “cunza” is very different from the Colonnata one. Here it is a sort of white pulp, flavoured with garlic, salt and rosemary, created expecially to be added and melted in the tigelle.
The king of the Modenese dressing is certainly the traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena, sometimes defined as the black gold of the town. It is a product of absolute excellence, thanks to its inimitable flavour and to the decades required to make it.
The first information about dates back to at least 1046, when the Emperor Henry III passed through Modena. In 1508 we know that it was produced in the Estense court in Ferrara, as a gift to Royalty. The first time the word ‘balsamic’ was used was in 1747, in the archive of the grape harvest of the secret ducal cellar. Then, when he occupied Modena, Napoleon confiscated the Ducal “acetaia” (that is the place where the vinegar is made). In the second half of the XIX century, the lawyer and politician Francesco Aggazzotti from Formigine (he actually was a wine grower and entrepreneur) codified the techinques for the production.
From then, the balsamic vinegar of Modena would conquer the whole world with its special sweet-and-sour taste. It is quite frequent to see it on the tables of restaurants very far from the city. However, there are also too many imitations of it, things created just to keep the price low. True Modenesi appreciate only the traditional vinegar, maybe the one they themself produce in the “acetaie” stored in the granaries throughout the province.
So, some specifications have to be set down. The balsamic vinegar of Modena has the IGP seal of quality, it is aged minumun 2 months and after 3 years in barrel can be named "invecchiato". On the contrary, the «traditional» balsamic vinegar of Modena (ABTM in Italian) is sold only in special little round bottles and it is the most valuable one.
«It is obtained – according to the definition of the guild which protects it – from cooked grape juice before fermentation, aged with a slow acetification derived from natural fermentation and by a progressive concentration over an extremely long ageing, in a series of small barrels of different woods, without any addition of aromatic substances. Of a dark, strong and shining brown colour, it shows its density in a correct and flowing syrupiness. It has a characteristic and complex fragrance, of a strong but pleasant and harmonic acidity. A traditional and inimitable taste, equilibrately sweet and sour, it is generously full, tasty with velvety nouances, in accordance with its olfactory characteristics».
It is sold at an understandably high price, considering the way it is produced, as “affinato” after 12 years of maturation, and as “extravecchio” after 25 years. The age and the quality of the woods (sessile oak, chestnut, mulberry, juniper) contribute in determining the taste. Every year it is poured from a bigger barrel to a smaller one (this procedure involves many casks): you won’t succeed in finding two identic bottles!
Considering its particular taste and its value, only a few drops are sufficient. It is wonderful to flavour salads, fried food, Parmesan cheese, risottos, shrimp or strawberries (it is even perfect to be tasted on its own, on a spoon, like a panacea!).
Altough the name doesn’t reproduce Modena together with Parma and Reggio Emilia, the province is one of the official areas for the production of the most eaten cheese in the world, the Parmigiano-Reggiano (or Parmesan cheese; DOP seal of quality). Made in big round whole cheeses, it follows the traditional recipe which has nine century of history, strictly disciplined with different degrees of seasoning (from 18 to 30 months). The Parmigiano-Reggiano is split into small silvers and eaten alone or with both first and second dishes.
Others specialities are produced in very limited areas. Some of them have received important seals of quality. For example, the cherries from Vignola, the sharp sour black cherries of Modena (IGP, a delicious jam is made from it, to fill tarts and fritters), the Montese potatoes, the pear of the Emilia-Romagna.
Probably the most common sweet in Modena is the traditional bensone, covered with sugar. For after lunch, in spite of the name, the famous English soup was born in Emilia, a dessert to be eaten with a spoon, made with sponge fingers dunked in the red alkermes, layered with white and chocolate custard (according to someone, the name was given in the XIX century, in the honour of Queen Victoria). At carnival time, in the whole of Italy are eaten what in Modena are called frappe (elsewhere “chiacchiere” or “sfrappole”), thin pieces of fried dough covered in icing sugar. The tagliatelle cake is a particular sweet of the hills: shortcrust pastry filled with pasta and macaroons. From Vignola comes the Barozzi cake, a chocolate pie rich in calories. Finally, a special almond brittle (“croccante” in Italian) is shaped in a cilinder and made in the Appennines.
The only way to eat all the Modenese delicacies is with a light, sparkling wine: the Lambrusco of Modena DOC seal of quality. Produced from the grapes cultivated in the fertile plan between the rivers Secchia and Panàro, there are three varieties: Sorbara (which is the principal area of production), Santa Corce and Grasparossa of Castelvetro. It once was downgraded to a simple wine for lunch, but now, also thanks to new techniques (the white and rosé versions for example), it has rightly climbed to ranking as the most sold Italian wine in the world.
It has an intense red colour and an high froth when poured out. It is drunk while still young (wonderful when tasted only a few weeks after the grape harvest) and – though it is a red wine – fresh. The Consortium Historic Seal of the Modenese Lambruschi, whose symbol is the rose window of the Duomo, guarantees the quality of the bottles wich follow the rules for the production.
The distillation of liqueurs is traditional in many families. In particular, the “nocino”, made from the husk of walnuts, the “sassolino”, from the star anice, the “laurino”, from laurel berries.