If Bologna is the city of colonnades, Modena, its near neighbour is the city of bicycles. There are hundreds all over the town and are the preferred way for the locals to navigate the centro storico lending the city a tranquil air. There are also colonnades which give the town the look of a small Bologna but that’s where I will stop the unfair comparisons, for Modena is a city in its own right, with a proud history, and a very impressive culinary culture.
In the centre of the town is the Mercato Albinelli, a large covered market and so I decided to start my visit there. Modena is famous for Aceto Balsamico di Modena (balsamic vinegar) that dark brown liquid that’s often used in Italian salad dressing or mixed with olive oil to make a dipping sauce for bread (STRICTLY outside Italy).
The market was full of typical products from the region of Emilia-Romagna where Modena is located, which is often considered the foodie region of Italy. And Modena doesn’t disappoint.
There was lots of amazing bread including tigelle, mini flatbreads which you make sandiwches from and are made with an amazing piece of kit with six compartments, rather like a large waffle iron.
There was, of course, plenty of balsamic vinegar on offer, but also saba a kind of sweet sauce made from the musts of grapes as a by product of the wine making process.
One of the most famous dishes from Modena is zuppa inglese, which translates rather esoterically as ‘English soup’. It consists of sponge, often ladies’ fingers, soaked in a bright red liqueur called Alchermes and layered with crème pâtissiere. In a common variation, the crème pâtissiere is flavoured with chocolate.
Zuppa inglese does bear a resemblance to the English sherry trifle and it’s generally accepted that there is some kind of link. There are many theories for the origins of zuppa inglese, most of them without firm evidence. Continuing in this tradition, I have my own.
On 30 September 1673, Maria d’Este, the daughter of the Duke of Modena married the ill-fated James Duke of York, younger brother of King Charles II and heir to the English throne. The wedding was a proxy one, and I like to think that the dessert was created for the wedding feast which would have taken place in Modena, modeled on English trifle, which seems to have been known in England since a century earlier. English soup for the new English Duchess. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Maria d’Este, better known nowadays as Mary of Modena, went on to become Queen of England when her husband acceded as King James II in 1685. In June 1688, what should have been a happy event, the birth of her son James Stuart, led to a revolt against her husband, known as the Glorious Revolution. Deposed, the couple spent the rest of their lives in exile in France.
Mary was born in the 17th century Palazzo Ducale which today hosts the Accademia Militare di Modena (The Modena Military Academy) a prestigious officer training school for the Italian army. You often see the cadets, in their snazzy blue and violet uniforms, wandering round the town.
Another, and perhaps better-known child of Modena was the super tenor, Luciano Pavarotti. Born in the town in 1935 Pavarotti had a stellar career and did a lot—together the with other two of The Three Tenors, José Carreras and Placido Domingo—to popularize opera once again. Following his death in 2007, the town theatre was renamed in his honour.
A third famous Modena native is the chef Massimo Bottura, whose three-Michelin-starred restaurant Osteria Francescana is in Modena. In 2015 it was placed at number two in the list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants by the Diners Club® World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy.
Like the proverbial prophet, Bottura has not always been accepted in his own home town, some of his reimagining of the local cuisine being deemed a step too far for the locals. Italians are fiercely protective of their traditional cuisine, arguing that the old ways are the best as they were developed over centuries to reach perfection. If you have Netflix, it’s worth watching Episode One of Chef’s Table which tells the story of Bottura and his restaurant.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have lunch at Osteria Francescana but instead chose L’Osteria Aldina which came recommended by some local friends as well as by my favourite Italian restaurant guide Osterie d’Italia published by the Slow Food movement.
The restaurant was packed out for saturday lunch and had the atmosphere of a no-nonsense proper Modenese restaurant. Almost all of the clientele were Italian.
It was here that I made my first major culinary discovery of the day: tortelli di zucca con aceto balsamico. There were large pasta shapes, stuffed with pumpkin and served with a balsamic vinegar reduction. But what was most amazing about them is that the filling was sweet. I was later to discover that this mix of sweet and salty, very common in European cuisine up until the eighteenth century, has survived in Modena and is one of the characteristics of the local cuisine. I’ll be writing more about these in a later post.
As well as the zuppa inglese we also tried Torta Barozzi for pudding. This is a crumbly chocolate and peanut cake invented by Eugenio Gollini in about 1887 in the town of Vignola in the province of Modena. Since 1948 it’s been known as Torta Barozzi named in honour of Jacopo Barozzi, a 16th century architect also from Vignola. This cake is usually served crumbled over a dish of crema al mascarpone, mascarpone cheese mixed with eggs and sugar. Watch this space for more on this too.
After lunch I went for a walk around the town again and visited the beautiful cathedral. Here are some photos to enjoy.
Shortly before returning to the train station, I came across a shop called Telesforo Fini and in the window was a pie filled with tortellini pasta, called pasticcio di tortellini. These kind of pies, often called timballi are relatively common in Italy but usually in the south. I decided to buy a bit to eat on the train on the way home.
This was the second amazing discovery of my day in Modena because like the tortelli this also mixed sweet and savory flavours in an amazing manner. The pastry, was a bit like a sweet hot-water crust pastry: cripsy on the outside but quite moist to the bite. Again, I’m hoping to recreate this recipe in the coming weeks.
I must confess to feeling a little sad leaving Modena that evening. It’s a town that lives firmly in the shadow of Bologna but I fell a little in love with it that day in a way that I didn’t with its big brother. I wonder how many more of these amazing smaller towns I will discover in Italy. There are many to try out.