Driving through food country
It was a dark blue Lancia Ypsilon that was waiting for me. To be honest, I was a tiny bit nervous. After all I had not driven a car in about a year and I had never driven in Italy. But what is life without a bit of risk (especially if you have an all-inclusive insurance of course)? So without much further hesitation I left the parking lot of the car rental and went to the highway. First destination: Bergamo. Without any expectations but very hungry I arrived in the city. The old town of Bergamo is a walled city that is on top of the hills, whereas the modern part of the city spreads out over the surrounding plains. Unfortunately, since it was already getting late, I did not have so much time in Bergamo. But enough to admire the old buildings and main square, and to find a bakery that seemed very popular. And for good reasons, since the focaccia stuffed with mozzarella and ham I took to eat on the square was amazing.
After this quick visit, it was time to drive to my actual destination that day: Modena. The birthplace of the luxury Italian sports cars, Lambrusco wine and balsamic vinegar. Once I had checked into my hostel and spent some time practicing my – still poor – Italian with the lady in my shared room, I went for a first evening walk through the city. Dinner was at a bit of a fancy place next to the cathedral. After a great pasta with parmesan cheese sauce, I had of course to try a dessert that incorporated the Aceto Balsamico. So a simple basic ice cream with a very good balsamic vinegar it was. Delicious! The next day I spent the morning exploring the city of Modena. A city that stole my heart with its warmly coloured houses, lively cafés and terraces and great indoor food market.
But clearly I also wanted to learn a bit more about the famous vinegar. So fortunately I was able to visit a small information center and production place, even in times of Covid-19. The true traditional balsamic vinegar is made by cooking the must of two types of regional grapes. Must is basically the freshly pressed juice that still contains the skins and seeds of the grapes as well. After boiling this, traditionally over an open fire, the resulting syrup is aged for years in a battery of different barrels. The barrels are smaller in size the further into the aging process and can be made from different types of woods, which of course also impact the final flavour. The real traditional vinegar of Modena has to age for at least 12 years, but can age for much longer still.
It definitely made me understand why a real traditional balsamic vinegar is so expensive, and so good. And it also made me understand why I am usually not so impressed by balsamic vinegar: most of what is sold in supermarkets is not made in this traditional way since the term “balsamic vinegar” itself is not protected.
So all in all, Modena turned out to be a great stop on my trip. Both for the educational part and of course for all the good food in the region!
Pasta with Parmesan cheese, pumpkin and balsamic vinegar
For this recipe I made the fresh pasta myself. Although this might seem intimidating at first, the more you practice the easier it becomes. But of course you can always buy a good quality fresh pasta in any supermarket as well.
Since the Parmesan cheese is one of the main ingredients, please use a piece of Parmesan that you grate yourself: it tastes so much better than the pre-grated cheese from the small plastic bags! And if you can get your hands on a proper traditional balsamic vinegar, I can assure you that it is worth the extra money compared to the regular ones.
Ingredients (for 2)
- Flour – 200 grams plus one extra tablespoon
- 2 eggs
- Olive oil
- Butter – 1 tablespoon
- 150 ml of milk
- 120 grams of Parmesan Cheese – grated
- Sage leaves – a small bunch
- Small pumpkin
- Balsamic vinegar
- Salt and black pepper
If you decide to make the pasta from scratch, start by placing the flour with a pinch of salt on a clean working surface. Make a well in the middle and add around half a tablespoon of olive oil in the middle. Break both eggs in the hole and start kneading. Knead until the pasta dough comes together and does not stick to your hands anymore, adding flour or a bit of water where needed. Wrap the dough in some foil and place in the fridge to rest.
Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 200°C. Clean and chop the pumpkin in slices. If you want, you can keep the seeds for another dish. Toss the slices of pumpkin in some olive oil, salt, and black pepper and place on a roasting tray. Place this in the oven and leave to roast for 15-20 minutes, until soft and cooked through.
Now, if you are making your own pasta, take the dough out of the fridge. Roll the dough into thin sheets, either by hand or with a pasta machine, and cut into tagliatelle.
In a small frying pan, heat a thin layer of olive oil. Chop the sage leaves into thin strips and add to the hot oil. Fry for around 2 minutes, until crisp. Take the sage out of the pan and put to the side on a bit of kitchen paper.
Place a large pot with salted water over a high heat to get it to boil for the pasta. In another small pot, melt the tablespoon of butter over a medium fire. Once melted and starting to foam, add a heaped tablespoon of flour. Using a whisk, mix this very well. Keep whisking and cooking the butter and flour mixture for around 4 minutes. Then, carefully add the milk and keep whisking for a minute or two until the mixture thickens up: a thick roux should be the result. Take the pot off the fire, add the grated cheese into the roux, and mix well. Add a splash of the boiling pasta water to loosen up the mixture. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. In the meantime the pasta water should be boiling. Add the tagliatelle and cook for around 4 minutes, until al dente. Using a pasta spoon or two forks, add the tagliatelle straight from the boiling water in the cheese sauce.
When serving, place the pasta in the middle of your plate with the pumpkin around. Pour a few drops of balsamic vinegar on each piece of pumpkin. Serve with the fried sage.