Read a new blog this morning (DocSconz: Musings on Food and Life) about a father and son traipsing through Italy on a quest for food and family. My last trip to Italy was about ten years ago, but it’s still vivid in my mind as something that greatly affected how I view the way food should be.

During the stay, we travelled around the northern part of Italy, using Turin, home of Martini + Rossi and Chocolate, as our homebase. We took side trips to the Slow Food Conference (Salone del Gusto), where we found ourselves among tables of old vine wines, heirloom vegetables, crates of salted bottarga, mustards, cheeses, vinegars, and every kind of chef representative you could imagine, hired to showcase that product. Travelling halfway around the world to visit and soak everything in, we were outsiders, but we made small talk the best a handful of Midwestern boys could do.

“You guys are from Scotland, are you?”

“Aye. That we are.”

“That’s some fine beer you have.”

“Thank you very much. Where are you from?”

“Wisconsin.”

“Oh, we were just there last week, at your Capital Brewer’s.”

“No way. Do you know the brewmaster, Kirby?”

“Ah, that’s a good guy for you right there.”

And the connection was made. From that point out, we just shot the breeze as a few guys getting together who really enjoyed beer and talking shop.

We met some guys who made Danzy Jones Wysgi Mustard. We asked if they knew of our world famous Mustard Museum,  just down the street from Madison in nearby Mount Horeb, Wisconsin at the time.

They did. The bottle of mustard I dipped from in Italy was one of 3,000 different mustards on display not 10 miles from my point of departure. Some of the artisanal products we saw were available right down the street, albeit in small quantities.

Still, there was yet another layer of products that we sampled that simply wouldn’t taste the same any place outside where they were made. There were cheeses, salumi, and vinegars that we tried that were simply out of this world, but would never survive the journey to American shelves. I only have the memory of them to keep me comforted. I’ve tried the Taleggio here, and the Tomini, and the Stracchino, and although they’re good, nothing compares to what you can get from the source.

The most mysterious cheese, the one that I will never taste in its true form outside of Italy, is Castelmagno. Often a combination of sheep and cow’s milk, its texture is a result of milling the curds during the process, and the result is a barely sliceable, often crumbly nutty cheese with added depth from a molded rind. When I was cooking in the Piemonte region, it was most often used with the Northern Italian staple of gnocchi alla fonduta, as it melted so fine in a saucepan. Sometimes, I miss being able to try it again, but I realize that if I ever saw it in a shop here, it simply wouldn’t be the same. It’s like a good loaf of sourdough-it just doesn’t travel.

Castelmagno

***

Aside from our excursion to the Salone del Gusto, we took day trips to Modena, where we visited the Malpighi House of Balsamic production. I’d call it a plantation, as it had the most beautiful painted frescos in the main house set back from the road behind row upon row of grape vines. We went through the entire process, from how they harvest the grapes, to the crush, past the boiling of the maceration to the slow aging and evaporation of the moisture from the liquid. In the attic of the main house sat row upon row of charred black barrels with a single white napkin covering a small hole at the top. Every year, as the traditionally aged balsamic vinegar reduces by 10%, they rotate it into progressively smaller barrels until they are ready to bottle. At twelve years, the finest balsamic is bottled into tiny receptacles, having reduced to a sugary syrup. For those who have the bottle of balsamic at home, the taste of a traditionally aged, rigorously controlled Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is sweeter and more floral than even a reduced bottle of store-bought. Most commonly, it is used as an accent, or with fresh fruit or cheese.

The Attic at Malpighi

 

Since my visit was so long ago, most of the balsamic vinegar bottled that year is long gone. I know for a fact that half a bottle lives on in my mother’s cupboard at home, still sweet and used ever so sparingly, a drop at a time. However, what was left to further reduce to a 25 year vinegar should be ready about now, and I can only imagine how sweet it would taste.

 

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