It seems fitting, in hindsight, that the first gift I gave Rachel after our wedding was a bottle of balsamic vinegar. And not just any old bottle, either. I'm talking about the genuine article, the mahogany ambrosia produced in and around Modena, Italy.
Like many couples, we honeymooned in Italy. Unlike many couples, however, we spent our first week in Bologna. It may seem an odd choice, but Bologna and the surrounding region of Emilia-Romagna are widely considered to be home to the best food in Italy. The region straddles a unique culinary fault line. To the south lies olive oil country, while to the north, butter is the fat of choice. These traditions collide in Emilia-Romagna, where Bologna sits at the epicentre of this culinary earthquake. Rather than choose one fat over another, the bolognesi do what all sensible gluttons would -- eat both -- thus earning themselves the apt moniker, "la grassa," or "Bologna the fat."
After a week of tortelli, squacquerone, and mortadella, we knew why. One night we'd feast on a luscious ragu or bollito misto, the next would be an orgy of truffles. Every meal included yards of pasta fresca, or fresh egg pasta. One particularly memorable meal, at Trattoria da Gianni, included a marvelous cheese plate consisting of nothing more than two of the region's towering culinary achievements: chunks of parmigiano drizzled with balsamic vinegar so intense it tasted more like sharpened honey than vinegar.
That's what makes it special, of course. The finest balsamic is aged for decades in an ever smaller series of wooden barrels, each imparting subtle hints of flavour while further concentrating flavours through evaporation. The result is vinegar in name only, for the finest balsamics taste sweet, with a captivating, but not overwhelming, acidity. This is vinegar that can be sipped like a liqueur, or even enjoyed with dessert. Before we were married, Rachel would sometimes finish a meal with a bowl of strawberries, peaches, or vanilla ice cream drizzled with good balsamic.
But never the best kind. Not the liquid gold christened with the prized Denominazione di Origine Controllata -- the government designation that certifies the origins and quality of traditional Italian food products -- and sold in a bottle so distinctive it looks more appropriate to a sorcerer's workshop than a kitchen. Then we entered a tiny little shop in Bologna on Rachel's birthday, fewer than ten days after our wedding.