Acid flashback: memories of balsamic vinegar and Faith Heller Willinger's Adventures of an Italian Food Lover
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.
There, arrayed on the shelves, was a collection of balsamics unlike any we've seen before or since. After discussing our options with the shopkeeper, we settled on a twenty-five year old vinegar. We brought it home to Toronto, using it sparingly here and there: on roasted vegetables, grilled meat, fresh fruit or ice cream, or sometimes just on its own, the best way to savour the amazing complexity of this treasure. Almost four years later, it has, sadly, run out. The empty bottle still sits in a cupboard -- the sentimental fool in me can't bear to throw it out.
I approach cookbooks, especially Italian ones, with a similar affection, so when Ivonne of Cream Puffs in Venice and Catherine of A Blithe Palate offered me a chance to cook from Faith Heller Willinger's newest cookbook, Adventures of an Italian Food Lover, I jumped at the chance. The task was simple: make a recipe and share it with friends or loved ones, drawing on past experience for inspiration.
Perfect. A good cookbook, Italian or otherwise, is a gastronomic photo album, each recipe a snapshot summoning memories of people, places, and unforgettable meals. Willinger's latest cookbook draws this connection explicitly: each recipe, though introduced by Willinger, is actually a creation of one of the many friends she has met eating and drinking throughout Italy. As a result this cookbook also functions as a guidebook to some of Italy's finest restaurants, food shops, and artisanal producers. It helps, of course, if the reader brings to the book a set of experiences that complement the themes explored in the recipes. When I read the recipe for stewed bell peppers with balsamic vinegar, contributed by producers of traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena, I knew immediately it was a dish I had to make because it reminded me of that day in Bologna and my gift to Rachel.
It's a gift we now share with others. We ate this meal with our close friend Ryan. I served the peppers, drizzled with our finest balsamic, as an antipasto. On its own or layered on crostini, the sweetness of the peppers and vinegar shine, balanced by a delicate acidity. Our main course was equally delicious, showcasing simple ingredients in classic Italian style -- spaghetti with olive oil and parmesan, followed by a dessert of homemade ricotta served with a variety of sweet toppings: Nutella, honey. and a ruby syrup made from stewed strawberries and rhubarb. Both of those recipes came from the book as well, the toppings for the latter modified to suit both our tastes and the ingredients at hand.
The balsamic we drizzled on our sweet peppers for Ryan is even older than the one I bought for Rachel in Bologna. It too is a gift. When we visited New York two years ago, we found some seventy-five year old balsamic vinegar at Dean & DeLuca. Since we were already running low on the balsamic from Bologna, I splurged on yet another present for her. It's already creating as many good memories for us as the first bottle.