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If you follow my work, you’ll know by now that I am passionate about people who are passionate about what they do. People who create new work and who preserve old traditions. People who wake up before first light to go gathering and who spend all day in the humid confines of markets. This time, it was local food producers in Emilia Romagna.

While I was exploring this Italian region known for its traditional gastronomy, I got to meet local producers of balsamic vinegar and Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan cheese), makers of salami, Parma ham, and mortadella, as well as Lambrusco wine producers. Many of whom have been doing this on a generational-level for over 150 years.

As part of the relatively new Discover Ferrari & Pavarotti Land route which runs from April to October, there are six shuttle routes which crisscross the region between the cities of Bologna and Modena, and the towns of Sassuolo, Maranello, Lesignana, and Nonantola. For those who don’t want to rent a car, these shuttles stop at various producers within the region including several museums such as Museo Ferrari (The Ferrari Museum), Casa Museo Luciano Pavarotti (late tenor Pavarotti’s home), and MUSA – which is a museum dedicated to the art of charcuterie by family-run Villani.
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Hopping aboard the shuttle at Bologna train station, it was a smooth, much-appreciated air-conditioned ride past green rolling hills, vineyards, and inter farmlands until I got to the Ferrari Museum which acts as the central hub for transferring onto other routes.

Here was my route through photos.

The Wine Maker – Cleto Chiarli

I’d already mapped out my gastronomical route with the first stop being at a winery. Cleto Chiarli is the oldest winery in Emilia Romagna and was founded in 1860. This family-run business has passed through five generations and is world-renown for its Lambrusco wines made from red Lambrusco grapes endemic to the region.

It was where I got to meet Mattia, an Italian sommelier in training originally from Reggio Emilia and the vibrant Gianni, the vineyard’s resident gardener and landscaper, who picked out his best rose for me. Mattia guided us through the vineyard’s history, through the wine-making and labeling process, as well as poured out samples for us to try.

Local food producers in Emilia Romagna
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Acetaia Malpighi Balsamic Vinegar

It was when I arrived at Acetaia Malpighi that I truly realized I’d been doing balsamic vinegar all wrong. Eating it improperly. Storing it in a blasphemous way. Whatever we buy in grocery stores is seriously not “traditional” balsamic vinegar. The Malpighi family is one of the oldest producers of traditional balsamic vinegar in the Modena region; operating since 1850. Visiting their old vinegar cellars where barrels of vinegar were already being aged like wine for decades felt surreal.

Balsamic vinegar is made by reducing and aging cooked white Trebbiano grapes and the longer the process, the darker the vinegar until it takes on a thick syrupy consistency. A thick syrup I call sweet nectar of the gods!

Balsamic vinegar – the real thing – has been produced in Modena and Reggio Emilia since as far back as the Middle Ages. Think 1000s.

For balsamic vinegar to be called “traditional”, it needs to be aged a minimum of 12 years. And the good stuff is worth waiting for. I got to sample a variety; from younger vinegars infused with figs, citrus, saffron, and apple flavors to the older mature vinegars that are usually served over ice cream, crumbly parmesan cheese, and risotto. One of its most expensive traditional bottles was being sold at €800.

I bought three bottles (of the much cheaper, young vinegars) and I’m still kicking myself for not buying more.

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Parma ham, salami, and mortadella at MUSA

MUSA – The Charcuterie Museum – was an intriguing place. Not because it was paying homage to cured meats in all their glory. But because of how beautifully and efficiently it laid out its relatively small exhibition space. Operating since 1886 making it the oldest family-run Italian charcuterie company, Villani Salumi has been producing high quality charcuterie products such as salami and cured meats. This exquisite little museum in Castelnuovo Rangone is housed in a small part of the company’s factory, alongside a store where you can sample and buy freshly made products, condiments, and accompaniments.

Packed into its modest space are displays showing some of the “secret” spices and herbs used in its products such as black and white pepper, chili pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, and juniper, a vibrant map along one wall illustrating various key locations within the region, information about the trussing process  before encasing the sausages or smoked meats, and other interactive displays.

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Where Parmigiano Reggiano is born – 4 Madonie Caseifico dell’Emilia

75,000 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan Cheese) pass through the doors of 4 Madonie Caseifico dell’Emilia every year. Each wheel is made from 600 liters of organic milk from two types of cows. Its 65 member farms combined produce 40 million liters of milk per year. Local red cows (Vacche Rosse) produce 15-18 liters of milk per day each, and your stereotypical black and white dairy cows produce 25-30 liters per day.

Add all these together and you’ve got one of the most impressive cheese production machines in the world, accounting for 2% of the world’s Parmesan cheese alone.

Visiting this factory which was built in 1967 was visually jarring (in a very good way) for me as a photographer. The name, 4 Madonie Caseifico dell’Emilia, comes from a shrine in Lesignana which depicts four Madonnas on its four sides. Watching the wheels being manually tendered for, flipped, and rested in what I called a “cheese baby nursery”, soaked for months in a brine solution, and aged alongside 33,750 more wheels in its warehouse, I left with a whole new appreciation for the love and process behind producing such an iconic traditional cheese on a massive scale in a very manual and labor intensive manner. I happened to also be visiting when quality control checks were being made by hitting each wheel with a hammer and gauging the audio feedback to assess if it was aging nicely or if it needed to be cast aside.

In my opinion, pure wizardry.

Jokes aside, being in that warehouse amidst thousands of wheels of cheese was an out of body experience.

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Oldest balsamic vinegar in the world – Guiseppe Giusti

My final stop on the tour was to the oldest balsamic vinegar company in the world, Giuseppe Giusti, named after its creator. It was founded in 1605 – yes, the early 1600s, four centuries old – and is currently being run by the 17th generation of the Giusti family. Guiseppe Giusti was the official supplier to the King of Italy in 1929, and supplied vinegar to the Duke of Modena and several popes within the Roman Catholic Church.

Its oldest vinegar has been aging since 1700.  So I was treading on ground so steeped in history I felt those wooden barrels were watching my every move. Chestnut, mulberry, oak, cherry, and various types of wood which enhance the flavors of black gold they held. Its balsamic vinegar are aged in antique wooden casks dating back to 1600-1700s                 .

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By the time I was done touring these various local producers in Emilia Romagna, I left with a renewed appreciation for craft, for savoring, and for respecting the hard work and enduring patience that goes into artisan foods.

And now I never look at balsamic vinegar the same way.

You can view more photos of local food producers in Emilia Romagna in my Italy image bank.

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How to experience this itinerary yourself

The Discover Ferrari and Pavarotti Land project is a well-designed independent tour where you hop on and off at various locations outlined in the map above which include Ferrari and its museums, the Pavarotti House and Museum, traditional gourmet balsamic vinegar, parmesan cheese, Lambrusco wine and cured meats producers, as well as the city of Modena and the towns of Maranello, Sassuolo, and Nonantola. You can catch the starting buses at both Bologna and Modena train stations.

You purchase a personal microchipped “passport” which is valid for 48 hours and costs €60/adult, €30/youth up to 18 years. It can be extended at a cost of €25 per day.

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I was traveling around and exploring the region of Emilia Romagna, Italy, as part of the award-winning BlogVille campaign.