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Famous American chef, food writer and seven-times world BBQ champion Melissa Cookston has dedicated us a series titled “Food Artisans” on her blog. This is just… AMAZING!

How did we meet Melissa Cookston?

Pete and Melissa Cookston took our private food tour “Exploring Local Food Artisans” last Summer. This is how they explored the world of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena and the Wines of Bologna Hills, through the heart and the genuine spirit of our food artisans.

A few months later, Pete emailed again and complimented me for the food experience they had with us. They have been impressed by the strong artisanal essence of our tours and by the passionate and sensitive producers they met. He added that they would come back to Italy at the beginning of 2019, and that they would love to explore Emilia Romagna more and take a tour on Parma Culatello, the king of salami, and shoot a series on the food artisans they met.

They want Americans to know about the hard work and the outstanding culture behind these unique food products so famous all over the world.  They want people to know about the truly artisanal side of the Emilia-Romagna region. Foods that cannot be produced on an industrial scale or standardized; foods that come from the soil and from producers’ know-how and love for their homeland. They want to tell the stories of Emilia Romagna. “Thank you SO MUCH Pete!” We couldn’t ask for more, as Emilia Storytellers!

Foodies, food lovers, food bloggers and influencers, wine tourists, and so on, will read in Melissa’s blog the stories of the protagonists of our food tours in the series “The Food Artisans” . On our side, we are ready and excited to take you to their places and taste the best of Parma, Bologna and Modena’s gastronomy, the Food Valley of Italy.

The first episode of the series is titled “Visiting a Real Balsamic Vinegar Factory” – of Modena, allow us to say in this case, because Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia is also a certified traditional balsamic vinegar.

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (TBVM) and of Reggio Emilia (TBVRE) are both PDO-certified products, i.e.  certified with a protected designation of origin. Let us mention that Emilia-Romagna ranks first in Europe with 43 PDO certified products in the agri-food sector.

In very simple words, a PDO-certified product must be originated from a given area, produced, and processed in the same area, and compliant with quite strict and specific production rules.

In short, it is the highest guarantee of quality and origin from a particular area for a food product.

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is unique. It is very “patient” we would say, because vinegar patiently ages in wooden barrels for at least 12 years to be certified as “Affinato”, and 25 years to be certified as “Extra Vecchio”, by the Official Protection Consortium, after due tests on its physical, chemical, and sensory characteristics.

How is it made? The first step is cooking grape juice over an open fire in a cauldron with no cover outdoor. Grapes are commonly Trebbiano grapes and only a few other local grape varieties are allowed. The resulting product is aged in a set of barrels made of different woods and of different sizes, transferred and refilled in cold winter time, and left to evaporate in the hot Emilian summer season.

What is the soul of balsamic vinegar?

It is deeply connected to local traditions. In the past, locals used to give a set of barrels of balsamic vinegar as a dowry at the marriage of a daughter. Today, local producers make balsamic vinegar to continue a very special (and demanding, let us say) job, and pass this tradition to their children and grandchildren thus preserving an important piece of their family story. Modena’s people often have their own set of barrels in the loft of their houses. Last but not least, it must be very gratifying to see such a surprised expression on non-locals’ face tasting traditional balsamic vinegar the first time and perceiving that it is MUCH MORE than vinegar. Or better said, it is not the vinegar normally used to dress salad.

This product is a piece of the Modenese people. In fact, they habitually pair it with several foods to give them a special flavor, such as Parmesan cheese, Vignola cherries, Italian Gelato, Beef fillet, homelette, cherry or plum pie – to mention a few. They use it as a real culinary ingredient, but with parsimony, considering its high cost and sentimental value.

Balsamic vinegar is in fact called the black gold of Modena. It has ancient and noble origins. In the Renaissance, it was often found on Kings and Dukes’ tables, particularly at the Este family from the Dukedom of Modena and Reggio.

Not everybody knows that balsamic vinegar enthusiasts can take it..very seriously! They can become Master Tasters after a long training course at  the “Consorteria dell’Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena”, the body devoted to its promotion and located in the Medieval village of Spilamberto, close to the Museum. Every year, on 24th June, this village hosts the famous “Palio di San Giovanni” contest during the festival of Saint John the Baptist, where anybody (private people, not businesses) can win the prize for the best traditional balsamic vinegar homemade – traditionally lots of people still make it at home just for themselves!

This is the fascinating world that has inspired Pete and Melissa Cookston and that we hope will conquer your heart as well! Come and join our artisanal food tours in Emilia Romagna!

In the meanwhile, let’s stay tuned on for the next episode of the “Food Artisans”!

Katia Perdicaro, Founder of Emilia Storytellers