Aged balsamic vinegar from Hombre
Less than 2 months ago, Hub brought us to the Osteria Francescana in Modena for my birthday. Believe it or not, we were back in the restaurant last night, this time with a couple who are notables of the city and who kindly offered us a memorable and very interesting evening out.
We were late turning up at Hombre - an organic farm that produces very good Parmesan cheese in Modena. We had no idea what we were doing there, having followed a car in front of us all the way from a factory in Formigine. When you do things like that in the cold and the dark, it felt a little like in the movies e.g. illegal, exciting and dangerous. Except that the Alfa Romeo in front was driven by an old man who looked nothing at all like James Bond.
At the Hombre farm, we were greeted by another old man and his big dog. He walked us to a warehouse, opened the door and turned on the lights. And we saw an amazing collection of vintage Maseratis and a few other cars, and also an amazing collection of old motocycles.
An example of a Panini sticker collection
That was the Panini Museum and our old guide was Umberto Panini himself. As the evening progressed, we would learn more about this amazing man who was a meccanic, inventor and former owner of the Panini Group that is famous worldwide for its collectible stickers, cards, figurines, books etc. How many of us have been coerced into buying packets and packets of stickers during say the World Cup so that our sons could stick them on some book or exchange them with their friends during their breaks?
The car collection in the museum has an interesting story behind it. To make it brief, the Maserati Museum wasn't included in the sale of Maserati to the Fiat Group and the cars in it were about to end up being sold in the UK when Umberto Panini decided at the last minute to buy it and save the Maseratis from leaving Modena and Italy. Many of them were lovingly restored and so they now sit in this specially-built museum just next to the organic Parmesan cheese factory owned by the Paninis.
We were supposed to be given a private tour of the factory too but turned up late because Hub had a meeting and the factory was closed when we arrived. But Umberto kindly offered us a generous slice of his famous cheese and also a bottle of the family's aged (25 year-old) balsamic vinegar!
Turned out that our host and Umberto Panini are old friends, in fact, the former is passionate about photography and publishes his own photo books. A number of them would include the latter hammering barrels of cheese to test its maturity etc. Modena is a small world and they all know each other, from Montezemolo to Pavarotti, Panini and of course our host.
We then had dinner at the Francescana and this time we ordered a la carte as our host and his wife preferred to eat Modenese food even when we were in one of the best restaurants in the world. I had duck liver to start followed by a scampi pasta and a lobster in Riesling mousse. The food was excellent as usual, though I was so busy trying to listen to our hosts and make conversation in Italian that I couldn't remember having any particular sensations about the dishes.
We were given a summary of Umberto Panini's life and adventures (our host is obviously not only a friend but also a fan), discussed balsamic vinegar making, had a quick run-down of Modena and Ferrara's history and spent quite a bit of time exchanging pet stories (not that I have ever had a pet - but thank God my parents and my siblings have a few). It was a surprisingly informative and interesting evening and we were the very last to leave the restaurant (after the Chef himself) so much we have enjoyed each other's company.
I feel very lucky. Just a few weeks from leaving Modena, I have finally been offered a bottle of the traditional balsamic vinegar and by such an important person himself. I am now ready to leave, and to do so with fond memories of this city. Of its notables and its cuisine. But of course also of my wonderful friends who though not particularly illustrous (nor harbouring barrels of the precious vinegar), are notables of the city that is my heart and whose kindness I will bring with me and hope to fall back on as I face a new city, country and life ahead of me.
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