Modena is a province in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy and it has been inhabited since the prehistoric era by various ethnic groups, whose traces are in the archaeological finds. According to some Roman historians and to archaeological finds, the area was once occupied by the Etruscans and the Celts. It was the period of the great Roman expansion and in 187 BC, the route, via Emilia, from Rimini to Piacenza, was built. Four years later, in 183 BC, the Roman colony of Mutina was founded. Like all the Roman towns of the period, it was square, with two perpendicular main streets. In 78 BC, Modena was besieged during the civil wars and just six years later, in 72 BC, Spartacus won a battle against Cassio Longino there. However, the most important historical event that occurred in Roman Modena was the battle of Modena. After Caesar’s assassination, Brutus decided to take refuge in the city but he could do nothing against the army sent from Rome.
A really dark age began for Modena in the centuries after Christ’s birth, suffering like many other Italian cities after the fall of the Roman Empire. At the end of the IV century, the bishop and Patron Saint of Milan, Ambrogio, passing through the area near Modena, could not help noticing the decay of the previous thriving community. In the VIII century conditions improved by the foundation of Nonantola Abbey and the building of city walls around the cathedral.
The Renaissance was for Modena, as for the rest of Italy, a period of great cultural development. Modena became a European capital and the center for the Emilia region. For this reason, when after the French Revolution Napoleon conquered Italy, he chose Modena as his headquarters. It was also a period of great upheaval and the Congress of the Cispadane Republic was held in Modena, followed by the approval of the Constitution and by elections. Also, at this time, the Italian flag as we know it today (green, white and red) was raised.
When this Republic fell, in 1799, Modena was conquered by the Austrians and then re-occupied by the French. Napoleon returned in the city as Emperor in 1805. When the Napoleonic era ended, in 1814 the Austro Duke Francesco IV entered Modena to govern during the period called the Restoration. Those years were a good time for Modena, though the conservatism of the Duke repressed cultural life. During that era, many edifices were built that are still standing in Modena today.
Following the Unification of Italy, Modena was downgraded to a city and a less interesting period began for the area. Modena, Italy, is a study in contrasts. The inner city is a perfectly preserved medieval town with cobblestone streets and one of Italy’s most striking cathedrals, while the outer city is a modern industrial business park of factories and industry.
Modena is also one of northern Italy’s culinary capitals and is famous for not only its high quality balsamic vinegar, which is exported all over the world, but for its Vignola cherries, Modenese Ham and Nocino, a bitter liqueur made from the husks of walnuts.
Modena is known for its stuffed pastas, like cannelloni and tortellini, which are usually stuffed with pork and Parmesan cheese, and for its heavily spiced pork sausages. The local Lambrusco red wine is inexpensive and goes with most Modenese dishes.
Balsamic Vinegar has been made and used in Modena for centuries. While no one seems to know quite how many, the first documentation about this product can be found in 1046. It appears to have been used for just about everything, from a disinfectant to an aid for digestion. In the archives of Modena, on public view, is a wine list from a secret Ducal cellar dated 1747 and balsamic vinegar is listed alongside the wine. There are writings from 1508, recalling balsamic vinegar and talking about it in the court of the Duke of Modena, who was Lucrezia Borgia’s husband. Small casks were given to new brides in Modena and the tradition continues today.
Balsamic vinegar is not made from wine, like regular vinegar, but from the must (cooked liquid from grapes) of the Trebbiano or Lambrusco grapes. The grapes are slowly cooked to create a concentrate, which is then aged for a minimum of 12 years in wooden barrels. The barrels vary in size and are made from different woods, from the largest to the smallest usually oak, cherry, chestnut, mulberry, ash and juniper. The newly reduced must is placed in the largest barrel and as the evaporation process each year reduces the content in the barrels, each is topped off with content from the next largest one. It is a long and laborious process that yields a syrupy product, whose taste is a perfect balance of acidity and sweetness. Only balsamic vinegar that has gone through this process can be labeled” tradizionale”.
To find the best product, look closely at the ingredient list. The first ingredient should be the must of grapes and not vinegar. Caramel should not be listed as an ingredient, nor should there be added flavorings either natural or artificial. Also, look for a bottle that says that it has been aged in wooden barrels, as sometimes “aged in wood” simply means that wooden chips were added as the vinegar ages. The price tag will be revealing: aceto balsamico tradizionale is sold for many hundred dollars per liter. Some traditional producers will put on the market a diluted version of balsamic for a much more reasonable price tag that will not carry the word tradizionale on the label.
Meat dishes are delicious with aceto balsamico, but one of the best pairings for it is with slices of Parmigiano Reggiano- as well as other aged cheeses. It is also good drizzled over strawberries or ice cream.
Cannelloni Modena Style
For the pasta
- 7 oz all-purpose flour
- 2 eggs
For the sauce
- 3/4 lb lean ground pork
- 1 carrot
- 1 onion, small
- 1 stalk celery
- 1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
- 2 oz prosciutto, chopped
- 1 oz dried porcini mushrooms
- 4 tomatoes, chopped
- ½ cup dry white wine
- 1 oz all-purpose flour
- Nutmeg to taste
- 3 oz butter, plus extra for the baking dish
- ½ cup tomato (pasta) sauce
- 3 ½ oz grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
- Salt and pepper to taste
Place the dried mushrooms in a bowl of warm water. Let soak for 20 minutes
To make the cannelloni pasta
Place the flour on a flat work surface and shape it into a well. Add the eggs in the center and incorporate the flour into the eggs by hand. Alternatively, you can use a food processor. Work the dough until it is smooth and even, then let it rest for 20 minutes covered with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap.
Use a rolling-pin or pasta machine to roll out the dough into very thin sheets. Cut them into 4-inch squares. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Once boiling, add 2 or 3 pasta squares at a time and cook for about 30 seconds.
Once the squares have been cooked, remove them from the water and place them on a damp cloth to cool. Repeat with all the squares.
To make the sauce
Finely chop the carrot, onion and celery. Place a pan over medium heat and add the butter to the pan. Once the butter has melted, add the chopped vegetables and chopped parsley. Cook until the onion becomes translucent. Next add the ground pork to the pan. Stir and let brown for a couple of minutes, then add the chopped prosciutto and previously soaked mushrooms. Season with salt, pepper and a pinch of nutmeg.
Cook for a couple of minutes, then add the wine and cook for 20 minutes or until the sauce has thickened. Stir the sauce while adding the flour. Also add chopped tomatoes and the tomato sauce. Cook for over medium heat for an additional 40 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool.
Place a tablespoon of the sauce in the center of each pasta square. Roll the squares (jelly roll style to make the cannelloni.
Place the cannelloni in a single layer in a baking dish greased with butter. Cover the cannelloni with the remaining sauce, top with the grated Parmigiano Reggiano and small pieces of butter.
Bake the cannelloni in a 350°F for about 20 minutes or until they are brown and the filling is hot.
Pollo di Modena
4 to 6 servings
- 2 1/2 to 3 pounds chicken, cut into serving pieces
- 1 cup balsamic vinegar
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon fresh sage, shredded
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
In a large, non-reactive bowl, mix together the chicken, vinegar, garlic and sage. Refrigerate and marinate for at least 1 hour or up to 8 hours.
Remove the chicken from the marinade, reserving the marinade. Pat the chicken dry and season with the salt and pepper.
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Saute the chicken in batches until browned on all sides.
Reduce heat to medium-low and return all the chicken to the pot. Pour in the reserved marinade and bring to a low boil. Reduce heat to low, cover tightly and simmer for 40 to 50 minutes, turning the pieces occasionally. Add a little water if necessary to keep the marinade from drying out.
Remove the chicken to a serving platter. Adjust the seasoning of the sauce and pour it over chicken. Serve with good crusty bread and a salad.
Asparagi alla Parmigiana
Asparagi alla parmigiana is a springtime favorite in northern Italy.
- Asparagus, trimmed — 2 pounds
- Butter, cut into pieces — 3 tablespoons
- Parmesan cheese, grated — 2/3 cup
- Salt and pepper — to taste
Preheat oven to 450°F. Butter a shallow gratin or baking dish that is just large enough to hold the asparagus. Place a layer of asparagus in the dish, with the tips all facing the same direction. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper and some of the cheese. Keep adding layers until all asparagus and all cheese is used, finishing with the cheese.
Dot the top of the dish with the pieces of butter and place the dish on the top rack of the oven. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, or until the asparagus is cooked through and beginning to brown and the cheese is melted.
Serve with cherries, as they do in Modena.
Serves 8 to 10
- 1 cup sliced almonds, toasted on a cookie sheet for 4 minutes in a 350 degree F oven
- 7 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 9 ounces bittersweet chocolate, cut into small pieces
- 4 large eggs, separated
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale (not commercial balsamic vinegar used for salads, but the much more expensive, artisanal version.)
- 1/4 cup coffee
- 2 tablespoons confectioners sugar
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Coat a 9 x 2-inch springform pan with butter, or cooking spray, dust with cocoa, tapping out the excess, and fit a sheet of parchment paper in the base of the pan. Butter the paper. Set the pan aside.
Grind the almonds to a powder in a food processor. Set aside.
Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees F.
Melt the chocolate and butter in a bowl set over hot water.
Beat the yolks and sugar until lemon colored and very fluffy; stir in the almonds, chocolate mixture, rum and coffee. Set aside.
Beat the whites in a separate bowl until soft peaks form. Fold into the chocolate mixture.
Pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center is slightly damp. Do not over bake the cake. It should remain moist.
Remove the pan from the oven and set on a cooling rack. Cool completely. Carefully run a butter knife along the inside edges of the pan and release the spring. Remove the pan sides.
Place the cake on a serving dish. Put the confectioners’ sugar in a small sieve and dust the top of the cake.
Cut into thin wedges to serve.