Massimo Bottura’s restaurant in northern Italy, Osteria Francescana, is ranked No. 3 in the world. While Italy’s best chef redefines his country’s cuisine, Bottura is, above all, a champion of his region. With the release of his new book, Never Trust A Skinny Italian Chef, and on the eve of his visit to Australia, Sally Webb spent a day with the svelte chef in his famous home town, Modena.
Massimo Bottura is pouring balsamic vinegar from a long glass syphon into my cupped hands. The dark liquid is viscous and sticky. He encourages me to taste it, to stick my mouth in and slurp it up. “Drink it, drink it,” he urges.
It is incredible: sharp but sweet and syrupy with an underlying complexity and acidity. It bears no resemblance to the ubiquitous vinegar sold in Australian supermarkets under the balsamic moniker.
“You see? What did I tell you?” He smiles knowingly.
He moves to another barrel and does the same thing. The vinegar this time – his own as I discover – is more viscous, more concentrated and more complex.
We are in the attic of the Consorteria dell’Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale just outside Modena, in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. The 18th century palazzo doubles as a museum devoted to the history and production of balsamic vinegar, one of Modena’s great culinary gifts to the world. This loft is a repository of the liquid black gold that matures in wooden barrels over decades – traditional Aceto Balsamico must be aged for at least 12 years to qualify as the real thing – for a few select families and groups, including Bottura himself.
To develop and mature balsamic vinegar needs distinct variations of temperature which the loft space (as well as hundreds of family attics throughout the region) provides. “It’s like a magic thing that sleeps during the winter and gets crazy during summer,” says Bottura.
Very few people have unfettered access to this priceless repository, but Massimo Bottura is no ordinary person when it comes to Modena and the gastronomy of which the city is justifiably proud.
According to the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants List, Bottura’s Osteria Francescana is the third best restaurant in the world, and has been in the top six since 2010. It also has three Michelin stars. In some ways you could say Bottura’s done for contemporary Italian fine dining what Luciano Pavarotti and Enzo Ferrari (Modena’s other famous sons) did for opera singing and fast cars respectively.
National treasure and international culinary superstar he may be but at his heart Bottura is a local champion, passionate about supporting and promoting his region, and it’s for this reason that he’s agreed to spend a day showing me around.
When a series of earthquakes struck Modena and surrounding regions in May 2012, killing 26 people and causing enormous damage, Bottura was one of the most vocal high-profile identities to raise awareness, both domestically and internationally, of the extent of the problem. Producers of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese – Modena’s other culinary treasure – were particularly badly affected, with 37 cheese factories damaged and more than 600,000 wheels of cheese destroyed.
In the 12 months following the disaster, Bottura was involved with 25 charity events to raise reconstruction funds and help these people rebuild their shattered lives and businesses. When I visit one of Bottura’s four parmesan suppliers, the esteem in which the chef is held is evident.
A visit to the markets
It’s also obvious later when we visit Modena’s covered market. Dressed in chef’s whites, black jeans and sneakers, Bottura and his wife Lara, originally from New York, rove through the stalls. The Art Nouveau Albinelli market is considered one of Italy’s most beautiful and would be one of the city’s great tourist sights, if there were more tourists. Today, I seem to be the only one.
“Ciao Max!” the stallholders call. He is clearly well known and well loved, and his enthusiasm for their produce is palpable. “I trained to be a gourmet from when I was three,” he claims.
He picks up handfuls of local cherries from Vignola, and gets me to sample them. He takes me to the “bio” (organics) stall, where he buys much of his organic produce, pointing out agretti (or saltwort, a sea succulent) which is only available in spring. Fishmongers sell scallops as big as saucers and fish labelled with the sea it comes from.
We tuck into delectable fritelle di baccala (salt cod fritters) at Gastronomia Fratelli Manzini, where deli staples such as salted anchovies, olives and dried porcini are displayed like jewels and the sun-dried tomatoes make me rethink my prejudices.
He leads me to a tiny bar and sandwich shop tucked into the corner of the market which has been a fixture since the 1960s but was recently taken over by Sara, who used to work as a chef in the Osteria Francscana kitchen. She serves panini filled with thick slices of cotechino, a juicy boiled pork sausage and another Modena specialty, with lashings of acidic salsa verde.
Bottura is as excited by this as he would be seeing one of his sous chefs receiving a Michelin star. “She’s bringing a slice of Modena’s gastronomic history back to life, wrapped up in a bread roll,” he tells me proudly.
Combining tradition and innovation is what defines Bottura.
“I see tradition from 10 kilometres away,” he tells me, “because you need distance to think about continuity, longevity and terroir.”
Tradition, for Bottura, is a point of departure not a point of arrival. He likes to talk about “tradition in evolution”.
A meal at Osteria Francescana
This philosophy is evident during an extraordinary degustation at Osteria Francescana, in a simple room, dramatically lit and sparsely decorated with carefully chosen contemporary art works (a passion that Bottura and his wife share). I eat my way through some of Bottura’s classic dishes; each tells a story about Italian regionality and ingredients, occasionally adding a touch of whimsy and at other times turning tradition on its head. The highlights are many.
An amuse bouche of almond granita with a pair of macarons, filled respectively with anchovy and saltwater cream, pays homage to Sicily.
Gently caramelised, almost fluffy eel, is glazed with balsamic from Bottura’s own barrels and accompanied by a smear of polenta sauce; it signifies the journey of the eel from the Adriatic sea inland to Modena.
A rosette of pinkish foam with a chock of briche tastes exactly like a mortadella sandwich; indeed the dish’s name is “Memory of a mortadella sandwich”. There’s a sense of humour at play here.
Bottura’s signature dish – five different ages of Parmigiano Reggiano in five different textures – is quite possibly the best thing I’ve ever eaten in Italy, with cheeses of varying ages, from 24 to 50 months. Subtle flavour variations appear as souffle, air, foam, galette and a creamy sauce. It is astounding.
Parmesan shines again in “The crust”, served in a shot glass, which references Bottura’s time cooking with culinary luminaries Alain Ducasse and Ferran Adria but also the peasant food of his region. The base is a classic French custard (a la Ducasse), the top is a foam of rosemary air that nods to Adria, while the centre is a typical Emilian pasta fagioli dish – of which there would be as many recipes as there are Italian grandmothers. Only Bottura uses the flavoursome parmesan crust, softened through cooking, as a chewy substitute for pasta.
“I’ve sandwiched my nonna between Alain Ducasse and Ferran Adria,” says Bottura cheekily.
Tradition and evolution are at play too in the wine matches. Head sommelier Beppi Palmieri tells me he’s on a search for the avant garde, matching wine, beer, and even a strangely smokey combination of chinotto, Islay single malt whisky and coffee beans to the different dishes. I’m not sure the latter really works but it’s an interesting journey.
The finale of the meal is croccantino of foie gras. It’s kind of like a Golden Gaytime, but much better, with gently spiced foie gras in place of ice cream, chilled and rolled in sweet and salty almonds and hazelnuts.
I take a bite and the pocket of balsamic vinegar in the centre explodes in my mouth; in an instant I’m transported back to that attic, with the sharp, deeply complex vinegar in all its magnificent glory.
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* Massimo Bottura is visiting Sydney for Good Food Month, November 24-25, Melbourne and the Margaret River.
Never Trust A Skinny Italian Chef (Phaidon, $79.95) is out now.
* Sally Webb is an author and the founder of the family-focused food and travel company Travel Without Tears.
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