The plan was to grab chewy almond cookies for breakfast from Stall 94 at Mercato Albinelli and then visit the Ferrari Museum. Who were we kidding? We weren’t looking for cars, we had come to Modena to ogle at mushrooms and if we were really lucky catch a glimpse of maestro Massimo Bottura.
When the first season of Chef’s Table came out, I think it was snowing that day. On snowy days in Toronto there’s nothing better than a soft fleecy blanket, snuggling my feet under Ahmed’s legs and hitting the Netflix and chill button.
In the very first episode of season one, the way Bottura talks about Modena is so poetic. It makes you want to be there, hoping to catch a whiff of balsamic vinegar or Parmigiano magically lingering in the air. Bottura gives us goosebumps when he looks into the camera and says “In my blood, there is balsamic vinegar and my muscles are made with Parmigiano, it is true. It is true,” I turn to Ahmed and say, “Let’s go!” This is how we end up in Italy for the first time.
We had only been in the market a couple of minutes when Ahmed spotted the mushrooms and the lady who sells them. You could say they’re the Ferrari edition of mushrooms. This is the first trace of Bottura’s sillage, the impression left in space after someone has been and gone.
After some focaccia-of-the-day at Bar Schiavoni, I realise how easily I could live Modena someday. In some way it reminds me of the Isle of Man. It reminds me of my hometown. Every other person seems to be calling out to someone they know across the paved streets. The cafes are filling up with the Modenese looking for for a breezy coffee and/or a glass of red wine on this fine Saturday morning. Like most of Italy, there is an ease in Modena. In other places of the world that may breed contempt but here it breathes.
As much as we want to dawdle, we’ve got to pick up our pace. The girl at Bar Schiavoni has told us where to go for authentic balsamic vinegar downtown. This is where we find the body and blood of Bottura, slabs of Parmigiano and thick syrupy balsamic vinegar that have been aged according to tradition.
The square alive with a market, an orchestra playing music in Cafe Concerto and a newly wed couple gives us a spot to absorb Modena a little more before heading to Franceschetta 58 for lunch. We’re hoping to go to Osteria Francescana someday, when fortune and luck favours us a little more than it already has.
Franceschetta 58’s tasting menu is aptly named, Tradition in Evolution. I don’t want to leave, I always want food to taste like this. Outside we bump into one of Franceschetta 58’s chefs who tells us that Bottura is actually in Japan. Still, we decide to walk off lunch by heading over to see the world’s best restaurant (if only from the outside).
By now it’s late afternoon. It’s so quiet and peaceful that Ahmed and I talk in whispers as we get closer to Osteria Francescana. The stillness in the cobbled streets feels like a respectful silence for what goes on in this alleyway. One that acknowledges there are artists at work.
There are a couple of chefs hanging out in one of the balconies. I want to call out to them, befriend them and get as close to magic but don’t. I get the sense that through the doors of Osteria Francescana lies the foodie equivalent of Narnia. Bottura may not be in town, but he’s here. The same way perfume sits on our skin, even when it’s not there, it’s there. The fragrance or the memory of it has left it’s impression on you forever.