Sing its praises

No wonder portly Pavarotti was seduced by the food of his home town, writes Catherine Bugeja.

In a country that likes to compare itself to parts of the body, Modena sits smack-bang in the middle of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy; coincidently, right where the stomach would be. Walking through the local food market, I understand why the most famous person born to this rich northern Italian city was an overweight tenor.

Luciano Pavarotti is said to have thought about food all the time and it's no wonder. The grand operatic legend was born in the town with a culinary resume boasting tortellini, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, lambrusco wine and the sweetest vinegar of them all – balsamic.

I notice the rows of tiny bottles housing the thick dark syrup, sitting decoratively on the shelves like ancient spectators to the hustle of the morning market.

Some of the bottles are 50 years old, fermented like a good wine to the consistency of a thick liqueur. It's not unusual for a well-aged balsamic to be sipped as an aperitif.

When I catch a glimpse of the price tag, I understand why you wouldn't want to waste it on a salad. A 100-ml bottle can easily set you back $100.

While it's hard to imagine such a common kitchen companion being so expensive or, for that matter, sipped as a drink – the real thing is a far cry from the stuff stocked in supermarket shelves. And the difference is all in a word.

Bottles branded "tradizionale" are made with the care of an expensive wine and stem from pure white trebbiano grapes – a long way from the factories churning out commercial versions around the world.

But it wasn't until the 1980s that balsamic vinegar was given its passport. Before then, it rarely left Modena, let alone Italy. Production was restricted to families who gave the aromatic liquid as a gift, heirloom or even included it in a woman's dowry. In the Middle Ages it was used as a disinfectant and later as a magical elixir to treat plague. These days it works a different magic in Modena, enchanting pasta dishes, cheeses, meats and even desserts.

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Vinegar isn't the only expensive charm luring visitors to Modena. South-west of the city, a mouth-watering factory feeds a different part of the soul. In the "land of motors", the ultimate toys for grown-ups have their home. Ferrari, Maserati, De Tomaso, Lamborghini; in fact, if your fantasy has four wheels, you're likely to find it here.

Modena is known as the capital of the automotive world thanks to Enzo Ferrari, who transformed the rural town into a production hub for street-legal versions of his custom-built cars in the 1940s. Tourists can drool from factory to museum to test track and private collections with enough petrol-head paraphernalia to make their inner engine hum.

Unlike in Florence and Rome, the prancing black stallion isn't sold on baseball caps and T-shirts around the city. Modena has style and class and leaves the car lovers to their factories.

Instead, the city is unashamedly refined.

There is an undercurrent of upmarket sophistication without pretension – although the residents of Modena are among the richest in Italy. The major designer stores and boutiques have a spectacular backdrop in the Cathedral of Modena. In 1997, the cathedral complex became a UNESCO World Heritage site – a stunning example of early Romanesque art.

It was here that 50,000 mourners farewelled Pavarotti, his voice rolling delicately throughout the streets. Another small gift from this beautiful city to the world.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Modena is an hour by bus from Bologna's Guglielmo Marconi Airport. Buses run every two hours and cost €10 ($16.35). Buses also run from the airport to Bologna railway station, where €5 will get you to Modena in about half an hour.

STAYING THERE

Options are sparse but the Canal Grande Hotel embodies Modena's lavish lifestyle and was formerly a Ducal Palace . Rooms start at €132. Phone +39 059 217 160, see canalgrandehotel.it.

FURTHER INFORMATION

See turismo.comune.modena.it/index-en.php.

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