A foodie in Modena - English version

A new year! New opportunities! But first I want to pay tribute to my most inspirational foodie-moment of last year: the trip to Modena! Because if there’s one thing that has stayed with me, it’s the connecting capacity of food. Food can build bridges between cultures, languages and traditions. Therefore, this month of January no break or diet for me, but a passionate focus on food! Because life's all about connecting!

I went to Modena with Elwin de Veld of Slijperij of J.M. van Rangelrooij, to document his visit to the most famous kitchen of Italy, the kitchen of the Michelin starred restaurant ‘Osteria Francescana’. He went there to share his knifeknowledge, to share his knowledge on sharpening and share his passion for his profession with the brigade of Michelin star chef Massimo Bottura.

Mercato Albinelli

Modena through the eyes of a foodie

In the time that preceded the trip I read everything I could find about Osteria Francescana, Massimo Bottura and Modena. I watched a great documentary (Chef’s Table on Netflix) and was fascinated by the way of working of this chef. I was curious about the restaurant. I was wondering if we would be able to meet the chef himself and whether it would be possible to feel the magic of this kitchen in the short time we would be inside. If I would be able to catch the moment on film. The thought of being able to stand in the middle of the kitchen from where all the special dishes originated from and from where the plates are being served to the restaurant, gave me jitters and shaking knees, because I wanted to capture the moment but knew its success would depend on of a lot of things.

Night had already fallen when we arrived in Modena. It is a beautiful town, located in the heart of the Emilia Romagna region, with a narrow centre and few tourists. Actually, you are immediately immersed in Italian life and you are surrounded by locals and the Italian language. And I’m not able to speak Italian! I’m really a language freak (and a bit of a control freak;-)), so I nabbed two Italian dictionaries and got a list of great tips by foodie ‘Bacon is Magic’ including useful phrases in restaurants (Thank you Ayngelina)! Hey ... I would be fine ;-) I learned one Italian word by heart: ‘Vorrei’... which means something like ‘I want’ (and then point out whatever it was I would want). But in the rollercoaster journey called Modena, I forgot to take my dictionaries with me on the first night, so we were lucky that one of the waiters of the authentic Modenese restaurant Di Danillo, where we ate on the evening of arrival, spoke some English. He conjured local specialties on the table. Gnocco Fritto, Parmigiano-Reggiano with balsamic vinegar, Prosciutto di Parma, Lambrusco, tortellini, tortelloni, tarts, Barozzi cake, a roll filled with mascarpone and Nocino, a special walnut liqueur. Oh my... Italy turned out to be my new favorite country!

Modena by Night!

Food at restaurant Di Danillo

The beautiful B&B Quartopiano

Lunch! At Generi Alimentari Da Panino!

A special meet & greet

We discussed our approach for the next day and walked through the arcaded streets and the main square back to the B&B. In one of the quiet, yellow lighted streets we met a man and woman who were standing on the sidewalk holding a large open beaten menucard of the restaurant Osteria Francescana between them. A bit of a surreal experience. Firstly, because the menu seemed a bit large (not attributable to the Nocino ;-)) and secondly because our whole trip was about this restaurant and we just had fantasized about what it would be like to actually be able to eat there. Now we saw two people who REALLY! had experienced that and we ‘attacked’ them with a torrent of questions. The two seemed rather overwhelmed by our enthusiasm. After we enumerated a list of all possible dishes served in Osteria Francescana, to find out what dish they liked best, they were convinced that this was not a robbery and we got talking. A foodie-meet & greet on the sidewalks of Modena! The man was an Italian cook and he and his girlfriend from London had visited an impressive list of Michelin starred restaurants. Osteria Franscescana had made them very enthusiastic. The food was brilliant, but above all the atmosphere had been special. ‘Genuine and friendly.’ The ‘Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart’ was her favorite. He could not choose. Every dish was perfect.

Should you be Italian to experience the layeredness of the courses of Osteria Francescana?

The question that had been on my mind since the preparation of the trip, seemed to be made for this international couple: ‘Should you be Italian to experience the layeredness of the courses of Osteria Francescana?’ Because Massimo Bottura transformed old Italian cuisine into new dishes, it might be necessary to know how the real classics tasted to better understand the wink or development? Take ‘Tortellini walking into the broth’. While the old classic Modenese recipe is a bowl full of tortellini in a fragrant broth, Massimo Bottura put Modena and Italy upside down when he came with his version of the dish: a dish with only six tortellino (plural of tortellini) on a plate. The six tortellino of Massimo Bottura bring you right back to the time he took shelter under the kitchen table as little boy, hiding from his big brothers, while his grandmother rolled tortellini and occasionally one tortellini fell from the table. Really experiencing the course, precisely because there is no overwhelming amount of food, and to find a concentration of the real foundation of this recipe within the scarcity, is perhaps only given to those who can remember how their grandmother rolled tortellini? To those who know how things work in an Italian household and have grown up with the consolation that a bowl of tortellini can bring? Not necessarily. According to the English girl it was an overwhelming a dish, also for a non-Italian. It was also possible to experience how special the courses are without knowledge. Of course, the knowledge of the classics playes a role, but her Italian husband confirmed that it was not a necessity. Because the dish is reduced to a small amount with intense flavor and essence, it is a more intense experience. An experience that stays with you. Time freezes and you pay attention. Judging by the English girl, you can experience the essence, if you are open to the message of Massimo Bottura, even if you’re not Italian. If you know why a dish moves you, you can move others. A special chef can. According to the Italian guy and English girl the dining at Osteria Francescana was a special experience. It was experiencing food as art.

Filming in the kitchen of Massimo Bottura

After this particular meeting it felt extra special to enter the kitchen of Osteria Francescana the next day. We were in the kitchen between lunch and dinner and could just see how the finishing touches were finalized on the ‘Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart’ plates which were being served as the last course of lunch. Pastry/Sous chef Takaico Kondo served identical plates (to perfection) with apparently ‘fallen’ lemon tarts. Oh how I wanted to taste that dish!

With video camera and still camera around my neck and two Iphones ready in my pockets, I maneuvered myself between the benches of the kitchen to capture how Elwin de Veld explained to the brigade of Osteria Francescana how to well grind Japanese knives on a wetstone, explaining the ways you handle knives with proper care and sharing his knowledge about the different types of knives and the importance of cutting with the knife that works best for you. The tremendous focus, attention and interest of the brigade, to absorb all the shared knowledge, was special. We could see that this is a close group that works together like a family, helping each other and grant each other things. It felt special. Elwin de Veld shared his passion for his profession with passionate cooks, who understand the importance of good knives more than anyone. “Why is it so quiet in my kitchen?” With that announcement and a smile on his face the Michelin star chef entered the kitchen. Massimo Bottura filled the kitchen with energy. The energy and power of someone who represents his work, his brigade, his oeuvre. Someone who leads his brigade, with the best interest in those who want to contribute, grow and work on something special. A man who shares his energy with others. We spent a lot of time in the kitchen, much longer than planned, longer than we had hoped for! Lara Gilmore (Massimo Bottura’s wife and great power behind Osteria Francescana) also dropped by to see what was going on in the kitchen. Cool!

It’s a wrap! Once done with the masterclass knife-sharpening, filming, and after a cheery photo session with Elwin, the brigade and Massimo Bottura on the doorstep of the restaurant, we took the suitcases full of knives and the backpack full of camera equipment with us into the maze of streets in already darkened Modena. High five! What an experience! Very special. We brought our stuff to the B&B and walked to the restaurant one of the staff members of Osteria Francescana had advised us. We toasted to celebrate the great day and I was able (for the first and last time on this trip) to use my favorite Italian word: “Vorrei Aperol Spritz per favore!”

Curious about the result?! Please take a look at my videos ‘On the cutting edge with Massimo Bottura’ and ‘A foodie in Modena’ on my Vimeo account Foodie Records, or right below. Divertiti!