An Italian food tour is worth it for the balsamic alone, but fortunately, that's just the beginning

Unique culinary experiences are still one of the most reliable and pleasurable motivators for travel

Sarah Treleaven

[np_storybar title=”” link=””]IF YOU GO

Food tour Intrepid Travel’s nine-day Real Food Adventure departs frequently from Rome, and includes accommodation, some activities and most food from $2,825. intrepidtravel.com

Stay If you are looking to add extra nights, Hotel Hassler Roma (hotelhasslerroma.com), atop the Spanish Steps, has uniquely appointed guest rooms with colourful Murano glass. Watch the sun set over the Eternal City from their Michelin-star Imago restaurant.

Travel support provided by Intrepid Travel
[/np_storybar]

One of the true pleasures of travel is sinking your teeth into the foods you’re invariably missing out on at home. My first bite into a fresh pain au chocolat in Paris bore almost no resemblance to the butter-less store-bought croissants of my youth. The experience of digging a fresh wedge of onion into the heavenly warm hummus liberally covered with spiced meat and olive oil in Tel Aviv has left me soured on most North American varieties of even homemade hummus.

Even as the world gets smaller, as cultural differences often appear to shrink and you can find the same old big box stores in most major cities, unique culinary experiences are still one of the most reliable and pleasurable motivators for travel. And I was reminded of this quality disparity, the amazing difference between foods bearing the same general label, as I stood in a family home in Modena and lapped up spoonfuls of delectable aged balsamic vinegar.

It was May, I was on a food tour (Intrepid Travel’s Italy Real Food Adventure), and we were in the midst of zigzagging from Rome to Venice. In addition to falling in love with rabbit ragout and practising the fine art of drinking three Aperol spritzes and remaining upright for dinner, we also explored several of Italy’s wonderful DOP (Denominazione Origine Protetta, or protected designation of origin) products.

DOP products vary from olive oils and baked goods to pesto alla Genovese; they’re highly regulated, rooted to a specific geographic area and proudly traditional. On a single day in Emilia-Romagna region, not far from the porticoes of Bologna, we stopped to sample three of Italy’s best-known DOP products: Modena balsamic vinegar, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Prosciutto di Parma.

And so, back to the vinegar. The industrial balsamic you know and probably feel impassive about is typically made from cheap grapes, along with caramel colouring, additives and sweeteners; it rarely ages for more than three months. But the fancy stuff is made exclusively of a blend red and white Modena grapes, aged from 12 to 25 years. The vinegar even has to pass an exam before it can earn its coveted status. If it fails, it gets sent back to the barrel — the equivalent of summer school for DOP goods.

Our minibus, full of a small group of eager foodies, pulled up in from of Acetaia di Giorgio, a traditional family-owned producer in a 150-year-old home. The front yard was ringed with lemon trees, and an old dog slowly ambled over to say hello. We moved up to the attic, where aging vinegar sits in barrels made from a variety of woods, including cherry, chestnut, juniper, ash and mulberry — all of which impart a different flavour. Pulling up chairs under the eaves, we commenced a tasting and noted the subtle differences in acidity, fruitiness and rich concentration.

Our next stop was a Parmesan producer near Bologna, and I immediately conjured up similarly romantic images. Perhaps an elderly man against a backdrop of sunlit wild poppies, standing next to a beloved donkey and presenting a huge wedge of fragrant cheese for inspection? But cheese is, of course, big business in Italy. A tour guide, Katarina, and her constantly dinging iPhone met us in front of a large whirring complex.

Inside, we were given a primer on production, from the fresh milk and rennet boiled in massive copper-lined stainless steel vats, stirred by huge paddles and gauged by touch, to the enormous warehouse where the massive aging rounds — one full wheel requires 600 litres of milk — bide their time for up to 30 months. (And where I watched a 15-year-old English girl on a family vacation take suggestive selfies with several hunks of very submissive cheese.)

Despite the modern setup, the importance of heritage abounds. “It is tied to territory and tradition and rules,” said Katarina, “and that is why we’re so proud.” We wandered back outside, the wind giving up occasional whiffs of cow dung, and devoured generous slivers of Parmesan: sharp, savoury and nutty.

The final stop was a prosciutto producer in a fairly nondescript industrial park. After a tour of pig carcasses and a brief butchering demonstration, we sat down to a late lunch of prosciutto and salami, paired with wines from the surrounding hillsides. As with all of our previous stops, the purveyors were keen to show off the fruit of their patient labours. When we toasted, it was to the meat — which was salty and buttery, tender between my teeth and perfect atop fresh crusty bread.

I couldn’t quite squeeze a Parmesan round into my carry-on, and I worried that smelling strongly of ham might be considered suspicious. But I did manage to bring one little piece of Italy home. In my suitcase, I had 100mL of precious balsamic vinegar, which I metered out so lovingly and sparingly that it lasted a full five months. Since then, I have resisted any temptation to replace it with a subpar supermarket brand. That little bottle of vinegar served not only as a memento of a wonderful trip but a reminder that some things have no substitute.