by Leanne Ogasawara
“Italian Criminal Masterminds Heisted $875,000 Worth of Parmesan”
“Only in Italy,” I thought a few months ago when I read the headline above. Of course, Italian cheeses, like French wines, have been highly valued and given as gifts of diplomacy to kings and queens since at least the Medieval period. Samuel Pepys famously buried his Parmesan cheese in a hole dug in his garden when the London Fire broke out. Truly, Italian cheeses and wines are wondrous– just like the cities in which they were born!
And of all the delicious cities in Italy, maybe nowhere is quite as wondrously delectable as Modena.
A native son of the great city of cheese, Massimo Bottura is considered to be one of the greatest chefs on earth–and a few years ago, his 3 Michelin star restaurant, the Osteria Francescana, was ranked #2 in the world.
Located in one of Modena's back streets, Bottura says the city of his birth is defined by fast cars (Ferrari and Maserati) and slow food. Located between Parma and Bologna, the medieval town of Modena is situated smack in the middle of what is a world food capital. Yes, I am talking about gorgeous artisan cheeses carefully aged on cheese wheels (including the famed Parmigiano Reggiano), countless kinds of ham and sausage (Bologna gives its name to what it goes by in America), and a kind of Balsamic vinegar so it exquisite it reminds one of wine.
And did I mention vignola cherries?
The Po River valley has given birth to a glorious food culture not like anything else in the world. Like in France and like in Japan, American-style industrialized food has not totally taken over this part of the world and age-old ways of making food are still practiced ~~with spectacular results. And so, Modena is therefore a perfect place for a genius chef to set up shop!
There is one thing I need to say right away. I am not much of a foodie.
In fact, we only ended up dining at Osteria Francescana on a lark; for it was just a simple photo that I saw of a plate of pasta that got the idea in my head of eating there. To be precise, it was a picture of a ragu–with the caption that “here” was the best ragu in the world.
My mom, of Italian (Calabrese) descent, talks a lot about a certain ragu she used to eat at her grandparents house when she was a girl. She has tried to recreate it, but it never satisfies her memory of the dish. Indeed, she always looks somehow really wistful when she talks about the way it tasted. So, when I came across a picture of Battura's version in a magazine being claimed to be the perfect ragu in the world, it really drew my attention. And so I booked a table.
in the heart of Modena
tell a story of tradition
My astronomer and I arrived at Osteria Francescana at 8pm on June 5 of last year for our anticipated dinner reservation. Ordering their creative sensations tasting menu and wine pairings, I immediately realized I was in way over my head. After placing our order, I asked our waiter to take our picture. I have never received quite so withering a look from anyone in my life. Looking around, I noticed how quiet and serious the room felt. No one was talking above a whisper and it was clear people were there not to enjoy –but rather to undergo an ordeal of some sort. Nervous as a cat, I got up to go to the restroom and that is when what can only be described as a ballet dance began as I was escorted by two men of impressive grace (I think they were identical twins)… it was a good thing they were there actually, since it is unlikely I could have figured out the way to open the door to the bathroom without their help. By then, I was sweating and dying for something alcoholic to drink.
Mind readers like you have never imagined, the staff anticipated my every need the entire night, and this began at once when I saw the large glass of wine waiting on the table upon my return.
I can only imagine what my astronomer thought after all the trouble he had gone through to get us there when I whispered nervously, “I don't think I will be able to enjoy myself here. I feel so tense….”
It was then that I think I started gritting my teeth.
Tokyo I believe, has more Michelin 3 star restaurants than anywhere. I have been to wonderful and very formal dinners in Tokyo and Kyoto, including kaiseki. As a student of tea ceremony, I am no stranger to formal and ritualized meals… and yet, the atmosphere of the Osteria Francescana was simply surreal. Maybe because in Japan, the sense of play and hospitality is two-way; whereas in Modena, while the food and the artist were playful and fun, the other guests seemed so serious and the only real action happened when people got up to go to the restroom since this kicked off the movements of the graceful escorts. It really resembled nothing as much as a corps de ballet…
But, how to describe the food?
Battura says of his own creations that he aims to look at traditional dishes from a distance of 10 kilometers. I love that!!! Looking at tradition from a distance and taking a stand–is that not the existentialist project par excellence? Everything was authentic and yet somehow infused with play. Look at the Peking Duck: “China is close” is written in Japanese (maybe for me?) We also had an amazing take on miso… see picture below. It was utterly sublime.
At the climax after finishing the duck, the man at the table behind us broke down and cried. Turning around, it was Massimo himself there at the table, come out to say hello to his guests. Reaching our table, he said that Picasso, before he began doing the art for which he became famous for, had already mastered the traditional painterly skills. That is, he was telling us, he could make traditional food to perfection too…. but he had moved beyond.
This was something my calligraphy teacher in Tokyo used to say. One is only allowed to break rules if they have perfectly mastered them first. In his book, Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef, he says that his friend who served as the motivation for the creation of his take on the great classic of the region, Tagliatelle with Ragu, said this about the motivation for asking Massimo to create a version of the dish:
“Massimo, if you want to drive a Ferrari, you have to know how to pass on the left and use your blinker.”
I felt I was certainly in the presence of genius (and of course he has a huge vinyl music library!). The food was unreal and the service surreal. I highly recommend anyone who is in Italy find a way to eat at Osteria Francescana. The book is fun too…
That said, by the end of our six hour meal my jaw had become painfully clenched.
It's been almost a year since our dream dinner in Modena, and a few days, my astronomer gave me a copy of Massimo Battura's best-selling cookbook, Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef. As I was flipping through it, from the other room, he said, “We have to go back there someday,,,”
To which I shouted,
(It seriously took two months before my jaw relaxed and went back to normal).
Thinking about it though, I feel like I have to try again–and next time, I want to really relax and enjoy the experience!!
In America, we don't seem able to sit down to a table and eat what is served anymore.
It is very sad.
Everyone has special needs and people seem unable to momentarily bracket their preferences to attune themselves to the collective needs and harmony of the group meal.
In Japan and Italy, like most of the world, the custom of the family meal is alive and well. Friends join family and people sit down to a home cooked meals over and over again. In France even at a casual party with friends, we were all served a plate–each the same. The conferences in Europe also sometimes have these large group meals with several dozen or more people all sitting down to eat the same thing. And this was so at Osteria Francescana.
It is actually an incredibly beautiful custom. In America, most people do buffets at best–putting all the food in the kitchen so everyone can get just what they want. Hosts routinely make sure their guests don't have special needs, and all in all it is really getting hard to get everyone to sit down together. I was listening to my mom talking with a group of her friends about how hard this is nowadays to just have a family meal where everyone is happy. For over thirty years, my mom and a group of 10 ladies cook a meal for each other once a month. It is a formal sit down meal and they have been doing this for over 30 years now! There are no constraints and everyone is tasked with making a formal sit-down lunch or dinner for the group.
Jane Harrison, in her book Themis, would say that, “the communal feast, the renewal of group unity, and the definition of the individual reborn as part of the social group is a symbolic feast; for Communion will always be both feast and sacrifice.”
Babette's feast is about this. My favorite movie in the world, I could watch it a million times.
To create a feast like Babette or like Massimo–these are beautiful offerings which involve the pouring of self (ie sacrifice). There is an increased Being. Hubert Dreyfus might call this a transcendent experience since to make such a feast is an offering that is very other-oriented. A gift of hospitality. Sitting with my astronomer and watching Massimo's plan for our feast unfold before our eyes was all the more wondrous because it was shared! And I think there is a certain grace involved not only in the creating of the meal but in those who are able to sit down and receive it as well.
The time spent with family and friends around the table is more precious than anything in the world. It does somehow seem sacred or at least what life is and should be about. For as Michael Pollan says in his film, Cooked, “This is more important than people realize.”
And did I mention the rabbit macaroons? Wow!