Despite being best known as the home of Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati’s thunderous engines, Modena is a very quiet city. The peaceful streets of its medieval core are a paradise for eavesdroppers, with the only loud noises coming from the clang of rusty bikes passing over cobbled streets or the rumble of a speeding motorino echoing through the town centre’s marble-lined archways. That, and the sound of energetic chef Massimo Bottura.
Watching the fiery 50-year-old cook step out of his three-Michelin-starred restaurant, the Osteria Francescana, is a spectacle. From the kitchen’s back door Bottura shoots onto the street vigourously waving his hands in the air. Wearing trainers, loose jeans and a white double-breasted jacket, he swings back and forth like a sparring boxer on his toes, retelling random anecdotes: a recent conference at the World Bank, his trip to Peru and the best chocolate pudding in town, the Barozzi cake. Suddenly he freezes. “Allora? Andiamo,” he says excitedly. “They’ll close soon!” And off to the market we go.
Five minutes away is the Mercato Albinelli, open to dozens of producers from the Emilia Romagna region since 1931. “This is Italy,” says Bottura, navigating through the food-lined corridors, snatching produce left and right. “Here you have some of the most incredible flavours in the world,” he says, splitting asparagus, inspecting it. Bottura runs towards a stall and grabs a small bottle of thick, gooey vinegar. “It took 25 years to make 100ml,” he says as he tilts the tiny vase. The liquid barely moves.
Modenese balsamic vinegar is made from the must of Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes and regarded as the best in the world. Bottura ages his own in a battery of nine wooden barrels that vary in size at the Consorzio Aceto Balsamico di Modena, an organisation devoted to protecting the product. In the same building there’s also a museum dedicated to its history.
“In Modena everything takes a lot of time to make,” yells Bottura, from a few metres down at another stall. “Take the cotechino the Schiavoni sisters use for their sandwiches,” he says, pointing to a bar in the corner that has been here since 1977. “We’re celebrating its 500th anniversary.” And he orders two panini filled with the pork sausage, made to the centuries-old recipe, smothered in a green, garlicky sauce.
Interviewing Bottura is quite a difficult task. Every time I enquire about his career he avoids talking about himself and instead changes the subject to his producers. The fact that he left law school to become a chef, or that he won third place in the most recent 50 Best Restaurant awards, is less important to him than his relationship with his suppliers.
“The good thing about receiving an award and becoming renowned is that people start paying attention to what you have to say,” Bottura explains, “and the only way of enjoying it is by sharing the recognition with the people who helped you get it.”
One of these producers who Bottura has a close relationship with is Hombre, a dairy farm with more than 500 cows on it producing 6,000 litres of milk a day, which is then made into Parmesan cheese. This is where Bottura sources the cheese that is a recurrent feature on the menu at Osteria Francescana and at Franceschetta 58, his other restaurant in Modena, an old tyre shop converted into an informal brasserie frequented mainly by locals.
Bottura’s passion for Parmesan grew stronger after the earthquake that hit the region in 2012. When the earth stopped shaking, the producers ran back to their warehouses to find that 400,000 wheels of cheese had slid off the shelves, breaking into hundreds of pieces, making it unfit for retail. Armed with his phone, Bottura managed to summon foodies from the world over who, in support of the victims, placed orders until the cheese was sold out.
“It’s the main ingredient in the risotto cacio e peppe, a recipe (above) I created as an homage to those affected by the tremor,” Bottura says, walking back as the sun sets. “Each of my dishes is a gesture charged with social significance,” he adds as we arrive at the Osteria.
Bottura spots his cooks juggling a football down the alleyway and runs to join them. Before it’s time for the dinner service, he’s still got a few minutes and lots of energy to spare.
Risotto cacio e peppe
1.5kg Parmigiano Reggiano
500g Arborio rice
1tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1tsp white peppercorns
1tsp Szechuan or black peppercorns
1tsp long Jamaican peppercorns
1tsp Sarawak peppercorns
4.5 litres of water
Parmigiano water: Grate the cheese and mix with room-temperature water in a large pan. Slowly heat until threads form at the bottom. Remove from the heat and let cool. Cover with plastic wrap and leave overnight in the fridge. Next day, take the solid part that has formed on the top and place it in a bowl. This will be used to make the risotto creamy. Strain and collect the Parmigiano water.
Risotto: Over low heat, simmer the Parmigiano water in a saucepan. Put the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the rice, and toast. Add Parmigiano water gradually while stirring. Three-quarters through cooking, add some of the solids that you separated from the Parmigiano water. Thirty minutes later, remove the pan from the heat and mix in the remaining cheese solids. Spread the risotto out on a plate and sprinkle generously with the various types of ground peppercorns.