I never dreamed I would find myself traveling to Modena, Italy. For years I longed to visit other parts of Italy. I wasn’t really sure where. I knew I was attracted to the wine country. I had family which originated along the coast from decades gone by. The area of Emilia-Romagna had never previously been in my awareness. And yet here I was, traveling across the Atlantic Ocean, to one of the food meccas of the world. I had no idea how much of an impact this trip would make on my life.
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The Origins to Modena, Italy
This entire trip originated at the International Food Blogger Conference. A presentation was done by the gentleman, Federico Desimoni, regarding Balsamic Vinegar. I was enthralled and captivated. I wanted to see this balsamic of Modena in person. So, after his presentation, I swiftly walked up to him, card in hand. “I absolutely must go! I would love to see this entire process in person! I have my passport – I can leave tomorrow!” He provided a very polite answer I no longer remember. Months went by without a word. I forgot about balsamic vinegar and Italy.
And then, an email arrived at 3:19 AM PST. I was invited to join a tour and promotional campaign where I would discover everything there is to Aceto Balsamico di Modena PGI. The territory, the production, the pairing with food. It was billed as an interesting and emotional trip. I agreed immediately.
The timing for this trip happened to coincide with a wedding a few hours away by plane – perfect timing! This would certainly save me some long flights.
Three months and a multitude of emails later, I was on my way to Italy.
My preparation including revisiting the many Italian restaurants around my hometown of Sacramento and putting together and unplanning a multi-country trip through Europe. Originally planning for a side trip for a wedding, which was changed at the last minute, I made plans to meander through a few additional parts of Europe.
San Francisco International Airport
In what would become one of the most memorable adventures of my lifetime, my start to Italy was a strange one.
This particular flight had a lot of problems from the get go. To bring in some perspective – I live in Sacramento and the flight departed from San Francisco. Its about a 2 hour drive. In theory, it should be easy to find a shuttle or some sort of transportation between these two major international destinations in such close proximity. Unfortunately – either a shuttle is absurdly expensive or taking public transportation essentially takes up an entire day and includes multiple annoying transfers. My usual friends and family I beg rides off of were unavailable for dates, but I managed to convince a very busy friend to accommodate me. I still don’t know what I did to deserve the generosity. Sure, I could have parked my vehicle and all that jazz, but I have this irrational dislike for longterm parking and a fear I’ll return from a wonderful trip to a window smashed in and my broken sunglasses missing.
Getting to SFO airport in itself was uneventful. I was sent off with a “before the adventure” photo.
Photo taken, I said goodbye to my ride and went inside to the ticket counter. I wasn’t checking a bag, but needed to print my ticket. Paper in hand, I moved along to the TSA line. The TSA agent looked at my ticket, scanned it, looked at me, and said there was an error and I needed to get a new ticket. Then he ripped my plane ticket in half and discarded it into the garbage.
I laughed. My mind quickly flew through the options. I wanted to go to Italy. I was already there, mentally. I took on the mentality that getting upset would bring about zero positive results. Nervous smile still on my face, I returned to the ticket counter. I rapidly told the ticket agent what occurred, much to her perplexion as well. A new ticket was printed, and I was walked to the front of TSA line. Another scan and my ticket was ripped up again. My laugh slightly mutated into a nervous what-the… chuckle. The ticket agent and I walked back to the counter. There was some sort of discrepancy of information, but neither the TSA agent nor the ticketing agent could pinpoint where.
Crazy things happen to me.
I did a really nerve-racking thing. I handed over my passport, global entry card, and driver license to the ticket agent. My phone was useless at this point – I had a SIM card plugged in which would activate upon landing in Europe, with no connectivity in the United States. I wasn’t expecting to need my phone’s cellular connection until I returned. For the next 20 or 30 minutes, which is an incredibly long time to no longer have documentation or ID at an airport where the plane boards in an hour, I waited by the start of the line queue. To entertain myself, I directed people to where they needed to go to check in. I felt my heart beating faster and faster with increased nervousness as time dragged on excruciatingly slow. Am I going to fly to Italy or what? Is there some sort of hole I can crawl into and hide if this goes wrong? What does Plan B look like from here?
The person helping me reappeared without any of my belongings I reluctantly handed over. A supervisor is doing something. Maybe. I’m requested to call a specific TSA phone number to verify some info and check on their end. There is a yellowed greasy rotary telephone hanging from the wall near the TSA checkpoint. Perfect, I’ll use that. With one elbow leaning against the wall, I spin the rotor round and round, dialing and moving through the automated selection process. I get through surprisingly fast to someone working for TSA and go over the whole situation. They tell me they will file a ticket and I’ll have an answer or a resolution within 4 hours. Cool, I need to board in less than an hour now. I was instructed to return to the ticketing agent.
I go back to the ticket counter. The person I was dealing with isn’t there and I can’t remember her name. No one there remembers me. A lot of people continue pass through in front of me. So, I stand and wait. I can’t get through security anyways. Within a few minutes two people emerge from the back, my original ticket agent and someone new, handing me a new set of tickets, along with my identification and other items. They apologize for the wait, walk me through to the front of the security line, and get me the TSA agent. I notice on my ticket I’ve been upgraded to business class for the entire flight. Worth it. I think.
I leaned against the wall as the boarding process for my flight began. Reflecting on what just happened, I kept giggling to myself. My tickets were ripped up in front of me. More than once. That was amazing.
Finally on the plane, I wondered what lay in store for me the rest of the trip. With plans to be gone nearly three weeks, this would hardly be the only problem I encountered. At least I managed to get one predicament out of the way. Hey look, we’re moving!
I decided as the plane started to takeoff business or economy plus was the way to go on long flights. There were guaranteed plugs to keep my laptop charged and slightly better food options. The increased comfort in seats helped with my restless legs.
I tried to rest, but simply couldn’t resist nonstop checking of the screen in front of me or flight status updates. Why yes, I also like watching grass grow – why do you ask?
At one point, flying over Greenland, I opened the window and was greeted with the sunrise stuck on the horizon for a longer than normal time, slowly chasing the plane. Or maybe the plane was chasing the sunrise. It was epic.
The first leg landed in Munich, with an easy transfer to another plane, and I was off to Milan, Italy. I was a bit nervous going through customs and transferring, based on my previous experience at San Francisco International, but luckily had no problems. My phone started right up and connected immediately. Sweet!
Arrival in Italy
A hop, a skip, and a jump later, I landed in Milan. The first portion of this trip was entirely setup and taken care of by the Consorzio Aceto Balsamico di Modena PGI, as the purpose was to share the culture of Balsamic Vinegar with the world and my readers. They had arranged a driver for me, so I was kind of excited to have someone holding a sign with my name. I tried to creep and take a photo, but he had his iPad out with my name and recognized me quickly before I could get a good photo and turned off the screen. I felt too awkward to ask him to pose, so I simply have a crap photo in memory.
The driver told me another person had a flight delay, so we would wait for their arrival before leaving to Modena. Would this be another problem? Luckily not, as the person we were waiting for arrived triumphantly, where upon I met the first of the fellow influencers and bloggers, Dana of Miami Food Porn.
We loaded up into a luxury SUV and began our two and a half hour drive to Modena. During the drive, Dana and I hit it off right away. This was a great sign for the the rest of the wonderful dynamics I would soon experience with the rest of the bloggers and influencers at our destination.
Arriving at our lodging, a Best Western. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as I only had my preconceived notions from staying at this company’s locations in the United States. However, here in Modena, I was thrilled with the accommodations. Well, I didn’t know how thrilled I’d be yet, but my initial impressions were pretty good. As Dana and I each checked in, we had a few hours before the first meeting and agreed to meet again shortly and go for a walk into town to scope out the surroundings.
From the front desk to the rooms, winding stone pathways were bordered by roses in full bloom along with a myriad of other flowers and bushes. It felt lush, quiet, and like the perfect spot to setup shot. Situated up a flight of marble stairs, my room led way to a view overlooking some green landscaped gardens.
New Friends and Italian Cuisine
The walk from the hotel to a small area we identified as having some food options and a grocery store was a pleasant 15 minute walk away. With a mere few options available, we settled on gelato, based on Instagram photo-op possibilities and rave reviews.
Upon arrival, I was feeling a bit fatigued from the day of travel and opted to simply assist Dana in her own photo op while scarfing my cup, and then eat the rest of her gelato. Like I was actually going to let my first Italian gelato experience go to waste in any shape or form. The outside area of the gelateria had a pleasant seating area, full of families enjoying the delicacies which were lovingly made inside.
With sweet teeth satiated, we walked a few blocks down and found the grocery store. It was fascinating to experience how cheap bottles of wine were here. Living in close proximity to the famous Napa Valley, I am used to California prices for wine. A decent bottle is generally going to start at $20. These bottles were less than 10 Euros. How do you even choose a good one? In the end, Dana opted for a couple bottles of white to bring back and share with the other bloggers. Thus, wine in hand, we walked back to the hotel and began the introductions.
Walking back to the hotel took on a magical feeling of its own, as clouds gathered above and the sun continued its ascent beyond the horizon. The walking pathway took us through rows of red flowers and wild grass. Perhaps it was the sugar from the gelato, but I felt a renewed wild energy and excitement for the trip. I had a rough start, but this day had completely turned around. New friends. Gelato. Wine. Walking around Italy. Yes.
As we arrived back at the hotel, the clouds above were quickly transforming into a dark gray mass, threatening to burst with an evening rain. Acquiring a set of glasses for the group and a wine opener, I seized the opportunity to open, pour, and serve. This was another first for me – drinking Italian wine in Italy itself. I was oh so terribly excited. As each moment in time unfolded, I continued to revel in excitement and enthusiasm.
With wine poured, the rest of the group quickly made their way to the meeting area. I quickly met the rest of the group:
- Ben of @stuffbeneats
- Wendy of Flavor of Italy
- Elise of Simply Recipes
- Laura of @laurajung
- Brandon of Kitchen Konfidence
- Deborah of The Epoch Times
- Prakash of Niraamaya Retreats
- and of course Dana of @MiamiFoodPorn
- as well as Andrea, our Aceto Balsamico di Modena PGI liaison
- and Melissa, esteemed cat herder and organizer extraordinaire.
Meeting all of these influencers, bloggers, and those passionate for the world of food was incredible. To be in the presence of those who work tirelessly at their craft, all with a different area of focus and skillset was an honor and delight.
As we finished up the last of the bottles, it began to pour rain outside. I couldn’t resist missing out on this moment in time. I grabbed my half-full glass of white wine and leaped through the front doors into the rain outside. Droplets covered my head, shoulders, and went into my glass. I walked up and down the entirety of the hotel’s driveway, a shit-eating grin covering my face as my clothes and shoes quickly became drenched. I was loving every second of this.
As I returned back inside, soaking wet and now shivering, Andrea and Melissa thanked us all for coming. Oops. I probably shouldn’t have made them wait for my own impulses. They moved us to the dining area of the hotel, where we indulged for Aperitivo Ore with delicacies such as:
- Scaglie di Parmigiano Reggiano bio 24 mesi con gocce di Aceto Balsamico tradizionale 24 anni
- Erbazone, Pizzette, Quiche di zucchine
- E molte bottiglie di prosecco.
I tried to take photos, but between dim lighting, using my phone, and being wet from my impulsive decisions, all of my shots turned out terribly. I think my best shot was one of my favorite types of photos to take: the empty plate. I resigned myself to enjoying conversation and the rest of dinner, which included:
- Flan di Parmigiano biologico “Hombre” con ragout di zuchine e guarnizione all’Aceto Balamico di Modena IGP.
- Risotto del Nero in cialda croccante di Parmigiano Reggiano Biologico
- Rustichella di petto di pollo ripiena al Crudo e Parmigiano su creme di patate
The courses were paired with delightful wines from the cellar:
- Vino bianco Frizzante Pignoletto di Modena
- Come vini rossi
- Vino rosso frizzante Lambruso
- Vino rosso fermo Sangiovese di Romagna
With dinner being prepared by the chef at the Best Western, expectations far exceeded anything I could have enjoyed in America. I knew this wouldn’t be the best meal of the trip, but it was certainly a good start for weary travelers.
As we dined into the night, our plates emptied and stomachs filled. A few retired to bed, and coffee was brought out for those daring enough to stay up. I knew in my heart this was all a one time experience and I wanted to feel and enjoy every second possible. I could sleep when I returned home!
Invigorated and full of energy, my eyes were quick to betray my heart. Finally retiring to bed, I set my alarm for sunrise, eager to discover what my second day in Modena, Italy would bring.
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From traveling to Italy to learn about balsamic vinegar from the source to homesteading in his own backyard, Michael is ever ready to take on new challenges and think about the world from different perspectives.