I was lucky enough to be given a behind the scenes look at the Ferrari Driver Academy in the heart of Italy’s Emilia Romagna region. In the first of a series of posts about my trip, I discovered that the ‘motor valley’ isn’t just about fast cars…
Once-in-a-lifetime opportunities don’t come along all that often (funnily enough), and having been offered the chance to fly to Italy and go behind the scenes at Ferrari, this was one that couldn’t be turned down.
Arriving at Gatwick Airport on a cold Monday morning, I needn’t have checked to see which gate I was flying from – a small band of smartly dressed Italian men in suits subtly bearing Ferrari’s Prancing Horse logo were obviously heading for the same flight, as was the long haired guy in a pale red jacket and dark red trousers, wheeling the Ferrari emblazoned suitcase.
I was flying to Bologna, then on to Modena, in the heart of the Emilia Romagna region of northern Italy, to spend a week following the exploits of a young driver making his way through the Ferrari Driver Academy, and to say I was excited is something of an understatement.
As we strolled through Bologna Airport, my guide Nick and I stopped to admire two Lamborghinis on display in the terminal, though quickly moved on, so as not to feel like we were cheating on our hosts; the fierce rivalry between Ferrari and Lamborghini stretches back to the late 1950s and continues today.
Before heading to meet the Ferrari team, Nick had promised to show me one of the region’s great exports and indulge in some good food and wine. It was the “slow food before the fast cars” as he put it, and one of Emilia Romagna’s most coveted products is its balsamic vinegar.
We headed west from Bologna Airport, towards Modena, along arrow-straight Roman roads before turning off into the countryside, passing fields and vineyards, and arriving at Osteria di Rubbiara – our lunchtime stop where balsamic vinegar is the the mainstay ingredient in every dish.
This charming rustic tavern has been run by the Pedroni family since its inception in 1862. It is also home to the Acetaia Pedroni; where the family still produces its award winning balsamic vinegar. We were greeted by Italo Pedroni; a man of few words and a wry smile, who insists that diners clear their plates before the next course is served.
Before heading out to eat in the shade of the garden, we were prompted to leave our mobile phones locked in a cabinet inscribed with “For the tranquility of all”. Dining here is all about appreciating the food and your fellow diners, without the interruptions of modern technology.
We were brought a bottle of Pedroni’s own Lambrusco di Modena – a frizzante or sparkling red wine, that was surprisingly refreshing – followed by a plate of ricotta tortelloni, topped with a 12 year old balsamic vinegar. Made with fresh local ingredients, the flavours were intense, and I was instantly glad not to have eaten that Easyjet cheese toastie on the flight over. A strichetti with ragu followed (equally as delicious), and then it was on to the main course – a delicious frittata with a piece of mouthwatering Lambrusco chicken and balsamic soaked onions. The balsamic flavours complimented the food perfectly, and by now I knew I was eating one of the best meals I’d ever tasted – lovingly cooked by Italo’s wife Franca.
The final course was worth the trip alone; a generous serving of vanilla ice cream, topped with a generous helping of 25 year old balsamic vinegar. I wasn’t all that sure the flavours would work, but they certainly did; the sweet syrupy balsamic taste complimented the cool ice cream perfectly.
Our fellow diners were all as transfixed by the flavours as we were, as Italo and his staff unhurriedly cleared tables and brought out a coffee and digestifs. I chose Liquore di Ortiche, a stinging nettle liqueur that was surprisingly tasty.
After our long lazy lunch we joined a small group of inquisitive diners on a tour of the balsamic vinegar plant just behind the restaurant. The Pedroni family have been masters of traditional balsamic production for over 150 years, and we saw the large kettles where the Trebbiano si Spagna grape juice is cooked over open flames to reduce down to a grape ‘must’. This must is then poured into barrels of different woods, mulberry, chestnut, cherry, juniper and oak, and a small amount of the ‘mother vinegar’ is added. This mysterious mother vinegar acts as a starter culture for the production process. After the minimum ageing period of 12 years the smallest barrel is topped up with the liquid from the next largest.
Stepping into the dark barn filled with barrels, we were immediately hit with the strong acidic balsamic aroma. A hole is cut in the top of the barrels and covered with a cloth and stopper, and the wonderful rich aroma fills the air. There are barrels of all sizes, each one labelled and tracked – balsamic vinegar production is a long delicate process, and a consortium of master tasters meet to certify each as having reached their exacting standards.
As we emerged from the dark attic into the warm Italian sunshine we spotted a couple of old tractors, a little worn, but still used around the farm. They had both seen better days, but were both a reminder of the week to come. One was a white Lamborghini, the other a red (what else) Ferrari.
Look out for the next article where I go behind the scenes at Ferrari’s Driver Academy, and follow a young driver on his way to becoming a pro. This trip was made possible by iAmbassador and co-sponsored by the Emilia Romagna Tourist Board. Check out my experience on Twitter with #insideFDA and #inEmiliaRomagna.
All words and images by Graham Padmore.