Impeccably dressed older men stand at the counters and knock back scalding espressos with the same ease as a hen party on their first round of tequila shots. Women laden with canvass bags point and barter with rapid speed at an array of vegetables, as fresh and colourful as the country of Italy itself. Various cured hams hang from the rafters, as at home here as they were in their cellars on the banks of the Po River.
In these days where food is treated with the same relish as a Playboy magazine stashed beneath a teenage boy’s mattress, I feel as if I’ve fallen slightly behind. Quality, now it seems, is based solely off of a food’s ability to look good on an Instagram feed. This, however, is not the case at Modena’s Mercato Albinelli.
This is precisely what drew me to this small city in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy — I wanted to experience the cuisine and culture of Italy at its best. So many people who visit this massive Southern European nation seem only to stick to the well-trodden path through Venice, Florence, and Rome and then leave. They subject the rest of the nation — with all of its nuance, culture, and history — to live perpetually in the unknown and unexplored.
This wasn’t what I wanted. It isn’t what I want from any of my travels if I’m going to be perfectly candid. I am generally disdainful of those sort of tourists who claim to have “done France” after spending three days in Paris or that they’ve “seen the Czech Republic” when the furthest they’ve stepped outside of Prague’s city limits was at the airport. Places and countries are so much more than their biggest, most beautiful cities.
But Modena, the Mercato Albinelli, this is what I wanted. Perusing the labyrinth of stalls, I could sense the passion of the vendors, those who sold products that were as high of quality as you could find anywhere. And I felt a tinge of envy as I observed the local Modenese, casually going about their daily shop, as mundane to them as a stop at Sainsbury’s is to me.
I love food markets and I know that I am not alone in this sentiment. But this market in this city was something on a completely different level. I am used to having to contend with market’s perennial popularity, always entering with the expectation of long queues and increased prices while having to dodge innumerable selfie-happy Instagrammers. But this was not the case here. This was a place for locals and I felt as gloriously out of place as any traveller could wish for.
There is no shame in today’s world about travelling to a destination solely because of its culinary prestige and it would be deceitful of me to say that this was not the reason that drew me to Modena. Home to what is often considered to be the best restaurant in the world, Osteria Francescana, and the equally lauded Hosteria Guisti, this charming city in the heart of Emilia-Romagna somehow manages to quell any pretentions of its gastronomic prowess.
I’ve always had an affinity for Italian cuisine. So many people in the world cite it as their favourite, myself amongst them. While France has long held the title of the most coveted cuisine in the world, the beautiful marriage of the simplicity and complexity of Italian food has always fascinated me.
In London, where I live, and in the other countries that I’ve observed undergoing a “culinary revolution” of sorts, there seem to be a number of trends that are being followed. Most notably, of course, are those restaurants using the phrases “locally sourced” and “seasonal ingredients” on their mission statements as a sort of bragging right. I will also say, that I see absolutely nothing wrong with this in the slightest.
I am the first to encourage patronising local farmers and cheesemakers and fishermen. I believe it is important, especially in countries like England, where the local food has a reputation for being less than stellar. I admire those intrepid chefs who take on the daunting task of reimagining their local cuisine to turn them into something spectacular.
These practices, however, are neither needed nor wanted in Emilia-Romagna.
Restaurants don’t need to tout the fact that their food is local, their ingredients seasonal. That’s not a selling point in this region of the world. Putting this on a menu would be redundant; it would be a waste of ink and paper.
Everything about this beautiful region of Italy needs only to speak for itself. It is impossible to convey the magic of Emilia-Romagna within the confines of a few hundred words. The beauty of the countryside, the quality of its produce, and the passion of its people make this one of the best regions to lose yourself in the world. Taking a detour through Italy off the beaten path is one of the greatest gifts you could give to yourself.
Beyond the antiquities and the Colosseum of Rome, beyond the canals and gondolas of Venice, lies a country so fascinating and diverse that no one trip will ever do it justice. Take a leap and absorb a side of Italy that few tourists take the time to.
What are some places that you’ve diverted from the typical tourist trail? Let us know in the comments!