Modena Food Tour: An Italian Culinary Mecca

By Alex Kallimanis: The Emilia-Romagna region is often considered the foodie capital of Italy. It’s home to authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, balsamic vinegar, excellent charcuterie and truffles. It’s also the birthplace of bolognese sauce and mortadella (bologna in the United States). On my recent trip to Italy, where I flew roundtrip from Washington, DC to Bologna for just $146 instead of over $1,000 thanks to travel hacks, I decided to take a Modena food tour.

I read reviews that the Italian Days Food Experience is an epic Modena food tour. And indeed, there was so much to eat, drink and learn while exploring Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, balsamic vinegar and prosciutto factories!

hundreds of Parmesan cheese wheels stacked high

 

Italian Days Food Tour Pickup

Italian Days Food and Wine Tours conveniently picked me up right from my small hotel in the center of Bologna, Albergo Panorama, in a comfortable Mercedes van. Pickup time is 7am sharp because it takes around an hour to drive to Modena and Parmigiano-Reggiano production is only done in the early morning. I was grateful that the staff at Albergo Panorama already had some complimentary breakfast items laid out along with coffee. There’s plenty of excellent food and wine on the tour throughout the day, but not in the very beginning so it’s good to have a light breakfast. Italian Days also advises this in their confirmation email.

Parmigiano-Reggiano Factory Tour in Modena

Our van, which had a couple of other Americans from California, joined two other vans at the Parmigiano-Reggiano factory near Modena. There we met up with Arianna, who would graciously guide us through the most epic and entertaining food tour I’ve ever been on. Our group of 13 people was made up of 10 Americans and 3 citizens of Hong Kong.

Factory works making the Parmesan cheese

Authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese consists of just three ingredients – milk, salt and rennet to coagulate the cheese. Monks invented this process of cheese making in the 12th century. We were given lab coats and face masks and watched as the ingredients were mixed together by factory employees. Interestingly, pigs are fed the milk whey leftovers which is good for plumping them up for prosciutto. 

We were then taken to the storage facility, which impressively houses thousands of wheels of cheese. Arianna joked if you’re a thief don’t rob a bank in Italy because they’re broke. Instead, rob a Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese factory! Each wheel of cheese is worth around 550 ($616 USD). The factory we toured had 25 million ($28 million USD) worth of cheese! It resembles what I imagine Fort Knox would be like to tour- with huge stacks of cheese instead of gold bullion. The cheese needs at least 12 months of aging to be classified as Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Alex with wall to wall parmesan cheese wheels

The production of Parmigiano-Reggiano is strictly controlled by the consortium. It can only be made in five northeast Italian counties. In Bologna, the western side of the Reno River can legally produce it, while the eastern side cannot. To many Americans, this may sound like over-regulation, but the positive is a guaranteed quality product. Inspections are conducted and cheeses are classified as category 1 or 2 DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta or Protected Designation of Origin) cheeses if they pass inspection. A category 2 Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheese cannot be aged longer than 18 months. The wheels are stamped by fire and the number indicates the factory they came from.   

Enjoying Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese and Lambrusca wine

After touring the factory we were driven to a nearby farm to enjoy generous helpings of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Lambrusca wine. Lambrusca is a sparkling red wine produced in the Emilia-Romagna region. Served chilled, it’s wonderfully refreshing on a hot summers day. The cheeses we enjoyed were aged 24 months and 36 months. I preferred the 24 month aged cheese, but some others preferred the 36 month. As delicious as the cheeses were, we couldn’t finish the large chunks they put it out because it was simply more cheese than we could eat! It’s difficult to imagine ever eating Kraft “parmesan” cheese again after that experience.

Tour group eating cheese and wine on the farm

Balsamic Vinegar Factory Tour in Modena

It was then time to explore the world of balsamic vinegar over lunch. Paolo was a gracious host in his acetaia (balsamic vinegar factory). During lunch, we were given more wine along with sausage and mortadella. The region is famous for charcuterie and it was great to enjoy that family style while chatting with fellow travelers. We also tried delicious fresh ricotta cheese after a slice of homemade chocolate cake. The fresh ricotta cheese, topped with aged balsamic vinegar,  was a big hit with everyone.

Tour group around a table tasting balsamic vinegar

Antica Acetaia Cavedoni has been in business since 1860. It’s an impressive facility to tour because there are balsamic vinegars that have been aging for over 100 years, across multiple generations. A 100-year-old bottle of balsamic vinegar costs 550. Fortunately, there are much cheaper options too!

In order for balsamic vinegar to be an authentic DOP product, the grapes must be grown in Modena, and the only ingredient is cooked grape must. While it’s easy to find balsamic vinegar from Modena in US grocery stores, it is much harder to find high quality aged DOP balsamic vinegar. It’s easier to find IGP products, meaning the grapes weren’t grown in Modena but it was bottled in the region.

Only 150 families in Modena are licensed by the consortium to produce DOP balsamic vinegar. And they can produce a maximum of 10,000 liters per year. Red label DOP products have been aged a minimum of 12 years. Gold label products have been aged a minimum of 25 years. In comparison, IGP products can be produced in 60 days.

Balsamic vinegar barrels in storage

We sampled a variety of balsamic vinegars aged between 15 and 30 years. The longer balsamic vinegar is aged the sweeter it becomes. The balsamic vinegars of Antica Acetaia were superior to anything I’ve previously tasted.

If a balsamic vinegar is cheap, it’s not an authentic DOP. Real balsamic vinegar is carefully crafted, aged and pricey. For most, it’s not something to pour over a salad, but instead, drizzle over some buffalo mozzarella or ricotta cheese for a treat.

Prosciutto Factory

It was then time to tour a prosciutto factory. Romans invented prosciutto and began the process in winter to preserve the legs. The only other ingredient needed for prosciutto de Modena, aside from a back leg of a pig, is salt.

The Nini Gianfranco prosciutto factory we visited houses 22,000 legs. The minimum time for aging prosciutto de Modena is 14 months. For comparison, Prosciutto de Parma, which is more known in the United States, must be aged a minimum of 12 months. 

hundreds of prosciutto legs hanging to dry

Prosciutto is relatively easy to produce. You just need to be careful of the temperature and humidity while the legs are aging. Humidity should 75% for the legs to absorb the salt. 

The prosciutto we ate was delicious. I’ve enjoyed great iberico jamon in Spain so I won’t say it was the best cured ham I’ve eaten, but it was right up there. And the prosciutto is a softer meat in comparison to Spanish jamon.

When a friend saw Arianna’s shirt on social media that says Fast Food Kills he asked, is she claiming that fast food is more unhealthy than that huge hunk of meat? Well since fast food is filled with preservatives and prosciutto only has natural ingredients, it’s certainly better. But as Arianna noted, most Italians don’t eat prosciutto daily. It’s something they typically enjoy once a week. 

Family Style Lunch with Wine

Plate of fresh spaghetti and parmesan cheese

The last part of the tour was an epic feast of delicious food and wine. We sat on the terrace of a restaurant with a lovely view overlooking vineyards. We enjoyed several types of fresh pasta, including traditional bolognese over tagliatelle. It was a quintessential experience that anyone visiting Italy should have.

A lovely couple from Virginia were celebrating their 55 year wedding anniversary. So one of them was selected to open a bottle of prosecco with a sword! He was shocked at how cleanly the sword cut the top off, and we poured the wine from the bottle. A couple from Florida were also celebrating an anniversary so off came the top of another bottle with the sword! It was a fitting conclusion to an entertaining day.

Is the Italian Days Modena Food Tour Suitable for People with Allergies?

At the time of booking you can let Italian Days know if you have an allergy and they can provide some alternative food options. Arianna asked us if we had any allergies at the start of the tour and I informed her of my lactose allergy. She knew her stuff, reinforcing the fact that Parmigianno- Reggiano was fine for me to eat because aged cheese has a tiny fraction of lactose. I enjoyed a generous portion of the cheese and had no issues. For dessert at lunch they gave me a plate of mixed fruit since the dessert had dairy. All the family style mains we enjoyed were dairy free so there was still more than enough to eat. If you have a gluten allergy there were also plates of meat at lunch, in addition to the fresh pasta dishes.

Italian Days Food Tour Cost and Details

The Italian Days Day Tour from Bologna costs 150 ($168 USD). The tour starts at 7 am and you’re dropped back off at your hotel (or the train station if you choose) at around 6 pm. There’s lots of delicious food and wine included in the day long tour so bring an appetite! Arianna is a fantastic guide too. She’s extremely funny, knowledgable and warm. One person in our group told her “you seem like the happiest person alive.” Her response was “the sun is shining. Why wouldn’t I be happy?” La Dolce Vita – “the sweet life.”

View at lunch of vineyards and a village below

More Near the Emilia Romagna Region of Italy

If you’re traveling to Tuscany, read my previous article on Great Things to do in Florence. After my Modena food tour with Italian Days Food Tours I traveled by train from Bologna to the lovely seaside town of Rimini and the independent enclave of San Marino. San Marino is a fantastic place to visit, offering stunning views of Emilia Romagna and the Adriatic Sea. It’s one of the most pleasant destinations I’ve visited and surprisingly affordable.

I love that nearby Rimini offers a relaxing seaside holiday, with a wonderful historic center and a delicious culinary scene. It’s not somewhere on the radar of most Americans, but Fort Lauderdale is a sister city. Imagine a cheaper version of Fort Lauderdale with better food and historic sites like the Tiberius Bridge which dates back 2,300 years. Read this great article on Rimini by our friend Eileen Cotter Wright at Pure Wander.

Pinterest pin

Collage of food tour pin for pinterestDisclosure: Italian Days Food And Wine Tours hosted me on their food tour around Modena, but all opinions and photos here are my own. Also, this article contains some affiliate links. 

16 thoughts on “Modena Food Tour: An Italian Culinary Mecca

  1. Oh my gosh. When i think about the perfect day in Italy, it mostly involves eating. Not only is this food-centric, but you also get to learn! How can you beat Cheese, cured meat, balsamic vinegar and homemade pasta?! I need to go back and venture a bit outside Rimini to experience all this.

    1. Cheers to that, Eileen! 🙂 Eating in Italy is definitely a major highlight of visiting! I loved all the food on this tour and the fun vibe of it. I know you enjoyed great food in Rimini as well. It’s wonderful that delicious fresh pasta dishes are so common throughout Italy. I miss that. Happy travels!

  2. Wow, I really appreciate you adding that section about appropriateness for people with allergies! Honestly that’s pretty rare, so thank you 🙂 It’s funny because Italy has soooo much gluten and dairy in their cuisine, so you’d think it wouldn’t be a great country for people with celiac or gluten/dairy/lactose issues. But my experience in Italy over the years has been that’s it’s AMAZING for gluten free options, so I’m (happily) not surprised that you report they have gluten free options on this food tour!

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Sarah! Glad you appreciated the section on allergies 🙂

      And glad to hear you’ve had positive experiences in Italy finding GF options! Yes Italian cuisine can be very gluten and dairy centric, but there’s often great alternatives. Happy travels and happy eating! 🙂

  3. This tour sounds amazing!! I love parmagiano-reggiano cheese and balsamic vinegar. It sounds like nirvana to be in a storage facility with millions of dollars of cheese wheels. I’ll bet the smell was pretty pungent.

    Italy has such wonderful food. I enjoyed everything I had while I was there, but I should have taken an actual food tour. Sounds scrumptious!

    1. Cheers, Juliann! This truly is an epic food tour!

      The smell in the storage facility isn’t as pungent as you might imagine though. The protective casing around all the wheels of cheese helps with that. The cheeses are inspected and if they’re compromised they can’t be sold as an authentic DOP product.

      Glad to hear you enjoyed the food in Italy. It’s truly wonderful. Next time you visit you can take a food tour and we’re glad this inspired you. Happy travels! 🙂

  4. You had me at balsamic vinegar. I’m in LOVE with it. Everything is 100% BETTER with it. Yes, please! And 550 Euros for an over 100-year-old bottle?? Yikes…but if it’s that sweet, it might be worth it for me…that’s how much I LOVE balsamic vinegar (glaze form too)! I’m very highly interested in this tour as it’s different from any other I’ve taken or even read about. The price is VERY reasonable considering what you get, how far you travel and that it’s an 11-hour day!

    1. High five to a fellow balsamic vinegar fan! I enjoyed learning so much more than I knew about balsamic vinegar previously- which was not much despite the fact that we often make our own balsamic vinegar dressings at home with extra virgin olive oil, oregano, salt and crushed red pepper. But I now know why crushed red pepper is not a big thing in Italy. With high quality products you don’t need a hot spice to overpower the excellent flavors of a good balsamic vinegar or parmagiano-reggiano cheese.

      Yes the price of the tour is very fair for what you get, especially since it’s also 11 hours! Bon appetite and happy travels, Heather! 🙂

  5. I have to agree that eating these dishes in Italy, with those impressive views seems like the perfect day. Did you take any home with you!? I fell in love with sheep’s cheese while there and we were able to take home a small wheel of it (from the grumbling of the customs office). but totally worth it.

    1. Hey Olivia! Yes I bought a chunk of 24 month aged parmigiano-reggiono to take home (sad we just finished it). Yes, you’re allowed to bring cheese back to the USA, but not meat. Hence the grumbling of the customs office, but ultimately they allowed you back in with it. Great you bought a small wheel of sheep’s cheese – that sounds delicious 🙂

      US, Australian and many other customs don’t allow people to bring meat back. Our guide Arianna knew this for Americans and told us we couldn’t legally bring the packaged prosciutto back to the US which was nice. It was the beginning of the trip otherwise I would have bought a bottle of balsamic vinegar as well as the 36 month aged cheese also!

  6. I love the additional remarks on dietary restrictions. I wonder if they could appease vegans since most of it is either meat or dairy? I think it’s pretty cool they make a point to help different restrictions though! I’d love to go back to Italy and this particular region.

    1. Thanks, Ashley! We appreciate getting this feedback from a vegan traveler. While the Modena food tour accommodates dietary restrictions, I’m not sure how suitable this particular tour is for vegans since it is quite meat and cheese centric. While the Emilia Romagna region is pretty meat centric, wonderful vegetarian pizza and pasta dishes are easy to find. Italy is a wonderful country to continue re-visiting. There’s so many great places to see. Happy travels! 🙂

  7. Wow!… I really love cheese that I am drooling now. I feel like Parmigiano-Reggiano Factory is a wonderland for me.

    I find it amazing how Italians are protective of their cheese. Perhaps, it’s because of national pride, but that is definitely an effective way of ensuring quality and value.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Cat Lin! Your comment has me drooling about Parmigiano-Reggiano all over again, lol.

      Yes, the regulations help preserve the quality and also protect the local trade of the product. I wish “feta” was protected in a similar way. Traditional feta is made from sheep or goat milk, not cow milk. But now the American dairy industry sells cheap quality cow milk cheese and calls it “feta.” And many American restaurants serve this. That’s a problem for me since I can’t digest cow milk well. So if I see feta on a menu in the USA I have to ask the staff about the authenticity of the product, rather than just being able to trust the feta name.

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