City guides (1) – Modena – a delightful city for the gourmet traveller

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One of the narrow streets of Modena

Eyebrows were raised when I told some Italian friends that we were travelling to Modena for a weekend trip. Although Modena is renowned in Italy for its liquid gold or Aceto Balsamico, Parmigiano Reggiano, salumi such as the culatello and freshly made pasta many would probably skip a visit to this buzzing city unless they are either Ferrari fans or else heading for a gastronomic experience at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana (see review here) or his new casual brasserie Franceschetta58.

Why, did they ask, are you heading to Modena, when you can visit other places like Bologna, Ferrara, Parma or Verona for example.

Modena is a very welcoming city with a buzzing historical centre which turns to life in the evening as the streets are jam-packed with people or flocking the many bars and cafes that are dispersed around. On a warm evening, crowds spilled onto the streets drinking cooling drinks such as a glass of the regional Lambrusco, which tastes so much better on location. Here you will also find what is becoming a new trend in Italy, a choice of many Italian artisan beers.

On arrival we headed to Caffe Concerto (Piazza Grande), which is perfectly located in the Piazza Grande overlooking the splendid Romanesque cathedral of Modena. On a beautiful day, the terrace is filled with people sipping espressos in the morning or having an aperitivo in the evening. The Caffe also has a great interior which must look particularly welcoming in weekends. The restaurant menu is extremely interesting with focus on quality ingredients and the staff were very flexible given we ordered food for the children despite the fact that the restaurant was closed for a private function. This Caffe is a great place for people watching and is also where most seemed to hang-out before heading to the more trendy area around Piazza della Pomposa with its thriving bars and cafés.

One of the stalls at Mercato Albinelli

Modena also houses a splendid food market, Mercato Albinelli, (Via Luigi Albinelli). When we visited the market, it was packed with locals making their daily shopping. The fare on offer was impressive, from different aged Parmigiano Reggiano to culatello, freshly made pasta to vegetables, fishmongers and meat shops as well as wine merchants selling top quality Italian wines from neighbouring regions. The shopkeepers are geared for tourists. Many things can be vacuum packed so if you are heading there make sure to leave space in your suitcase.

Like other Italian cities, Modena is also a great place for ice-cream. We came across Bloom Gelato (Via Farini), a splendid ice-cream parlour run by a passionate young ice-cream maker who is obsessed with quality ingredients. His ice-creams were sublime and he tasted some original flavours such as ricotta with an orange marmalade from Sicily for example.

If you want a great pizzeria, you should look no further than Pizza Erasmo. The place is full of locals and apart from the traditional pizzas also serves some special ones including the one I tried with straciatella di burrata and prosciutto crudo di Parma aged for 24 months as well as fior di latte.

A trip to Modena is not complete without a visit to Maranello, just a few kilometres away from Modena which is the home to the Ferrari factory as well as the Ferrari museum with a permanent display of over 50 cars.

The centre of Modena is full of boutiques.

A day trip to Bologna or Parma is only 45 minutes away by car.

We stayed at the Hotel Cervetta 5 (Via Cervetta). This is a nice 22-room hotel with an unbeatable location just next to the main square and cathedral and the Mercato Albinelli. Rooms looked better online but still pleasant and the hotel includes free Wi-Fi and a daily continental breakfast.



City guides

From time to time you will find city guides with my discoveries and recommendations. I do this first and foremost to keep track of the places I discover and also to share with you some of my discoveries. It is also an easy way for me to have an archive which I can share promptly with friends who ask me for tips of places I have visited. Please do not hesitate to drop me a line with your recommendations.

The first is from a recent trip to Modena.


Osteria Francescana – the pursuit of perfection

Italian chef Massimo Bottura is a genius who has brought Italian cuisine to a completely different level. If France is renowned for its obsession with classics and Spain is the culinary hub of innovation, Italy is steeped in tradition. It is a country which takes its critics seriously. I remember a football coach once saying that the country had 60 million football coaches. A chef, I am not sure if it was Bottura, once said that there are as many food critics.

These food critics will obsess about whether any fish dish should be served with cheese (this is a taboo for many in Italy) and I can understand why. Italians shudder to think of mixing cheese with fish for example though there are some very minor exceptions. You can normally spot an authentic Italian pizzeria anywhere in the world by looking for their Pizza Marinara. If it has mozzarella, the chances are it is not run by Italians.

Bottura, with his Osteria Francescana, however, plays in a different league. Having gone in search of inspiration in France and Spain among others, he shows an incredible respect for ingredients. Who else would have thought of coming up with a dish called the five ages of parmesan which just showcases one ingredient?

Or who could invent a reconstructed lasagna with a sumptuous ragu and a lasagna crisp?

The Modenese chef has reinvented classics. His dishes all tell a story and you sometimes wonder how he gets his inspiration. When you walk into his restaurant you realise that he is obsessed with modern art and it is obviously here that he gets most of his inspiration for his dishes.

While modern, Bottura is also respecting tradition. He is always in search of the past but tries to reinterpret dishes and give them a modern twist without trying to be clever or over doing it.

The meal at Osteria Francescana was one to remember. It was a pity that Bottura was not there but in Istanbul because I am sure the experience would have been even better.

The meal started off with a macaroon of tomato and mozzarella. The flavour of the tomato burst in your mouth. The lemon granita and limoncello foam cleansed the palate for the start of the sensations menu.


The first dish was exceptional. It was eel served with a cream of polenta and apple gelee. The eel was perfectly cooked, worked incredibly well with the apple and the polenta was out of this world.


What followed was a joy for the eye but also for the palate. It was a pate served with a jelly of Lambrusco, the regional wine, as well as a puree of different peppers, green, red and yellow. Visually the plate was stunning.


Next came the Caesar Salad or rather Bottura’s interpretation of this classic salad. You need to be incredibly confident to serve such a dish in such a restaurant. But he used the lettuce as a condiment to 23 different ingredients all stuffed within the leaves from egg to parmesan crisps, to mint and anchovies, to bacon and mustard, lemon and only the chefs know what else. This was outstanding.

This was followed by what Bottura’s calls a day out in the Modenese countryside, a dish which was not only a joy to look at but also excellent (see it here). The snails were hiding under the leaves and it was topped with a beetroot sauce.

The lasagna stole the show for its originality, with the ragu cooked sous vide, but not for long as we were then served with what was probably the star of the afternoon, the five ages of Parmeggiano Reggiano dish which I have written about here.


This was then followed by frog legs coated in hazelnuts and a pasta which gave the illusion of a pond. After this came a superb pasta dish, Bottura’s notorious “The dream of a Frenchman to cook pasta like an Italian.” Three ravioli stuffed with fois gras which burst with flavour making you wish there were more.

What followed was probably the best piece of meat which I have ever tasted. Pork cooked sous vide and then finished in a pan to crisp the top. It was served with a 45-year-old balsamic vinegar from Bottura’s private cellar together with asparagus and horse radish. What can I say. This was out of this world.


Next came a risotto cooked with olive oil and covering pigs cheeks, followed by an original dessert of strawberry sorbet, a pea cream, pea meringue served with fresh milk from Modena’s countryside.

Coffee was served with a medley of chocolates and sweets which as expected could not be faulted.

Verdict: Book a flight to Bologna which is only 30 minutes away from Modena and head there now before it becomes much harder to book. It is no wonder this restaurant is ranked number 3 in the world. Expect the unexpected. From Bottura you cannot expect anything less. Osteria Francescana will make you rethink what’s so special with Italian cuisine.



Bring on the World Cup

For a Maltese living in Belgium, this World Cup presents a new reality. Away from an island which is obsessed by football but whose national team would be lucky to win one match during the qualifying rounds, the decision as to which country to support as the greatest show on earth is about to kick-off is not a trivial one. Firstly, these are countries not clubs so normally everyone sides for his home country.

But back in Malta, 40 per cent will be routing for England, the other 40 per cent for Italy with the rest supporting teams like Germany, Brazil or the Netherlands. For many years, particularly when I lived in Malta my favourite team during such competitions used to be Germany. The team was more or less a sure bet and I particularly liked their resilience and temperament during major tournaments.

Living away from your country changes your perspective.  So to those asking who I will be routing for this World Cup the answer is pretty simple. Belgium is not my home country, that will always remain Malta. But for nearly nine years, Belgium has been the place I call home, the place where my children where born, where I have made many new friends and where I now feel nearly if not more at home than in my home country.

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The final training session before the long journey to Brazil

So, this year Belgium it will be. The football fever can be felt everywhere in the streets. Radio stations play World Cup tunes, all adverts in the streets are football related as are the adverts on TV stations. People have covered car mirrors in Belgian flags. Wherever you go in shops and supermarkets, people are talking about the Diables Rouges and getting excited about the team’s possibilities. The young Belgian team which is made up of football stars playing top flight football in England, Italy, Spain and Germany will probably not even reach its peak in this World Cup. Most players are still very young and will gain strength from experience.

This morning I went to watch a training session of the Red Devils before their departure to Brazil. The atmosphere in the Roi Baudouin stadium was electrifying. A crowd of over 3,000 people must have turned up to cheer the team before their long journey to Brazil.

Am I expecting Belgium to win the World Cup? No, that will likely be a South American team as has always happened in the World Cup’s history whenever the World Cup has been played in the South America. What I am expecting is for the Red Devils to be among the most exciting teams of this World Cup. With players like Hazard, Kompany, Lukaku, Mertens and Courtois to mention a few names, it is no wonder that expectations are high.



Kokuban – a great Japanese place in Brussels

Brussels is not just the heart of Europe, it is also a place with many hidden culinary surprises. You just need to know what you are looking for.

Japan has a special place in our hearts especially given the fact that my wife and I spent our honeymoon there and long to return back every time we remember that experience. So we are always on the lookout for Japanese places to eat. Sushi has become mainstream in most Western cities though I have only come across proper fare only on a handful of occasions outside of Japan. Two of them have been in Brussels.

You head to Kokuban not to eat sushi. There is no sushi to be found on the menu and this is clearly written on the black wall of the restaurant which seems to indicate that they have been asked many times for sushi.

The decor is bold – walls painted in brown and black. It is difficult to imagine but it does work. The place is buzzing at lunch time and in the evenings. It has an array of appetisers. Main courses include noodles, salads and typical Japanese rice dishes.

It serves authentic Japanese dishes at reasonable prices. Kokuban can be found just off one of the most well known streets on Avenue Louise just opposite the Vleurgat tram stop. If you haven’t tried it yet, head there next time you feel like Japanese fare. Even though there is no sushi, you will not be disappointed.


Jigger’s – one of Gent’s best kept secrets

We have been hearing about Jigger’s – The Noble Drug Store for quite some time now from our friends at Villa Bardon who have a restaurant around the corner from this place. By the way, if you haven’t been to Villa Bardon, then make sure to pay a visit when you are in Gent, Belgium. More about that in another blog.

So it was indeed great that I finally discovered one of Gent’s best kept secrets last Wednesday. Without knowing this secret, you will walk past this splendid cocktail bar and not notice it. But if you look out for the stuffed fox which is the the window, then you are bound not to miss it.

It opens early so if you are just visiting the city, then head there for an aperitif at around 5pm when it opens. Later, you need to make a reservation. You will have to ring the doorbell and then the cocktail barmen will come to open the door, take your jackets and give you a table or if you are lucky place you in front of the bar where you can watch the barmen making their splendid creations of cocktails.

One of the owners of Jigger’s was not there when I visited. It is, however, no wonder that he has won the “Best Cocktail Maker of the Benelux” for the second year in a row.

The cocktails on the menu, which changes very regularly, are incredibly creative using ingredients which you would not imagine in a cocktail. When I was there I tried a Gin, Soda, Sorrel and Aceto Balsamico cocktail which worked perfectly.

As you walk in they offer you a glass of water and then give you a big diary with the week’s cocktails. You can look at the cocktails that have been served in the past and may also try to order them though it depends on what is in season and the ingredients they have available. They are very flexible and can serve cocktails on demand, including the classics.

The atmosphere is American 20’s and the inspiration comes from the American prohibition which was named “The Noble Experiment” by the America government and where alcohol was prohibited.

At the Cocktail Spirits Awards 2013 the bar was named one of the 50 best cocktail bars of Europe underlining the quality of the experience and cocktails Jigger’s offers

By the way, if you smell a smokey flavour while sitting at the bar, it is because they are making a cocktail with a special kind of Chinese tea. The story we were told by one of the cocktail makers is that in the past, the tea was precious in China and to avoid robbers stealing the tea from houses, people used to hide it in chimneys were it got the smokey smell. They use it as a condiment to a Pernod and Lemon Juice cocktail. It is the next on my list when I visit next hopefully some time soon.

Verdict: Unmissable. Make sure you book unless you are going there for an aperitif. Be daring and don’t go for your classic cocktail favourite.

Address: Jiggers can be found in Oudburg 16, Gent and is open from Tuesday to Thursday from 5pm till 1am and Friday and Saturday from 5pm till 2.30pm.


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