Four years ago I found myself rebuilding a house in Provence. We had attempted to use architects but not been able to find one willing to follow our instructions and so I had to do it myself with a very good builder who didn’t rate architects anyway.
At the outset we wanted to use tiles. Porcelain tiles are the best with ‘body colour’, they are harder wearing and, if chipped, do not show terracotta colour but the surface colour. Provence is expensive, and when we went to look in tile shops the prices were around 50 Euros per square metre before tax. The best tiles come from Italy, with 80% of the production in Sassuolo, a small town 17 km from Modena. A quick search on the internet revealed that the price in Italy for good quality porcelain tiles was 17 Euros. We were buying tiles for the floors, terrace, swimming pool and shower room walls. Later we decided to use tiles for the kitchen counter and island surfaces as well.
As is clear, there were great savings to be made by buying direct. More information was required. I looked up the price of shipping, having realised I could not do it myself in view of the weight involved (no HGV licence). Having found that out we decided to drive to Sassuolo and investigate.
We always like to use Agriturismo when we go to Italy. These are like farm B&B’s, often on aristocratic estates. A search on the Agriturismo web pages found us a place to stay in Riserva Naturale Salse di Nirano at a small fruit farm Pra Rosso.
We set off in October, the weather had just broken and there was a huge rain storm by the time we reached the Italian border. The rainstorm continued as we headed across the north of Italy, but abated as we started to head south to Sassuolo. The approach to the nature reserve was bizarre, it is as if you are driving through Surrey, bits of green, but always houses visible, and then you turn into the Riserva and suddenly you are in deepest country. It is an old dormant volcano, with hot mud forming cones two or three metres high as it thrown out of mud geysers. We arrived in the dark and were welcomed by a couple in their thirties with a baby.
My wife is a great communicator and already had some Italian. We were shown to a large and beautiful room. We were hungry after our trip and our hosts recommended the restaurant down the hill. This was not a success as the proper chef was on his night off, however, awaking refreshed we were served a wonderful breakfast on what is a fruit farm of seven hectares.
We talked with our hosts about what we wanted to do and struck gold. A family friend had been a director of a tile factory prior to retirement and we should go there. Not being totally naive we visited a few tile showrooms prior to arriving at the one our hosts recommended, but we were not disappointed. A charming young lady, Elizabetta, was summoned to deal with us as she spoke English.
The first thing she said when we asked to buy the tiles was that they would only sell by the pallet. I responded by saying I would be happy to buy three or four pallets, depending on the area of tiles on each pallet. She then mentioned the transport and I said I believed that the rate was twenty Euros per tonne for each 100 km. At that point she realised that I had the bases covered and admitted it would upset her company’s outlets in France. Elizabetta then said she would telephone an agent in France and we should go and have lunch and come back to see her at 3pm. Could she recommend somewhere in Modena? Of course she could and we set off to Osteria da Ermes.
We arrived at twelve thirty and it was packed with locals. Come back in an hour we were told, so we did. The customers sit on wooden benches and eat with whomever. There are long tables.
The local wine there is Lambrusco and the food is cooked by the wife of the owner and served by their children and is divine.
Three o’clock arrives and we are back with Elizabetta. She tells us that she has arranged for us to buy the tiles via an agent, delivered for 25 Euros per square metre, so a fifty percent saving for us plus some money for the agent, so we agreed. Now we have a day to look around Modena and find some balsamic vinegar to take home. Our host at Pra Rosso has another friend, this time we are going straight there.
The Villa San Donnino was built around the turn of the last century. The original owner was an art collector and had the inside decorated by the modern Italian artists of the time. Today it produces traditional balsamic vinegar. This is not the same thing as the balsamic on the supermarket shelves, which only became regulated in1983.
To make the traditional balsamic the must of the Trebbiano grape is first heated to reduce it. Then a battery of casks is used. The biggest casks have the youngest vinegar which is the most liquid. Each of the casks is made from a different wood. They are placed in the attic which gets very cold in the winter and very hot in summer. Casks are not sealed and just have pieces of gauze over the holes to stop fruit flies, or any others, from getting in. Each year ten percent is decanted into the next barrel down the battery and the largest barrel is filled up with the latest must.
The results are bottled by an independent body, with ages of twelve or twenty five years. The bottles are distinctive and only 100ml.
The owner had left us alone in a room containing priceless silverware and glassware whilst he took a phone call.
Later he served us some ice cream with some drops of Balsamic to sample it. We were convinced and bought a couple of bottles. After which he personally conducted us to his local restaurant with instructions to look after us, what a gent.
The restaurant was covered in signed photographs of the Ferrari racing team, including the patron. We were south of Modena close to Marinello where Ferrari (and Lamborghini) are based. This was the favourite restaurant of the team and frequented often by the team. As you might expect, the food was amazing, Emilio Romano is the food capital of Italy, like Burgundy is for France.
Unfortunately I did not get to visit the Ferrari factory, maybe next time. My wife wanted to go to the Ventimiglia market. This is a town just over the border from France. Unfortunately when we arrived we realised it had been polluted by Roma and was no longer pleasant/safe, so we headed home instead.
Eventually we arrived back and went to meet the agent in Hyeres to buy our tiles. We were looked at strangely when we arrived, none of their clients had ever done anything like it before, but there was definitely a lot of respect. We had saved a good 6000 Euros and had an enjoyable break in Italy, what’s not to like?
The tiles can be seen below.
More views can be seen on www.visitprovenceverte.com