I feel vaguely uncomfortable every time I hear the phrases ‘healthy eating’ and ‘balanced diet’. It’s not that I disapprove of eating healthily or balancing my diet, it’s just that I’m not sure we can ever know what these terms mean.

A recent article in The Guardian newspaper by Joanna Blythman highlighted the problem.

Can you be sure?

Click here to read the whole article. It’s worth browsing a sample of the 1,374 comments too. What tempted me to add my voice to the throng is that I think there’s something much more fundamental wrong with what we’re told.

I once took part in a UK medical research project aimed at discovering links between diet and women’s health. Every so often they asked me to fill in an online form giving details about what I’d eaten the day before. The designers of the project and the form clearly didn’t have me in mind. For example, in the section asking how many slices of bread I ate, they asked whether it was white or wholemeal, but there was nowhere to say I’d baked it myself using stoneground, organic wholewheat flour I’d bought from the miller. Nor to state it didn’t contain any flour improvers and was made by a long-rise sourdough method. Although I believe it’s healthier than mass-produced bread, do I know for sure? No, and this study wasn’t going to reveal the answer.

My Garfagnana potato bread is good, but is it healthy?

Another major problem with all dietary research based on surveys is that people lie. Do you want the researchers, or even yourself, to know that you ate three Kit Kats and drank a whole bottle of wine yesterday?

No Kit Kats in the house

And what about the problem of the long-term effects of particular substances? In the laboratory biologists can test the effect on animals of chemicals occurring in food, either naturally or as additives during cultivation or processing. But as far as I know it’s difficult, maybe impossible, to test the effect of ingesting that substance for 20 or 50 years.

The last of my doubts about dietary advice stems from genetics. We’re all different. One person might live to 100 eating nothing but red meat and fat, whereas another dies of a heart attack at the age of 52. Was it their diet or their DNA? Many years ago when asked on her 120th birthday to what she attributed her longevity, the oldest woman in France replied it was giving up smoking when she was 118.

On my tours you eat unprocessed food, much of it straight from the artisan producer. In my opinion it tastes much better than industrial food, but I can’t claim it makes you healthy. Next chance to taste for yourself is the Cheese, Bread & Honey tour in June (http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/component/content/article/2-small-group-tours/56-cheese-bread-a-honey).


Homemade food at a pizza party on the Cheese, Bread & Honey tour

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At noon on Wednesday 9 April in Florence, Dr Francesca Camilli of the Italian National Research Council will present a paper to the 1st  European UNESCO-SCBD* Conference on ‘Linking Biological and Cultural Diversity in Europe’.  Her paper is entitled: ‘The Garfagnana Model: exploitation of agricultural and cultural biodiversity for sustainable local development’.

One of her prime examples will be Cerasa farm, a mountain paradise which is no secret to my clients who have written rapturously about their visits (hereherehere, and here May 2012). Mario, Gemma and their daughter Ombretta are a fundamental part of a project, overseen by the Germplasm Bank set up by the Comunità Montagna della Garfagnana (now the Unione dei Comuni), to preserve the indigenous Garfagnina Bianca sheep.

White Garfagnana sheet

Thanks for saving us

If you’ve noticed some sheep lurking in the foreground of a nativity scene by Giotto, it could have been this breed, which was once common in the Apennine Mountains.


We've been around since at least the 14th century

Mario and the dogs look after the sheep.

Mario also makes salumi and loves to talk about tradition and the place (photo: Libby Saylor)

sheep herded by dogs at cerasa

He sends the dogs to herd the sheep

Gemma makes pecorino cheese and ricotta from their milk.

Gemma cuts the curd for pecorino (note modern milk cooler at back)

Ombretta dyes their wool with natural dyes and has them knitted and woven into saleable products.

Ombretta dyes in their half-traditional half-modern kitchen

Mario rears rams to sell to other farmers who want to join him in preserving the breed.

Ready to save the breed

Another strand of the Germplasm Bank project is the botanical station at Camporgiano. They have rescued dozens of indigenous varieties of fruit and vegetables. Besides being grown at the station, each variety has been entrusted to a custodian, a local farmer responsible for its propagation and preservation. I visited the station last year where the Director Dr Fabiana Fiorani explained their work.

Repository of indigenous agricultural crops

In 2013 the Garfagnana submitted several apple varieties to the European Pomological Exhibition at Limoges where it gained the distinction of ‘Custodian of Biodiversity’.

Organisers of the exhibition

Garfagnana apple saved for future generations

Watch this space for the announcement that I can take you to the botanical station followed by a visit to one of the custodians and lunch in their home. The next opportunity to visit Cerasa is during the Cheese, Bread & Honey tour in June.

The suspense of waiting for the curd to emerge from the whey

The UNESCO conference lasts for three days, during which dozens of international experts deliver research papers. It could be a big yawn, but judging by some of the titles, I for one would be awake. For example, a paper by J. J. Boersma of Leiden University is intriguingly titled ‘Could the rewilding of Europe be seen as progress?’, with the implication that the answer is ‘yes’. To me the most interesting theme is that biodiversity of domesticated plants and animals appears closely connected to cultural diversity arising from the traditions and identity of a place. Finding the balance between tradition and modernity may be the virtuous path to sustainable rural development.

Traditional (photo: K Barry)

Modern (photo: Barbara Wachter)

The mere fact of an international conference organised by UNESCO on the topic of biodiversity and sustainable development raises hope that the planet will not be entirely subjugated to the interests of agri-business. A more local, but equally important action took place yesterday, also in Florence, when Slow Food organised a demonstration against the introduction of GM corn in Italy. Fingers crossed!

No GM corn in Italy, per favore!

Find out more: Joint Programme Between UNESCO and CBD, Convention on Biological Diversity, Linking Biological and Cultural Diversity in Europe Conference programme, Les Croqueurs de Pomme

*Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, based in Montreal, Canada

Posted in FARM, sheep, TRADITION | 4 Comments

Last week I wrote about getting to know my clients before they even arrive. Often our friendship continues after they leave. There’s the chef from Santa Barbara who came on a private tour in 2009. I visit her and her husband, and now their young daughter, every time I go to see my sister in Los Angeles. When I send a newsletter, it’s such a pleasure when previous clients reply filling me in on what they’ve been up to. And of course some people return for more tours and courses.

Then there are the triumphs of participants on my courses. Stuart Busby, development chef for Laverstoke Park in Hampshire, England, came on the Advanced Salumi Course in February.

Stuart was a natural at tying Italian sausages

Laverstoke Park is an organic-biodynamic farm based on the principle that our health depends on the food we eat. Stuart went straight back and, using their farm pork, made the soppressata (a type of head cheese) he had learned from Ismaele Turri on the course. I heard from him shortly afterwards:

‘I entered two products into the Charcuterie section of The Great Hampshire Sausage & Pie Competition last week. We were awarded a gold for the soppressata and the judges’ comments were “only one soppressata fan on the panel but he said it was faultless”! We also entered Organic Beef Biltong which won a gold award and also best overall Charcuterie product for Hampshire 2014.’

Stuart's faultless soppressata (photo: Jon Reynolds)

I phoned Ismaele excitedly who said he was very happy for Stuart. I expect he was also proud to have had such an able student.

Ismaele weighs salt and spices for his soppressata

Soppressata is made from boiled pig’s head, and sometimes the offal is added too. It means something like ‘pressed from above’. After the hand-chopped meat is stuffed into a casing, weights are put on top and it’s left to cool overnight.

Ismaele's flattened soppressata the morning after (with biroldo on the left)

Stuart himself added: ‘Great things can still be produced from the humble pig’s head with a little spice and a lot of love!’

Posted in BUTCHER, Salumi | 2 Comments

By Gina Piazza and Heather Jarman

One of the great pleasures of organising tours and courses is getting to know my clients. Often this happens during the initial phases of communication, even if people are booking a Small Group Tour or one of our Courses with Artisans for which the dates and programme are already fixed. People ask questions, I reply and we get to know each other. A wonderful example of this is the emails between Gina and me as she and her husband from California were preparing to come on the Advanced Salumi Course which is taking place right now.

Gina in the plaid shirt with the salumi class of March 2014

ME (during the previous course): The course is going well. We had a good day yesterday. But one man on this course is having problems understanding because he has never done any butchering and doesn’t know pig anatomy. This reminded me of you telling me that you didn’t have any butchering experience. I think you will get more out of the course if you at least do some reading up on the internet and maybe look at some diagrams of pig anatomy.

GINA: I did help butcher a half hog just a few weeks ago!! I completely dissected the head and then helped saw it in half for roasting. I deboned the shoulder, cut rib chops, and trussed up a shoulder roast stuffed with garlic and herbs- it was fantastic!!

After the course we bought an entire hog head and I made pig head pozole- I’ll send pics later but it took 2 days to complete and it was delicious! Had some friends over and made a party of it-

Kirby and pig

See you in a few weeks! YAY!

Ps…Is it raining a lot?

ME: I’d never heard of pozole. Looked it up on the internet and got an ‘authentic’ recipe for pork shoulder and saying it takes 1 hour 45 minutes. Yours sounds much more authentic! Would love to see the photos.

We’ve just had three whole days of sun!!

GINA: We had to split the head in fourths to get it into 2 pots-

Pot-sized pieces

Boiled it with herbs for 3.5 hours…

How about a bigger pot?

…soaked hominy overnight then cooked all 2.5 pounds of it (dried white corn) for 3.5 hours, cut up 5 pounds of pork shoulder and boiled for 2 hours, then took 3 types of dried chilis and garlic charred them on an iron skillet, de-seed the chilis and soak the skins in hot water for 30 minutes. Blend garlic, chilis and chili water in a blender to make a paste that seasons the soup base. So you see, if I bought canned hominy, that would save time but taste horrible. I boiled and shredded the head one day…

Chopping the meat

…and make everything else the next- the broth from the head is amazing!! We put some aside to add to both a ramen and a Cannellini bean soup- delicious.


ME: Amazing!!! Your description and photos would be perfect as a guest blog on my blog.

GINA: Let’s do it! AND, tonight I’m casing 20 pounds of farce for Sbriciolona salami to dry cure for 4 months- I’ll document that too. We’ve made Cotechino, Gaunciale, and Cacciatorini as well.

ME: Great!! You’ll be able to teach the course by the time you arrive!

GINA: The day began with lots of rain so it was a perfect time make salami! We didn’t even change from our pajamas! I prepared 20 pounds of pork leg and hog casing the night before, then proceeded to turn the casing inside out with the awesome trick of running the water through.

Turning casing inside out

I ground the pork to stuff into the 20 feet of hog casing for our final product of fifteen, 1 yard each Sbriciolona salami, that will air cure first for 4 days in the shed, then for four months in a temp and humidity controlled stripped out refrigerator.

Filling the casing

Sbriciolona (finocchiona) ready for drying and curing

My husband, Kirby, also prepared 20 pounds of pork leg to make Cacciatori and spicy Italian sausage. I won’t bore you with the details of how we got to this point because in truth, our kitchen is small and tempers are short…..but, I’m still married and we poured a BIG glass of wine and toasted- to our salamis, that hopefully won’t crash down from the ceiling!


When Gina and Kirby arrived on the course we hugged and kissed on both cheeks like old friends! She’s excelling on the course.

Gina's first salami on the course approved by norcino Massimo Bacci

I’m eager to follow Gina and Kirby’s progress after the course, and I hope to visit them when I visit my sister in California.



Posted in BUTCHER, Salumi | 4 Comments

By Penny Barry and Heather Jarman

Penny writes about the opening of Bagni di Lucca’s celebration of women, and I add a few kitchen notes to the photos below.

March 8th is International Women’s Day, commonly known in Italy as Festa delle Donne, or, as my husband and I affectionately call it, ‘Donni Day’. To commemorate the occasion Bagni di Lucca stages Omaggio delle Donne, a week-long series of events and exhibitions at the historic Casino at Ponte a Serraglio. This year it included an exhibition by women artists, a photographic exhibition, music and poetry recitals.

Buon appetito! (photo: Penny Barry)

There was also a display of kitchen equipment from the 1920s to ‘40s, but was this stereotyping the role women? I don’t think so because Italy is a country where food is appreciated by both sexes with an almost religious fervour and both the producers of good ingredients and the skills of cooks are venerated. I think the inclusion of vintage kitchen utensils is a positive feminist statement and a celebration of women’s importance in this country.

Looking at the implements, it’s interesting to see how much has changed in the intervening years and to think about the origins of our modern kitchen gadgets.

- Penny Barry

Mezzaluna (photo: Penny Barry)

The curved blade with wooden handles is a mezzaluna, which is still used to chop vegetables and herbs. It’s quick and efficient once you learn the technique of walking it rapidly from back to front of the chopping board, and it doesn’t reduce everything to a mush the way a food processor does. Since your hands are above the blade, children can safely help chop providing they follow a few simple rules which they learn on my family adventures.

Using a mezzaluna correctly (photo: Tracey Meredith)

You can buy a mezzaluna in any kitchen shop in Lucca, but if you want a very special one, I’ll take you to the blacksmith Carlo Galgani, who makes them in his forge and adorns them with hand-turned olive-wood handles.

Artisan mezzalunas (photo: Janette Gross)

Hinged testi (photo: Penny Barry)

Not some mediaeval torture implement nor 18th-century surgical forceps, but hinged iron plates for cooking necci (chestnut-flour crêpes) over a flame, originally the kitchen fire but nowadays a gas burner. They are readily available in ironmongers (hardware stores), and I bought a pair several years ago. You grease the hot plates with half a potato dipped in oil or lard, pour a small amount of batter in the centre of the bottom plate, close the top plate onto it, cook for a minute, turn them over and cook for another minute. Mine are so heavy that I had to have Penny and her husband come round to help me turn them over at half time. Testi are also made of terracotta, which you see at sagras in the Garfagnana.

Terracotta testi (photo: John Morrison)

And just to show that testi are anything but sexist, men are as likely to be in charge of them as women.

Chestnut festival at Castelnuovo Garfagnana

Meat cleavers (photo: Penny Barry)

I don’t have one of these, because the butcher in Casabasciana does it for me.

- Heather Jarman