This sequence of photos taken at the monastery La Certosa di Calci (Pisa) speaks for itself. If you want to know more about my exploration of the Monti Pisani, click here to read my blog ‘Ring Around the Pisan Mountains’ on the Slow Travel Tour website.

Photos courtesy of Klaus Falbe-Hansen.

Full blog at:




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A couple of Thursday evenings ago I wrote a to-do list for Friday.  The first item on the list was to pick up some leaflets at Topo Gigio, the bar-trattoria in Fabbriche di Casabasciana, the village at the bottom of my hill. The leaflets advertised a concert on Sunday for the benefit of the centre for the elderly at Casabasciana, which I was helping to organise. Considering the length of my list, all the things I wanted to get done before the weekend, the sensible thing would have been to hop in my car and drive the 3.8 km (2.4 mi). But it was a warm, not too hot, sunny day, and I hadn’t walked the mulattiera in ages.

Mulattiera at the bottom of Casabasciana

People in the village used to walk down it to school or work and back up again at lunch time every day. It seemed a bit feeble not to do it. I strapped my pennato lucchese, a Lucca-style billhook, around my waist and invited my friend Penny to accompany me with her secateurs.

My pennato lucchese handmade by a blacksmith

Mulattiera translates as ‘mule track’, but this makes it sound a paltry dirt path. In fact, the mulattiere (plural) were the super highways of the past, often many metres wide, surfaced in rounded cobbles or flat paving slabs, with stone-lined drainage channels at the sides or down the centre. Where necessary they were stepped. In mountainous areas like mine, they ran along ridges, usually just below the crest. Although they frequently crossed streams and small rivers, it was at the top where the water course was narrow and presented no great obstacle even in the rainy season. They descended to the valleys of major rivers only where absolutely necessary to arrive at a destination on the other side of the river.

Broad mulattiera leading to fort on Monte Battifolle

This mulattiera traverses ridge below the crest.

Flat paviours on well-maintained mulattiera to Sommocolonia

Steps in the mulattiera below Casabasciana

Panoramic views make navigating easy

I’m not sure how old the roads in the Garfagnana are. It’s known that the Roman Consul M Claudio Marcello had the Via Claudia or Clodia Nova built in the 2nd century AD, and it’s likely that it followed an Etruscan road and possibly even earlier routes. The mulattiera that links Casabasciana with the valley is said to be mediaeval, but that’s the date people always attach to anything old. It’s about 4 metres wide and forms the main street in the village, descends about 100 m below the village and splits in two, the left fork diving steeply down to the pieve, the old romanesque parish church, and then continues to Sala, a hamlet of about 15 houses, which is linked by another mulattiera to the Liegora River which runs into the Lima River to the right. The other branch carries on straight down to the Lima, along which Fabbriche di Casabasciana is strung out.

Religious procession along Via Lastraco, Casabasciana

Via Lastraco merges with mulattiera at bottom of Casabasciana

I’ve learned from my neighbours that upkeep of the mulattiera was the responsibility of each family through whose property it passed. In the ’60s the present-day car road was built, and since then the mulattiera has been used less and less by the locals. Only the sections used by woodsmen, hunters of wild mushrooms and wild boar, and horse riders (mostly tourists) are now maintained, and even these denizens of the forest tend to favour newer dirt roads suitable for 4×4 vehicles. It’s to us stranieri, who arrive with the notion of nature as a setting for recreation instead of work, that the task of cleaning the mulattiere now falls.

The modern road cuts through the mulattiera at several places.

Tourist hiking the mulattiera to Sillico

Spring flowers attract naturalists

Penny and I set off at about 9.30. We hacked, slashed and clipped our way to the bottom by around noon. Some parts of the road had been cleared but others were thick with elder and acacia saplings intertwined with clematis (old man’s beard) and brambles. It was particularly galling to find that one household had cut their land down to within a metre of the mulattiera and hadn’t been civic-minded enough to cut that stretch of the mulattiera as well.

We pass a crumbling church.

Where's the mulattiera?

The mulattiera begins to emerge from the undergrowth.

A few final snips

A pulmonaria shelters at the edge of the mulattiera.

At Topo Gigio, arms scratched and bleeding, we bragged about our feat to the men playing cards or arriving for lunch, and taunted them by asking where they had been when needed.

Fabbriche di Casabasciana at the bottom of the mulattiera

Topo Gigio

It's THE place to meet friends and have lunch.

We took the exhortation above the bar to be addressed to us.

Above the bar the sign says:

‘O pilgrim, weary of your journey: stop, drink and then redouble your pace.’

A good lunch cures all pain.

Restored by the excellent worker’s lunch, I collected the leaflets and we set off back up the mulattiera. Even though uphill, it was much easier going this time.

If anyone knows of a volunteer work group skilled at repairing cobbled roads, please get in touch with me at They’ll receive warm hospitality at Casabasciana.

Posted in hiking, HISTORY, LANDSCAPE | 6 Comments

I know summer is here when I walk around Lucca in July and am confronted by larger-than-life paper sculptures: a phantom forest in Piazza San Frediano (1), a mythological armoured horse (2) under the loggia of the Palazzo Pretoria on the corner of Piazza San Michele, a surrealist right-side-up pear that morphs into an upside-down head up on the walls.

'Take Care' by Lorenzo Bergamini

'Kataphraktos' by Kamila Karst

The rules of the biennial international paper festival stipulate that all the materials used by the artists must be recycled. Sustainable environmental issues underly the themes of each festival. This suits Lucca. The province produces 80 per cent of Italy’s household paper (including Lu-paper) and 40% of its packaging and corrugated cardboard; and it’s Italy’s number one exporter of paper. Old, mostly derelict paper mills ornament many small valleys.

Old paper mill in valley north of Collodi

Another style with bales of recycled paper in yard

Nowadays the main Serchio River Valley is lined with ugly modern mills which I used to consider a blot on the landscape. They became bearable, even desirable, when I realised that they’re major providers of employment in the valley, and serve to keep families together and stem depopulation of rural villages.

This year I noticed an indoor exhibition entitled ‘Identità Liquide’ at Real Collegio, behind San Frediano. The most picturesque way to arrive is by parking in the free car park on the ring road outside the city walls and walking in through the passageway under the walls, coming out into the piazza in front of the Collegio.

Entering Lucca through its walls

The ground floor of the cloisters were furnished with attractive corrugated cardboard chairs and tables and an entirely functional table football game made of paper, in addition to an exhibition of paper creations by school children.

Surprisingly comfortable

It really works!

The grand high-ceilinged rooms of the upper floor were ideal galleries for a number of different international artists.  Here’s a walk through some of them.

Tella titled his show 'Utopian Dreams and Fanciful Scenarios'


If you keep your books in a damp library... can produce wild mushrooms.

Richard Sweeney's installation

Gianfranco Gentile: painter, musician & intellectual pilgrim

Gentile: Hard to believe it's a cardboard carton.

Gentile: The car coming straight at me nearly knocked me over!

One of Paola Bazz's paper mosaics

Cartasia is over for this year. If you’re planning a trip to Lucca, put July 2016 in your diary now.

For more information about Cartasia, Biennale d’Arte Contemporanea:

  1. ‘Take Care’ by Lorenzo Bergamini. Materials: white paper, corrugated cardboard, wrapping paper, cardboard tubes.
  2. ‘Kataphraktos’ by Kamila Karst. Materials: corrugated cardboard.
Posted in ART, Lucca | 1 Comment

‘The golden rules of authentic paella’ caught my eye on the ‘Food & Drink’ page of The Week (19 July). It reported that a ‘paella activist’ had founded a group dedicated to the preservation of Valencia’s signature dish. I signed into their website to explore more. In answer to the question, ‘Is there a unique authentic paella recipe?’ I read the reply, ‘Each zone and season offers variations and peculiarities, and there are as many versions as villages and cooks’. So why are they worried about variations in the recipe? In what does ‘authenticity’ exist?

Part of the answer must lie in the next sentence: ‘All of them use ingredients taken from the land. This is what nowadays is called Gastronomy KM0.’ The land is the territory of Valencia, and what can’t be found there can’t be used in paella. Maybe one should say, ‘what couldn’t be found there in the past’, but this raises another question of how far in the past does one draw the line?

It reminded me of the Slow Food Lucca Compitese’s successful efforts to keep alive the traditional zuppa alla frantoiana through their annual zuppa tournament. Many variations exist, but to stay true to its origin during the olive harvest at Lucca it must contain beans, cavolo nero, stale bread and extra virgin olive oil. It may contain other winter vegetables, but absolutely no zucchini even if they are now grown in hothouses and imported to the area. The same applies to tomatoes.

Risotto could use an action group too. It originated as a sort of rice porridge. The finished dish should be all’onda, as important a concept in cooking a risotto as al dente is to the correct cooking of pasta. The final consistency of risotto should be not too liquid and not too dry; when you shake the pan (a shallow, wide pan please) the risotto should form a wave (onda). How many risottos have you had that are more like paella? The website tells me, ‘As we all know, rice in authentic Paellas must stay dry and loose.’

Osso bucco and risotto alla milanese as served in Milan

This conservationist attitude to traditional dishes seems to be rare in England and the United States (and for all I know, in other countries too). Their citizens happily appropriate the names of dishes, but not the constraints. Any old dish made with rice might be variously titled ‘paella’, ‘risotto’ or ‘pilau’ with scant regard for their origins. I’ve had ‘cassoulet’ in England that was English pork sausage and tinned beans in tomato sauce. Some of these variations in foreign lands may be delicious, but why not give them different names? Risotto isn’t traditional around me in Lucca Province. Here a dish based on rice is usually called ‘riso ai funghi’ (rice and wild mushrooms), for example, on a restaurant menu. This neither capitalises dishonestly on a famous dish, nor distorts the public’s idea of what the true dish should be like.

So in addition to preserving traditional cuisine, let’s celebrate new untraditional recipes with creative new names.


Participants on the Advanced Salumi Course work with three norcini (specialist pork butchers) in three different parts of Tuscany. Recipes and methods change every 20 km, depending on regional variations and family traditions. If people stay for the extension workshop, they experience a fourth point of view with another family. They learn to make authentic Tuscan salami, prosciutto, and several other air-dried and cooked pork products. One of the lesser known of these are ciccioli, or grassetti as they’re called in the Garfagnana.

Grassetti (not cornflakes)

Grassetti are the crispy residue of producing lard, much used in the past for frying and baking, especially in mountainous areas at altitudes where olive trees are less well adapted than the pig. The process entails cutting pork back fat (without the skin) into cubes…

Ismaele Turri cuts up a whole pig's worth of fat (note soppressata in background)

…and rendering it over a low heat until the pieces are brown.

You need a large pot.

At first Ismaele stirs frequently.

Not ready yet

Perfectly done when they're a good bronze colour

Then the pieces of hot fat are put in a press to squeeze out as much liquid fat as possible.

Ismaele's father's homemade press

The much reduced pork fat is ladled in with a perforated spoon.

A wooden plug is fitted on top...

...and screwed into place.

The salumi class watches with fascination.

The resulting pork chips are salted and drained on absorbent paper.

Ismaele separates the flakes of crispy fat. Careful, they're hot!

Grassetti on carta gialla, absorbent yellow paper

They’re more addictive than salted peanuts, and chefs who attend the course realise immediately their potential as bar snacks.

Lard packaged for sale at Ismaele's farm shop at Agriturismo Venturo

Gina Piazza (whose husband Kirby Piazza took most of the photos in last week’s blog ‘Like the Seasons: the Life of a Cheesemaker’) came on the course in March and sent me this report in early June:

We had a press made by a welder friend and from 2 pounds of back fat we came up with a handful of ciccioli—but they’re amazing and I did it just as Ismaele makes it. I have 12 pounds of fat on order so maybe next batch will yield at least a few pounds. Now I have tons of rendered fat! 

Brava Gina! They look just like the ones you made on the course.

The Advanced Salumi Courses for winter 2014–15 are almost full with one place left on the November course and three places on the February course. For more details of the course see:

Posted in BUTCHER, GARFAGNANA, PORK, Salumi | 2 Comments