‘Going to the farm and having lunch there was so very special. We all enjoyed everything about the day. It is surely one we will remember forever!’
So wrote Janie Trayer about the day tour she and her group of five women took with me. Panini Girl (Janie Trayer’s blogging name) and I share a love of Italy. Hers is in her blood, having inherited it from Italian grandparents, whereas I dug mine up as an archaeologist only a few decades ago. We both came to Italy recently to find a life we had heard about or knew in the past. We didn’t feel like tourists, but we discovered people and places we wanted to share with others and we’ve both ended up leading tours to Italy.
Because of her Italian background Janie found a different Italy from mine. She contacted me because she wanted to include one day out of her urban-based tour connecting with rural people and food. She asked me to take her group to a cheesemaker in the Garfagnana, since she hadn’t been able to find one by searching the internet. Most of the farmers, artisan food producers and craftspeople I take people to meet are invisible electronically. The telephone landline at Cerasa, the farm we visited, functions only intermittently; they have an unreliable email address and no website. None of the family speaks English. Yet the Cavani family are the most important component in a government initiative to preserve the traditional Garfagnina Bianca breed of sheep.
We approached the farm, situated in a clearing high up on the wooded slopes of the Appennine mountains, on a single-track road. It was only paved last summer and is still strewn with rocks loosened by the herds of goats that wander sure-footedly on the scree above the road. The going was slow, but Marzio Paganelli’s expert driving got us to the farmyard safely, and as we stepped out amid tail-wagging puppies and parti-coloured hens, we were greeted by Mario, Gemma and their daughter Ombretta. Gemma had already added rennet to the warm sheep’s milk, so we hurried into the little dairy at one end of the house to watch her cut the curd into tiny pieces with a stick.
While the curd was settling to the bottom of the pot, we went down to the cellar where previous weeks’ cheeses were maturing, along with Mario’s pancetta and salamis. Outside on the slope above the house we marvelled at the enormous chestnut trees that are also under the care of the Cavanis. Each tree is identified by a name plaque that also gives its date of birth, several going back to the 17th century.
Back in the dairy Gemma plunged her arms into the pot of whey and gathered the curds at the bottom into a huge mass which she lifted to the surface, cut into three pieces and put into plastic perforated moulds to allow the whey to drain out of the cheeses. She handed samples of the warm unsalted curd around for all to taste. Then she relit the burner under the pot of whey in order to make ricotta, which means ‘recooked’. When it gets nearly to boiling point, the albumin proteins (same ones that are in egg whites) denature into white strands which are skimmed off and put into plastic baskets with sloping sides. It was too hot to taste immediately, but we had it for dessert with homemade blueberry jam. Heavenly!
The large dining room doubles as an exhibition space and shop for Ombretta’s hand-dyed woollen garments and rugs, woven or knitted from the wool of their sheep. She’s experimenting with making dyes from local plants and had achieved a warm brown from chestnut shells. Having chosen some irresistible pieces, we all sat down to Gemma’s homemade pasta and ragù, stuffed chicken thighs, pecorino cheese (of course) and that incomparable ricotta.
We could have sat in the sun on the terrace all afternoon, but Ercolano Regoli was expecting us at his water mill in the valley. Having bought some of the formenton otto file maize that we watched coming off the grindstone, we headed back toward Lucca, stopping in Barga and then at the Devil’s Bridge.
Despite the long day Panini Girl still had the energy to blog at the end of it. You can read what she wrote about the day on the farm and find out about her autumn tour at: http://paninigirl.wordpress.com/.