Enea is one of the cheesemakers to whom I take my guests.
He lives on a farm at the end of a dirt road that runs along the top of a ridge. At the point where the tarmac runs out, there’s a vineyard. Bumping slowly along the rutted road you pass a house, then nothing for 10 minutes. As the nose of the ridge begins to dip toward the valley, you spy a ramshackle house with solar panels on the roof. If you come in July, you’ll think you’ve arrived at a farm machine museum until you see Enea putting his heritage wheat through the vintage thresher.
Enea and his wife Valeria are nearly self-sufficient. They have a herd of goats, two cows, a few chickens, a couple of horses, a vegetable garden, an olive grove and fields of cereals and hay. They’re hoping for another cow.
During the spring and summer Enea milks the goats every morning, makes cheese with their milk and then, with the help of his working dogs, takes them out to graze. The dogs are tri-lingual. I don’t think the goats are. On days when we’re there and he doesn’t go out with them in the morning, their complaints are perfectly comprehensible nonetheless.
On Wednesdays he makes sourdough bread. His bread shed contains a wood-fired oven and a tiny mill where he grinds enough of his heritage wheat for the week’s batch of bread. On Wednesday evenings he goes to town to deliver his produce to a group of friends who buy collectively
They’re self-sufficient for art and music too. Valeria paints and Enea plays the guitar. The solar panels and batteries keep them in touch with the outside world via their cell phones, computer and internet connection.
One of the guests in the last group I took there asked Enea why he chose to make cheese. He told us this story:
‘When I finished school, I knew I didn’t want to go to university, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I enjoyed helping a friend pick his olives. Then I rented an apartment from a cheesemaker with goats. He was French and made French-style soft goat cheese. I watched him and began to help him. I saw he was always smiling, and I decided that was the life I wanted.’
Enea is one of the cheesemakers who teaches our course Theory and Practice of Italian Cheese. Details at: http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/courses_with_artisan/theory-practice-of-italian-cheese/.
This is a true story about how cheese, history and a mountain village are inextricably entwined. It’s a long story because it goes back to Roman times. It has taken me 12 years even to begin to understand it.
You probably know that pecorino is an Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk, derived from the word for sheep: pecora. On the contrary, it’s the rare person outside Italy who knows that transhumance refers to the seasonal rotation of flocks and herds between different pastures. Even more obscure is the connection between transhumance and Saint Michael Archangel.
On 18 June a group of about 15 hikers, including me, stand expectantly in front of the church in the mountain village of Raggiolo, one of ‘The most beautiful towns in Italy’ (http://borghipiubelliditalia.it/project/raggiolo/).
We aren’t waiting for the Archangel, but for our guide Paolo Schiatti to lead us along an ancient transhumance route to a former shepherd’s hut on the crest of the mountain above Raggiolo where we get to watch pecorino and ricotta making and have a shepherd’s lunch. I’ve watched many shepherds make cheese, and I wonder whether here near Pratomagno in the Casentino (east of Florence) they make it in the same way as in the Garfagnana.
We learn from Paolo that the patron saint of shepherds is Saint Michael Archangel, but in Roman times the half-god, half-human Hercules was the favourite of pastoralists. According to Roman mythology he slew the fire-breathing monster Cacus who stole some of the cattle which he himself had stolen and was pasturing near Cacus’s cave. By one of those frequent transpositions of early Christianity, Hercules became the Archangel. In the New Testament Saint Michael defeats Satan to become a protector against the forces of evil.
Two feast days a year are devoted to the Archangel: 8 May and 29 September. In early May the shepherds took their flocks up to the alpine pastures. At the end of September they brought them down. From early mediaeval times they built shrines to Saint Michael along the transhumance routes. In the days when they wintered on the Maremma, the coastal plain of Tuscany, it took a whole week to walk to the alpine pastures above Raggiolo. We’re lucky we only have a 3-hour walk ahead of us, and no sheep.
The conversation about the Archangel might seem a distraction to a secular cheese lover wanting to know how Tuscan pecorino is made. Yet in Italy food and history are two facets of a common culture. The past spices the cuisine of today, and you can taste the difference between an industrial product made according to scientific principles and a traditional product made according to practices handed down through the generations.
Paolo’s way of encouraging us is to say, ‘Siamo arrivati’ (we’ve arrived) when we still have over an hour of the steepest part of the trail to go. At around 1000 m (3280 ft) we pass suddenly from the chestnut wood into a beech forest. The muffled silence might remind you of a sanctuary. To me it seems dead compared to the luxuriant undergrowth of a chestnut wood.
Casetta di Bùite
I always tell my guests that cheese waits for no man or woman. We’ve dallied too long. The cheesemakers, Angelo and Dino Luddi, have already added the rennet to coagulate the curd. Nowadays they use veal rennet which they buy from the pharmacy. They don’t lament the change from lamb’s rennet which they prepared themselves from a lamb’s stomach, even though the pecorino is less piquant.
They cut the curd using a wooden spino, an implement of the past. They use it not out of nostalgia but because it works well for the type of hard paste cheese they’re making. If there’s something modern that works better or is more convenient, they’re quick to adopt it, like the veal rennet. The past isn’t a prison.
Dino’s job is pressing as much whey as possible from the curd.
As we explain during our cheese course, in Italy where it was born, ricotta is NOT cheese. That’s official. It’s a dairy product. The casein proteins and much of the fat in the milk go into the cheese. The main protein left in the whey is albumin. The protein in egg white is also albumin. When you cook egg white, it solidifies, and that’s what happens to the albumin in whey when it gets to about 90˚C (194˚F).
With two large pots of whey to heat, this is going to take a little while. We suddenly realise we’re starving, and wander off to find some lunch. The courses are ready in random order stretched out over three hours. Actually, most Tuscan Sunday lunches last this long. What I take to be antipasto consists of panini of prosciutto and salami with two wedges of pecorino on the side, all excellent. The pecorino has been supplied by Modesto Giovannuzzi. He tells me the sheep are at Castel Focognano (near Bibbiena), but doesn’t volunteer who made the cheese.
I buy a wheel for the pecorino tournament at the end of our cheese course.
I check in with the ricotta. It hasn’t begun forming yet, but Angelo is adding some milk to the pot. I object that traditional ricotta shouldn’t have milk added. He agrees. He’s doing it to increase the yield for the big crowd today. He adds quietly,’The ricotta is much finer and smoother with nothing added to the whey.’ He moves over to salt the upper side of the pecorino.
Besides adding flavour, the salt slows down the lactic acid bacteria so the cheese doesn’t become too acidic and also helps draw whey out of the cheese—essential if you want to mature it for several months.
Around the corner of the hut, Modesto and his son Andrea are now busy making polenta dolce, a porridge made with chestnut flour instead of cornmeal. It saved the people of the mountains, the Garfagnana as well Pratomagno, from starvation during the Second World War. Some people never want to eat it again, but for most it’s the ultimate comfort food.
Drying the chestnuts, shelling them, sorting them and milling them is a winter occupation. You collect them after you’ve made your wine and before you begin harvesting your olives. In the days when the olive harvest took place at the end of November or even in December, your chestnut flour was already safely stowed in its chestnut-wood chests.
A sudden commotion back around the corner signals that the ricotta strands are forming.
Someone asks what the yield of ricotta is. Angelo doesn’t know, and I reply that for sheep’s milk it’s about 1.5%, but only half that for cow’s milk. Angelo says to me, almost accusingly, ‘You know the science, but we know the practice.’ He’s right. You could read every book about cheese and still not be able to make good cheese and ricotta. It’s the experience that counts, going back to your mother, uncle, grandmother, great-grandfather, and right back to your Roman ancestors and Hercules.
You could fill a small cookbook with the Tuscan recipes for stale bread: zuppa, panzanella, pappa al pomodoro, aqua cotta to name just a few; and scottina, a shepherd’s dish. After skimming off the ricotta, the remaining liquid is called scotta. Around me it’s mostly fed to the farm animals, although some people say it’s a refreshing drink and a good broth for soup. To make scottina, you leave some of the ricotta in the scotta and ladle it over the bread.
As we descend Paolo has an answer to every question I can throw at him and more. He tells me about how they preserved the chestnut flour by packing it into chestnut-wood chests to exclude the air. It was so tightly packed that you could cut it into blocks with a knife to take out the amount you needed. By summer it was a bit tired. To refresh it, they put it in a wood-fired oven until it turned dark brown and had an entirely different flavour. The conversation wanders to art history, politics, the problem of depopulation of rural villages like theirs and mine. Most people in the group have something to contribute. They own their history in a way I’ve never encountered outside Italy. Thank you Raggiolo for a thoroughly enjoyable and illuminating day.
You can learn about Tuscan cheese and experience for yourself our cheesemakers’ the strong sense of their history on our Theory & Practice of Italian Cheese course: http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/courses_with_artisan/theory-practice-of-italian-cheese/
Sant’Antioco is a small island off the southwest coast of the large island of Sardinia, an island squared you might say. It’s afflicted by two winds: the maestrale from the northwest and the levante from the east. One or the other blows nearly every day, but since they take turns, there’s always a calm sea for fishermen (and us) on the leeward side of the island.
On a bright spring morning the fishing boats are tied up to the quay, squeezed in side by side. Too many fishermen chasing too few fish. Many of them augment their income by offering pescaturismo, fishing excursions for tourists. I’m excited. For years I’ve wanted to learn about fishing in the Mediterranean, but it took a long time to find the right place and fisherman.
We arrive at our boat the ‘Alessandro P.’ and the live Alessandro, son of fisherman Mauro Pintus with whom we’re going fishing. Soon Mauro, his wife Roberta and their 14-year-old daughter arrive all lugging groceries. We climb aboard…
Read more about our idyllic day at sea at http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/gone-fishin/
Join us next April for more adventures on our Celebrating Sardinia tour: http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/small_group_tours/celebrating-sardinia/
Did you know that olive oil is the only common cooking oil that is the juice of a fruit? All the other oils we use in our kitchen come from seeds: sunflower, rapeseed (canola), peanut and grapeseed. This realisation leads directly to another question. Would you cut an orange, leave it on the counter for a week and then squeeze and drink the juice? Would you step on an apple, leave it on the table for three days and then eat it? Yet that’s what happens to many olives before they’re pressed to extract olive juice.
I’ve tasted and written a lot about olive oil, but this idea had completely escaped me until I met Elisabetta Sebastio last year. She’s a professional olive oil taster both for Italian Chambers of Commerce and international olive oil competitions. We ran our first full-day olive oil class during my Autumn in Tuscany tour in November. It was a revelation for all of us.
Learn more on the Slow Travel Tours website: http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/olive-juice/
The southwestern corner of Sardinia is called Sulcis. The word derives from the Carthaginian city of Solki. This is just one tiny example of the cultural palimpsest that makes up present-day Sardinia. Before the Carthaginians when the Phoenicians began visiting Sardinia in around 900 BCE, they encountered people of the Nuragic civilisation, which originated in about 1800 BCE. The ruins of their gigantic stone towers and settlements still dot the countryside; 7000 of them remain. Hard on the heels of the Carthaginians, the Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Spaniards, Pisans, Genovese and Piemontese all demanded their turns on the island. It’s no wonder that coming from Italy you feel as if you’ve arrived in a foreign country
But it wasn’t the distant past that drew me to Sardinia. Some of the women coming on my September ‘Tastes & Textiles’ tour wanted to visit a woman who weaves with the fibres of the beard of a giant Mediterranean mollusc, and they asked me to take them. Barely credible, I thought, but her workshop had a website which placed it in the town of Sant’Antioco, on the Island of Sant’Antioco in the territory of Sulcis. Here was the ideal excuse to visit Sardinia, which I knew only from its pecorino sardo cheese and Vermentino wine…
Read about how my adventure in Sardinia led to a new exciting tour: http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/celebrating-sardinia/
Find out more about the tour at: http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/small_group_tours/celebrating-sardinia/ (click on the tabs below the introduction to see all the details)
My Tuscany isn’t the manicured cypress-lined lanes of Siena and Chianti. It isn’t the great art and architecture of Florence. My Tuscany is Lucca in the northwestern part of the region.
As enchanting and perfectly formed as the city of Lucca is, it isn’t my Tuscany either. My Tuscany is the Piana di Lucca, the flat plains and low hills surrounding the city. My Tuscany is Versilia, the coastal plain to the west of the city. My Tuscany is the Media Valle del Serchio and the Garfagnana, the mountains and the Serchio River valley to the north of the city.
This is the territory you come to for your adventures with Sapori e Saperi (‘flavours and knowledge’). Some friends have made four short films capturing the essence of my Tuscany. Although they call it Part 2, I’m dishing up Lucca first.
If you’ve been on the cheese course (Theory & Practice of Italian Cheese http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/courses_with_artisan/theory-practice-of-italian-cheese/), you’ll recognise Monica Ferrucci and her goat cheese. Or, your feet might have helped Gabriele da Prato crush his grapes. Maybe you’ve attended the Disfida della Zuppa (Soup Tournament) and helped judge the zuppa alla frantoiana entries (read more about the Disfida here: http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/better-than-the-winter-olympics/). Or did you pick and press olives with me. If not, treat yourself to my Autumn in Tuscany tour in November (http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/small_group_tours/autumn-in-tuscany/). You’ll have a crash course in olives and their oil, you’ll also hunt for white truffles (and eat them) and, best of all, you’ll get to know a little bit of my irresistible Lucca.
A guest blog by Bob Schroeder
Bob, his brother Dick and their friend Cullen Case came on my Advanced Salumi Course. They wanted to make the most of their visit and signed up for a truffle hunt on the Tuesday afternoon after the extension workshop. Bob gave me permission to republish his enthusiastic report to his family and friends back in the States.
January 20, 2015
We went truffle hunting today. Lots of fun. Our guide actually trains dogs. He took Guy Fieri of Food Network fame on a hunt.
In case you don’t know, truffles can be found all year long. Although the white Italian and black Périgord truffles are the stars, they’re all good and well worth tasting. We have seven edible ones in Tuscany. After the hunt, we go back to Riccardo’s home for a truffle feast cooked by his wife Amanda. We sit in their kitchen sipping prosecco with the antipasti and get to be part of the family.
The cheese course group arrived 45 minutes late at Daniela’s dairy. She had already added the rennet, the enzyme that speeds up coagulation of the curd, to have the curd ready for our planned arrival time. Now it was past its best. We feared we’d ruined her day’s production of cheese. Daniela’s youthful appearance belies years of experience making cheese. She knew the curd couldn’t be used to make a hard cheese to be matured for several months, so we used it to make some soft cheeses: stracchino and raviggiolo.
I first went to visit Daniela Pagliai at her organic farm I Taufi early last June. I had learned about it from the address on the wrapping of some exceptional butter I’d come across at a gastronomia in Ponte a Moriano near Lucca. The wrapping claimed the contents were ricotta, so I assumed Daniela also made cheese, and I warmed to a person who wasn’t uptight about precision labelling. (Not that ricotta is cheese, but you have to make cheese first and then use the whey to make ricotta.)
The address of the farm was Melo. I didn’t know Melo, but I’d been to the picture postcard town of Cutigliano from which you ascend the Pistoiese slopes of the Apennines, it seems like forever, to get to Melo.
What appears on the map to be at the edge of civilisation, turned out to be a hub of pastoral activities with Daniela at the centre. On this first meeting she appeared self-possessed, only mildly curious about my tours and calmly accepting of my request to bring clients to watch her make cheese, as if life often brought novelties to her door. A warm honesty flowed from her candid smile and guileless eyes.
She showed me her modern dairy, the maturing room and the cows in the barn.
Her younger daughter clung to her apron; the older one arrived home from school.
I was much more curious about her than she about me. In the dairy she had fondled a spino, the wooden stick traditionally used to cut curds, so I knew she respected tradition.
I asked diffidently whether the cows ever went outside, and was relieved to hear they still practise transhumance, taking the cows to alpine pastures a couple of hours’ walk above where we were now. The cows have to wait until school is out and the whole family can up stakes and move to their summer home. We went to see it without them.
On a shelf I noticed a slim book entitled Come le Stagioni: Daniela Pagliai (Like the Seasons), a biography of her written by a friend from Pistoia in the form of an interview. I bought a copy and learned she was practically born making cheese. During school holidays she and her dog herded her father’s sheep. By the time she was 14 she was in charge of the pigs and all the phases of cheesemaking on the family farm. At 16 she married Valter and discovered that his contribution to the marital economy was a herd of milk cows. She moved to her in-law’s farm and transferred her cheesemaking skills to cow’s milk. After five years she and Valter realised their dream of buying their own farm and becoming organic.
In the book she sums up her philosophy of life:
‘I think there are many types of “love” all led by the heart. Without its beating, there can be no beginning. I’m not talking only of the beating that pumps blood through our veins, but also the beating for our children, our parents, our house, our land, our work, which are all united in one thing: love.
‘How can I explain to you how much I love my life and my work? How can I make you understand what I feel for my children and my husband? For nothing else in the world and no other life in the world would I change my own life and these loves.
‘For me life is like the seasons: moments of joy are like the flowers and perfumes of spring and like the ripening of its fruit and the embrace of the hot summer sun. Moments of melancholy are like the autumn with its rain, which sometimes also streams from my eyes, and like the winter, because you have to move with the rhythm of the snow, delicately placing your feet like the large snowflakes descending joyously from the sky, sprinkling the roof and our valley, and walking, walking lightly, toward a new spring.’
There was still snow on the ground when I took Giancarlo Russo to visit Daniela in preparation for our new cheese course.
He approved, and Daniela became part of the course in which Giancarlo teaches the theoretical sessions.
For more information about the Theory and Practice of Italian Cheese course: http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/courses_with_artisan/theory-practice-of-italian-cheese/
My thanks to Kirby Piazza for his photographs of Daniela and the farm.
This sounds like a question you type into Google, but it’s what my clients ask me when I’ve taken them to a cheese maker on a mountain top or a handloom weaver in an unmarked house in a higgledy-piggledy mediaeval hamlet or a village festival that’s only announced by the huge number of cars parked along the road when you arrive. I don’t ask Google. In fact, Google usually hasn’t even heard of the people you visit on my tours.
The answer is easy, but long. First, I live here (Google doesn’t). Second, I’m blessed with the ‘satiable curtiosity’ of Kipling’s elephant child. Third, I’m not afraid of appearing ignorant or stupid; the only way to learn is to ask lots of questions. Fourth, I go out and research everything that sounds exciting to me. Here’s an example.
During the last 24 hours I’ve been to the festival of Tappeti di Segatura Colorata at Camaiore, the Antro del Corchia, Ristorante Vallechiara at Levigliani di Stazzema, Miniere dell’Argento Vivo, tiro della forma sports club and Ristorante Pizzeria Al Barchetto at Turritecava, Gelateria Gely at Fornaci di Barga. It went like this.
Saturday 9 June
7.30–8.30 pm: Drive to Gabriella’s house in Capezzano Pianore, near Viareggio and Camaiore. Gabriella is one of my cooking teachers and has invited me to stay the night so she can introduce me to the treasures of Camaiore.
8.45 pm: Dinner with Gabriella, her husband Alfredo, her son and daughter-in-law.
10.00–10.15 pm: Alfredo drives Gabriella and me to Camaiore to watch the teams of carpet (tappeti) designers. Every year on the eve of Corpus Domini (a Catholic religious holiday celebrated on the ninth Sunday after Easter), patterned carpets of dyed sawdust (segatura colorata) are created on the paving stones of the two main streets of Camaiore. The enthusiastic artists work throughout the night so the public can view the finished carpets before 9.30 am when a religious procession walks along the streets and messes them all up.
10.15–11.00 pm: We join the throngs watching the carpet makers of all ages kneeling on the street to sprinkle sawdust in the correct places to build up complex pictures.
11.00–11.15 pm: Drive back to Gabriella’s house.
11:15 pm: To bed.
Sunday 10 June
6.45 am: Rise and shine.
7.00–7.15 am: Quick cup of tea (one English habit I haven’t forsaken) and a dry rusk with Gabriella’s homemade wild blueberry jam.
7.15–7.30 am: Gabriella and I drive to Camaiore. Sensible Alfredo is still asleep.
7.30–8.15 am: Wow!
8.15 am: Church bells ring calling the faithful to mass. Uh oh. That means the procession after the mass won’t start until 9.30 or 10. I have too much research to fit in today to stay, and besides that, who wants to see this beautiful handiwork trodden on? We change plans and head to Pasticcieria da Rosanno, Gabriella’s favourite, via a few exquisite little churches she tells me all about.
8.25–8.45 am: Coffee and the lightest Italian brioche I’ve ever eaten.
8.45–9.00 am: Start back to car but I’m sidetracked by Gabriella’s casual comment, ‘That’s a good gastronomia’, as we pass Salumeria Nicola. In we go. It’s difficult not to buy some of everything, but I only get a piece of special pecorino called ‘Scoppolato di Pedona’, which I’ll enter in the England vs Italy sheep’s milk cheese tournament during my Cheese, Bread & Honey tour the week after this.
9.00–9.15 am: Return to Gabriella’s house and I hastily depart.
9.15–10.00 am: Drive to Antro del Corchia, a cave I’m vetting for a family for whom I’ve designed a tour in July. In my haste to make the 10.00 shuttle bus, I drive right past the turning to Levigliani and have to go back. That’s one reason why I do these reccies. No time to buy a ticket, but I’m waved onto the bus anyway.
10.15–12.15 am: I’m no cave expert but the woman next to me is, and she’s impressed by the three underground lakes, a column that looks like a Golden Eagle plus a ‘petrified forest’ and ‘organ pipes’, and I’m relieved to hear that extensive tests have proved our breathing is but a drop in the ocean in such an enormous cave, the largest in Italy. No photos allowed in the cave.
12.15 pm: I was intending to go straight to the Miniere dell’Argento (silver mines), but naturally they’re closed for lunch. There’s nothing to do but take the guide’s advice and have lunch myself at the Ristorante Vallechiara at the other end of Levigliani. I phone Katherine, my communications manager, and tell her I’ll be late for the tiro della forma (cheese throwing) in the afternoon.
12.30–1.45 pm: I arrive at Vallechiara without a reservation. No worries. Mamma welcomes me into a pleasantly buzzing dining room where her son lays a table for me right in front of the speakers and mixing deck. I ask whether they can be turned down. No, but he lifts up my table and sets it behind the speakers, where the sound is muffled. A plate of pasta fritta (irresistible deep-fried bread dough), wine and tap water appear instantly (many restaurants make a fuss when I ask for tap water and my friends shrivel with embarrassment).
The son joins mamma and a waitress carrying around huge trays of antipasto. Bruschetta, four crostini, salumi and melon, olives and a few other delicacies land on my plate before I can order. It turns out Sunday lunch is a fixed menu. No choice, but who can complain about what’s delivered?
1.45–2.15 pm: I have to be at the mine by 2.00, so no time (or room) for the second main course or dessert. I go to the bar for coffee and to pay. After 10 minutes the son arrives and tells me with a grin it’s much harder to pay than to eat in this restaurant. He sends a woman from the kitchen to make my coffee, but she doesn’t accept money. Finally another man arrives and I’m allowed to pay €20 for my delicious lunch that could have fed three. Incredible!
2.15–3.00 pm: Drive to the Miniere. The next tour starts at 3.00, so I sit in the sun. Someone greets me as a group emerges from the mine. It’s Nicolas Bertoux, a sculptor. I haven’t seen him and his sculptor wife Cynthia Sah in a few years. They’ve got more commissions than they can handle, and they’ve restored the studio and have a permanent collection in their private museum. I must come and bring my guests. I will.
3.00–3.30 pm: We don our hard hats and enter the mine. It’s not a silver mine after all. It’s a mercury mine, one of the rare ones where free mercury sits around on rock ledges in little globules. It’s fascinating, but I’m so late for the cheese throwing that I tear myself away before the end of the tour vowing to return.
3.30–4.09 pm: Up over Cipollaio Pass (no one can tell me why it’s named for an onion field or seller), past the disused marble quarry I take my clients to, down past Isola Santa with its houses with stone roofs. I love driving on the curvy mountain roads. Maybe I’ll become a rally driver as my next career. Through Castelnuovo and down the Serchio valley to Turritecava, left at the sign to Pizzeria Il Barchetto (little boat) and down to meet Katherine and her husband Andrea — I suspect I’ll need a man at the cheese-throwing sports club.
4.09–5.30 pm: Tiro della forma, which means ‘cheese throwing’, is a traditional sport of the Garfagnana. In Cheshire, England, there’s an annual cheese rolling competition, but it’s a tame game compared to this pecorino-hurling sport that goes on throughout the year. I’m here to have a look and talk to the owner of the club about bringing guests, especially during the ‘Cheese, Bread & Honey’ tour. We’ll be making our own pecorino, so why not toss it around too?
I watch the pros and suspect a cricket bowler would be envious of their technique.
See it in slow motion on our Facebook page.
Matteo, the owner, is all in favour of Sapori e Saperi guests. Especially if we dine at his pizzeria. On the edge of his fishing lake, we find the cheerful staff clearing up after a wedding party; we check out the wood-fired pizza oven and approve the excellent menu of other typical local dishes. For half a second I contemplate sticking around until 7.00 for pizza, but add it to my future research list and opt instead for an artisan gelato in Fornaci di Barga.
5.30–5.45 pm: Drive to Fornaci di Barga.
5.45–6.15 pm: Behind the counter of Gelateria Gely is a tall, dark, handsome stranger, the owner Paolo Citti. I’ve heard from Debra Kolkka (Bagni di Lucca and Beyond blogger) that he takes his ice cream seriously, and I want my clients to benefit from his long experience. I had already tasted his gelato the week before and compared it to three other gelaterias in the area: it’s in a class of its own. At first he’s wary. Maybe I’m a competitor, his recipes are secret, his laboratory is tiny, he’s very busy in the mornings making ice cream for his two shops. I tell him about the other artisans I take my guests to and about how important I believe it is for people to learn directly from artisans how much better their food tastes and why. I win him over in the end. We’ll have a go. I can bring up to three people (I bet he wouldn’t turn four away) for a lesson in the afternoon. Who’s going to volunteer?
(The news shop across the road is selling parmesan damaged in the earthquakes. Everyone is pitching in to help the producers.)
6.15–6.45 pm: Drive home weary but exhilarated by the results of my research. Everyone I met was kind and welcoming. They were all enthusiastic about helping me and my clients discover the best of Italy.
Yesterday I took three generations of women to Vitelina’s dairy to learn to make ricotta and then to Beatrice Salvi’s hotel for a lesson in baking a traditional Garfagnana ricotta pie.
You can’t make ricotta unless you make cheese first, so the added bonus was they learned to make goat’s milk cheese too. Before we arrived Vitelina had spent 2 hours milking 70 of her goats. She heated 60 litres of unpasteurised milk to blood temperature and added rennet. By the time we arrived, the milk proteins had coagulated to a gel and were ready for Liz, one of the guests of Sapori e Saperi, to have a go at cutting it to separate the curds and whey.
Vitelina showed Maggie and Abby how to gather the curd which turned out to be harder than they thought, but they had fun feeling around for the curd at the bottom of Vitelina’s grandfather’s tinned copper pot.
Vitelina learned from her grandfather and father and makes goat’s milk cheese and ricotta twice a day. After a little experience it’s really very easy.
Notice that the curd is white but the liquid in the pan is yellow. That’s the colour of whey. Now the ricotta lesson begins. Vitellina turns the burner on high to start ‘recooking’ the whey. Ricotta means recooked and it can only be made from the whey. That’s why you have to get all the cheese curds out before you can make it. And by the way, almost all the fat and lactose come out with the curds. While the whey is heating up, Maggie helps Vitelina press the remaining whey out of the cheese and Vitelina adds the whey to the pot.
When the whey gets near boiling, the albumin protein molecules in the whey denature, which means they aggregate to form white strands, just like when you boil an egg and the previously clear egg white turns from yellow to white. The white strands are ricotta. Luckily they float so you don’t have to plunge your arms into boiling whey. You just skim them off the top and tip them into the ricotta mould.
Vitelina gives us some warm ricotta to taste. Everyone exclaims in unison: ‘Delicious! It’s nothing like the ricotta we buy in the States. This is so much better.’ Since ricotta is virtually fat free, they’re also bewildered as to why in the States there are two types of ricotta: full fat and fat free. I’m bewildered too and cynically guess it’s a marketing ploy. If anyone knows the answer, please leave a comment.
Clutching our precious ricotta we go to lunch at L’Altana, my favourite restaurant in Barga. The cooking is excellent, but what I love about it is that the staff are equally good. One of our group is coeliac, and as soon as I tell our waitress, she goes off and comes back with a menu on which the items without gluten are marked. Since the menu changes daily, she’s done it specially for us.
Then we walk to Villa Moorings Hotel where the owner, Beatrice Salvi, teaches us to use our ricotta in the traditional Garfagnana torta squisita, which means ‘very delicious pie’. First we make pasta frolla, a sweet pastry made of flour, egg, sugar, baking powder and melted butter. It’s the basis of most pastry in our area. The eggs come from Beatrice’s father’s farm. The yolks are deep orange, nearly red, and the whites are yellow and thick.
The filling is made of ricotta, eggs, sugar, chocolate chips and a little Sassolino, an anise-flavoured liqueur. Goat ricotta is ideal for filling ravioli, but Beatrice and I were worried that it would be too strong for the pie and Beatrice had bought some industrial cow ricotta just in case. Everyone tasted both of them except Beatrice. She said she didn’t like ricotta! I’m afraid I’m a bit of a bully when it comes to tasting, and finally she took a tiny spoonful of our goat ricotta. I wish I’d got a photo of the smile on her face. The industrial ricotta was a tasteless paste by comparison. We used our artisan ricotta, and the torta squisita, topped with a thin meringue, was truly delicious.
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