A Tour Sprouts

I’ve long wondered how to incorporate the rich agricultural heritage of the Lucca plain into a tour. Watching a bean stalk grow would try the patience even of a very slow traveller.

On Thursday I visited the organic farm Favilla in the suburbs of Lucca, where I was welcomed by Andrea, the owner’s son. As he spoke about his farm and its crops, the words tumbled out of his mouth and his face was alive with the enthusiasm he and his family devote to their project. The list of crops is long leaving no season without its fruits: wheat, vegetables and fruit.

Pasta Favilla

Andrea clutching his wheat and pasta

To find out more about the small group tour germinating at Sapori e Saperi Adventures, read the rest of my blog at http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/a-tour-sprouts/. Read to the bottom of the blog and you’ll find a special offer.

Save the dates: 2–9 July 2017.


Garfagnana: My Tuscany part II

The Garfagnana and Media Valle del Serchio (Middle Valley of the Serchio River) is my home and the base for many of Sapori e Saperi’s tours. If you’ve been here with me, you might remember that the Serchio is the third longest river in Tuscany. Wild, rugged mountains ascend on both sides of its valley, their rocky ledges bearing stone villages and cultivated terraces.

(Although something is wrong with the sound, the pictures say it all.)

It seems improbable that so many riches lie hidden in my Garfagnana. It’s the legendary pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I feel fortunate to have landed here by chance. The people are full of pride and determination to carry forward their traditions. They hope you’ll come share their Tuscany with them.

(Note: Farro IGP della Garfagnana is Triticum dicoccum or emmer in English, not spelt which is Triticum spelta. Emmer is an ancestor of spelt. I was finding emmer on Neolithic sites in Italy when I was an archaeologist on the Early History of Agriculture Project at Cambridge University.)

Posted in beans, BEEF, BEER, BREAD, cheese, CHESTNUTS, fagioli, FARM, GARFAGNANA, LANDSCAPE, latte, milk, POLENTA, PORK, RICOTTA, Salumi, sheep, SOUP, TRADITION, Tuscany | Leave a comment

My Tuscany part I

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.

Lucca Province is in northwestern Tuscany

There’s Lucca in red, 30 minutes inland from Pisa.

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.

The four geographic and economic zones of Lucca Province

The four zones of Lucca Province. I live in the Valle del Serchio, near Bagni di Lucca.

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.

Posted in beans, cardoon, cheese, fagioli, FARM, Lucca, OLIVE OIL, SOUP, TRADITION, Tuscany, WINE | 2 Comments


On 23 December as I looked over my menu for Christmas lunch, I was struck by the generosity of my Italian friends and producers. I realised I didn’t have to buy most of the ingredients I needed! They were gifts people had thrust upon me over the last two or three months, not just Christmas presents, but as part of their culture of giving. You share what you have, especially what you make yourself.

So many gifts!

So many gifts!

To find out the story behind the gifts read my new blog over at Slow Travel Tours: http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/generosity/

Posted in cheese, CHESTNUTS, COOKING, LIFE, OLIVE OIL, weaving, WINE | Leave a comment

Seasonal Eating: Cardoons Revisited

In England when I used to prepare historical feasts for Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, I pined futilely for a cardoon farmer. Cardoons cropped up regularly in recipes of the 17th and 18th centuries. I finally persuaded a friend to grow them on his allotment, but he planted them next to his artichokes, which are nearly identical, and couldn’t remember which was which. In culinary terms it matters; you eat the flower of an artichoke, but the stem of a cardoon. I can’t find any advice on what would happen if you ate the stem of an artichoke, and I didn’t try.

These are definitely artichokes (photo: Marion Edwards)

These are definitely artichokes (photo: Marion Edwards)

Cardoons are common in Italian shops and markets from November to February. Although they are completely unrelated, they look like giant celery but surprise with a flavour of artichoke hearts. The heads come in two shapes, depending on how they’re grown: straight stalks which are called cardi, and curved ones called gobbi. Gobbo means ‘hunchback’, and touching an amulet of a gobbo is said to bring good fortune. Whichever the shape, the cultivation and preparation of cardoons is fiddly. During their last month in the field, the stems are blanched like celery, by piling up the earth or tying straw or paper around them so they lose their chlorophyl and become creamy white. If you’re growing them gobbo-style, you bend them in half before covering them with soil.

Cardoons at Cinzia's market stall (Formoli, Bagni di Lucca)

Cardoons at Cinzia’s market stall (Formoli, Bagni di Lucca)

In the kitchen you de-string them, cut them into chunks and boil them in acidulated water to keep them from rusting. They’re good eaten hot simply with a drizzle of this year’s extra-virgin olive oil. In the Abruzzo a traditional Christmas lunch begins with a soup of cardoons and meatballs.

I’ve recently tried a Lucchese recipe for using up leftover bollito (boiled beef): infuse olive oil with garlic and sage leaves over a low heat, add chunks of boiled cardoons and sauté until they start to brown, add the boiled beef cut into cubes, stir well, deglaze the pan with white wine, add a few tinned tomatoes (not tasteless winter tomatoes) and simmer for 15 minutes. As long as you go light on the tomatoes, the flavours balance each other perfectly.

Cardoon in typical Lucca dish

Lesso rifatto con cardoni (boiled meat redone with cardoons)

Nutritionally cardoons are star players. They are said to have a fortifying and bracing effect on the stomach, protect the liver, reduce cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Who knows, maybe they’re the elixir of youth.

There’s an old variety called cardo gobbo of Nizza Monferrato from the province of Asti in Piedmont. Being on the brink of disappearance, Slow Food has recognised it as a presidium. It grows on sandy soil with no fertilisers, chemical treatments or irrigation. Sown in May, by September the tall luxuriant stalks are ready to be bent over and covered with soil. The Slow Food website describes the plant dramatically attempting to liberate itself to get to the light. In the process of its struggles, it swells up and turns pure white. Once harvested and cleaned, it’s the only cardoon that can be eaten raw, and is an indispensable ingredient of bagna cauda, the typical Piemontese warm sauce based on garlic, extra-virgin olive oil and anchovies. Continuing the purple prose, ‘It’s not merely a dish but a convivial ritual.  Simmering in the centre of the table in an earthware terrine, the diners dip the pieces of vegetable and bring them to their mouths, catching the oil on a chunk of bread.’ If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to Nizza Monferrato right now.

Postscript: Some ingredients draw me to repeated research. I had written this piece before discovering that I also wrote about cardoons in January 2013: http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/seasonal-eating-4-cardoons-2/

Posted in artichokes, cardoon, VEGETABLES | 4 Comments

Autumn in Tuscany

I can never decide which season I like best. The one I’m in always wins. Here are five reasons to love autumn.

Sweeping multicoloured vine leaves

Sweeping particoloured vine leaves


Picking olives with friends

Picking olives with friends…


And  going to the olive mill and tasting the new olive oil

…and going to the olive oil mill and tasting the new extra virgin oil

Hunting for white truffles with Riccardo and Turbo…

And eating them

…and eating them

You can do all these things with me (perhaps not sweeping my terrace), during my new small-group tour called ‘Autumn in Tuscany’. Read more about it in my blog on the Slow Travel Tours website at http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/autumn-in-tuscany/ and see all the details at http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/small_group_tours/autumn-in-tuscany/ (click on the row of tabs below the introduction). It’s my favourite season… until winter arrives.

Posted in holidays, LANDSCAPE, OLIVE OIL, TRUFFLES, Tuscany | 2 Comments

Lessons from a Fish Stew

You don’t have to loiter long in a bar in Italy in a small town or village to hear evidence of campanilismo. It’s part of the Italian nature to be convinced that the customs, food, landscape and architecture in the shadow of his or her campanile is best and, furthermore, that the people of the next town are stupid, stingy, lazy, rogues or worse. This is nowhere better demonstrated than in the case of cacciucco (pronounced catch-chooc-co). Cacciucco is a typical Mediterranean fish stew and is the cause of much playful, sometimes acrimonious, banter between the towns of Livorno and Viareggio, on the coast of Tuscany. As Emiliana Lucchesi puts it: ‘There is as much discussion about the “citizenship” of cacciucco as about the sex of angels’ (Cucina di Lucchesia e Versilia).

The one and only cacciucco  alla livornese (photo: Associazione Cacciucco Livorno)

The one and only cacciucco alla livornese (photo: Associazione Cacciucco Livorno)

To find out much more about cacciucco, Italian customs and language read the whole blog at http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/lessons-from-a-fish-stew/

Posted in HISTORY, Italian language, SEAFOOD, SOUP, Versilia | Leave a comment

In Search of Pecorino

At the end of my Theory & Practice of Italian Cheese course, I organise a little game: an England vs Italy sheep’s milk cheese tournament.

Pecora means sheep and pecorino is sheep's milk cheese.

Pecora means sheep and pecorino is sheep’s milk cheese. (Photo: Antonella Giusti)

This entails a trip back to the UK immediately before the course to go to Neal’s Yard Dairy where I can always find a few excellent sheep cheeses. For the May course I did my shopping instead at the annual Artisan Cheese Fair at the old Cattle Market in Melton Mowbray. Although in its fifth year, I had never heard of it, but being featured by the Specialist Cheesemakers Association, I figured it would be worth the trip to Leicestershire, a direct train journey from Cambridge on the line to Birmingham, from where my friend Amanda joined me.

The sign at the station was promising.

The sign at the station was promising.

The route to the Cattle Market took us past St Mary's church, but the field of sheep had long since disappeared.

The route to the Cattle Market took us past St Mary’s church, but the field of sheep had long since disappeared.

We passed through the busy Saturday market in the town square.

We passed through the busy Saturday market in the town square.

Photo: Heather Jarman

A young farmer teaches us good manners.

Melton Mowbray is best known, to me at least, for its pork pies.

Note the wooden pork pie moulds. Later we meet a man who uses them.Photo: Heather Jarman

Note the wooden pork pie moulds. Later we meet a man who uses them.

It’s also one of the counties, along with Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, in which Stilton is allowed to be made. (Stilton, like Parmigiano Reggiano, is a registered product with a Protected Designation of Origin.)

Here we are.

Here we are.

Unlike the market in Cambridge, which is today a ‘cattle market’ in name only, the one at Melton Mowbray still functions every Tuesday morning. I make a resolution to come back to witness the livestock auction.

A drover is a herd or flock of animals being driven.

A drover is a person whose occupation is herding sheep or cattle, especially to or from market.

Reminds me of hotel rooms waiting for their guests.

Reminds me of hotel rooms waiting for their guests.

Sheep, please pay attention!

Attention all sheep!

Turning to the entrance to the cheese fair opposite, we find the entrance fee is only £2 and admits you not only to the area populated with vendors’ stalls, but also to a series of cheese classes and tastings.


The queue at the entrance moves quickly.

Full of cheese lovers

Already it’s full of cheese lovers

To make good cheese, you have to start with good quality milk.

A life-size plastic cow being milked by an antiquated milking machine.

A life-size plastic cow being milked by an antiquated milking machine.

I wonder what was in the 'balanced rations'.

I wonder what was in the ‘balanced rations’.

From grass to milk: the inner workings of a cow

From grass to milk: the inner workings of a cow

The Red Poll Cattle Society was founded with the aim of preserving this versatile native breed. They note the long lactation period and ideal composition of the milk for cheesemaking.

They’ve been so successful that it's now off the Rare Breed list.

They’ve been so successful that it’s now off the Rare Breed list.

The British Isles are a land of cattle. Sheep these days are reared for meat, and it’s harder than I expected to find sheep’s milk cheese. These people from Canterbury can’t offer any.

Cow's and goat's milk from Canterbury

Cow’s and goat’s milk from Canterbury

Amanda has served me excellent goat’s milk cheeses made by Pete Humphries of White Lake Cheeses in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, heart of cheddar country.

It's great to be able to talk to the cheesemaker himself.

It’s great to be able to talk to the cheesemaker himself.

Some of Pete's goat's milk cheese

Some of Pete’s goat’s milk cheese

At the far end of his stall, I glimpse a label saying ‘No Name Sheep Cheese’. He’s begun experimenting with sheep’s milk and this cheese is so new that he hasn’t come up with a name yet.

'No Name'

Introducing ‘No Name’

It’s a bit young to compete with the mature pecorinos in the Italian team, but I hope it will make up in youthful energy for what it lacks in experience.

Sharing a corner stall are two outstanding talents of British cheese, Jamie Montgomery who makes arguably the best cheddar in Britain, and Joe Schneider who makes Stichelton.

Jamie (left) and Joe (right) with an admiring customer between

Jamie (left) and Joe (right) with an admiring customer between.

Amanda and I found the farm on the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire for Joe and Randolph Hodgson of Neal’s Yard Dairy when they were setting up the dairy to produce what they expected to call ‘raw milk Stilton’, a return to how Stilton was made for centuries. However, due to an anomaly in the PDO definition of Stilton, it can only be made with pasteurised milk. One of the Dairy’s customers suggested Stichelton, an early name for the village of Stilton. Joe welcomed us to the stall and gave us a good chunk of this incomparable cheese to take home. Notice in the photo that the Stichelton isn’t excessively blue. The flavour of the blue mould doesn’t kill the flavour of the cheese.

In search of two more sheep cheeses we crossed to another pavilion, passing a ukulele band and an artful display of Quickes Traditional Cheddar.

Playing for charity

Food for the ears

Cheese cloth art

Cheese cloth art

Right at the entrance was the stall I needed. Carlow Farmhouse Cheese had brought several mature sheep’s milk cheeses to the fair. They don’t have their own website, and this one only admits to cow’s milk cheese.

Two of Carlow Cheese's sheep's milk cheeses

Two of Carlow Cheese’s sheep’s milk cheeses

Nadia, the cheesemaker at Carlow Cheese

Nadja and her sheep’s milk cheeses saved the day for the cheese course match

Their cheesemaker, Nadja, guided us through her samples. It was hard to choose, but I finally took some ‘pecorino-style’ and ‘cheddar-style’.

Business done, we threaded our way through the crowds to a promising-looking pork pie stall. The pies were obviously raised by hand.

Wonky pork pies

Beautifully wonky pork pies

The pastry is made by mixing hot melted lard with flour. It has to be exactly the right temperature to form it around the wooden moulds (see photo above)—not so hot that it burns your hands and not so cold that it cracks.

Nothing but the best natural ingredients

Nothing but the best natural ingredients

The baker himself sells us our pie. He reminds me of my Italian artisan food producers when he talks about the natural ingredients he uses: the flour from a nearby windmill, pigs from a local farm and pig’s-foot jelly he makes himself. He’s sold 300 pies this morning and will be off soon to make another 300 for the next day’s fair.

Master pie maker

The expert pie maker

With a glass of incredibly strong cider, we settle down to lunch. I used to make pork pies myself, but these pies beat even my best. The crust was crunchy, the filling tasted like pork (not overpowered by spices and preservatives) and the jelly was well seasoned and firm without being rubbery.

Pork pie and cider: a perfect lunch

Pork pie and cider: a perfect lunch

Melton Mowbray is a pretty market town, but even without its other attractions, it would be worth a pilgrimage for the King’s Road Bakery pork pies alone.

Italy is usually the clear winner of the pecorino match, but this time Ireland came out top in the opinion of our maestro Giancarlo Russo, a judge in international cheese competitions. Young ‘No Name’ was a big hit too with several of the course participants.


Posted in cheese, sheep | Leave a comment

Flowers for Santa Zita

Santa Zita’s mummy lies in a glass case in a side chapel at the Basilica of San Frediano in Lucca.

San Frediano is the only church in Lucca with a mosaic façade.

San Frediano is the only church in Lucca with a mosaic façade.

iPhoto tells me there are three unnamed faces here.

iPhoto tells me there are three unnamed faces here. Anyone know them? (Photo: Jeff Blaine)

Despite her cadaverous face and bony hands, she looks fresh and almost pretty in the blue dress and white apron of a serving girl.

Santa Zita rests from her housework.

Santa Zita rests from her housework.

She wasn’t one of those martyred saints canonised for suffering a gruesome death in defence of their faith, such as Saint Lawrence who is said to have been grilled alive. Zita (c. 1212–1272) was a humble and hardworking servant, which earned her the affection of the aristocratic family for whom she worked. What they didn’t know was that at the end of each day she went to the kitchen, stealthily wrapped any leftover bread in her apron and distributed it to the poor. The other servants, being jealous of the high regard paid her by the nobleman, decided to get their own back by telling him Zita was stealing from his household. He could hardly believe it, but one evening as she was leaving the house with her apron bulging, he stepped out of the shadows and challenged her to show him what she was hiding. The girl quickly replied it was only some flowers, and was greatly surprised when forced to open the apron to discover it was indeed filled with flowers. Bernardo Strozzi (c. 1581–1644) captured the moment here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zita#/media/File:ThemiracleofStZita.jpg.

Her position in the household was safe and Lucca ever since has had an excuse to fill its streets with flowers on her saint’s day of 27 April (or the nearest weekend).

I’ve wanted to take part in this happy event for years, but until today I’ve either been away or it was raining, and the thought of a sea of umbrellas and drenched flowers wasn’t enticing. Today was grey, but not wet.

Piazza San Frediano adorned with olive trees

Piazza San Frediano adorned with olive trees

Zita had been carried out of her side chapel to a place of honour in the nave.

A few more flowers would have been in order.

A few more flowers would have been in order.

The Roman amphitheatre has undergone remakes so many times that there are only a few remnants of the Roman structure left. For part of the last century it was the site of the central market until that was moved to the Mercato del Carmine, leaving the piazza of the amphitheatre sad and empty except during the tourist season.

The amphitheatre on a normal grey day (Photo: Jeff Blaine)

The amphitheatre on a normal grey day (Photo: Jeff Blaine)

Today the flower stalls showed how lively it must have been as a market.

A few vegetable, meat and fish stalls would complete the scene.

A few vegetable, meat and fish stalls would complete the scene.

Lucca was out in force.

The Lucchesi were out in force.

The brilliance of the flowers made up for the lack of sun.

The brilliance of the flowers made up for the lack of sun.

Magenta was a favourite colour.


This year kumquats are the rage.

This year kumquats are the rage. They make exquisite marmalade!

A circus

A circus

A summer meadow...

A summer meadow…

...complete with butterflies

…complete with butterflies


Posted in FESTAS, GARDENING, HISTORY, Lucca | 7 Comments

Truffle hunting with Riccardo and Turbo

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.

Explaining the "Art of the Hunt"!

Explaining the “Art of the Hunt”!

Excitement as we get ready to go!

Excitement as we get ready to go!

Great scenery

Great scenery

A truffle is found

A truffle is found

A big one - the biggest of the afternoon!

A big one – the biggest of the afternoon!

Savoring the smell

Savoring the smell

Savoring the smell

Savoring the smell

Thanks, Bob!

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.

Posted in TRUFFLES | 2 Comments