‘Relax!’ is a command to me as a tour organiser and to you as a traveller. There’s no way you can see everything, so we may as well leave time to rest, absorb and enjoy. My favourite way to wind down is to go to a village festival, called a sagra. It’s impossible not to relax, while at the same time soaking in the local culture.

Life is joyous

Life is a joy

The village of Cascio is top of my list for an experience without deadlines. I’ve already written about its wood-fired oven sagra in spring ( At the end of July and early August the village puts on its equally relaxing Sagra delle Crisciolette. See below for a note about the criscioletta. Right now, we’re going to the sagra.

Just click here to take you to the Slow Travel Tours website for your anti-stress therapy (and to find out what a criscioletta is):

Posted in BREAD, FESTAS, GARFAGNANA, HISTORY, holidays, LIFE, RECIPE, TRADITION, Tuscany | Leave a comment

Celebrating Sardinia

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.

The island culture of Sant'Antioco

The island culture of Sant’Antioco

Impressive remains of a Nuragic complex on Sant'Antioco

Impressive remains of a Nuragic complex on Sant’Antioco

Recreation of early Christian burial in the catacombs of Sant'Antioco

Recreation of early Christian burial in the catacombs of Sant’Antioco

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:

Find out more about the tour at: (click on the tabs below the introduction to see all the details)

Posted in BREAD, cheese, FESTAS, HISTORY, Sardinia, TRADITION, weaving, WINE | Leave a comment

Slow Cake

Feasting is a way of celebrating special events, and many festivals have acquired a constellation of typical dishes. Often these are elaborations of everyday food, tarted up for the occasion. In many parts of Italy (maybe all, but I haven’t been everywhere) no meal is complete without bread, so what better food to make a fuss of.

The Garfagnana has its own special Easter bread called pasimata.

Easter cake at Daniela's shop

The sell-by date is August, but I bet it doesn’t last that long!


Paolo Magazzini, the village baker at Petrognola to whom I take my guests for bread lessons, recounted his procedure, the lengthy traditional way.

telling recipe for pasimata

Paolo turns a recipe into a thriller (photo: Alex Entzinger)

You take flour, sugar, butter, eggs, milk and lievito madre (starter dough).

Day 1 morning: mix all ingredients.

12 hours later: add more of the same ingredients except the starter dough.

Day 2 morning: add more of the same ingredients except the starter dough.

12 hours later: add sultanas, aniseed, vin santo (sweet Tuscan dessert wine), chestnut-flavoured liqueur.

Day 3 morning: light wood-fired oven.

Bake a batch of bread.

Put pasimata dough in round tins.

After one hour, take bread out. Oven will be exactly the right temperature for pasimata.

Bake pasimata for 40 minutes.

Remove from oven and eat enthusiastically.

sliced pasimata of the garfagnana

Bread dressed up like cake

The long rise over 48 hours allows time for the development of exceptional flavours and aromas.  Today many people make a ‘fast cake’ version in an hour by substituting baking powder for sourdough starter. Next Easter I’m going to organise a blind tasting of the slow and fast versions.

I didn’t ask Paolo for the quantity of each ingredient, since I can get my fix from him. For those not so lucky, here’s a similar recipe from Castiglione in Garfagnana, a walled town which during the Renaissance was batted back and forth like a ping-pong ball between Lucca and Modena. Perhaps they consoled themselves between battles by eating pasimata.


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 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

Time Doesn’t Run

‘Garfagnana Dove Il Tempo Non Corre’ is the motto printed on aprons sold by the tourist office in Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. It means literally, ‘Garfagnana where time doesn’t run’. We might say, ‘where time stands still’. In fact, it creeps along slowly.

A slow apron

I’ve just reread a piece by Rebecca Solnit in the London Review of Books (29 August 2013) in which she reflects on some of the effects our electronic age have had on our experience of time: the interruptions to our concentration, the fragmentation of our solitude and relationships. She wonders how far we will allow big corporations to shatter our lives. Will we all be wearing Google glasses with continuous pop-up messages reminding us of practicalities while causing us to forget to ‘contemplate the essential mysteries of the universe and the oneness of things’?

Then she muses:

‘I wonder sometimes if there will be a revolt against the quality of time the new technologies have brought us… Or perhaps there already has been, in a small, quiet way. The real point about the slow food movement was often missed. It wasn’t food. It was about doing something from scratch, with pleasure, all the way through, in the old methodical way we used to do things. That didn’t merely produce better food; it produced a better relationship to materials, processes and labour, notably your own, before the spoon reached your mouth. It produced pleasure in production as well as consumption. It made whole what is broken.’

Reading this I realise it’s that wholeness I see in the producers to whom I take my clients: an immersion and satisfaction in what they do. It’s not that they don’t have to work hard or that they don’t have troubles, but that doing something from start to finish, from sowing to harvest, from slaughter to salami, from fiber to fabric, for themselves, their families and their communities produces a contentment way beyond the monetary value of their work.

I can think of so many examples it’s hard to know where to start or stop.

Ismaele Turri rears pigs and makes salumi.

He bakes bread…

…in a wood-fired oven he built himself heated with wood he chopped himself. He didn’t grow the wheat, but he does grow farro and corn. The farm is an agriturismo which he and his wife Cinzia run. And he has a bar a short walk from the farm.

Ismaele still has time to teach his skills to others.

Paolo Magazzini is another unhurried multi-tasker. He’s a farro and beef cattle farmer. He fertilises his fields with the manure of the cattle. He ploughs, plants with his own seed corn, harvests and pearls the farro. He provides the pearling service for about a dozen other farmers.

Paolo proud of his farro of the Garfagnana IGP (photo: Andrew Bartley)

Paolo is also the village baker, carrying on his mother’s trade. His recipe includes his farro flour and his own potatoes.

Paolo carves the initials of my guests in the loaves they’ve made.

Time is suspended when Paolo tells a story. (photo: Alex Entzinger)

Romeo Ricciardi weaves with antique hemp.

His mother-in-law Carla prepares balls of hemp from the tangled skeins.

From her smile, I wonder if she’s thinking about the beautiful finished articles he weaves.

Romeo says he’s happiest at the loom and hunting funghi. (photo: Carolyn Kropf)

Marzia Ridolfi and her husband rear cows, sheep and goats which she milks twice a day.

She makes cheese from the milk.

Her hands press the whey from the curd. (photo: Anne Shelley)

Stefania Maffei loves the silkworms that connect her to her grandmother’s work.

Schoolchildren come to her workshop to learn about the history of their families and Lucca in the silk trade.

Severino Rocchi laughs during his work as a pork butcher. (photo: Margi Isom)

His brother Ubaldo and, even better, his son Gino work with him.

Gino will carry the business forward with a smile into the next generation.  What more could any parent hope for?

Elements by Inger Sannes at Christopher Newport University, Virginia

Inger changed her career from business to art… (photo: Neal Johnson)

…and now expresses herself through her hands. (photo: Neal Johnson)

Carlo Galgani can make anything from metal…

…in his forge powered only by water.

Vitalina makes cheese from her goat milk…

…and matures her cheese on wooden boards.

It takes considerable inner fortitude to resist the health and safety inspectors who want her to use stainless steel.

Andrea Bertucci (centre) at his Osteria Il Vecchio Mulino (photo: Sergio Perrella)

Andrea is never short of time when he can spend it with customers who he feeds with his latest artisan food finds.

Roberto Gianarrelli abandoned driving a lorry to make craft beer.

He dreams up new recipes when he comes to check his beer in the middle of the night.

Daniela ladles cheese curd slowly by hand.

She has plenty of time to sit in the shade and play with her younger daughter.

Riccardo is a weekend truffle hunter…

…and the long hours he spends in the woods with his dog infuse his family and work life too.

Who knows what he’s contemplating while stirring polenta for his village festa.

The wholeness of my producers’ lives floods over to envelop my driver Andrea Paganelli and me.

For a moment we’ve escaped electronic intrusions. (photo: Neal Johnson)




Posted in ART, BEER, BREAD, BUTCHER, cheese, CRAFTS, FARM, FESTAS, GARFAGNANA, ICE CREAM / GELATO, LIFE, milk, OLIVE OIL, POLENTA, spinning, weaving | 6 Comments

Another Zuppa

I’ve written about zuppa alla frantoiana, a typical seasonal soup of Lucca, so many times that you’d think I’d be bored with it. But no. It’s the archetypal winter dish—a minestrone on a foundation of stale bread—and varies according the cook, his or her family tradition, the vegetables available in the orto (veg patch) and hedgerows, the quality of the bread and of this year’s olive oil. Every zuppa conforms to certain principles and yet each is unique.

classic zuppa alla frantoiana

Classic zuppa alla frantoiana

Five years ago Slow Food Lucca Compitese Orti Lucchesi realised the qualities of zuppa were not so dissimilar to football teams (all teams play by the same rules, but each has its own characteristics) and organised the Disfida della Zuppa (soup tournament) composed of several rounds, with the winner of each round going through to the finals. The contestants range from home cooks to restaurant chefs. The jury is composed of us, the public, who come to taste, debate and judge. The 5th round of this year’s Disfida, at restaurant Il Rio di Vorno, went like this.

Disfida della zuppa campioni

Four competing zuppe arrive

Judging with our eyes first, we see that each zuppa looks entirely different. We season the zuppe with generous drizzles of new season extra virgin olive oil from a nearby olive farm.

sentire zuppa

Smelling zuppa

Number 2 aromatic, number 3 badly burnt. If you turn your back for a second, the bean puree that forms the basis of the zuppa sticks to the bottom of the pan.

assagiare zuppa

Tasting zuppa

parlare della zuppa

Talking about zuppa

You can tell what country you’re in without hearing the language, just look at the hands.

votare zuppa

Scoring the zuppa

Each soup gets positive marks for intensity of aroma, intensity of flavour and complexity of flavour, and negative ones for too much salt, too little salt, too much acidity and burnt odour.  We also give each an overall rating from 4 to 10. Nothing less than 4. I guess they don’t want anyone to feel too discouraged.

dopo zuppa il secondo

After the zuppa

Polpetti of bacalà (salt cod), rustic puree of chick peas and stewed cabbage seasoned with a hint of wine vinegar.

poesia della zuppa

Someone reads a poem about zuppa

vincitrice di zuppa

Winner of 5th round: Francesca Lenzi (3rd from right)

Francesca made zuppa number 2, the one everyone at my table judged the best. She’ll go through to the finals. Brava Francesca!

torta di polenta

Finale: polenta cake made from local maize flour

pagare la zuppa

Paying for zuppa

The whole evening only costs €2o for Slow Food members and €23 for non-members, and that includes wine and coffee. What a bargain!

To read more about zuppa see Elegy to Zuppa, Soup put to the test, Souprize, Slow Food Disfida della Zuppa and over at Debra Kolkka’s blog Bagni di Lucca and Beyond, Who made the best soup?, and Serious Soup on Bella Bagni di Lucca.

Next round: 9 March at 20.00 at the Sala Parrocchiale, Capannori. See you there!

Posted in beans, BREAD, fagioli, Lucca, OLIVE OIL, SOUP | 2 Comments

Fare La Scarpetta

Scarpetta means slipper, but fare la scarpetta doesn’t have anything to do with making slippers. It means to wipe your plate clean with a piece of bread, something all my Italian friends do on informal occasions.

fare la scarpetta

Fare la scarpetta — before

There are several opinions about its origin. It seems to come from southern Italy. Perhaps it’s a metaphor likening a shoe scraping along the ground picking up whatever it finds to the crust of bread mopping up the sauce in the plate. Or maybe it refers to ‘scarsetta‘ or poverty which obliges people to content themselves with whatever there is, usually very little.

fare la scarpetta

Fare la scarpetta — during

A third opinion suggests that the fingers pushing the bread around cleaning up the plate looks like a shoe with a leg coming out above. Take your choice.

wipe plate clean with bread

Fare la scarpetta — after


Posted in BREAD, Italian language, TRADITION | Leave a comment

Garfagnana Potato Bread Part 1

This is Real Bread Maker Week in the UK and in special tribute to such an important event I’m writing about Garfagnana Potato Bread.

Garfagnana potato bread

Real Bread Maker Paolo Magazzini at his wood-fired oven

The Garfagnana is a spectacularly beautiful mountainous region in northwest Tuscany, due north of Lucca.

Garfagnana potato bread

The view from Paolo's bakery in the Garfagnana

As traditional cuisine goes in Italy, potato bread is new. I’ve been told that during the second world war, bread flour was scarce in the Garfagnana. It doesn’t do well on the rocky mountain terraces and has to be brought up the Serchio Valley from the Lucca plain. Since the valley was part of the Gothic Line during the war, not much could pass through the crossfire between the Germans and Americans. Potatoes, however, thrive, and people started adding mashed potato to bread dough to eke out the flour.

Garfagnana potato bread

Garfagnana potatoes

Since it also has the beneficial effect of producing a moister loaf which lasts for a week without turning into those rigid white bricks of southern Tuscany, people continued to make it. It has so far infiltrated the traditional cuisine that Slow Food has honoured it with Presidium status, and what was a staple of peasants now appears as a glamorous star on the tables of foodies.

Garfagnana potato bread

The loaf

Garfagnana potato bread

The perfect crumb and crust

The doyen of Garfagnana Potato Bread is Paolo Magazzini of Petrognola.

Garfagnana potato bread maker

Paolo: kind, generous and skilled real bread maker and instructor

Paolo’s mother was the village baker before him. When she was no longer fit for the arduous task, Paolo couldn’t bear to see the tradition die and took over her role. He built a new wood-fired oven that can hold 50 1-kilo loaves, instead of the 20 loaves his mother’s oven could bake at one time.

Garfagnana potato bread oven

Paolo's wood-fired oven

During the week he bakes to order and his customers come to his wife’s shop in the village to collect their loaves. On Friday night he bakes as many as 150 loaves and on Saturday morning drives down the valley to Lucca, dropping off bread at shops and restaurants on the way.

Garfagnana potato bread

Paolo cleans the bottoms of the loaves and packs them ready to take down the valley

I take my clients to Paolo’s bakery to bake potato bread with him. He’s a natural teacher as well as a Real Bread Maker. The next blog will describe what we learn.

Posted in BREAD | 8 Comments