Angels, transhumance and pecorino

Pecorino (sheep's milk cheese)

Pecorino (sheep’s milk 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’ (

Raggiolo, one of a few villages that still has a bar and grocery shop (Photo: Penny Barry)

Raggiolo, one of a few small villages that still has a bar and grocery shop (at bottom of the street, photo: Penny Barry)


Bell tower, Raggiolo

Bell tower, 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.

Our walk 'On the traces of transhumant shepherds'

Our walk will take us ‘In the footsteps of transhumant shepherds’

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.

San Michele, Lucca, with the monster Satan firmly underfoot (photo: Tracey Meredith)

San Michele, Lucca, with the monster Satan firmly underfoot (photo: Tracey Meredith)

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.

Above the village we enter the chestnut woods (Photo: Penny Barry)

Above the village we enter the chestnut woods. (photo: Penny Barry)


After a steep climb, we're nearly even with the crest of the Pratomagno cross (photo: Penny Barry)

After a steep climb, we’re nearly even with the crest of the Pratomagno cross. (photo: Penny Barry)

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 (centre back in green shirt) shares some of his vast knowledge during a much needed break.

Paolo (centre back in green shirt) shares some of his vast knowledge during a much needed break.

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.

The clean floor of a beech forest

The clean floor of a beech forest


At last we truly have arrived.

At last we truly have arrived.


Alpine shepherds' hut restored by the village Brigade

Alpine shepherds’ hut restored by the village Brigade

Casetta di Bùite

We left with the mists we returned in the spring

following with our flocks the flow of life.

It was like this every time, every year

The Raggiolo Brigade

to the memory of transhumant shepherds Spring 2014

Angelo Luddi transfers the curd to the moulds.

Angelo Luddi transfers the curd to the moulds.

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.

A nice juxtaposition of traditional and modern: ancient spring, traditional curd cutting sticks, modern cheese moulds and Vim

A nice juxtaposition of traditional and modern: ancient mountain spring, traditional curd cutting sticks, modern cheese moulds, Vim and rubbish sack


Here's Vitalina, one of the cheesemakers on my cheese course, cutting the curd with her spino.

Here’s Vitalina, one of the cheesemakers on my cheese course, cutting the curd with her spino.

Dino’s job is pressing as much whey as possible from the curd.

A draining board from the days before stainless steel.

A draining board from the days before stainless steel. Microbiologists are just beginning to understand why wood is sanitary and safe.


I've never before seen anyone pinching the curd.

I’ve never before seen anyone pinching the curd.


Marzia, another cheesemaker on our cheese course, does it like this.

Marzia, another cheesemaker on our cheese course, presses the whey from the curd like this.


All the whey gets heated to to make ricotta.

Now the whey is heated to make ricotta.

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.

Modesto's impromptu cheese shop

Modesto’s impromptu cheese shop

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.

Angelo pours a good quantity of sea salt (not iodised) on each form.

Angelo pours a good quantity of sea salt (not iodised) on each form. He uses more than my cheesemakers.

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.

Now he rubs it around on the surface.

Now he rubs the salt around on the surface.


He explains that tomorrow morning he'll turn the cheese out of the moulds and salt the other side.

He explains that tomorrow morning he’ll turn the cheese out of the moulds and salt the other side.

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.

Chestnuts dried over a wood fire and ground in a water mill at Raggiolo

The chestnuts for this flour were dried by the traditional method over a wood fire and ground at the water mill of Raggiolo.

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.

Photo: Heather Jarman

Modesto slowly adds the flour to boiling water and Andrea stirs like crazy with his polenta pole.


Photo: Heather Jarman

Modesto cuts it with a wire. My driver Marzio told me his grandfather used a willow twig and he presented me with one from the nearest willow tree.

A sudden commotion back around the corner signals that the ricotta strands are forming.

The coagulated albumin floats to the top.

The coagulated albumin is floating to the top.

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.

Aldo begins to skim off ricotta, but his wife Simonetta is demanding some liquid for her stale bread.

Aldo begins to skim off the ricotta, but his wife Simonetta is demanding some liquid for her pot of stale bread. (photo: Penny Barry)

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.

Making scottina

Making scottina


I wouldn't go out of my way for this dish, but if you're in an alpine pasture and you don't have much else to eat, it probably hits the spot.

I wouldn’t go out of my way for this dish, but if you’re in an alpine pasture and you don’t have much else to eat, it probably hits the spot. I’d like to think they also had some salumi with them.


Doing our best!

Doing their best…


Time to head back down the mountain to Raggiolo

Time to head back down the mountain to Raggiolo

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:

Posted in cheese, CHESTNUTS, sheep, TRADITION | Leave a comment

The Happy Goatherd

Enea is one of the cheesemakers to whom I take my guests.

Enea smiles


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.

Old machine to thresh wheat

Antique threshing machine

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.

Goats in pasture

The goats

One of Enea's cows

The first 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.

Milking a goat

Enea milks while sitting on a one-legged stool.

Moulding cheese

Enea forms his goat’s milk cheese by hand.


Fresh goat’s milk cheese

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.

Bread dough

The dough


Stretching and folding the dough

Flour mill

The mini flour mill

Cleaning wood-fired oven

The wood-fired oven

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.

Valeria prepares lunch

Valeria also prepares our lunch.

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 with a goat

The happy goatherd

Enea is one of the cheesemakers who teaches our course Theory and Practice of Italian Cheese. Details at:

Posted in cheese, FARM, LIFE, milk | 2 Comments

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

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, 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: Or did you pick and press olives with me. If not, treat yourself to my Autumn in Tuscany tour in November ( 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:

Posted in cheese, CHESTNUTS, COOKING, LIFE, OLIVE OIL, weaving, WINE | 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.


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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

Like the Seasons: the Life of a Cheesemaker

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.

Daniela cuts the curd to allow it to separate from the whey (photo: Kirby Piazza)


When making soft cheese, the curd is put in moulds immediately. (photo: Kirby Piazza)

Small cheeses to be eaten fresh

Stracchino is delicious mixed with sausage, spread on bread & toasted under a grill.

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.

One of many picturesque views of Cutigliano

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.

Daniela Pagliai

She showed me her modern dairy, the maturing room and the cows in the barn.

Maturing room with a flat failed cheese that tasted delicious (photo: Kirby Piazza)

Her younger daughter clung to her apron; the older one arrived home from school.

Daniela’s younger daughter (photo: Kirby Piazza)

One of Daniela’s Brown Swiss (photo: Kirby Piazza)

Cats are welcome in the barn. (photo: Kirby Piazza)

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.

Spino: a stick used for centuries to cut the curd (photo: Kirby Piazza)

More evidence of tradition in the barn (photo: Kirby Piazza)

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.

Her sister’s sheep had arrived a couple of weeks earlier.

Rich alpine meadows

The many streams provide plentiful water for the animals.

In the farm shop she sold her cheeses, butter, yoghurt and preserves.

Direct sales: yoghurt, cheeses, stracchino, jam, tomini, eggs, milk, ricotta, butter (photo: Kirby Piazza)

Everything listed on the sign and more

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.

A life to hang onto

‘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.

The view from Daniela’s dairy (photo: Kirby Piazza)

He approved, and Daniela became part of the course in which Giancarlo teaches the theoretical sessions.

Daniela & Giancarlo exchanging views on cheesemaking (photo: Kirby Piazza)

For more information about the Theory and Practice of Italian Cheese course:

My thanks to Kirby Piazza for his photographs of Daniela and the farm.









Posted in cheese, FARM, LIFE, RICOTTA | 10 Comments

Ottava Rima in the Dairy

You never know what you’ll find at an artisan cheesemaker’s in Tuscany. I’d been meaning to visit I Taufi farm for several years, and finally made it last summer. I’m no longer surprised by the superwomen I meet at these farms, but Daniela Pagliai is exceptional, and I’ll tell her story another time.

Daniela Pagliai in her farm shop

In her farm shop, there was a shelf of pamphlets and leaflets. I took a selection to read at home. One turned out to be about a village woman, born in the late 1800s who improvised verses in ottava rima as she worked and in the evenings around the kitchen fire. I thought improvising poetry was a dead art; something troubadours did in the Middle Ages. Yet here was a woman who was doing it during my lifetime, and she hadn’t even gone to school. I did a little research on ottava rima and discovered that it has been traced back to Bocaccio in the 14th century and so may have originated in Tuscany. Interesting, but then I forgot about it.

On Tuesday last week I received an email from Stefano, the owner of Il Mecenate, one of my favourite restaurants in Lucca, announcing four classes on the improvisation of ottava rima taught by a master of the art Mauro Chechi. A native Tuscan born in the Maremma, he trained in jurisprudence (another improvisatory art?), but gave up practising in 1979 for a life in the theatre.


The lesson took place at the headquarters of the Partita Democratica* in Piazza San Francesco in Lucca. When I arrived at the bleak shopfront, after dinner next door at Stefano’s, there were about a dozen people milling around in the unheated room, lined with 1970s tongue-and-groove knotty pine wainscotting above which hung framed black-and-white photos of past party luminaries. The furnishings consisted of a long formica-topped table and green plastic stacking chairs. The class was billed to begin at 9 pm, and Mauro tried to start at about 9.15, but people kept trickling in until 9.30. In the end 18 men and women, old and young, stylishly dressed and carelessly clad were assembled. Many seemed to know Mauro and all had some acquaintance with ottava rima. Since I wanted to blend in, I didn’t take any photos or videos. One Italian who did got the evil eye from those around him.

Mauro told us that ottava rima is still practised in several regions of Italy including the Abruzzo, and there are practitioners in most of the countries where Romance languages are spoken. It’s particularly easy to improvise the rhyming scheme when many words have the same endings. It’s much harder in English, although some English poets have used it, a famous example being Byron’s Don Juan. Each verse has eight lines of 10 or 11 syllables with a rhyme scheme abababcc. The rhyming sounds at the ends of the lines are the anchoring landmarks that permit you to improvise, acting perhaps like chord sequences for a jazz musician.

After giving us a couple of examples, Mauro started going round the room asking each person to try it. Some people had obviously done it before. The youngest, a man in his 20s, was particularly adept. I was relieved that some people declined, as I did when it came my turn. I wondered whether the woman next to me wished I hadn’t attended, when Mauro asked her to improvise on the theme of the English visitor! But she made a good job of it and shook my hand warmly when I left. Some people wanted to go away and practise at home before trying in public, but Mauro said they’d never get better unless they practise with an audience. One man who excelled advised that you have to sing it in order for the words to come easily.

If you’re wondering why this is in my blog which is usually about food and gastronomic tours, then you’d better ask Slow Food who made this video at Slow Folk 3.


Only a few kilometres from Daniela’s farm this ottava rima show recently took place to a packed hall. The audience was having so much fun, it could have been a stand-up comedy routine. I couldn’t tear myself away, even though I only understood scattered words.


I probably won’t pursue the art any further myself, but I feel a world where people still have fun improvising in ottava rima is a better place to live.

*Centre left party whose member Enrico Letta is the current Prime Minister of Italy.

Posted in cheese, Italian language, LIFE, POETRY | 2 Comments