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

How do you find…?

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.

Sapori e Saperi takes clients to handloom weaver

Romeo Ricciardi weaves in his attic

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.

Camaiore city gate at night

Ancient gate to city 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.

Carpets for the streets of Camaiore poster

The poster

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.

Young and old work together through the night

Sifting dyed sawdust to make a pattern on the street

Moving a stencil into place 1

Huge stencils are used to define a pattern

Moving a stencil for Tappeti di Segatura

The stencil has to be put in exactly the right position

Placing stencil for tappeti di segatura

Just right — they’ve obviously done this before


Sacks of clippings for tappeti

Where is the brown sawdust? Marrone? Marrone?

Kneeling on bridge over tappeto

A low bridge is placed over the carpet to be able to reach the centre

Religious theme for tapetto

There are many themes: this one is religious

Relaxing in Camaiore during Tappeti di Segatura

Not everyone is working

Watching Tappeti di Segatura from balcony

Some watch from their balconies

Artisan hat shop in Camaiore

Lots of shops remain open including this artisan hat shop

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!

Banners hanging from windows

The houses are decorated

Tappeto di segatura with optical illusion

Optical illusion — the rainbow is actually lying flat on the street

Carpet with philosophical theme

Themes range from philosophical…

Carpet with environmental theme

…to environmental…


Carpet with scientific theme

…to scientific…

Carpet with chaos of creation as theme

…to the chaos of biblical creation…

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.

Bishop of Lucca arrives at Tappeti di Segatura

The Bishop of Lucca arrives

Baroque church organ

You have to admire the exuberance

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.

Seafood dishes at Salumeria Nicola

I want some of that bean and prawn salad

Ham baked in pastry at Salumeria Nicola, Camaiore

Ham baked in pastry

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.

Entrance to cave Antro del Corchia

Entrance to cave through old marble quarry

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).

Pasta fritta at Ristorante Vallechiara Levigliani

Feather light pasta fritta (fried bread dough)

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?

Primi at lunch at Vallechiara Levigliani

Tordelli and crepes for first course

First secondo Ristorante Vallechiara Levigliani

Main course of roast beef, roast pork and perfectly crisp roast potatoes


Pollo fritto verdure fritte

A second second course?! Deep fried chicken & veg presented by the son.

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.

Miniere dell'argento vivo hard hats

Putting on our hard hats for the tour of the mine

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.

Cinnabar rock containing mercury

The red rock is cinnabar which contains mercury

Cinnabar crushing machine

A retired machine for crushing cinnaber

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?

Forme solo per tirare

Cheeses for throwing only (some people were buying others to eat)

I watch the pros and suspect a cricket bowler would be envious of their technique.

Throwing the pecorino

The run up to the throw

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.

Tiro della forma fishing lake

The fishing lake next to Pizzeria Al Barchetto

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?

Gelateria Gely Fornaci di Barga

Paolo Citti and me holding his fresh fruit strawberry and lemon ice

(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.



Posted in cheese, FESTAS, ICE CREAM / GELATO, RESTAURANT, SEAFOOD, TRADITION, Tuscany | 6 Comments