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

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


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

A Homage to Women

By Penny Barry and Heather Jarman

Penny writes about the opening of Bagni di Lucca’s celebration of women, and I add a few kitchen notes to the photos below.

March 8th is International Women’s Day, commonly known in Italy as Festa delle Donne, or, as my husband and I affectionately call it, ‘Donni Day’. To commemorate the occasion Bagni di Lucca stages Omaggio delle Donne, a week-long series of events and exhibitions at the historic Casino at Ponte a Serraglio. This year it included an exhibition by women artists, a photographic exhibition, music and poetry recitals.

Buon appetito! (photo: Penny Barry)

There was also a display of kitchen equipment from the 1920s to ‘40s, but was this stereotyping the role women? I don’t think so because Italy is a country where food is appreciated by both sexes with an almost religious fervour and both the producers of good ingredients and the skills of cooks are venerated. I think the inclusion of vintage kitchen utensils is a positive feminist statement and a celebration of women’s importance in this country.

Looking at the implements, it’s interesting to see how much has changed in the intervening years and to think about the origins of our modern kitchen gadgets.

– Penny Barry

Mezzaluna (photo: Penny Barry)

The curved blade with wooden handles is a mezzaluna, which is still used to chop vegetables and herbs. It’s quick and efficient once you learn the technique of walking it rapidly from back to front of the chopping board, and it doesn’t reduce everything to a mush the way a food processor does. Since your hands are above the blade, children can safely help chop providing they follow a few simple rules which they learn on my family adventures.

Using a mezzaluna correctly (photo: Tracey Meredith)

You can buy a mezzaluna in any kitchen shop in Lucca, but if you want a very special one, I’ll take you to the blacksmith Carlo Galgani, who makes them in his forge and adorns them with hand-turned olive-wood handles.

Artisan mezzalunas (photo: Janette Gross)

Hinged testi (photo: Penny Barry)

Not some mediaeval torture implement nor 18th-century surgical forceps, but hinged iron plates for cooking necci (chestnut-flour crêpes) over a flame, originally the kitchen fire but nowadays a gas burner. They are readily available in ironmongers (hardware stores), and I bought a pair several years ago. You grease the hot plates with half a potato dipped in oil or lard, pour a small amount of batter in the centre of the bottom plate, close the top plate onto it, cook for a minute, turn them over and cook for another minute. Mine are so heavy that I had to have Penny and her husband come round to help me turn them over at half time. Testi are also made of terracotta, which you see at sagras in the Garfagnana.

Terracotta testi (photo: John Morrison)

And just to show that testi are anything but sexist, men are as likely to be in charge of them as women.

Chestnut festival at Castelnuovo Garfagnana

Meat cleavers (photo: Penny Barry)

I don’t have one of these, because the butcher in Casabasciana does it for me.

– Heather Jarman


9 Ways to Celebrate Chestnuts

I’ve just received an email from Ponti nel Tempo (Bridges in Time), the tourist organisation for the Alpi Apuane, notifying me of NINE chestnut festivals, one starting tonight and eight on Sunday. You can tell these are for locals because they don’t give you much warning; they assume you live here and are ready to go at a moment’s notice.

And they do — in droves

Here’s what’s on offer:

From Friday 11 to Sunday 13 October
Autunno Apuano, Loc. Bosa (Careggine)

Summer sagra at Careggine (no chestnuts)

Sunday 13 October
Fiera di ottobre, Castiglione di Garfagnana
Castagnata del CAI, Fortezza di Mont’alfonso (Castelnuovo di Garfagnana)
La Castagna e i suoi sapori, Convalle (Pescaglia)
Mondinata con la Befana, Pegnana (Barga)
Castagnata in piazza , Cascio (Molazzana)
Festa della Castagna, Trassilico (Gallicano)
Festa della Castagna alla Selva del Buffardello (San Romano in Garfagnana)
Festa del Borgo della Poesia , Castelvecchio Pascoli (Barga)

Details of each event can be found at

What’s most surprising to me is that despite being a sagra (festival) junkie, I’ve only been to one of these, the Fiera di ottobre at Castiglione, where they serve a delectable lunch including porcini mushrooms and black truffles. Highly recommended! Although every single sagra is tempting, I’m going to Convalle, because that’s where my friends Nada and Romeo live and weave the most beautiful household linens. To read more about them see my blog Weaving a Life of Happiness, and to visit them come on my Tastes & Textiles tour next May. But I’m digressing.

Chestnut festivals are attractions for the whole family. The children enjoy the roast chestnuts.

One way to roast chestnuts. Even the young have a go.

Castiglione method of roasting chestnuts

So do their parents and grandparents, but the latter are especially nostalgic about the necci, chestnut-flour pancakes cooked between flat stones or steel plates over a burner and often used as wraps for ricotta. Some of the grandparents ate dishes prepared with chestnut flour for every meal when they were young.

Cooking necci between hot stones and chestnut leaves

Collecting, drying, shelling, sorting and milling chestnuts is a whole story in itself, a story of nourishment and social cohesion. You can read about how my village does it in my blogs Getting Under the SkinTo the Mulino,  At the Mulino.

Community of Casabasciana sorting dried chestnuts

Sadly, we haven’t lit the metato, the chestnut drying hut, for the last two years, because there haven’t been enough good quality chestnuts.

A metato

The enormous, centuries old trees are under attack from a teeny weeny Chinese wasp with a long name, Dryocosmus kuriphilus, which was first spotted in the Piedmont in 2002. The female lays its eggs in the leaf bud (no male fertilisation is required) and the first year no damage is detected. The following spring galls are visible on the affected leaves and the presence of the larvae causes the leaves to be smaller and deformed. Photosynthesis is inhibited, the tree becomes weaker and produces fewer and smaller chestnuts. The most effective control found so far is a Japanese wasp, the natural predator of D. kuriphilus, which has been released in limited numbers, and should result in a good battle. Australians will shudder and think of the cane toad.

Hugging a chestnut — will affection help?

I don’t suppose attending a chestnut festival will help the poor chestnuts, but we’d better enjoy them while we can.


Posted in CHESTNUTS, FESTAS | 4 Comments

At the mulino

The mulino is a building from the past that is becoming part of the future of the Garfagnana. Chestnut flour used to be so important in the local diet that there were seven water mills in the tiny valley below our village and many hundreds more throughout the Garfagnana. Today there is barely a trace of them left. However, with diagnoses of coeliac disease and wheat allergies on the increase, chestnut flour, completely free of gluten, is enjoying a comeback, and that from the Garfagnana has attained the exalted status of DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) from the EU. This may not seem very momentous, but it has raised the prestige and price of a homely commodity, making it more attractive and worthwhile to produce. To meet increased demand, the early 17th-century mill at Fabbriche di Vallico, was recently restored to its former glory, and several others have also been refurbished. All the water mills I’ve seen in this area north of Lucca are driven by a horizontal wheel, mounted in a beautiful arched stone chamber directly below the grindstone. At the outer ends of the wheel spokes are shallow metal cups, which used to be made of chestnut wood. Water shoots out of a narrow channel at the back of the chamber, striking the cups and turning the wheel which in turn drives the huge circular grindstone. The lower stone is fixed, while the upper stone spins and can be raised or lowered to change how fine or coarse the flour will be. The type of stone from which the grindstone is made and how it’s dressed also determines the texture of the flour.

We drive along the beautiful Turrite River valley to Fabbriche, where Domenico reverses the car up to the door of the mill. We enter onto the welcoming warm upper floor of the mill. The miller keeps two wood-fired stoves burning to maintain a low humidity and prevent the chestnuts from re-hydrating and squashing into a paste when they’re ground. By now Marco has arrived too, and he and Domenico carry in the sacks on their shoulders and pile them onto a large set of scales with weights that the miller slides along the balance arms. Each sack weighs about 40 kg (88 lb).  The miller charges in kind for his services by taking a small percentage of the flour to sell directly from the mill. Since the mill grinds only chestnuts to avoid gluten contamination from wheat and other cereals, it’s only open from the end of November when the chestnuts are ready for milling until all of this year’s crop is ground. Now that I’m writing this, I wonder whether he’ll finish by Christmas, but I know that if you go in spring or summer, it’s shut up tight. Even though four grindstones work from morning to night every day except Sunday, there’s a big backlog of chestnuts waiting to be ground. I feel proud of our white hemp sacks with their blue embroidered initials which are much handsomer than everyone else’s utilitarian plastic sacks.

I can’t wait to go downstairs where the flour is being ground, but before descending the steep, narrow wooden steps, the miller shows me the chestnut-wood boxes, one per grindstone, which are actually chutes into which he pours the chestnuts, and through which they descend into the hoppers that feed the chestnuts unbelievably slowly, only one or two at a time, into the hole in the centre of the upper grindstone. Downstairs each pair of grindstones is housed in its own wooden (chestnut, of course) cupboard, with doors to keep the flour from flying out and coating every surface of the mill.

The miller goes to the stones at the far end which he had been setting up with a new batch of chestnuts when we arrived. He pulls a lever to start the flow of water, which we can’t see from here, starts the hopper vibrating, turns a sort of steering wheel to adjust the height of the upper stone and reaches over to feel the fineness of the flour as it sprays out from between the two stones. It’s not right. He turns the wheel a little more and feels the flour again. After a couple more tests, he’s satisfied that it’s exactly right and closes the doors to the cupboard. I notice a sign on the wall next to the cupboard on which ‘biologico’ (organic) is written. I shout over the roar of the four whirling stones: ‘Why is only this one organic? Aren’t all chestnuts organic?’ Both Domenico and the miller rub their thumbs and forefingers together in the Italian sign for money. The miller explains: ‘This one is for producers who have paid for the organic certification so that they can sell their flour at a higher price, but yes, I’m right that all chestnuts are organic. No one sprays or fertilises chestnut trees.’ He leads us to a plastic sack of flour from the certified chestnuts and tells us to take a pinch and taste it. Not bad. Then he takes us to a sack of flour ground from uncertified chestnuts from Coreglia. We sample it. The sweet chestnut-y flavour explodes in my mouth. The implication is that people who go through the bureaucracy and cost of getting organic certification are more interested in money than in the flavour of the flour. They won’t have lavished enough care on the drying, cleaning and sorting processes as we at Casabasciana did. I think to myself that there are probably some who care passionately about the flavour and some who don’t in both camps. You have to taste the flour before buying and when you find one you like, stick to that producer.

The jury is still out on our own flour. When I left for England a week later, it wasn’t yet back from the mill. As soon as I return next week, I’m going straight to Ebe’s to try it.
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Getting under the skin

The sweet chestnut has three layers of protection, which makes for much hard work for those who want to turn the fruit into flour. There’s the green spiny outer covering. When the chestnut is ripe at the end of September or early October, it drops from the tree and this outer case splits open revealing the middle shell, the shiny dark brown one we see on fresh chestnuts in shops and, at this time of year, roasting on street corners of some cities. Inside the leathery dark brown shell is the final protective layer, a thin reddish brown skin. Inside this hides the cream-coloured nut.

It’s the remnants of the shell and this pesky inner skin that is occupying all our time now. When we collected the chestnuts, the prickly outer case was left on the woodland floor where it rots very slowly — beware sitting on the ground in a chestnut wood! After being dried for at least 40 days and nights in a metato (a special chestnut-drying hut), most, but not all, of the dark brown shell and inner skin was removed in a machine resembling a giant cheese grater. Chestnut flour is naturally sweet, and the goal is to produce the sweetest flour possible. You shouldn’t have to add sugar to a chestnut cake, but the shell and skin are bitter, as are chestnuts that accidentally got burnt in the drying process. All the chestnuts and pieces of chestnuts have to be sorted and cleaned by hand to remove them.

We gather in the old school that now functions as a community hall. In the centre of the room is a large shallow wooden box with a screen bottom resting on trestles. Members of Franca and Peppe’s family are bent over around the sieve, pushing the chestnuts from one end of the sieve to the other. Each person quickly removes some of the bad pieces, scrapes off remnants of inner skin with a serrated kitchen knife and pushes them on the the next person who does the same until they reach the other end, where Franca and Olga remove the last of the offending bits and shove the good ones out the end into a plastic bucket, which Franca empties periodically into antique hemp sacks embroidered with family initials. I love the way they happily mix old and new — the utilitarian plastic buckets next to the beautiful hemp sacks, also perfect for their purpose.

This is the most boring work imaginable. The others are talking, but I don’t understand when they race along in the local accent. Everyone’s back aches. We stand, we sit. I stand on one leg and then the other, try a tai chi stance. Glance at my watch. Still two hours till lunch. Then someone asks me a question. I ask them to repeat it and understand the second time round. I reply and we have a short conversation. When we stop talking, I realise my back doesn’t ache. I listen more intently and join in. I begin to realise, that’s the remedy. And now it’s lunch time.

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New Olive Oil

Super-highways rarely belong to the country they’re in. While racing along with cars and lorries overtaking on all sides, you could be anywhere, except for the blurred glimpses of houses or fields beyond the crash barriers. The village of Molina di Quosa tumbles like a stream down a mountain valley and spreads out on that ribbon of land squashed between the Serchio River and the hills of the Monti Pisani overlooked by the autostrada and the railway that link Lucca to Pisa.  And that’s all I knew about it despite my many trips between the two cities. Now a couple of friends and I were heading there at a sedate pace on a small twisting country road for a festival based around new olive oil and chestnuts, vintage cars and Vespa scooters, with a wild mushroom exhibition thrown in for good measure. It must be a winning combination since before we even reach the village, parked cars line the verges and coming into the village itself we nose up to a queue of stationary cars held up by a policewoman to let the crowds cross the road. We abandon the car in a field that has been requisitioned as the festival car park and walk back along the main road, passing several large elegant villas skulking behind high walls and heavy iron gates. I must read that history of Pisa, in Italian, that I bought at Pisa airport in one of my fits of wanting to know everything about everything between the sea and the Garfagnana. It might explain why anyone with money and status would have wanted to live on the Serchio River bank kilometres from anywhere. The original main street of the village runs perpendicular to the road we drove in on, up the side valley. We turn up it between shops and houses on one side and, on the other, stalls selling craft jewellery, kitsch wooden carvings and honey. After a porchetta stall (we make a mental note to return for lunch), we come to the first roasting chestnuts and the first olive oil stall…

The signora tells me that her olive groves are at Montemagno, but she takes the olives to the frantoio (press) at Vicopisano which is an excellent modern press. The olives were picked yesterday and pressed and bottled early that morning in time for the festival. The owner of the olive press arrives just in time to verify both the quality of his frantoio and the timing of her pressing. She offers me a slice of bread doused with oil — these oil anteprima are the times I’ve ever seen oil poured over bread in Italy, but I notice a stack of small plastic cups and ask to taste the oil in one of them. She agrees this is the best way to taste the oil, but ‘many of us’, she circles her hand to encompass the anonymous bystanders, ‘are ignorant’. She pours a small puddle of thick green oil into the cup. I hold the cup in one palm to warm it while keeping the other hand firmly clamped over the top. After a minute or so, I put the cup to my nose and raise my hand enough to sniff up the pungent aroma. Then I slurp up some of the oil with lots of air and taste the strong heady flavour, bitter at the edges and peppery at the back of the throat. The most interesting producer for me is a young man who is offering comparative tastings of his last year’s oil and this year’s, also just pressed that morning. But these first few bottles contain oil only from the bitter leccino variety of olives, since they’re the ones at the top of his slopes and ripen earlier than the sweeter frantoio and moraiolo lower down. Last year’s bottles contain a blend of all three varieties, and have a decidedly gentler flavour, partly due to the blend and partly a result of ageing in the bottle. His azienda is organic and he’s joining forces with some other producers, including a norcino (pork butcher) to present taste workshops. He invites me to visit.

Next instalment: roast suckling pig panini and what non-foodies get out of village festivals.
Posted in CHESTNUTS, FESTAS, OLIVE OIL | 1 Comment