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

Signs of the times in California

Just back from my annual visit to family and friends in Los Angeles, Costa Mesa and Santa Barbara. It was a foodie time. Not least because my sister Gai Klass, before she retired, was top caterer in LA (according to me and the Zagat Guide); my 3-year-old great-nephews are following in the family tradition; my friends in Costa Mesa came on my Advanced Salumi Course last year and are ace picklers, aficionados of Mexican cuisine and blossoming norcini (curers of pork); my friend in Santa Barbara is a private chef (who did a personalised tour with me several years ago); and the rest are great cooks and lovers of good food.

I report the latest trends.

Armies of pigs have invaded delis, restaurants and antique shops. Everywhere I went pork, from ears to ribs to tails, was on the menu.

Local pork butchered on-site and fermented food served picnic-style at outdoor tables

Local pork butchered on-site and fermented food served picnic-style at outdoor tables in Solvang

Bacon & Brine artwork

Bacon & Brine artwork

Emperor for a day

Emperor for a day at a deli near Solvang

Piggy banks at Angels Antiques, Carpinteria

Piggy banks at Angels Antiques, Carpinteria

Wild boar bowl at Angel Antiques, Carpenteria

Wild boar bowl at Angel Antiques, Carpenteria

As expected wine held sway even in the loos in the Santa Ynez Valley, best known for its Pinot Noir.

If only opticians were so creative

If only opticians were so creative

But craft beer was running a close second (as it does now in Italy)…

Old West saloons surely were never as good as this.

Old West saloons surely were never as good as this.

…and came first on Main St, Venice (CA)

Must tell them about Garfagnana 100% farro beer (wheat).

Must tell them about Garfagnana 100% farro beer (wheat).


What a long marriage!

Requires documentation

…and in Carpinteria.

How did I get on the wrong side of the tracks from this tap house?

How did I get on the wrong side of the tracks from this brewery tap house?

Sardinians on Main St, Santa Monica, produce one of Italy’s best exports.

American vehicles queue up for artisan gelato (saffron and hazelnut were a surprisingly good pairing).

American vehicles queue up for artisan gelato (saffron and hazelnut were a surprisingly good pairing).

And everyone was getting on the buy local and gluten-free band-wagons.

But does it taste good?

But does it taste good?

In case you’re in the area, I’m sure they’d all love to see you:

Bacon & Brine, Solvang

Angels Antiques, 4846 Carpinteria Avenue, Carpinteria,

DolceNero, 2400 Main Street, Santa Monica

For a dinner that was so good that I forgot to take a photo:
Barbareño, 205 W Cañon Perdido Street, Santa Barbara

PS The next generation gets a head start in the kitchen.

Grand-nephew Charlie bakes muffins with nana.

Grand-nephew Charlie bakes muffins with nana Gai.


Posted in BAKING, BEER, COOKING, GELATO, PORK, Salumi | 4 Comments

To Cook or To Cook

The first year I went to the International Truffle Fair at San Miniato one of the sideshows was a small bookstall.

White truffles

White truffles

A woman thrust a book into my hands and explained exasperatedly, as she touched a finger to her head, that it had been written by her loopy husband.  Perhaps he had insisted she listen as he declaimed each of its 121 pages. As I read the polemical Cibo Contro Natura (Unnatural Food) I could hear Signor Pitinghi shouting his manifesto while gesticulating with his hands. The flowery language can be over the top, but far from being mad, it’s full of insights into a passing Italian food culture. This is a frustrated man with the memory of a flavour in his mouth which he finds harder and harder to reproduce in the kitchen. Perhaps his wife is a bad cook, but this isn’t what he laments. He’s dismayed by the swamping of natural food by industrial food, of slow food by fast food, of real cooking by virtual cooking, of found ingredients by packaged and marketed products.

The cover illustration is also by Pitinghi.

The cover illustration is also by Pitinghi.

Having read a chapter or two, the book itself got swamped by other literature I picked up at other food fairs and only re-emerged recently. My experience of Italian culture, not to mention my comprehension of the Italian language, has grown in the intervening years and many of Signor Pitinghi’s ideas set me thinking and exploring half-trodden paths.

Among his many provocative statements is the chapter title ‘Bisogna provare a cucinare o almeno…a cuocere’, which translates literally: ‘It is necessary to try to cook or at least…to cook’. The dilemma for me is one of linguistics and culture; for him it’s one of action. I check my excellent Italian-English dictionary by Ragazzini and Biagi just to make sure both cucinare and cuocere mean ‘to cook’. They do, but there’s a hint of a difference. Cucinare can also mean ‘to do the cooking’. My Italian friends sometimes correct me for using one or the other incorrectly, but I haven’t quite got it yet.

Back in San Miniato having lunch with Riccardo and Amanda, my truffle hunter and his wife, I ask them if they can enlighten me.

Amanda and Riccardo in their kitchen

Amanda and Riccardo in their kitchen

We’re eating a typical Tuscan lunch, a simple roast chicken with potatoes and onions. Amanda explains that if she had bunged the chicken into a roasting pan and stuck it in the oven until it was done, that would be cuocere. Instead, she had seasoned the chicken, browned it in olive oil, deglazed the pan with white wine, put it in the oven and basted it from time to time. She’d cut up the potatoes and onions and added them to the roasting pan to cook and become glazed by the juices of the chicken. All very simple yet this is cucinare. Now I could transfer it to my own culture: ‘I can boil an egg, but I can’t cook’.

I want to reach into the photo and grab a potato!

I want to reach into the photo and grab a potato!

Pitinghi reminds his Tuscan readers how simple their cuisine is and muses on whether in our ‘global village’, with mother at work and incessant television cooking programmes interleaved with adverts for snacks full of preservatives and breaded fish fingers ready for frying, the family no longer knows how to keep traditions alive, especially those of cooking and local food. He ends with this exhortation ‘to all of us: “let’s try to cucinare!” or at least, if this verb seems too challenging “let’s try at least to cuocere something”.’

Posted in COOKING | 8 Comments

Christopher Hogwood at Dinner

Christopher Hogwood died on 24 September at the young age of 73. Although he will be remembered first and foremost for his contributions to music, his interests were wide-ranging. High on the list was dining. He understood perfectly that a convivial meal could bring friends closer together and facilitate business meetings. When asked to name a time for a meeting, there were only two answers: ‘Lunch’ and ‘Dinner’.

Christopher wasn’t a cook. His idea of cooking was to mix three different flavours of Waitrose’s soup-in-a-box. This suited me perfectly. During the quarter century that I was his personal manager and editor of the introductions to his many musicological publications, I also had the unofficial position as head chef in his Cambridge household.

My first career having been in archaeology, we shared a common respect for the past. We both enjoyed the search for how ‘they’ did it ‘then’. This must have been what led us to the idea of historical feasts. In the late ‘70s the Academy of Ancient Music performed at least one concert in each of the annual Cambridge Summer Music Festivals. One year we decided to throw a post-concert garden party at Christopher’s house. The menu would consist of dishes of the same period and nationality as the music in the concert. It must have been Purcell that year. I headed to the Cambridge University Library and found only a paltry collection of antique cookery books. Among them was Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook published in 1660. I was a novice to interpreting historical recipes, and I’m sure I made more mistakes than the musicians in their interpretation of the notes on the page. Spectacle and bravura were all, as in pageants of the day. I invited many people to contribute. I remember especially a spectacular fortress of a raised pork pie complete with crenelations constructed by Christopher’s keyboard restorer Chris Nobbs.

No feast is complete without wine. Christopher had an excellent cellar, but it didn’t contain bottles of 17th-century English wine. We found a good substitute in English wine from nearby Gamlingay.

Christopher’s personal library now began to swell with 17th and 18th-century cookery books. From then on the feasts became ever more historically informed. We started from the premise that people who were capable of appreciating sublime art and music, wouldn’t have tolerated the foul tasting food that historians claimed they put on their tables. Our assumption proved correct. Everything I made from those historical cookery books was excellent, without any modernisation.

The next step should have been cooking with original instruments. Maybe if I hadn’t left in 2004 to found Sapori e Saperi Adventures — Flavours and Knowledge of Italian Artisans, we would have built a wood-fired oven, reopened the dining room fireplace and installed a spit for roasting mutton.

After I left, he started an occasional restaurant guide aimed at musicians who so often find themselves performing in unknown cities and in need of a good meal:

I shall be ever grateful to Christopher for his support and faith in me as a cook and interpreter of historically informed cuisine.

Posted in COOKING, HISTORY, MUSIC | 12 Comments

Preserving Traditional Cuisine

‘The golden rules of authentic paella’ caught my eye on the ‘Food & Drink’ page of The Week (19 July). It reported that a ‘paella activist’ had founded a group dedicated to the preservation of Valencia’s signature dish. I signed into their website to explore more. In answer to the question, ‘Is there a unique authentic paella recipe?’ I read the reply, ‘Each zone and season offers variations and peculiarities, and there are as many versions as villages and cooks’. So why are they worried about variations in the recipe? In what does ‘authenticity’ exist?

Part of the answer must lie in the next sentence: ‘All of them use ingredients taken from the land. This is what nowadays is called Gastronomy KM0.’ The land is the territory of Valencia, and what can’t be found there can’t be used in paella. Maybe one should say, ‘what couldn’t be found there in the past’, but this raises another question of how far in the past does one draw the line?

It reminded me of the Slow Food Lucca Compitese’s successful efforts to keep alive the traditional zuppa alla frantoiana through their annual zuppa tournament. Many variations exist, but to stay true to its origin during the olive harvest at Lucca it must contain beans, cavolo nero, stale bread and extra virgin olive oil. It may contain other winter vegetables, but absolutely no zucchini even if they are now grown in hothouses and imported to the area. The same applies to tomatoes.

Risotto could use an action group too. It originated as a sort of rice porridge. The finished dish should be all’onda, as important a concept in cooking a risotto as al dente is to the correct cooking of pasta. The final consistency of risotto should be not too liquid and not too dry; when you shake the pan (a shallow, wide pan please) the risotto should form a wave (onda). How many risottos have you had that are more like paella? The website tells me, ‘As we all know, rice in authentic Paellas must stay dry and loose.’

Osso bucco and risotto alla milanese as served in Milan

This conservationist attitude to traditional dishes seems to be rare in England and the United States (and for all I know, in other countries too). Their citizens happily appropriate the names of dishes, but not the constraints. Any old dish made with rice might be variously titled ‘paella’, ‘risotto’ or ‘pilau’ with scant regard for their origins. I’ve had ‘cassoulet’ in England that was English pork sausage and tinned beans in tomato sauce. Some of these variations in foreign lands may be delicious, but why not give them different names? Risotto isn’t traditional around me in Lucca Province. Here a dish based on rice is usually called ‘riso ai funghi’ (rice and wild mushrooms), for example, on a restaurant menu. This neither capitalises dishonestly on a famous dish, nor distorts the public’s idea of what the true dish should be like.

So in addition to preserving traditional cuisine, let’s celebrate new untraditional recipes with creative new names.


Why the Garfagnana?

The Garfagnana is unquestionably beautiful. It’s rugged mountains cloaked with green forests set it apart from the Tuscany of Chianti to the south and the Po Plain of Emilia over the Apennine Mountains to the east.

Nothing but mountains and trees

But I could never understand what use it could possibly have been to the Dukes of Ferrara, the Este family. In 1429 Nicolò d’Este annexed the Garfagnana to his realm and for almost four centuries the Garfagnana remained under the Dukes, who defended it against the republics of Lucca and Florence.

Fortezza Verrucole, an Este fort in the Garfagnana

I searched the internet; I asked my city guide in Ferrara. It seemed never to have occurred to anyone to wonder why.

Castello Estense, an Este castle in Ferrara

Today I went to the Sagra della Minestrella di Gallicano. Minestrella is a soup of wild herbs and beans made only in Gallicano, a town of fewer than 4,000 people. Today it is the southernmost town in the Garfagnana. When the Garfagnana was under the rule of the Dukes of Este, Gallicano was the northernmost Lucchese stronghold (apart from the even smaller town of Castiglione di Garfagnana). Directly across the river in Barga the Florentines held sway. Surrounded by strong neighbours, Gallicano went its own culinary way.

Gallicano's idiosyncratic minestrella with mignecci (corn flatbread)

The plan of the day included an introduction to wild edible herbs, a walk (in the rain — not planned) identifying the edible herbs along the path to the Antica Trattoria dell’Eremita (Old Restaurant of the Hermitage), where we not only feasted on the legendary minestrella, but numerous other traditional dishes illustrating the use of wild herbs, not omitting the focaccia leva, a flatbread unique to Gallicano.

Ivo Poli refers often to his mother's and his own use of wild edible herbs

Ivo has a use for almost every plant we pass

Focaccia leva of Gallicano baked between hot iron discs

The conversation turned time and again to the detailed history of the region and the extent to which it influenced agriculture and culinary tradition. Everyone seemed to be well versed in the history of the place. It was the symbolic and often the actual basis of their ownership of the land. I talked to Cesare, who had organised the event, about taking my clients to forage for edible herbs and use them to prepare a meal. He was agreeable, but cautioned that the activity wasn’t to be just about the identification of the plants, their recipes and flavours; it had to include their cultural history, what they meant to the families who ate them.

How to clean a plant you've collected

Ivo Poli, who had given the lecture on the wild plants, gave me a lift back to my car. He lives in the next town north of Gallicano and had always been a Garfagnino (citizen of the Garfagnana). I asked him the question that had teased me for so long. It’s easy, he said, ‘We had the petroleum of the Renaissance: charcoal.’ I’d walked in the tree-covered mountains; I’d seen a charcoal burner at work; I’d watched the blacksmith Carlo Galgani beating iron in his charcoal fire; I’d been to a village that produced nothing but nails; but I’d lacked the historical glue to put them together.

Charcoal burner's pile in the Garfagnana

Carlo Galgani burns charcoal at his forge

Far more important than nails and horseshoes, every ruler needed charcoal to smelt iron to make arms to defend his borders and subdue new territories. The village streets lined with grand houses with imposing doorways suddenly make sense as residences of the oil barons of their day.

Possibly the door of a charcoal baron



Pasqua at Benefizio

Pasqua is Italian for Easter. Last year I went to Francesca Bonagurelli’s agriturismo Al Benefizio to join her family and friends for their typical Easter lunch.

The dining room was decorated

Family and friends were there

Queen of the day Francesca at the right edge of the photo nearest the kitchen, her daughter, her nephew, her cousin from Milan, her brother-in-law, her sister, her mother and her dear friend Marta.

The table was laid

Chocolate eggs flaunting their Easter gowns

In ever more extravagant wrapping

Except for these happy nudists at the other end of the table

An antipasto consisting of the usual crostini and some olives didn’t prepare me for the surprises to come. The primo was something I’d never had before: gnocchi alla romana. Instead of the little potato cylinders, these circular cakes were made of semolino polenta to which egg yolks and parmigiano was added. And instead of boiling them, they were sprinkled with butter and more parmigiano and browned in the oven. Delicious!

Francesca's gnocchi are heart-shaped

The secondo, roast beef, was accompanied by enough vegetables to please any of my clients, who are always asking, ‘Where are the vegetables?’

Perfectly roasted beef

Stuffed artichokes

Roast mixed vegetables

Roast potatoes

Here again there was a surprise: a vegetable looking like the hair of a punk angel who had dyed it bright green. It was Salsola soda, a saltwort that grows around Mediterranean coasts and is harvested between March and May. In Italian it’s called agretti or barba dei frati (monk’s beard—a punk monk?). Wikipedia tells me that it was important historically as a source of soda ash, one of the alkalis needed for soap and glass making. The clarity of cristallo glass from Murano depended upon soda ash. As a food it’s supposed to have a detoxifying effect.



Just when we thought we would burst, the table was cleared, the cakes arrived and the spumante was uncorked.

Alberto and Isabella open the bubbly

Naturally there was a colomba di Pasqua (Easter dove), a traditional Easter cake similar to panettone served at Christmas.

An Easter dove topped with sugar and almonds

Recently arrived from Naples was another novelty: the pastiera napoletana wrapped in its Easter finery.

The pastiera was from the renowned Gran Bar Riviera

One legend reveals its origin. One night some fishermen’s wives left baskets of ricotta, candied fruit, wheat, eggs and orange flowers on the beach as an offering to the sea, so it would protect their husbands and bring them back safe and sound. The next morning, when they descended to the beach to greet their returning husbands, they discovered that the waves had mixed the ingredients, and in the baskets was a cake.

Pastiera without its Easter veil

It comes with a packet of confectioner's sugar

Now it's ready to be served

I'm inviting the sea waves to make me a cake this year



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


What Grandparents Ate

Health warning: Vegetarians and hesitant carnivores may find this blog disturbing.

At the end of the last Advanced Salumi Course I was chatting with the norcino (pork butcher) Ismaele Turri and my driver Marzio Paganelli outside Ismaele’s butchery.

Ismaele shows how to bone a pig's foot to make zampone

Tuscan Driver

Marzio entertains guests in his mini-bus

Marzio asked me whether I’d ever eaten picchiante. I’d never even heard the word, so I wasn’t sure. They’re lungs, he explained, and his grandmother used to make a delicious dish with them. Did I want to try them? I wasn’t sure, but thought I ought to in the name of research. Problem is, where could he get them? He hadn’t seen them at a butcher shop in years.

Ismaele rears pigs, and when one is slaughtered, he gets the whole animal back from the abattoir—head to tail, skin, offal, bones and blood. Nothing missing.

pig of Ismaele

Whole pig

He led us into the cold room; I briefly saw something long, grey and smooth before he popped it in a plastic bag and handed it to Marzio. No money changed hands. We fixed Tuesday for the dinner.

I phone Tuesday midday to check what time to arrive. Marzio is already in the kitchen. He says if it doesn’t come out well, we don’t have to eat it. I consider taking a pork chop.

When I arrive at 8 pm, his wife Carla tells me she’d gone out for the day to avoid cramping his style. I’m relieved that there are good smells coming from the kitchen. Marzio loves to recount recipes as if they were stories. This is what gave me the idea of ‘Cooking with Babbo’. Babbo is the Tuscan equivalent of ‘dad’ or ‘pa’. I bring my guests to the Paganelli’s summer haunt, a renovated chapel on the ridge above their home in the valley, and we cook whatever Marzio feels like. No menu, no recipes.

cooking with dad

Marzio gives a cooking lesson

While a ragù simmers, he’ll grab a jug and lead you down to the spring below the house, or take you to the veg patch to pick tomatoes.

This young city-dweller had never picked a tomato

Carla is there too, and steps in to teach her to-die-for tiramisu. As a rule I don’t approve of cooking lessons as the only introduction a traveller gets to our food. Tuscan cuisine relies above all on good primary ingredients, and you have to know where to find them and how much better the flavour is than industrial food. That’s why I take my guests to visit artisan farmers and producers. But ‘Cooking with Babbo’ is as much a lesson in the dynamics between Italian husbands and wives as a cooking lesson. It’s a cultural experience.

This time Marzio lifts the lid to a simmering pot and shows me the deep, rich red sauce from which small brown cubes of meat protrude. The story begins. He chopped two onions and sautéed them for several minutes in extra virgin olive oil, pressed from his own olives.

Marzio picking olives with 'mechanical fingers'

At the olive press

He had already prepared the lungs. That’s what took longest, because you have to remove all the tubes so the finished dish won’t be chewy. He added the cubed lungs to the onions along with a small clove of garlic and a pinch of peperoncino (chile pepper), and sautéed them for an ‘abundant 15 minutes’, splashed in some white wine and evaporated it (sfumare), added chopped, peeled tinned tomatoes (much better in winter than tasteless hothouse ones) and some tomato paste. Then some hot water (or vegetable stock) to cover. He put the lid on the pot and simmered it for ‘an abundant 50 minutes’. Time is often as important an ingredient as the physical ingredients.

The recital over, the pot is brought to the table along with a platter of hot, fairly firm polenta which he has piled in a mound and decorated with a fork. Formenton otto file, he states. It’s the old variety of maize whose stoneground meal makes polenta that actually tastes like corn.

Drying, husking and de-seeding formenton

He cuts a slice of polenta with a knife and struggles to carry it to my plate. His grandfather used a pliable willow branch, which was perfect for cutting the polenta and getting the slice to a plate in one fell swoop. Carla spoons the picchiante in umido, the lung stew, to the side of the polenta. We look at each other, exchange the ritual buon appetito, and taste it. I’d expected a slightly slimy texture, but the cubes of lung are resistant while not being tough and the flavour is deep and complex. Truly delicious!

Doesn't it look gorgeous?

As we enjoy Marzio’s creation, we ponder the origin of the word ‘picchiante’. The Italian for ‘lung’ is ‘polmone’. Maybe it’s Tuscan. When I get home, I check my Italian-Italian dictionary compiled by two Tuscan scholars, Devoto and Oli. They confirm the word as 16th-century Tuscan, but say it refers to the lungs of a cow. Nevertheless, the Italians in my village know I’m talking about pig lungs when I tell them what I’ve eaten. It also means door knocker, and was applied to lungs because they lie near the heart.

Marzio and Carla talk nostalgically about all the ingredients that have disappeared from shops and the dishes that no one makes anymore. They think young people don’t like them, and wouldn’t eat them even if their parents could be bothered to prepare them. Every year Carla’s family reared a pig which they slaughtered in January. Marzio and I chorus, ‘Il giorno di Sant’Antonio’, the 17th of January. Sant’Antonio is the patron saint of animals, and it always seems strange to me that this is the day of the slaughter, but Carla thinks he only protected young animals. Anyway, no part of the pig was wasted; there were traditional ways of eating or using everything.

Soppressata made from pigs' heads


Pigs' feet ready to be salted

Tripe alla lucchese

Biroldo made with pigs' heads, offal, skin and blood

Fegatelli: pork liver wrapped in caul fat & skewered on fennel stalks

Cotecchino, a fresh cooked salami containing meat, fat & skin

Not only every cut of an animal was used, but a large variety of wild and cultivated plants formed part of the daily diet.

Ravioli was stuffed with nettles and ricotta

Zuppa alla frantoiana contains hedgerow plants

This is partly old people’s talk. We’re at that age when the world seems to be going to the dogs. But I’m cautiously optimistic. I see hopeful green shoots: farmers’ markets, artisan bakers and butchers, restaurants featuring liver, pigs’ feet and foraged plants. And Marzio is still making his grandmother’s picchiante in umido.


Salumi Course in Tuscany

If your lifelong dream has been to stuff a pig in a sack, your moment has arrived. French charcuterie, Italian salumi, Spanish jamón and English cured meats are all the rage. Not only are gourmet hams and salamis hogging (sorry, I couldn’t resist) the cold counters at fashionable delicatessens and stylish online shops, but every farmers’ market boasts a stall or more selling artisan salami made from rare breed pork. Want to learn to butcher a pig, salt a pancetta? Just type ‘charcuterie course’ into Google and you get 2,360,000 results for courses from Dorset to Down Under by way of Denver.

Grace learns to make sausages with Ismaele Turri

If you’re a butcher, chef or pig breeder wanting to make Italian salumi, your choice is more limited. Even though when you enter ‘salumi course’, you get 237,000 results, not many are designed for professionals. But the top four are and they’re us: the Saperi e Saperi Advanced Salumi Course. Everyone who comes tells me our course is unique: it’s aimed at food professionals; it takes place in Tuscany; it lasts for four days, short enough for a small-scale pig breeder to get away and long enough to cover the subject in depth; the price is moderate—you don’t have to sell the farm or the restaurant to come.

Yorkshire butcher David Lishman massages salami

Ismaele shows chefs from British Columbia how to prepare a prosciutto

In my opinion, what makes the greatest difference is that we’re in Italy. ‘We’ is course leader Giancarlo Russo, native Tuscan, and course organiser me, adoptive Tuscan.

Giancarlo explains in excellent English (his wife is American)

Occasionally I'm needed to clarify

We know there’s no such thing as ‘Italian’ salumi, nor even ‘Tuscan’ salumi. Move 20 km and you find different styles and practices. We know if we use only one norcino to teach the course, participants will get a totally skewed idea of how salumi is made. They’ll think there are rigid rules, because each norcino is sure his method is best. Giancarlo is consultant to Slow Food on meat and contributor to the book Salumi d’Italia. He knows the vast range of salumi in Italy and that there’s no hope of covering all of it. What to do? We base the course in northwestern Tuscany and use three norcini more than 20 km apart. In his theoretical sessions Giancarlo covers some practices in other parts of Italy.

Mondiola, circular salami made only in the Garfagnana

We’ve chosen our norcini carefully. All of them are at least third generation butchers, having learned from grandparents and parents. They are true artisans. They are aiming at excellence, not a uniform product.

Each salami is different

They use the best maiale pesante (heavy pig of more than 155 kg) they can get, always Italian.

Some really big pig carcases

They don’t use starters, sugar or milk powder. They use a small quantity of potassium nitrate (E252), never nitrites. They dry their salami either naturally or in a drying cupboard and mature their products in a natural cellar.

A perfect natural cellar for curing salumi

They reveal all their secrets except the exact mix of spices, which is a family recipe.

Massimo Bacci writes his recipe to make sure we've got it right

You’re encouraged to take photos and videos. They want you to go home and make good salumi. Otherwise, they’d be wasting their time.

Cameras to the ready

Our first norcino is Massimo Bacci from Versilia, the northern coastal plain of Tuscany. Massimo is a consummate salumi maker and a natural teacher. He’s clear and patient; he explains and demonstrates and allows you to tie a salami as many times as you need to get it right.

Massimo ties a salami slowly

Drew Howard, sausage maker in Beijing, practises

Geoffrey Couper, culinary educator in British Columbia, gets the thumbs up

Massimo explains the stages in drying and maturing, and he produces the best lardo I’ve ever tasted, using the same marble basins as in Colonnata, higher up the mountain from him.

Massimo's lardo

A very old marble lardo box

His 83-year-old dad pops in from the adjoining shop every 20 minutes to make sure his 60-year-old son is giving us the correct instructions. Their mortadella nostrale (a salami, not cooked like mortadella di Bologna) always comes first or second in the all-Italy artisan salami competition.

Massimo's award-winning salami

From Versilia we speed down the autostrada to San Miniato, a town along the Arno River between Florence and Pisa, where we visit Maurizio and Simone Castaldi, two brothers who learned their art from their father and uncle. We first came to them so we could include the fennel-flavoured salami finocchiona in the course. The finocchiona zone lies between Florence and Arezzo, south of our other two norcini.

Maurizio and two types of finocchiona

Ingredients for finocchiona

During our first visit, we discovered that their strongest suit is the production of prosciutto, and we now include an in-depth study of prosciutto from salting to air drying.

Prosciutto heaven

Yorkshire butcher Carl Slingsby observes the correct way to slice a prosciutto

Now we head to our third norcino at Venturo farm in the Garfagnana, the mountainous area north of Lucca.

View from Venturo as we arrive

We’re just over the Apennines from Parma and Modena in the Po Plain, so many of the products are the same. Ismaele Turri learned from his father, as well as working in a neighbour’s butcher shop from the age of 14. He’s a farmer and pig breeder. He slaughters two of his largest pigs in honour of our course.

Not their turn yet—they have to be a lot heavier

Participants are guided from the butchering of the pig to all the various typical salumi of the Garfagnana: prosciutto toscano, coppa, guanciale, pancetta, salami, cotechino, soppressata, biroldo (blood sausage) and a few other surprises. Since we allow no more than seven people on the course, there’s lots of time for hands-on practice.

Ismaele lays out the various parts of the pig ready to be worked

Maya Tavor from Tel Aviv learns to stuff a natural casing

Everyone ties salamis with Ismaele's help

If you stay for the extension workshop on the Tuesday after the course, you watch a production run at the Rocchi family salumifico near Lucca. Their efficiency is a sight to behold.

Gino demonstrates making salumetti to Irish butchers & American chef

Large diameter Tuscan salami requires special skills to get it right

The Rocchi's make soppressata in an antique hemp cloth

Some light relief

At the end of the course we ask for feedback, which Giancarlo and I use to improve the course to meet the needs of future food professionals. Even experienced butchers who already make salami tell us they learn a lot on the course. Last year a couple who came on our first course got their salami accepted by Harrods. We’re proud to be the launchpad for such successes.

The class of January 2014

Posted in BUTCHER, COOKING, Salumi, Tuscany | 2 Comments