Ruined by Good Food

What happened to Janet after indulging in artisan food in Tuscany? Here’s the unexpected answer in my latest post on the Slow Travel Tours website:

Here's Janet with a dyepot, not cooking

Here’s Janet with a dyepot

Shortly after she returned home to California I received a WhatsApp message from her which began:

“You have ruined me!!!”

I was worried, but not for long. Read the rest of my blog on the Slow Travel Tours website:

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Seasonal Eating: Peas in a Pod

After a full Italian lunch, I crave something fresh, light and pure. I stop at Patrizia’s fruttivendola in Villa (Bagni di Lucca) and buy a sack of new season peas in the pod. I love popping open the pods and detaching the peas with one swipe of my thumb. It can be a social activity too; children really get into it.

Shelling peas with granny

I can’t resist popping a few raw ones into my mouth as I work. They’re so tender and sweet. One minute in boiling salted water and my dinner is ready. No butter, no ham, no spring onions, just a plate of peas. They melt in my mouth.

Mouth-watering dinner

You don’t have to have lofty ideals of saving the planet to eat locally and seasonally. You can do it as a totally selfish act to pamper yourself. To me it’s better than a massage.

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Healthy or Unhealthy?

I feel vaguely uncomfortable every time I hear the phrases ‘healthy eating’ and ‘balanced diet’. It’s not that I disapprove of eating healthily or balancing my diet, it’s just that I’m not sure we can ever know what these terms mean.

A recent article in The Guardian newspaper by Joanna Blythman highlighted the problem.

Can you be sure?

Click here to read the whole article. It’s worth browsing a sample of the 1,374 comments too. What tempted me to add my voice to the throng is that I think there’s something much more fundamental wrong with what we’re told.

I once took part in a UK medical research project aimed at discovering links between diet and women’s health. Every so often they asked me to fill in an online form giving details about what I’d eaten the day before. The designers of the project and the form clearly didn’t have me in mind. For example, in the section asking how many slices of bread I ate, they asked whether it was white or wholemeal, but there was nowhere to say I’d baked it myself using stoneground, organic wholewheat flour I’d bought from the miller. Nor to state it didn’t contain any flour improvers and was made by a long-rise sourdough method. Although I believe it’s healthier than mass-produced bread, do I know for sure? No, and this study wasn’t going to reveal the answer.

My Garfagnana potato bread is good, but is it healthy?

Another major problem with all dietary research based on surveys is that people lie. Do you want the researchers, or even yourself, to know that you ate three Kit Kats and drank a whole bottle of wine yesterday?

No Kit Kats in the house

And what about the problem of the long-term effects of particular substances? In the laboratory biologists can test the effect on animals of chemicals occurring in food, either naturally or as additives during cultivation or processing. But as far as I know it’s difficult, maybe impossible, to test the effect of ingesting that substance for 20 or 50 years.

The last of my doubts about dietary advice stems from genetics. We’re all different. One person might live to 100 eating nothing but red meat and fat, whereas another dies of a heart attack at the age of 52. Was it their diet or their DNA? Many years ago when asked on her 120th birthday to what she attributed her longevity, the oldest woman in France replied it was giving up smoking when she was 118.

On my tours you eat unprocessed food, much of it straight from the artisan producer. In my opinion it tastes much better than industrial food, but I can’t claim it makes you healthy. Next chance to taste for yourself is the Cheese, Bread & Honey tour in June (


Homemade food at a pizza party on the Cheese, Bread & Honey tour

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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.


October Unprocessed

On the last day of October Unprocessed I’ve just bought a perfect example.

Burro fatto da panna

Butter made from pure cream — nothing else at all

The butter is made on an organic farm from cream of cows on the farm at Cutigliano (PT) and sold in a shop 44 km (27 mi) away in Ponte a Moriano (Lucca). Delicious, especially on my sourdough bread warm from the oven (organic flour from the Garfagnana, natural leavening, sea salt from Sicily, water from a spring above my village).

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Healthy Eating

I just found this piece on the website of the LLandinabo Farm Shop. My first thought: thank goodness some food scientists are finally doing research that sheds light on why those Palaeolithic meat-eaters didn’t all die of terrible diseases leaving the earth with no human beings on it. But the enduring thought is that we’ll never know what’s healthy and what’s not. A colleague said to me yesterday: ‘My grandmother lived to be 96 and she didn’t have a healthy lifestyle. I’ll probably live to 115 because I exercise and eat healthy food’. Hmmm… I’d say that living to 96 is evidence that her grandmother’s lifestyle was healthy enough for her, and we don’t really know whether everyone needs lots of exercise and whether what we believe to be a healthy diet really is. In other words…
A Fat Lot We Know…
On most of the stock we deal with, there is more fat on the meat than would be found in the supermarket and most High Street butchers. Again, when all fat was considered bad, this mitigated against these old British breeds and helped cause their decline. However, recent scientific discoveries in America and now at Bristol University have shown that the fat on animals that have been grazed extensively (which ours have) is high in Omega 3 fatty acids, the same health enhancing factor found in oily fish. The difference at the moment however is that the farming of rare breeds is actually more sustainable than the fishing in the seas around Europe.

Fat is also important in cooking good food. The fat itself bastes the meat while it cooks and imparts succulence and flavour. Without it, meat is often tough and tasteless. By all means, cut off the excess fat after the cooking is complete, if you prefer, but you don’t need to feel guilty about enjoying the fat on our meat.

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