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

Better Than the Winter Olympics

I always get excited about the winter Slow Food Soup Tournament. The 2014 dates of the Disfida della Zuppa have just been announced. The displays of skill of the competing zuppisti are a wonder and will satisfy the mid-winter yearnings of any hungry foodie. Compare it to eating the Ladies’ Moguls Freestyle Skiing.


I’ve written about zuppa in several blogs (if you’d like to read more, see below for the links), so this time I’m just going to tell you briefly what zuppa is and translate the email I received this morning soliciting zuppisti to enter the Tournament.

Bowl of zuppa

Zuppa derives from the 16th-century ‘suppa’ which means ‘a slice of bread impregnated with liquid’, a sort of crouton. The Lucchese zuppa alla frantoiana, the protagonist of the Tournament, supposedly originated at olive presses (frantoio means olive press). After you pressed your olives, you took your new oil to the fireplace in the frantoio where a pot of soup was simmering over the flames. The press’s owner put a crust of bread in a bowl, ladled the zuppa over it and you seasoned it with a drizzle of your oil. Since olives were pressed between November and January, the ingredients were winter vegetables. (Nowadays the fashion is for bitterer, more piquant oil and many olives are pressed in the second half of October before they’re completely ripe.)

olio di oliva extra virgine

Your new extra virgin olive oil pouring out of the press

sitting by fire at frantoio

Alas, no zuppa hanging over the fire at this frantoio

This year there will be 11 matches before the semi-finals and the ‘Cup Final’. Anyone who makes zuppa can compete, whether mamma, son, aunt or professional chef.

zuppa contestants

Zuppisti vary: some are shy and others are flamboyant

Experienced soup makers

The winner (2nd from left) made her mother-in-law's recipe (husband, far left)

The philosophy behind zuppa is deep and produces endless discussions at the matches. What are the essential ingredients? At past tournaments the consensus has been: dried beans, olive oil, bread and cavolo nero. In the realms of ‘freestyle’, you can add wild edible herbs, seasonal vegetables, whatever your family recipe includes or whatever takes your fancy. What’s not allowed? Unseasonal vegetables like zucchini.

red beans of lucca

Red beans of Lucca are local and especially tasty

fagiolo scritto di lucca

The fagiolo scritto di Lucca is also excellent for zuppa

black cabbage

Cavolo nero is a must

not zucchini

Uh oh, summer veg

In the light of this, Slow Food’s call for contestants is poetic and provocative:

Non è mai troppo tardi per partecipare alla disfida ed entrare nel’albo ufficiale degli zuppisti lucchesi.

Portate la ricetta della nonna, della zia, della trisavola, la vostra. Con erbi, senza erbi, con pane, senza pane, con cipolla fresca, senza cipolla fresca, ne abbiamo vite tante, ma non ancora tutte. La ricetta della zuppa è per definizione una ricetta che non esiste, se non nell’esperienza di chi la fa e ne custodisce i sapori, i profumi, gli aromi, i ricordi.

Which means:

It’s never too late to participate in the tournament and enter the official annals of Lucca soup makers.

Bring the recipe of your grandmother, your aunt, your great-great grandmother, your own. With herbs, without herbs, with bread, without bread, with fresh onion, without fresh onion, we’ve nourished ourselves with many, but not yet all. The recipe for zuppa is by definition a recipe that doesn’t exist except in the experiences of those who make it and preserve the flavours, the fragrance, the aromas and the memories.

The jury is us the public, so if you’re near Lucca between now and the end of March and want a truly Slow Italian experience, contact me at and I’ll book you in for the date of your choice. But hurry, the competitors are world class and the games sell out quickly.

Popular soup tournament

Book your tickets while there are still places left

Dates of zuppa matches

13 February: Ristorante pizzeria “i Diavoletti” di Camigliano, 18 February: Sala parrocchiale di Capannori, 21 February: Rio di Vorno, 26 February: Antica e Premiata tintoria Verciani – il Mecenate a Lucca, 28 February: Osteria  da mi pa’, 1 March: Aquilea, 7 March: Osteria storica morianese da Pio, 8 March: Agriturismo Alle Camelie, 14 March: Sala parrocchiale di Carignano per il gruppo Equinozio, 21 March: Rio di Vorno per i Gruppi GAS Lucca Pisa, date to be announced: Pecora Nera

Links to my other zuppa blogs: Soup TournamentElegy to SoupSoup Put to the Test, Souprize, Slow Food Disfida della Zuppa or Soup Tournament, Another Zuppa

Posted in beans, fagioli, OLIVE OIL, SOUP, TRADITION | 4 Comments

Weeds for Lunch

Guest blog by Penny Barry

I had an adventure last weekend. Heather returned to Cambridge leaving me with a sub-contracted quest deep in the Garfagnana to discover the hidden properties of weeds as food. So what happened? This is my tale.

View from Molazzana

The Garfagnana

The event centred around a dish called la minestrella di Gallicano, which is a soup native to the area made from weeds and beans served with a particular thin focaccia called mignecci, but more of this later.

It’s not easy going somewhere you don’t know, meeting people you’ve never met before, and all this, not in my native country, but plucking up courage, off I went. I was told to meet up in a certain piazza in Gallicano at 9.30 am but there was no one else around apart from a friendly looking bloke. After smiling at him a couple of times, I thought I’d better say something to him before he got the wrong idea about me! Luckily he was the organiser, Cesare, and he showed me where we were gathering. First, we were given a lecture on local weeds (edible and not edible) by the expert, Ivo Poli, and the local delicacies you can cook with them.

wild plants as food

Hearing about edible wild plants

But the day was all about foraging, collecting weeds and eating them. The party of about 25 men, women and children left the safety of the lecture room to go to… the car park. Who would have thought that there were edible wonders lurking in the verges of an ordinary car park?

bank of wild herbs

A meal at the edge of a car park

We were shown how to collect the weed and clean it with a knife straight away; you must leave it with the root (not split off the leaves) until you get home or the flavour and goodness are lost.

How to clean a weed

A tasty morsel

I am not a horticulturist, but even I recognised the weeds from my garden and orto (allotment) — nettles, dandelions, ranunculus (didn’t know its name before), primula, geraniums, violets — the list goes on and on and they can all be used in minestrella.

From the car park we moved on to Molazzano, a village a few kilometres from Gallicano. As I didn’t know where I was going, Cesare kindly arranged for a young man and his mother to give me a lift and from thereon in, they befriended me. When we arrived, we were again treated to the delights of the wayside weeds in the car park.

Following a short walk through the woods, we arrived at an agriturismo called La Scope for what turned out to be the highlight of the day — lunch!

Lunch at agriturismo La Scope

Waiting for lunch

On arrival we were given an aperitivo, wine mixed with a licorice liqueur, I think, but boy did it pack a punch! Eating then started with antipasti including a wonderful locally smoked trout.

extensive trout farm Vergemoli

Extensively reared fish from farm near Gallicano produce excellent smoked trout

Then it was time for the minestrella di Gallicano. It is made from 15 to 30 types of local weeds, cooked in brodo (stock) with fagioli giallorini, beans which are special to the Garfagnana region of Tuscany.

wild plant and bean soup with corn focaccia

La minestrella, queen of the day

The weeds have been cleaned, boiled, cooled, reboiled according to a recipe handed down from generation to generation so this authentic dish remains on the menu for years to come. I’m sure there must be a secret ingredient somewhere which would not be passed onto outsiders. It was served with mignecci — an unleavened focaccia made from maize flour, water and salt and cooked between the hot stones also used to make chestnut flour necci — not my favourite part of the meal.

Next came sausages and beans served with fogacce leve di Gallicano — much better focaccia in my humble opinion — along with a wonderful pecorino and more cold meats, all of which were delicious.

fagioli all'uccelletto

Fagioli all'uccelletto, a classic Tuscan peasant dish

fogacce leve di Gallicano

Fogacce leve, focaccia cooked between hot stones instead of in the oven

Finally when we were close to bursting point, dessert was served, apple torta (pie) and torta di erbi — what else? This sweet vegetable tart made with Swiss chard and parsley is not usually my favourite torta, but this was delicious. A feast fit for kings, or at least humble weed gathers!

torta di mele and torta di erbi

Apple pie and herb tart

The day was glorious with warm sunshine and it was a pleasure to be in the company of genuine, friendly people. I must admit that this morning I was looking at the grassy verge at the side of the road with new interest. Thanks Heather.

And thank you, Penny. In future my tours will definitely include foraging with Ivo and Cesare.

Posted in beans, fagioli, FORAGING, SOUP, TRADITION, wild plants | 2 Comments

Another Zuppa

I’ve written about zuppa alla frantoiana, a typical seasonal soup of Lucca, so many times that you’d think I’d be bored with it. But no. It’s the archetypal winter dish—a minestrone on a foundation of stale bread—and varies according the cook, his or her family tradition, the vegetables available in the orto (veg patch) and hedgerows, the quality of the bread and of this year’s olive oil. Every zuppa conforms to certain principles and yet each is unique.

classic zuppa alla frantoiana

Classic zuppa alla frantoiana

Five years ago Slow Food Lucca Compitese Orti Lucchesi realised the qualities of zuppa were not so dissimilar to football teams (all teams play by the same rules, but each has its own characteristics) and organised the Disfida della Zuppa (soup tournament) composed of several rounds, with the winner of each round going through to the finals. The contestants range from home cooks to restaurant chefs. The jury is composed of us, the public, who come to taste, debate and judge. The 5th round of this year’s Disfida, at restaurant Il Rio di Vorno, went like this.

Disfida della zuppa campioni

Four competing zuppe arrive

Judging with our eyes first, we see that each zuppa looks entirely different. We season the zuppe with generous drizzles of new season extra virgin olive oil from a nearby olive farm.

sentire zuppa

Smelling zuppa

Number 2 aromatic, number 3 badly burnt. If you turn your back for a second, the bean puree that forms the basis of the zuppa sticks to the bottom of the pan.

assagiare zuppa

Tasting zuppa

parlare della zuppa

Talking about zuppa

You can tell what country you’re in without hearing the language, just look at the hands.

votare zuppa

Scoring the zuppa

Each soup gets positive marks for intensity of aroma, intensity of flavour and complexity of flavour, and negative ones for too much salt, too little salt, too much acidity and burnt odour.  We also give each an overall rating from 4 to 10. Nothing less than 4. I guess they don’t want anyone to feel too discouraged.

dopo zuppa il secondo

After the zuppa

Polpetti of bacalà (salt cod), rustic puree of chick peas and stewed cabbage seasoned with a hint of wine vinegar.

poesia della zuppa

Someone reads a poem about zuppa

vincitrice di zuppa

Winner of 5th round: Francesca Lenzi (3rd from right)

Francesca made zuppa number 2, the one everyone at my table judged the best. She’ll go through to the finals. Brava Francesca!

torta di polenta

Finale: polenta cake made from local maize flour

pagare la zuppa

Paying for zuppa

The whole evening only costs €2o for Slow Food members and €23 for non-members, and that includes wine and coffee. What a bargain!

To read more about zuppa see Elegy to Zuppa, Soup put to the test, Souprize, Slow Food Disfida della Zuppa and over at Debra Kolkka’s blog Bagni di Lucca and Beyond, Who made the best soup?, and Serious Soup on Bella Bagni di Lucca.

Next round: 9 March at 20.00 at the Sala Parrocchiale, Capannori. See you there!

Posted in beans, BREAD, fagioli, Lucca, OLIVE OIL, SOUP | 2 Comments

Slow Food Disfida della Zuppa, or Soup Tournament

What more could possibly be said about soup after my three blogs in 2010 about the Slow Food Lucchese e Compitese soup tournament (see links below)? Lots, judging by the animated discussions at the last elimination round last Thursday.

The organisers

photo by Heather Jarman

Soup discussions

First, this isn’t a tournament in which any old liquid served in a bowl can be submitted to the judges (who are us, the public). It’s not the case that one cook makes cream of mushroom and another leek and potato. This is a competition only for ‘zuppa alla frantoiana’. The nearest we get to it in English is ‘minestrone’. But this doesn’t mean that every entry is the same. Quite the reverse. Every entry is startlingly different from the others.

photo Heather Jarman

Here come the zuppas

There is general agreement on the four basic ingredients:

  • beans, either red beans of Lucca or borlotti
  • cavolo nero
  • olive oil, new season extra virgin of Lucca (naturally)
  • stale, toasted bread

Fagiolo rosso di Lucca (red beans of Lucca)

Cavolo nero waiting eagerly to be made into zuppa

photo Heather Jarman

Newly born extra virgin olive oil of Lucca

Ideal bread for zuppa

After that, it’s every cook on her or his own. The variations are numerous and depend on the family recipe — mamma’s or nonna’s or mother-in-law’s.


At the delightful rustic restaurant A’ Palazzo (Brancoli), the diners I could hear from my table seemed to have very refined palettes. One woman identified marjoram, perhaps too much, in one sample. Another definitely too much thyme. A big argument about fennel (seed and fresh). Should there be any? No, said some. Definitely, said others, but if there’s too much it covers the other flavours. A couple of my bugbears are no whole beans and too much bread (this isn’t pappa al pomodoro, after all).

Intensity of aroma is one characteristic to be judged

The winner? Manuela Girelli of the Brancoli. I might have been even prouder than her husband — notice his big grin because it’s his mother’s recipe. Her zuppa tasted very similar to the one I make. Maybe I should enter next year’s tournament?

The winner with her husband and the other contestants

Tonight is the GRAND FINALE!!!! I’m taking Debra Kolka, who writes the Bagni di Lucca and Beyond blog, and she’ll be reporting on it with lots of great photos.

Read more about zuppa:  Soup Tournament, Elegy to Zuppa, Soup put to the test, Souprize

Posted in beans, fagioli, Lucca, SOUP | 20 Comments

Milk & shoelaces


On the way back from a cooking lesson I’d arranged for clients, I’m crawling along at a Slow Food snail’s pace (no doubt infuriating the rush-hour drivers behind me) when I spy the little wooden hut I’m searching for.

The farmer puts today's milk in the refrigerator and we put our coin in the slot to get our milk.

The farmer puts today’s milk in the refrigerator and we put our coin in the slot to get our milk.

The hut — a kind of mini-barn — shelters a machine that dispenses unpasteurised milk almost straight from the cow and is part of an Italian rural development programme to shorten the supply chain and put consumers’ money directly into the pockets of farmers. The farmer tests every batch of milk with the lab equipment in his barn. Health and safety officials also check the milk regularly.

There’s a website where you can find all the ‘mechanical cows’ in Italy. Here are the ones near me.

Location of mechanical cows in Lucca Province

Location of mechanical cows in Lucca Province

A crowd of customers is gathered round, each hugging one or more empty glass bottles. It looks like happy hour at a bar, but as I get closer, I realise they’re waiting for the young farmer to clean and refill the ‘mechanical cow’. The landscape being more industrial than pastoral in this part of the Capannori, I ask the farmer how far away his farm is. He pulls me a few steps to one side and points through a gap in the buildings to his cow barn, about half a kilometre from us. Not many food miles required to fill the machine. Sensing a captive audience, he signals me over to his milk truck and opens the side door to reveal a secret cargo…

Lying on the back seat is a large bunch of stringa. His own produce he proudly explains, harvested that afternoon for a customer who will be arriving any moment, so he regrets he can’t sell me any. ‘Stringa’ means ‘shoelace’ and refers to a small diameter green bean, grown only in the Lucca plain and nearby Versilia, that reaches 70–80 cm in length — more a bootlace, really.

I explain that I organise gastronomic tours to visit small producers and ask whether I could bring some guests by to see his farm. He suggests I telephone next time I’m passing and he’ll show me around. He returns to his work, now filling the bottle dispenser with new glass bottles, for new customers or those who have forgotten theirs at home. By now the crowd has dispersed and I fill my own bottle. The milk costs 1 euro a litre and, for small consumers, you can buy it in units of 100ml, rather than having to buy a whole litre at once. It tastes intensely of milk, unlike the white liquid one buys at the supermarket, which costs €1,40.

I say arrivederci, but he’s loath to lose a sympathetic ear. He looks indecisive, then makes up his mind, goes to the truck and steals a large handful of stringa from the bunch on the seat. ‘Here’, he says, ‘You know how to cook them, don’t you?’ ‘Yes, stew them with onions, garlic and tomato.’

Simple ingredients available fresh in the same season as the stringa

Simple ingredients available fresh in the same season as the stringa

‘They’re delicious with rabbit, but only with my grandmother’s.’ He reminisces, ‘When I was a boy, I refused to eat rabbit if my mother bought it from the butcher. It didn’t have any flavour compared to my nonna’s. But she’s gone now, and I don’t have time to keep chickens and rabbits’, he continues wistfully. I promise to return soon, and bear my booty home to stew my stringa.

Posted in Agriculture, beans, fagioli, FARM, latte, Lucca, milk | Leave a comment