‘Relax!’ is a command to me as a tour organiser and to you as a traveller. There’s no way you can see everything, so we may as well leave time to rest, absorb and enjoy. My favourite way to wind down is to go to a village festival, called a sagra. It’s impossible not to relax, while at the same time soaking in the local culture.

Life is joyous

Life is a joy

The village of Cascio is top of my list for an experience without deadlines. I’ve already written about its wood-fired oven sagra in spring ( At the end of July and early August the village puts on its equally relaxing Sagra delle Crisciolette. See below for a note about the criscioletta. Right now, we’re going to the sagra.

Just click here to take you to the Slow Travel Tours website for your anti-stress therapy (and to find out what a criscioletta is):

Posted in BREAD, FESTAS, GARFAGNANA, HISTORY, holidays, LIFE, RECIPE, TRADITION, Tuscany | Leave a comment

Celebrating Sardinia

The southwestern corner of Sardinia is called Sulcis. The word derives from the Carthaginian city of Solki. This is just one tiny example of the cultural palimpsest that makes up present-day Sardinia. Before the Carthaginians when the Phoenicians began visiting Sardinia in around 900 BCE, they encountered people of the Nuragic civilisation, which originated in about 1800 BCE. The ruins of their gigantic stone towers and settlements still dot the countryside; 7000 of them remain. Hard on the heels of the Carthaginians, the Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Spaniards, Pisans, Genovese and Piemontese all demanded their turns on the island. It’s no wonder that coming from Italy you feel as if you’ve arrived in a foreign country.

The island culture of Sant'Antioco

The island culture of Sant’Antioco

Impressive remains of a Nuragic complex on Sant'Antioco

Impressive remains of a Nuragic complex on Sant’Antioco

Recreation of early Christian burial in the catacombs of Sant'Antioco

Recreation of early Christian burial in the catacombs of Sant’Antioco

But it wasn’t the distant past that drew me to Sardinia. Some of the women coming on my September ‘Tastes & Textiles’ tour wanted to visit a woman who weaves with the fibres of the beard of a giant Mediterranean mollusc, and they asked me to take them. Barely credible, I thought, but her workshop had a website which placed it in the town of Sant’Antioco, on the Island of Sant’Antioco in the territory of Sulcis. Here was the ideal excuse to visit Sardinia, which I knew only from its pecorino sardo cheese and Vermentino wine…

Read about how my adventure in Sardinia led to a new exciting tour:

Find out more about the tour at: (click on the tabs below the introduction to see all the details)

Posted in BREAD, cheese, FESTAS, HISTORY, Sardinia, TRADITION, weaving, WINE | Leave a comment

Flowers for Santa Zita

Santa Zita’s mummy lies in a glass case in a side chapel at the Basilica of San Frediano in Lucca.

San Frediano is the only church in Lucca with a mosaic façade.

San Frediano is the only church in Lucca with a mosaic façade.

iPhoto tells me there are three unnamed faces here.

iPhoto tells me there are three unnamed faces here. Anyone know them? (Photo: Jeff Blaine)

Despite her cadaverous face and bony hands, she looks fresh and almost pretty in the blue dress and white apron of a serving girl.

Santa Zita rests from her housework.

Santa Zita rests from her housework.

She wasn’t one of those martyred saints canonised for suffering a gruesome death in defence of their faith, such as Saint Lawrence who is said to have been grilled alive. Zita (c. 1212–1272) was a humble and hardworking servant, which earned her the affection of the aristocratic family for whom she worked. What they didn’t know was that at the end of each day she went to the kitchen, stealthily wrapped any leftover bread in her apron and distributed it to the poor. The other servants, being jealous of the high regard paid her by the nobleman, decided to get their own back by telling him Zita was stealing from his household. He could hardly believe it, but one evening as she was leaving the house with her apron bulging, he stepped out of the shadows and challenged her to show him what she was hiding. The girl quickly replied it was only some flowers, and was greatly surprised when forced to open the apron to discover it was indeed filled with flowers. Bernardo Strozzi (c. 1581–1644) captured the moment here:

Her position in the household was safe and Lucca ever since has had an excuse to fill its streets with flowers on her saint’s day of 27 April (or the nearest weekend).

I’ve wanted to take part in this happy event for years, but until today I’ve either been away or it was raining, and the thought of a sea of umbrellas and drenched flowers wasn’t enticing. Today was grey, but not wet.

Piazza San Frediano adorned with olive trees

Piazza San Frediano adorned with olive trees

Zita had been carried out of her side chapel to a place of honour in the nave.

A few more flowers would have been in order.

A few more flowers would have been in order.

The Roman amphitheatre has undergone remakes so many times that there are only a few remnants of the Roman structure left. For part of the last century it was the site of the central market until that was moved to the Mercato del Carmine, leaving the piazza of the amphitheatre sad and empty except during the tourist season.

The amphitheatre on a normal grey day (Photo: Jeff Blaine)

The amphitheatre on a normal grey day (Photo: Jeff Blaine)

Today the flower stalls showed how lively it must have been as a market.

A few vegetable, meat and fish stalls would complete the scene.

A few vegetable, meat and fish stalls would complete the scene.

Lucca was out in force.

The Lucchesi were out in force.

The brilliance of the flowers made up for the lack of sun.

The brilliance of the flowers made up for the lack of sun.

Magenta was a favourite colour.


This year kumquats are the rage.

This year kumquats are the rage. They make exquisite marmalade!

A circus

A circus

A summer meadow...

A summer meadow…

...complete with butterflies

…complete with butterflies


Posted in FESTAS, GARDENING, HISTORY, Lucca | 7 Comments

Time Doesn’t Run

‘Garfagnana Dove Il Tempo Non Corre’ is the motto printed on aprons sold by the tourist office in Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. It means literally, ‘Garfagnana where time doesn’t run’. We might say, ‘where time stands still’. In fact, it creeps along slowly.

A slow apron

I’ve just reread a piece by Rebecca Solnit in the London Review of Books (29 August 2013) in which she reflects on some of the effects our electronic age have had on our experience of time: the interruptions to our concentration, the fragmentation of our solitude and relationships. She wonders how far we will allow big corporations to shatter our lives. Will we all be wearing Google glasses with continuous pop-up messages reminding us of practicalities while causing us to forget to ‘contemplate the essential mysteries of the universe and the oneness of things’?

Then she muses:

‘I wonder sometimes if there will be a revolt against the quality of time the new technologies have brought us… Or perhaps there already has been, in a small, quiet way. The real point about the slow food movement was often missed. It wasn’t food. It was about doing something from scratch, with pleasure, all the way through, in the old methodical way we used to do things. That didn’t merely produce better food; it produced a better relationship to materials, processes and labour, notably your own, before the spoon reached your mouth. It produced pleasure in production as well as consumption. It made whole what is broken.’

Reading this I realise it’s that wholeness I see in the producers to whom I take my clients: an immersion and satisfaction in what they do. It’s not that they don’t have to work hard or that they don’t have troubles, but that doing something from start to finish, from sowing to harvest, from slaughter to salami, from fiber to fabric, for themselves, their families and their communities produces a contentment way beyond the monetary value of their work.

I can think of so many examples it’s hard to know where to start or stop.

Ismaele Turri rears pigs and makes salumi.

He bakes bread…

…in a wood-fired oven he built himself heated with wood he chopped himself. He didn’t grow the wheat, but he does grow farro and corn. The farm is an agriturismo which he and his wife Cinzia run. And he has a bar a short walk from the farm.

Ismaele still has time to teach his skills to others.

Paolo Magazzini is another unhurried multi-tasker. He’s a farro and beef cattle farmer. He fertilises his fields with the manure of the cattle. He ploughs, plants with his own seed corn, harvests and pearls the farro. He provides the pearling service for about a dozen other farmers.

Paolo proud of his farro of the Garfagnana IGP (photo: Andrew Bartley)

Paolo is also the village baker, carrying on his mother’s trade. His recipe includes his farro flour and his own potatoes.

Paolo carves the initials of my guests in the loaves they’ve made.

Time is suspended when Paolo tells a story. (photo: Alex Entzinger)

Romeo Ricciardi weaves with antique hemp.

His mother-in-law Carla prepares balls of hemp from the tangled skeins.

From her smile, I wonder if she’s thinking about the beautiful finished articles he weaves.

Romeo says he’s happiest at the loom and hunting funghi. (photo: Carolyn Kropf)

Marzia Ridolfi and her husband rear cows, sheep and goats which she milks twice a day.

She makes cheese from the milk.

Her hands press the whey from the curd. (photo: Anne Shelley)

Stefania Maffei loves the silkworms that connect her to her grandmother’s work.

Schoolchildren come to her workshop to learn about the history of their families and Lucca in the silk trade.

Severino Rocchi laughs during his work as a pork butcher. (photo: Margi Isom)

His brother Ubaldo and, even better, his son Gino work with him.

Gino will carry the business forward with a smile into the next generation.  What more could any parent hope for?

Elements by Inger Sannes at Christopher Newport University, Virginia

Inger changed her career from business to art… (photo: Neal Johnson)

…and now expresses herself through her hands. (photo: Neal Johnson)

Carlo Galgani can make anything from metal…

…in his forge powered only by water.

Vitalina makes cheese from her goat milk…

…and matures her cheese on wooden boards.

It takes considerable inner fortitude to resist the health and safety inspectors who want her to use stainless steel.

Andrea Bertucci (centre) at his Osteria Il Vecchio Mulino (photo: Sergio Perrella)

Andrea is never short of time when he can spend it with customers who he feeds with his latest artisan food finds.

Roberto Gianarrelli abandoned driving a lorry to make craft beer.

He dreams up new recipes when he comes to check his beer in the middle of the night.

Daniela ladles cheese curd slowly by hand.

She has plenty of time to sit in the shade and play with her younger daughter.

Riccardo is a weekend truffle hunter…

…and the long hours he spends in the woods with his dog infuse his family and work life too.

Who knows what he’s contemplating while stirring polenta for his village festa.

The wholeness of my producers’ lives floods over to envelop my driver Andrea Paganelli and me.

For a moment we’ve escaped electronic intrusions. (photo: Neal Johnson)




Posted in ART, BEER, BREAD, BUTCHER, cheese, CRAFTS, FARM, FESTAS, GARFAGNANA, ICE CREAM / GELATO, LIFE, milk, OLIVE OIL, POLENTA, spinning, weaving | 6 Comments

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


Seasonal Eating 6: Befanini

When I think of seasonal eating, I usually think of what’s available from my orto (vegetable plot), fruit trees and local farms at a particular time of year. But there’s another kind of seasonal eating: the traditional foods that help us celebrate holidays and rites of passage. In Tuscany and more especially in the Province of Lucca, this is the time to eat befanini, a simple biscuit or cookie.

Christmas cookies of Casabasciana

Befanini made by Eugenia of Casabasciana

The name comes from ‘Befana’, which in Italian derives from ‘Epifania’, or Epiphany in English, which in turn comes from the Greek verb meaning to appear. The date is always the 6th of January, the twelfth day of Christmas, the day with all those Drummers Drumming, but also the day when Christians celebrate the ‘Incarnation of Jesus Christ’ and the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem bearing gifts.

Magi arrive in manger

The three magi arrive bearing rich gifts in a presepe at Pescaglia

As far as I can discover, the Befana, a witch who travels around on a broomstick taking presents to children on the eve of Epiphany, is particular to Tuscany, and especially to the Province of Lucca. It’s first documented in the 13th century. For an image see:, and if you read Italian, you’ll discover a delightful explanation of the tradition of Befana. Americans will immediately wonder how this little old witch became associated with Halloween, or vice versa. If anyone has the answer, I’d love to know.

The befanini of Barga are the most elaborate I’ve seen, truly works of art.

Christmas cookies of Barga

Befanini made by Francesca of Barga

My friends Francesca (who created the befanini above) and Marta explained to me that these biscuits were made by peasants to offer to the Befana when she visited their farms. In an agricultural economy with little cash, sugar was scarce and only used for special occasions. Besides the sugar, the befanini acquired extra value by virtue of the labour lavished on their decoration.

In my village of Casabasciana we celebrate the Befana in the traditional way, which you can read about in my blog: The Good Witch Befana. One of the most satisfying things about celebrating with locals, is that you always learn something new. When I wrote that blog two years ago, I hadn’t been educated by Francesca and Marta. It seems the Befana isn’t a pagan character after all, and now I realise that giving money to the Befana is an innovation, a way of monetising the custom. But I suppose you can’t repair the church bells with befanini.


Posted in BAKING, FESTAS, HISTORY, TRADITION, Tuscany | 2 Comments

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

What makes a good dinner party?

I read recently that dinner parties are going out of fashion in London. Not in Casabasciana. Last night the boar hunting team from our group of three villages threw one of their dinner parties to which I took some cultivated clients from Los Angeles. Toward the end of the evening, as we sat on hard wooden benches at trestle tables among the 263 other diners, they raved that it was the best evening they’d had in years. I admit, I was relieved. Being scientists by profession, they helped me analyse the intangible pleasures of an outdoor dinner in the unsophisticated setting of a village piazza.

Wild boar dinner in Casabasciana Piazza Cavour

The diners take their seats in Piazza Cavour, Casabasciana

The contagious spirit of community and togetherness. Even as foreigners, they felt welcome and accepted.

The inclusion of people of all ages — young, old, babies in strollers, teenagers with spiky hair.

The traditional dishes prepared by volunteers from the hunting team and our village who worked all day preparing them in the community kitchen.

Antipasti for 266 diners

Anna Rosa dishing up the antipasti

Carlo’s high-spirited band composed of electronic keyboard, accordion and occasionally saxophone and tambourine, all doubling as singers and performing popular Italian music that drew the dancers to their feet. My guests couldn’t resist, despite not having danced together since their wedding 28 years ago.

The ebullient crowd, who having bought lottery tickets to benefit the village, cheered each winner enthusiastically, especially when a young man won the wild boar prosciutto cured by a member the team.

People of all ages

All generations enjoying the raffle and music

It was well organised, but not slick or staged. It was genuine.

There are many village parties up and down the valley, each with its own authentic character. Who’s going to join me at the next one?


Posted in FESTAS, TRADITION | 16 Comments

How do you find…?

This sounds like a question you type into Google, but it’s what my clients ask me when I’ve taken them to a cheese maker on a mountain top or a handloom weaver in an unmarked house in a higgledy-piggledy mediaeval hamlet or a village festival that’s only announced by the huge number of cars parked along the road when you arrive. I don’t ask Google. In fact, Google usually hasn’t even heard of the people you visit on my tours.

Sapori e Saperi takes clients to handloom weaver

Romeo Ricciardi weaves in his attic

The answer is easy, but long. First, I live here (Google doesn’t). Second, I’m blessed with the ‘satiable curtiosity’ of Kipling’s elephant child. Third, I’m not afraid of appearing ignorant or stupid; the only way to learn is to ask lots of questions. Fourth, I go out and research everything that sounds exciting to me. Here’s an example.

During the last 24 hours I’ve been to the festival of Tappeti di Segatura Colorata at Camaiore, the Antro del Corchia, Ristorante Vallechiara at Levigliani di Stazzema, Miniere dell’Argento Vivo, tiro della forma sports club and Ristorante Pizzeria Al Barchetto at Turritecava, Gelateria Gely at Fornaci di Barga. It went like this.

Saturday 9 June

7.30–8.30 pm: Drive to Gabriella’s house in Capezzano Pianore, near Viareggio and Camaiore. Gabriella is one of my cooking teachers and has invited me to stay the night so she can introduce me to the treasures of Camaiore.

Camaiore city gate at night

Ancient gate to city of Camaiore

8.45 pm: Dinner with Gabriella, her husband Alfredo, her son and daughter-in-law.

10.00–10.15 pm: Alfredo drives Gabriella and me to Camaiore to watch the teams of carpet (tappeti) designers. Every year on the eve of Corpus Domini (a Catholic religious holiday celebrated on the ninth Sunday after Easter), patterned carpets of dyed sawdust (segatura colorata) are created on the paving stones of the two main streets of Camaiore. The enthusiastic artists work throughout the night so the public can view the finished carpets before 9.30 am when a religious procession walks along the streets and messes them all up.

Carpets for the streets of Camaiore poster

The poster

10.15–11.00 pm: We join the throngs watching the carpet makers of all ages kneeling on the street to sprinkle sawdust in the correct places to build up complex pictures.

Young and old work together through the night

Sifting dyed sawdust to make a pattern on the street

Moving a stencil into place 1

Huge stencils are used to define a pattern

Moving a stencil for Tappeti di Segatura

The stencil has to be put in exactly the right position

Placing stencil for tappeti di segatura

Just right — they’ve obviously done this before


Sacks of clippings for tappeti

Where is the brown sawdust? Marrone? Marrone?

Kneeling on bridge over tappeto

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

Religious theme for tapetto

There are many themes: this one is religious

Relaxing in Camaiore during Tappeti di Segatura

Not everyone is working

Watching Tappeti di Segatura from balcony

Some watch from their balconies

Artisan hat shop in Camaiore

Lots of shops remain open including this artisan hat shop

11.00–11.15 pm: Drive back to Gabriella’s house.

11:15 pm: To bed.

Sunday 10 June

6.45 am: Rise and shine.

7.00–7.15 am: Quick cup of tea (one English habit I haven’t forsaken) and a dry rusk with Gabriella’s homemade wild blueberry jam.

7.15–7.30 am: Gabriella and I drive to Camaiore. Sensible Alfredo is still asleep.

7.30–8.15 am: Wow!

Banners hanging from windows

The houses are decorated

Tappeto di segatura with optical illusion

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

Carpet with philosophical theme

Themes range from philosophical…

Carpet with environmental theme

…to environmental…


Carpet with scientific theme

…to scientific…

Carpet with chaos of creation as theme

…to the chaos of biblical creation…

8.15 am: Church bells ring calling the faithful to mass. Uh oh. That means the procession after the mass won’t start until 9.30 or 10. I have too much research to fit in today to stay, and besides that, who wants to see this beautiful handiwork trodden on? We change plans and head to Pasticcieria da Rosanno, Gabriella’s favourite, via a few exquisite little churches she tells me all about.

Bishop of Lucca arrives at Tappeti di Segatura

The Bishop of Lucca arrives

Baroque church organ

You have to admire the exuberance

8.25–8.45 am: Coffee and the lightest Italian brioche I’ve ever eaten.

8.45–9.00 am: Start back to car but I’m sidetracked by Gabriella’s casual comment, ‘That’s a good gastronomia’, as we pass Salumeria Nicola. In we go. It’s difficult not to buy some of everything, but I only get a piece of special pecorino called ‘Scoppolato di Pedona’, which I’ll enter in the England vs Italy sheep’s milk cheese tournament during my Cheese, Bread & Honey tour the week after this.

Seafood dishes at Salumeria Nicola

I want some of that bean and prawn salad

Ham baked in pastry at Salumeria Nicola, Camaiore

Ham baked in pastry

9.00–9.15 am: Return to Gabriella’s house and I hastily depart.

9.15–10.00 am: Drive to Antro del Corchia, a cave I’m vetting for a family for whom I’ve designed a tour in July. In my haste to make the 10.00 shuttle bus, I drive right past the turning to Levigliani and have to go back. That’s one reason why I do these reccies. No time to buy a ticket, but I’m waved onto the bus anyway.

Entrance to cave Antro del Corchia

Entrance to cave through old marble quarry

10.15–12.15 am: I’m no cave expert but the woman next to me is, and she’s impressed by the three underground lakes, a column that looks like a Golden Eagle plus a ‘petrified forest’ and ‘organ pipes’, and I’m relieved to hear that extensive tests have proved our breathing is but a drop in the ocean in such an enormous cave, the largest in Italy. No photos allowed in the cave.

12.15 pm: I was intending to go straight to the Miniere dell’Argento (silver mines), but naturally they’re closed for lunch. There’s nothing to do but take the guide’s advice and have lunch myself at the Ristorante Vallechiara at the other end of Levigliani. I phone Katherine, my communications manager, and tell her I’ll be late for the tiro della forma (cheese throwing) in the afternoon.

12.30–1.45 pm: I arrive at Vallechiara without a reservation. No worries. Mamma welcomes me into a pleasantly buzzing dining room where her son lays a table for me right in front of the speakers and mixing deck. I ask whether they can be turned down. No, but he lifts up my table and sets it behind the speakers, where the sound is muffled. A plate of pasta fritta (irresistible deep-fried bread dough), wine and tap water appear instantly (many restaurants make a fuss when I ask for tap water and my friends shrivel with embarrassment).

Pasta fritta at Ristorante Vallechiara Levigliani

Feather light pasta fritta (fried bread dough)

The son joins mamma and a waitress carrying around huge trays of antipasto. Bruschetta, four crostini, salumi and melon, olives and a few other delicacies land on my plate before I can order. It turns out Sunday lunch is a fixed menu. No choice, but who can complain about what’s delivered?

Primi at lunch at Vallechiara Levigliani

Tordelli and crepes for first course

First secondo Ristorante Vallechiara Levigliani

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


Pollo fritto verdure fritte

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

1.45–2.15 pm: I have to be at the mine by 2.00, so no time (or room) for the second main course or dessert. I go to the bar for coffee and to pay. After 10 minutes the son arrives and tells me with a grin it’s much harder to pay than to eat in this restaurant.  He sends a woman from the kitchen to make my coffee, but she doesn’t accept money. Finally another man arrives and I’m allowed to pay €20 for my delicious lunch that could have fed three. Incredible!

2.15–3.00 pm: Drive to the Miniere. The next tour starts at 3.00, so I sit in the sun. Someone greets me as a group emerges from the mine. It’s Nicolas Bertoux, a sculptor. I haven’t seen him and his sculptor wife Cynthia Sah in a few years. They’ve got more commissions than they can handle, and they’ve restored the studio and have a permanent collection in their private museum. I must come and bring my guests. I will.

Miniere dell'argento vivo hard hats

Putting on our hard hats for the tour of the mine

3.00–3.30 pm: We don our hard hats and enter the mine. It’s not a silver mine after all. It’s a mercury mine, one of the rare ones where free mercury sits around on rock ledges in little globules. It’s fascinating, but I’m so late for the cheese throwing that I tear myself away before the end of the tour vowing to return.

Cinnabar rock containing mercury

The red rock is cinnabar which contains mercury

Cinnabar crushing machine

A retired machine for crushing cinnaber

3.30–4.09 pm: Up over Cipollaio Pass (no one can tell me why it’s named for an onion field or seller), past the disused marble quarry I take my clients to, down past Isola Santa with its houses with stone roofs. I love driving on the curvy mountain roads. Maybe I’ll become a rally driver as my next career. Through Castelnuovo and down the Serchio valley to Turritecava, left at the sign to Pizzeria Il Barchetto (little boat) and down to meet Katherine and her husband Andrea — I suspect I’ll need a man at the cheese-throwing sports club.

4.09–5.30 pm: Tiro della forma, which means ‘cheese throwing’, is a traditional sport of the Garfagnana. In Cheshire, England, there’s an annual cheese rolling competition, but it’s a tame game compared to this pecorino-hurling sport that goes on throughout the year. I’m here to have a look and talk to the owner of the club about bringing guests, especially during the ‘Cheese, Bread & Honey’ tour. We’ll be making our own pecorino, so why not toss it around too?

Forme solo per tirare

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

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

Throwing the pecorino

The run up to the throw

See it in slow motion on our Facebook page.

Matteo, the owner, is all in favour of Sapori e Saperi guests. Especially if we dine at his pizzeria. On the edge of his fishing lake, we find the cheerful staff clearing up after a wedding party; we check out the wood-fired pizza oven and approve the excellent menu of other typical local dishes. For half a second I contemplate sticking around until 7.00 for pizza, but add it to my future research list and opt instead for an artisan gelato in Fornaci di Barga.

Tiro della forma fishing lake

The fishing lake next to Pizzeria Al Barchetto

5.30–5.45 pm: Drive to Fornaci di Barga.

5.45–6.15 pm: Behind the counter of Gelateria Gely is a tall, dark, handsome stranger, the owner Paolo Citti. I’ve heard from Debra Kolkka (Bagni di Lucca and Beyond blogger) that he takes his ice cream seriously, and I want my clients to benefit from his long experience. I had already tasted his gelato the week before and compared it to three other gelaterias in the area: it’s in a class of its own. At first he’s wary. Maybe I’m a competitor, his recipes are secret, his laboratory is tiny, he’s very busy in the mornings making ice cream for his two shops. I tell him about the other artisans I take my guests to and about how important I believe it is for people to learn directly from artisans how much better their food tastes and why. I win him over in the end. We’ll have a go. I can bring up to three people (I bet he wouldn’t turn four away) for a lesson in the afternoon. Who’s going to volunteer?

Gelateria Gely Fornaci di Barga

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

(The news shop across the road is selling parmesan damaged in the earthquakes. Everyone is pitching in to help the producers.)

6.15–6.45 pm: Drive home weary but exhilarated by the results of my research. Everyone I met was kind and welcoming. They were all enthusiastic about helping me and my clients discover the best of Italy.



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