‘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

Lessons from a Fish Stew

You don’t have to loiter long in a bar in Italy in a small town or village to hear evidence of campanilismo. It’s part of the Italian nature to be convinced that the customs, food, landscape and architecture in the shadow of his or her campanile is best and, furthermore, that the people of the next town are stupid, stingy, lazy, rogues or worse. This is nowhere better demonstrated than in the case of cacciucco (pronounced catch-chooc-co). Cacciucco is a typical Mediterranean fish stew and is the cause of much playful, sometimes acrimonious, banter between the towns of Livorno and Viareggio, on the coast of Tuscany. As Emiliana Lucchesi puts it: ‘There is as much discussion about the “citizenship” of cacciucco as about the sex of angels’ (Cucina di Lucchesia e Versilia).

The one and only cacciucco  alla livornese (photo: Associazione Cacciucco Livorno)

The one and only cacciucco alla livornese (photo: Associazione Cacciucco Livorno)

To find out much more about cacciucco, Italian customs and language read the whole blog at

Posted in HISTORY, Italian language, SEAFOOD, SOUP, Versilia | 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

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

Street Cleaning

A couple of Thursday evenings ago I wrote a to-do list for Friday.  The first item on the list was to pick up some leaflets at Topo Gigio, the bar-trattoria in Fabbriche di Casabasciana, the village at the bottom of my hill. The leaflets advertised a concert on Sunday for the benefit of the centre for the elderly at Casabasciana, which I was helping to organise. Considering the length of my list, all the things I wanted to get done before the weekend, the sensible thing would have been to hop in my car and drive the 3.8 km (2.4 mi). But it was a warm, not too hot, sunny day, and I hadn’t walked the mulattiera in ages.

Mulattiera at the bottom of Casabasciana

People in the village used to walk down it to school or work and back up again at lunch time every day. It seemed a bit feeble not to do it. I strapped my pennato lucchese, a Lucca-style billhook, around my waist and invited my friend Penny to accompany me with her secateurs.

My pennato lucchese handmade by a blacksmith

Mulattiera translates as ‘mule track’, but this makes it sound a paltry dirt path. In fact, the mulattiere (plural) were the super highways of the past, often many metres wide, surfaced in rounded cobbles or flat paving slabs, with stone-lined drainage channels at the sides or down the centre. Where necessary they were stepped. In mountainous areas like mine, they ran along ridges, usually just below the crest. Although they frequently crossed streams and small rivers, it was at the top where the water course was narrow and presented no great obstacle even in the rainy season. They descended to the valleys of major rivers only where absolutely necessary to arrive at a destination on the other side of the river.

Broad mulattiera leading to fort on Monte Battifolle

This mulattiera traverses ridge below the crest.

Flat paviours on well-maintained mulattiera to Sommocolonia

Steps in the mulattiera below Casabasciana

Panoramic views make navigating easy

I’m not sure how old the roads in the Garfagnana are. It’s known that the Roman Consul M Claudio Marcello had the Via Claudia or Clodia Nova built in the 2nd century AD, and it’s likely that it followed an Etruscan road and possibly even earlier routes. The mulattiera that links Casabasciana with the valley is said to be mediaeval, but that’s the date people always attach to anything old. It’s about 4 metres wide and forms the main street in the village, descends about 100 m below the village and splits in two, the left fork diving steeply down to the pieve, the old romanesque parish church, and then continues to Sala, a hamlet of about 15 houses, which is linked by another mulattiera to the Liegora River which runs into the Lima River to the right. The other branch carries on straight down to the Lima, along which Fabbriche di Casabasciana is strung out.

Religious procession along Via Lastraco, Casabasciana

Via Lastraco merges with mulattiera at bottom of Casabasciana

I’ve learned from my neighbours that upkeep of the mulattiera was the responsibility of each family through whose property it passed. In the ’60s the present-day car road was built, and since then the mulattiera has been used less and less by the locals. Only the sections used by woodsmen, hunters of wild mushrooms and wild boar, and horse riders (mostly tourists) are now maintained, and even these denizens of the forest tend to favour newer dirt roads suitable for 4×4 vehicles. It’s to us stranieri, who arrive with the notion of nature as a setting for recreation instead of work, that the task of cleaning the mulattiere now falls.

The modern road cuts through the mulattiera at several places.

Tourist hiking the mulattiera to Sillico

Spring flowers attract naturalists

Penny and I set off at about 9.30. We hacked, slashed and clipped our way to the bottom by around noon. Some parts of the road had been cleared but others were thick with elder and acacia saplings intertwined with clematis (old man’s beard) and brambles. It was particularly galling to find that one household had cut their land down to within a metre of the mulattiera and hadn’t been civic-minded enough to cut that stretch of the mulattiera as well.

We pass a crumbling church.

Where's the mulattiera?

The mulattiera begins to emerge from the undergrowth.

A few final snips

A pulmonaria shelters at the edge of the mulattiera.

At Topo Gigio, arms scratched and bleeding, we bragged about our feat to the men playing cards or arriving for lunch, and taunted them by asking where they had been when needed.

Fabbriche di Casabasciana at the bottom of the mulattiera

Topo Gigio

It's THE place to meet friends and have lunch.

We took the exhortation above the bar to be addressed to us.

Above the bar the sign says:

‘O pilgrim, weary of your journey: stop, drink and then redouble your pace.’

A good lunch cures all pain.

Restored by the excellent worker’s lunch, I collected the leaflets and we set off back up the mulattiera. Even though uphill, it was much easier going this time.

If anyone knows of a volunteer work group skilled at repairing cobbled roads, please get in touch with me at They’ll receive warm hospitality at Casabasciana.

Posted in hiking, HISTORY, LANDSCAPE | 6 Comments

Sparse Houses

This week I got into a Fiat Panda 4×4 that turned out to be a time machine. The precise date to which it took me was 1969, but it could easily have been a couple of centuries earlier. Renato, the butcher and shopkeeper of my village Casabasciana, wanted to take me somewhere hidden.

Renato remembers exactly how thick each customer likes her pork shop

He knows I like walking in the wilderness, and thought this place would appeal to me, but wouldn’t reveal any more. We fixed Thursday afternoon, and I gathered my equally curious and appreciative friends Lone, Klaus and Tove to accompany us. Crammed into the Panda, we drove down the hill to the Lima Valley and turned right toward Abetone and Renato’s home town of Popiglio.

Opposite the road to Lucchio, before Popiglio, we turned left into a gravel lane where Renato’s cousin Giuliano was waiting for us with his Panda 4×4. We divided ourselves between the two cars and bounced and wound up the eroded track, passing an occasional farm building.

We pass through lush woodland (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

Just when it seemed we couldn’t go any higher, we reached the end of the road and the farmstead where Renato’s and Giuliano’s mothers and Giuliano himself were born.

Arriving at the past (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

The sky was a uniform grey that day which added to the mood of desolation. The buildings sat on a narrow terrace, with stalls and pigsty beneath the house on the downhill side and the main door at the back.

Number 3, Sparse Houses, Popiglio

Numbers 1 and 2 must have been the buildings we passed on the way up.

Giuliano has a key for every door (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

Giuliano opens the main door and to our right is the kitchen, focal point of a farmhouse.

Giuliano and Renato tell us about life in this house (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

There are almost too many things to take in, objects signifying a different way of living.

The calendar from the year Giuliano's parents left (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

A reminder of how long the house has been empty (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

The family tries to keep the place in good repair, but it’s becoming more and more difficult.

The fireplace provided heat to the room and for cooking (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

Electricity and running water are recent additions (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)


I’ve seen these burners in many old houses. You put coals from the hearth in the iron boxes and a trivet on top on which to rest the pot. The bottoms of the boxes are gratings that allow the ash to drop through and you remove it through the square holes beneath.

No Italian kitchen is complete without many coffee pots (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

Every room is decorated with stencils. (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

The bedrooms are on the upper floor.

Iron bedstead with handwoven bedspread (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

Wool of their own sheep and probably hemp

Il prete, which means 'the priest' (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

Renato explains that this object was made from thin strips of chestnut wood. You hung a pot of hot coals on the hook inside at the apex and placed it under the covers as a bed warmer. We all giggle at the idea of a priest in the bed.

The second bedroom

In the background another model of ‘priest’, and in the foreground a tool to hold a skein of yarn while you wound it into a ball.

The upstairs landing, like the kitchen, was another ethnographic museum.

The walker in which Giuliano learned to walk (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

A fly excluding curtain for the front door... (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

...lovingly constructed of beer bottle caps. (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

A charcoal rake (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

Giuliano’s father and grandfather were charcoal burners.

Hand-carved wooden hooks for the téléférique (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

There was a mountain cable car for hauling heavy goods up to the house.

The tour of the main house concluded, we went to see the rest of the buildings.

The courtyard (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

At the far end of the courtyard the door on the right opened into the much smaller house where Renato’s mother was born. Renato asked if we could guess why they left the courtyard covered with weeds. Because the pavement was so beautiful that if anyone saw it, they’d be up there with crow bars in an instant.

Carefully cut and laid paving stones (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

The metato ceiling made of chestnut poles (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

The metato was the building in which chestnuts were put (‘mettere’ means ‘to put’) to dry on a slatted ceiling above a smouldering fire before being shelled, sorted and taken to the miller to be ground into flour. Back in the house we had seen some of the other tools required for the later stages.

Chestnut shelling poles and perforated sorting table (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

The wood-fired bread oven (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

A chestnut wood bread palette

A late cantilevered bathroom and reinforced walls (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

When the earthquake of 1920 caused landslides that covered several villages, the lower walls of houses were reinforced with these stone buttresses, just like a mediaeval fort, one of which we could just see across the Lima valley.

View of Lucchio and modern quarry below (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

Above the tiny village clinging onto the wooded slope are the remains of a fortress, part of Lucca’s late mediaeval line of defence against the Florentines.

There was an almost unwelcome surprise. Adjoining the far end of the house was another house, owned by other people from Popiglio. They had brought it right up to date, including a television aerial.

I wanted to see where the charcoal pile used to be. We drove back down the road a few hundred metres where we were greeted by more spectacular views.

Balzo Nero, a living geology lesson (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

More geology (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

Vico Pancellorum (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

We know Vico Pancellorum well because of its restaurant Buca di Baldabò, one of our favourites in the area.

On the spot where the charcoal used to be produced was a strange orchid.

Birdsnest orchid (Photo: Klaus Falbe-Hansen)

It has no chlorophyll, but is a saprophyte which feeds on rotting vegetation with the help of a symbiotic fungus.

As we drove away, we learned the sad subtext to the visit. The family had concluded they had to sell the house. Their children have no interest in it, and since Prime Minister Monti introduced more taxes for uninhabited buildings, it was becoming too much of a financial drain. Their 7 hectares (14 acres) of fields and woodland are also subject to taxes. The top half of the road is private and requires constant maintenance. But who would buy it? Do I know anyone?


Posted in HISTORY, LIFE | 4 Comments

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