A Tour Sprouts

I’ve long wondered how to incorporate the rich agricultural heritage of the Lucca plain into a tour. Watching a bean stalk grow would try the patience even of a very slow traveller.

On Thursday I visited the organic farm Favilla in the suburbs of Lucca, where I was welcomed by Andrea, the owner’s son. As he spoke about his farm and its crops, the words tumbled out of his mouth and his face was alive with the enthusiasm he and his family devote to their project. The list of crops is long leaving no season without its fruits: wheat, vegetables and fruit.

Pasta Favilla

Andrea clutching his wheat and pasta

To find out more about the small group tour germinating at Sapori e Saperi Adventures, read the rest of my blog at http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/a-tour-sprouts/. Read to the bottom of the blog and you’ll find a special offer.

Save the dates: 2–9 July 2017.


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 http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/courses_with_artisan/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: http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/better-than-the-winter-olympics/). Or did you pick and press olives with me. If not, treat yourself to my Autumn in Tuscany tour in November (http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/small_group_tours/autumn-in-tuscany/). 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

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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zita#/media/File:ThemiracleofStZita.jpg.

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

Seasonal Art: Cartasia

I know summer is here when I walk around Lucca in July and am confronted by larger-than-life paper sculptures: a phantom forest in Piazza San Frediano (1), a mythological armoured horse (2) under the loggia of the Palazzo Pretoria on the corner of Piazza San Michele, a surrealist right-side-up pear that morphs into an upside-down head up on the walls.

'Take Care' by Lorenzo Bergamini

'Kataphraktos' by Kamila Karst

The rules of the biennial international paper festival stipulate that all the materials used by the artists must be recycled. Sustainable environmental issues underly the themes of each festival. This suits Lucca. The province produces 80 per cent of Italy’s household paper (including Lu-paper) and 40% of its packaging and corrugated cardboard; and it’s Italy’s number one exporter of paper. Old, mostly derelict paper mills ornament many small valleys.

Old paper mill in valley north of Collodi

Another style with bales of recycled paper in yard

Nowadays the main Serchio River Valley is lined with ugly modern mills which I used to consider a blot on the landscape. They became bearable, even desirable, when I realised that they’re major providers of employment in the valley, and serve to keep families together and stem depopulation of rural villages.

This year I noticed an indoor exhibition entitled ‘Identità Liquide’ at Real Collegio, behind San Frediano. The most picturesque way to arrive is by parking in the free car park on the ring road outside the city walls and walking in through the passageway under the walls, coming out into the piazza in front of the Collegio.

Entering Lucca through its walls

The ground floor of the cloisters were furnished with attractive corrugated cardboard chairs and tables and an entirely functional table football game made of paper, in addition to an exhibition of paper creations by school children.

Surprisingly comfortable

It really works!

The grand high-ceilinged rooms of the upper floor were ideal galleries for a number of different international artists.  Here’s a walk through some of them.

Tella titled his show 'Utopian Dreams and Fanciful Scenarios'


If you keep your books in a damp library...

...you can produce wild mushrooms.

Richard Sweeney's installation

Gianfranco Gentile: painter, musician & intellectual pilgrim

Gentile: Hard to believe it's a cardboard carton.

Gentile: The car coming straight at me nearly knocked me over!

One of Paola Bazz's paper mosaics

Cartasia is over for this year. If you’re planning a trip to Lucca, put July 2016 in your diary now.

For more information about Cartasia, Biennale d’Arte Contemporanea: http://www.cartasia.it/en/biennial/presentation

  1. ‘Take Care’ by Lorenzo Bergamini. Materials: white paper, corrugated cardboard, wrapping paper, cardboard tubes.
  2. ‘Kataphraktos’ by Kamila Karst. Materials: corrugated cardboard.
Posted in ART, Lucca | 1 Comment

A Pillow in the Countryside

Where you lay your head at night can make or break your holiday. Your accommodation seems a simple thing to choose. You go to Tripadvisor, read the reviews and make your booking. You’re looking for a bedroom with a comfortable bed, a bathroom, a decent continental breakfast, cleanliness and friendly attentive staff. That’s probably exactly what you’ll get; a secure place to retreat to after visiting the famous works of art and architecture in some of most beautiful cities in the world. But at the heart of every country are its citizens, people who live differently from you. By your second or third trip, you can begin to think about getting to know them. This is what my tours are about. I want my guests to experience how Italians live their everyday life, which is something you still can’t do on the internet. It’s a compulsive reason to travel to Italy.

I seek total cultural immersion, and so I usually choose an agriturismo for my guests, farm accommodation in the countryside, often on the edge of a village. Each one has a character completely its own determined by the personality of the owners, the setting, the architecture of the farm buildings and the produce of the farm. Here are some examples from my part of Italy, the area around Lucca and the spectacularly beautiful Garfagnana.

Al Benefizio

I didn’t choose Al Benefizio; it chose me. Early in my sojourn in Italy I was at an agricultural meeting near Barga, feeling totally out of my element, when two women approached me and introduced themselves in English. One was Francesca Buonagurelli, the owner and farmer at Al Benefizio, and she is one of the main reasons for staying at Al Benefizio.

To read more about my favourite agriturismi around Lucca and the Garfagnana, please go to the full blog at Slow Travel Tours.

Posted in Accommodation, FARM, GARFAGNANA, holidays, LIFE, Lucca | 2 Comments

Extra-virgin Lucca

The 2014 Slow Food guide to the extra-virgin olive oils of Italy is out. Since the 2013 harvest 130 Slow Food collaborators have been working hard to assess more than 700 farms and over 1000 different oils. Like wine, some vintages of olive oil are better than others: 2012 was a great year for Lucca oil, but 2013 was particularly difficult, producing less characterful oils. Nevertheless, the guide recommends nine oils from Lucca Province.

Alle Camelie olive oil gets the Slow Food 'snail'

To read more about olives and olive oil, please go to my blog on the Slow Travel Tours website: http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/extra-virgin-lucca/

Posted in Lucca, OLIVE OIL | 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

The road to Bagni di Lucca

The way to Bagni di Lucca

The way to Bagni di Lucca

This monumental road sign stands at the intersection of Borgo Giannotti and Via San Marco just to the north of Porta Santa Maria, the main northern gate to the city of Lucca. Borgo Giannotti was a meeting and resting point for merchants on their way from the port at Viareggio to the Garfagnana where they sold their wares. There are many other interesting things to be discovered in Borgo Giannotti and I’ve written about some of them in my blog on the Slow Travel Tours website:


Posted in HISTORY, Lucca | 6 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

Saltocchio: not Hannibal’s elephant

I go with Marco on the way home from the mill. It turns out he’s from Saltocchio, the village on the way to Lucca that Alberto, who is not from Saltocchio, told me took its name from from a battle there in which one of Hannibal’s elephants had lost its eye (‘saltare’ means jump and ‘occhio’ means eye). Marco’s legend is completely different. There used to be a small lake in the shape of an eye in front of the church and a boatman ferried worshippers across to its door, hence ‘jumping over the eye’. In a couple of hundred years will people wonder why a particular spot on the South Bank of London is called ‘London Eye’?
Posted in Lucca | 2 Comments