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

Like the Seasons: the Life of a Cheesemaker

The cheese course group arrived 45 minutes late at Daniela’s dairy. She had already added the rennet, the enzyme that speeds up coagulation of the curd, to have the curd ready for our planned arrival time. Now it was past its best. We feared we’d ruined her day’s production of cheese. Daniela’s youthful appearance belies years of experience making cheese. She knew the curd couldn’t be used to make a hard cheese to be matured for several months, so we used it to make some soft cheeses: stracchino and raviggiolo.

Daniela cuts the curd to allow it to separate from the whey (photo: Kirby Piazza)


When making soft cheese, the curd is put in moulds immediately. (photo: Kirby Piazza)

Small cheeses to be eaten fresh

Stracchino is delicious mixed with sausage, spread on bread & toasted under a grill.

I first went to visit Daniela Pagliai at her organic farm I Taufi early last June. I had learned about it from the address on the wrapping of some exceptional butter I’d come across at a gastronomia in Ponte a Moriano near Lucca. The wrapping claimed the contents were ricotta, so I assumed Daniela also made cheese, and I warmed to a person who wasn’t uptight about precision labelling. (Not that ricotta is cheese, but you have to make cheese first and then use the whey to make ricotta.)

The address of the farm was Melo. I didn’t know Melo, but I’d been to the picture postcard town of Cutigliano from which you ascend the Pistoiese slopes of the Apennines, it seems like forever, to get to Melo.

One of many picturesque views of Cutigliano

What appears on the map to be at the edge of civilisation, turned out to be a hub of pastoral activities with Daniela at the centre. On this first meeting she appeared self-possessed, only mildly curious about my tours and calmly accepting of my request to bring clients to watch her make cheese, as if life often brought novelties to her door. A warm honesty flowed from her candid smile and guileless eyes.

Daniela Pagliai

She showed me her modern dairy, the maturing room and the cows in the barn.

Maturing room with a flat failed cheese that tasted delicious (photo: Kirby Piazza)

Her younger daughter clung to her apron; the older one arrived home from school.

Daniela’s younger daughter (photo: Kirby Piazza)

One of Daniela’s Brown Swiss (photo: Kirby Piazza)

Cats are welcome in the barn. (photo: Kirby Piazza)

I was much more curious about her than she about me. In the dairy she had fondled a spino, the wooden stick traditionally used to cut curds, so I knew she respected tradition.

Spino: a stick used for centuries to cut the curd (photo: Kirby Piazza)

More evidence of tradition in the barn (photo: Kirby Piazza)

I asked diffidently whether the cows ever went outside, and was relieved to hear they still practise transhumance, taking the cows to alpine pastures a couple of hours’ walk above where we were now. The cows have to wait until school is out and the whole family can up stakes and move to their summer home. We went to see it without them.

Her sister’s sheep had arrived a couple of weeks earlier.

Rich alpine meadows

The many streams provide plentiful water for the animals.

In the farm shop she sold her cheeses, butter, yoghurt and preserves.

Direct sales: yoghurt, cheeses, stracchino, jam, tomini, eggs, milk, ricotta, butter (photo: Kirby Piazza)

Everything listed on the sign and more

On a shelf I noticed a slim book entitled Come le Stagioni: Daniela Pagliai (Like the Seasons), a biography of her written by a friend from Pistoia in the form of an interview. I bought a copy and learned she was practically born making cheese. During school holidays she and her dog herded her father’s sheep. By the time she was 14 she was in charge of the pigs and all the phases of cheesemaking on the family farm. At 16 she married Valter and discovered that his contribution to the marital economy was a herd of milk cows. She moved to her in-law’s farm and transferred her cheesemaking skills to cow’s milk. After five years she and Valter realised their dream of buying their own farm and becoming organic.

In the book she sums up her philosophy of life:

‘I think there are many types of “love” all led by the heart. Without its beating, there can be no beginning. I’m not talking only of the beating that pumps blood through our veins, but also the beating for our children, our parents, our house, our land, our work, which are all united in one thing: love.

‘How can I explain to you how much I love my life and my work? How can I make you understand what I feel for my children and my husband? For nothing else in the world and no other life in the world would I change my own life and these loves.

A life to hang onto

‘For me life is like the seasons: moments of joy are like the flowers and perfumes of spring and like the ripening of its fruit and the embrace of the hot summer sun. Moments of melancholy are like the autumn with its rain, which sometimes also streams from my eyes, and like the winter, because you have to move with the rhythm of the snow, delicately placing your feet like the large snowflakes descending joyously from the sky, sprinkling the roof and our valley, and walking, walking lightly, toward a new spring.’

There was still snow on the ground when I took Giancarlo Russo to visit Daniela in preparation for our new cheese course.

The view from Daniela’s dairy (photo: Kirby Piazza)

He approved, and Daniela became part of the course in which Giancarlo teaches the theoretical sessions.

Daniela & Giancarlo exchanging views on cheesemaking (photo: Kirby Piazza)

For more information about the Theory and Practice of Italian Cheese course:

My thanks to Kirby Piazza for his photographs of Daniela and the farm.









Posted in cheese, FARM, LIFE, RICOTTA | 10 Comments

Three generations of women learn the secrets of ricotta

Yesterday I took three generations of women to Vitelina’s dairy to learn to make ricotta and then to Beatrice Salvi’s hotel for a lesson in baking a traditional Garfagnana ricotta pie.

You can’t make ricotta unless you make cheese first, so the added bonus was they learned to make goat’s milk cheese too. Before we arrived Vitelina had spent 2 hours milking 70 of her goats. She heated 60 litres of unpasteurised milk to blood temperature and added rennet. By the time we arrived, the milk proteins had coagulated to a gel and were ready for Liz, one of the guests of Sapori e Saperi, to have a go at cutting it to separate the curds and whey.

Guest of Sapori e Saperi cuts goat's milk cheese curd

Liz cuts the curd

Vitelina showed Maggie and Abby how to gather the curd which turned out to be harder than they thought, but they had fun feeling around for the curd at the bottom of Vitelina’s grandfather’s tinned copper pot.

Sapori e Saperi guests gather goat's milk curd

Maggie and Abby up to their elbows in whey

Vitelina learned from her grandfather and father and makes goat’s milk cheese and ricotta twice a day. After a little experience it’s really very easy.

Cheese maker gathers goat's milk curd

Vitelina makes gathering the curd look simple

Cheese maker raises the curd

Here comes the big lump of curd out of the whey

Cheese maker puts curd into cheese mould

Vitelina deftly manoeuvres the curd into the cheese mould

Notice that the curd is white but the liquid in the pan is yellow. That’s the colour of whey. Now the ricotta lesson begins. Vitellina turns the burner on high to start ‘recooking’ the whey. Ricotta means recooked and it can only be made from the whey. That’s why you have to get all the cheese curds out before you can make it. And by the way, almost all the fat and lactose come out with the curds. While the whey is heating up, Maggie helps Vitelina press the remaining whey out of the cheese and Vitelina adds the whey to the pot.

Sapori e Saperi 13 year old guests presses whey out of cheese curd

Maggie gives the curds a good press to extract the whey

Abby helps too

When the whey gets near boiling, the albumin protein molecules in the whey denature, which means they aggregate to form white strands, just like when you boil an egg and the previously clear egg white turns from yellow to white. The white strands are ricotta. Luckily they float so you don’t have to plunge your arms into boiling whey. You just skim them off the top and tip them into the ricotta mould.

Denatured ricotta strands being skimmed off whey

Vitelina skims ricotta off the top of the whey...

Placing ricotta strands in mould

...and places them in the special ricotta mould

Vitelina gives us some warm ricotta to taste. Everyone exclaims in unison: ‘Delicious! It’s nothing like the ricotta we buy in the States. This is so much better.’ Since ricotta is virtually fat free, they’re also bewildered as to why in the States there are two types of ricotta: full fat and fat free. I’m bewildered too and cynically guess it’s a marketing ploy. If anyone knows the answer, please leave a comment.

Clutching our precious ricotta we go to lunch at L’Altana, my favourite restaurant in Barga. The cooking is excellent, but what I love about it is that the staff are equally good. One of our group is coeliac, and as soon as I tell our waitress, she goes off and comes back with a menu on which the items without gluten are marked. Since the menu changes daily, she’s done it specially for us.

Then we walk to Villa Moorings Hotel where the owner, Beatrice Salvi, teaches us to use our ricotta in the traditional Garfagnana torta squisita, which means ‘very delicious pie’. First we make pasta frolla, a sweet pastry made of flour, egg, sugar, baking powder and melted butter. It’s the basis of most pastry in our area. The eggs come from Beatrice’s father’s farm. The yolks are deep orange, nearly red, and the whites are yellow and thick.

Making pasta frolla at Sapori e Saperi Adventures pastry lesson

Beatrice demonstrates how to knead pasta frolla

Sapori e Saperi guest rolls out pasta frolla

Maggie rolls out the pasta frolla – she wants to be a pastry chef

The filling is made of ricotta, eggs, sugar, chocolate chips and a little Sassolino, an anise-flavoured liqueur. Goat ricotta is ideal for filling ravioli, but Beatrice and I were worried that it would be too strong for the pie and Beatrice had bought some industrial cow ricotta just in case. Everyone tasted both of them except Beatrice. She said she didn’t like ricotta! I’m afraid I’m a bit of a bully when it comes to tasting, and finally she took a tiny spoonful of our goat ricotta. I wish I’d got a photo of the smile on her face. The industrial ricotta was a tasteless paste by comparison. We used our artisan ricotta, and the torta squisita, topped with a thin meringue, was truly delicious.

Traditional Garfagnana torta squisita

Our artisan torta squisita

Posted in cheese, COOKING, RICOTTA | 7 Comments

Panini Girl on the Farm

‘Going to the farm and having lunch there was so very special. We all enjoyed everything about the day. It is surely one we will remember forever!’
So wrote Janie Trayer about the day tour she and her group of five women took with me. Panini Girl (Janie Trayer’s blogging name) and I share a love of Italy. Hers is in her blood, having inherited it from Italian grandparents, whereas I dug mine up as an archaeologist only a few decades ago. We both came to Italy recently to find a life we had heard about or knew in the past. We didn’t feel like tourists, but we discovered people and places we wanted to share with others and we’ve both ended up leading tours to Italy.
Because of her Italian background Janie found a different Italy from mine. She contacted me because she wanted to include one day out of her urban-based tour connecting with rural people and food. She asked me to take her group to a cheesemaker in the Garfagnana, since she hadn’t been able to find one by searching the internet. Most of the farmers, artisan food producers and craftspeople I take people to meet are invisible electronically. The telephone landline at Cerasa, the farm we visited, functions only intermittently; they have an unreliable email address and no website. None of the family speaks English. Yet the Cavani family are the most important component in a government initiative to preserve the traditional Garfagnina Bianca breed of sheep. 
We approached the farm, situated in a clearing high up on the wooded slopes of the Appennine mountains, on a single-track road. It was only paved last summer and is still strewn with rocks loosened by the herds of goats that wander sure-footedly on the scree above the road. The going was slow, but Marzio Paganelli’s expert driving got us to the farmyard safely, and as we stepped out amid tail-wagging puppies and parti-coloured hens, we were greeted by Mario, Gemma and their daughter Ombretta. Gemma had already added rennet to the warm sheep’s milk, so we hurried into the little dairy at one end of the house to watch her cut the curd into tiny pieces with a stick.
While the curd was settling to the bottom of the pot, we went down to the cellar where previous weeks’ cheeses were maturing, along with Mario’s pancetta and salamis. Outside on the slope above the house we marvelled at the enormous chestnut trees that are also under the care of the Cavanis. Each tree is identified by a name plaque that also gives its date of birth, several going back to the 17th century.

Back in the dairy Gemma plunged her arms into the pot of whey and gathered the curds at the bottom into a huge mass which she lifted to the surface, cut into three pieces and put into plastic perforated moulds to allow the whey to drain out of the cheeses. She handed samples of the warm unsalted curd around for all to taste. Then she relit the burner under the pot of whey in order to make ricotta, which means ‘recooked’. When it gets nearly to boiling point, the albumin proteins (same ones that are in egg whites) denature into white strands which are skimmed off and put into plastic baskets with sloping sides. It was too hot to taste immediately, but we had it for dessert with homemade blueberry jam. Heavenly!
The large dining room doubles as an exhibition space and shop for Ombretta’s hand-dyed woollen garments and rugs, woven or knitted from the wool of their sheep. She’s experimenting with making dyes from local plants and had achieved a warm brown from chestnut shells. Having chosen some irresistible pieces, we all sat down to Gemma’s homemade pasta and ragù, stuffed chicken thighs, pecorino cheese (of course) and that incomparable ricotta.
We could have sat in the sun on the terrace all afternoon, but Ercolano Regoli was expecting us at his water mill in the valley. Having bought some of the formenton otto file maize that we watched coming off the grindstone, we headed back toward Lucca, stopping in Barga and then at the Devil’s Bridge.
Despite the long day Panini Girl still had the energy to blog at the end of it. You can read what she wrote about the day on the farm and find out about her autumn tour at:
Posted in cheese, FARM, RICOTTA | 3 Comments