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

In Search of Pecorino

At the end of my Theory & Practice of Italian Cheese course, I organise a little game: an England vs Italy sheep’s milk cheese tournament.

Pecora means sheep and pecorino is sheep's milk cheese.

Pecora means sheep and pecorino is sheep’s milk cheese. (Photo: Antonella Giusti)

This entails a trip back to the UK immediately before the course to go to Neal’s Yard Dairy where I can always find a few excellent sheep cheeses. For the May course I did my shopping instead at the annual Artisan Cheese Fair at the old Cattle Market in Melton Mowbray. Although in its fifth year, I had never heard of it, but being featured by the Specialist Cheesemakers Association, I figured it would be worth the trip to Leicestershire, a direct train journey from Cambridge on the line to Birmingham, from where my friend Amanda joined me.

The sign at the station was promising.

The sign at the station was promising.

The route to the Cattle Market took us past St Mary's church, but the field of sheep had long since disappeared.

The route to the Cattle Market took us past St Mary’s church, but the field of sheep had long since disappeared.

We passed through the busy Saturday market in the town square.

We passed through the busy Saturday market in the town square.

Photo: Heather Jarman

A young farmer teaches us good manners.

Melton Mowbray is best known, to me at least, for its pork pies.

Note the wooden pork pie moulds. Later we meet a man who uses them.Photo: Heather Jarman

Note the wooden pork pie moulds. Later we meet a man who uses them.

It’s also one of the counties, along with Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, in which Stilton is allowed to be made. (Stilton, like Parmigiano Reggiano, is a registered product with a Protected Designation of Origin.)

Here we are.

Here we are.

Unlike the market in Cambridge, which is today a ‘cattle market’ in name only, the one at Melton Mowbray still functions every Tuesday morning. I make a resolution to come back to witness the livestock auction.

A drover is a herd or flock of animals being driven.

A drover is a person whose occupation is herding sheep or cattle, especially to or from market.

Reminds me of hotel rooms waiting for their guests.

Reminds me of hotel rooms waiting for their guests.

Sheep, please pay attention!

Attention all sheep!

Turning to the entrance to the cheese fair opposite, we find the entrance fee is only £2 and admits you not only to the area populated with vendors’ stalls, but also to a series of cheese classes and tastings.


The queue at the entrance moves quickly.

Full of cheese lovers

Already it’s full of cheese lovers

To make good cheese, you have to start with good quality milk.

A life-size plastic cow being milked by an antiquated milking machine.

A life-size plastic cow being milked by an antiquated milking machine.

I wonder what was in the 'balanced rations'.

I wonder what was in the ‘balanced rations’.

From grass to milk: the inner workings of a cow

From grass to milk: the inner workings of a cow

The Red Poll Cattle Society was founded with the aim of preserving this versatile native breed. They note the long lactation period and ideal composition of the milk for cheesemaking.

They’ve been so successful that it's now off the Rare Breed list.

They’ve been so successful that it’s now off the Rare Breed list.

The British Isles are a land of cattle. Sheep these days are reared for meat, and it’s harder than I expected to find sheep’s milk cheese. These people from Canterbury can’t offer any.

Cow's and goat's milk from Canterbury

Cow’s and goat’s milk from Canterbury

Amanda has served me excellent goat’s milk cheeses made by Pete Humphries of White Lake Cheeses in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, heart of cheddar country.

It's great to be able to talk to the cheesemaker himself.

It’s great to be able to talk to the cheesemaker himself.

Some of Pete's goat's milk cheese

Some of Pete’s goat’s milk cheese

At the far end of his stall, I glimpse a label saying ‘No Name Sheep Cheese’. He’s begun experimenting with sheep’s milk and this cheese is so new that he hasn’t come up with a name yet.

'No Name'

Introducing ‘No Name’

It’s a bit young to compete with the mature pecorinos in the Italian team, but I hope it will make up in youthful energy for what it lacks in experience.

Sharing a corner stall are two outstanding talents of British cheese, Jamie Montgomery who makes arguably the best cheddar in Britain, and Joe Schneider who makes Stichelton.

Jamie (left) and Joe (right) with an admiring customer between

Jamie (left) and Joe (right) with an admiring customer between.

Amanda and I found the farm on the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire for Joe and Randolph Hodgson of Neal’s Yard Dairy when they were setting up the dairy to produce what they expected to call ‘raw milk Stilton’, a return to how Stilton was made for centuries. However, due to an anomaly in the PDO definition of Stilton, it can only be made with pasteurised milk. One of the Dairy’s customers suggested Stichelton, an early name for the village of Stilton. Joe welcomed us to the stall and gave us a good chunk of this incomparable cheese to take home. Notice in the photo that the Stichelton isn’t excessively blue. The flavour of the blue mould doesn’t kill the flavour of the cheese.

In search of two more sheep cheeses we crossed to another pavilion, passing a ukulele band and an artful display of Quickes Traditional Cheddar.

Playing for charity

Food for the ears

Cheese cloth art

Cheese cloth art

Right at the entrance was the stall I needed. Carlow Farmhouse Cheese had brought several mature sheep’s milk cheeses to the fair. They don’t have their own website, and this one only admits to cow’s milk cheese.

Two of Carlow Cheese's sheep's milk cheeses

Two of Carlow Cheese’s sheep’s milk cheeses

Nadia, the cheesemaker at Carlow Cheese

Nadja and her sheep’s milk cheeses saved the day for the cheese course match

Their cheesemaker, Nadja, guided us through her samples. It was hard to choose, but I finally took some ‘pecorino-style’ and ‘cheddar-style’.

Business done, we threaded our way through the crowds to a promising-looking pork pie stall. The pies were obviously raised by hand.

Wonky pork pies

Beautifully wonky pork pies

The pastry is made by mixing hot melted lard with flour. It has to be exactly the right temperature to form it around the wooden moulds (see photo above)—not so hot that it burns your hands and not so cold that it cracks.

Nothing but the best natural ingredients

Nothing but the best natural ingredients

The baker himself sells us our pie. He reminds me of my Italian artisan food producers when he talks about the natural ingredients he uses: the flour from a nearby windmill, pigs from a local farm and pig’s-foot jelly he makes himself. He’s sold 300 pies this morning and will be off soon to make another 300 for the next day’s fair.

Master pie maker

The expert pie maker

With a glass of incredibly strong cider, we settle down to lunch. I used to make pork pies myself, but these pies beat even my best. The crust was crunchy, the filling tasted like pork (not overpowered by spices and preservatives) and the jelly was well seasoned and firm without being rubbery.

Pork pie and cider: a perfect lunch

Pork pie and cider: a perfect lunch

Melton Mowbray is a pretty market town, but even without its other attractions, it would be worth a pilgrimage for the King’s Road Bakery pork pies alone.

Italy is usually the clear winner of the pecorino match, but this time Ireland came out top in the opinion of our maestro Giancarlo Russo, a judge in international cheese competitions. Young ‘No Name’ was a big hit too with several of the course participants.


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The Garfagnana: Paragon of Biodiversity

At noon on Wednesday 9 April in Florence, Dr Francesca Camilli of the Italian National Research Council will present a paper to the 1st  European UNESCO-SCBD* Conference on ‘Linking Biological and Cultural Diversity in Europe’.  Her paper is entitled: ‘The Garfagnana Model: exploitation of agricultural and cultural biodiversity for sustainable local development’.

One of her prime examples will be Cerasa farm, a mountain paradise which is no secret to my clients who have written rapturously about their visits (hereherehere, and here May 2012). Mario, Gemma and their daughter Ombretta are a fundamental part of a project, overseen by the Germplasm Bank set up by the Comunità Montagna della Garfagnana (now the Unione dei Comuni), to preserve the indigenous Garfagnina Bianca sheep.

White Garfagnana sheet

Thanks for saving us

If you’ve noticed some sheep lurking in the foreground of a nativity scene by Giotto, it could have been this breed, which was once common in the Apennine Mountains.


We've been around since at least the 14th century

Mario and the dogs look after the sheep.

Mario also makes salumi and loves to talk about tradition and the place (photo: Libby Saylor)

sheep herded by dogs at cerasa

He sends the dogs to herd the sheep

Gemma makes pecorino cheese and ricotta from their milk.

Gemma cuts the curd for pecorino (note modern milk cooler at back)

Ombretta dyes their wool with natural dyes and has them knitted and woven into saleable products.

Ombretta dyes in their half-traditional half-modern kitchen

Mario rears rams to sell to other farmers who want to join him in preserving the breed.

Ready to save the breed

Another strand of the Germplasm Bank project is the botanical station at Camporgiano. They have rescued dozens of indigenous varieties of fruit and vegetables. Besides being grown at the station, each variety has been entrusted to a custodian, a local farmer responsible for its propagation and preservation. I visited the station last year where the Director Dr Fabiana Fiorani explained their work.

Repository of indigenous agricultural crops

In 2013 the Garfagnana submitted several apple varieties to the European Pomological Exhibition at Limoges where it gained the distinction of ‘Custodian of Biodiversity’.

Organisers of the exhibition

Garfagnana apple saved for future generations

Watch this space for the announcement that I can take you to the botanical station followed by a visit to one of the custodians and lunch in their home. The next opportunity to visit Cerasa is during the Cheese, Bread & Honey tour in June.

The suspense of waiting for the curd to emerge from the whey

The UNESCO conference lasts for three days, during which dozens of international experts deliver research papers. It could be a big yawn, but judging by some of the titles, I for one would be awake. For example, a paper by J. J. Boersma of Leiden University is intriguingly titled ‘Could the rewilding of Europe be seen as progress?’, with the implication that the answer is ‘yes’. To me the most interesting theme is that biodiversity of domesticated plants and animals appears closely connected to cultural diversity arising from the traditions and identity of a place. Finding the balance between tradition and modernity may be the virtuous path to sustainable rural development.

Traditional (photo: K Barry)

Modern (photo: Barbara Wachter)

The mere fact of an international conference organised by UNESCO on the topic of biodiversity and sustainable development raises hope that the planet will not be entirely subjugated to the interests of agri-business. A more local, but equally important action took place yesterday, also in Florence, when Slow Food organised a demonstration against the introduction of GM corn in Italy. Fingers crossed!

No GM corn in Italy, per favore!

Find out more: Joint Programme Between UNESCO and CBD, Convention on Biological Diversity, Linking Biological and Cultural Diversity in Europe Conference programme, Les Croqueurs de Pomme

*Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, based in Montreal, Canada

Posted in FARM, sheep, TRADITION | 4 Comments

High Pastures

Last Thursday Cristina, who owns the restaurant the Antico Uliveto in Pozzi di Seravezza, and I walked up to the high pastures of the Alpi Apuane in northern Tuscany to visit a couple who are among the very few who still take their flock of sheep up to the mountain tops in summer. They live in a house powered only by a single solar panel and cook over an open fire in the large kitchen fireplace. Our lunch was composed almost entirely of their own produce. It included a porcupine…

…that had been eating their squashes and melons and which Siria, the wife, had made into a delicious stew with their own tomatoes and a few olives brought up from the valley. When we arrived she was just beginning to fry some of the potatoes they grow, and soon had a huge pot of water hanging from a hook over the fire. As soon as it boiled, she added handfuls of maize flour (she apologized for it’s being last year’s — they’ve harvested this year’s maize but haven’t been down to have it ground) and we took turns stirring until it thickened into a soft polenta. It didn’t matter at all about it’s being a year old; it was Maranino maize and tasted like the corn it came from, unlike the tasteless polenta flour you can buy in a supermarket, or even most Italian delicatessens. We washed it all down with a very drinkable red wine made by the husband Pacifico. The meal ended with Siria’s pecorino cheese and sweet juicy plums from their orchard. After a cup of coffee and walnut liqueur, also made by them, Pacifico took us to see La Fannia, a beech tree at the top of the ridge that is said to be over 500 years old, and an abandoned silver mine, now the refuge of some red-bellied salamanders. We walked down as the sun set over the sea at Forte dei Marmi lighting up Monte Forato behind us. A day with Siria and Pacifico will definitely be on offer to gastronomic tour guests next summer.

Posted in cheese, holidays, sheep, Tuscany, Versilia | 1 Comment