‘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

Angels, transhumance and pecorino

Pecorino (sheep's milk cheese)

Pecorino (sheep’s milk cheese)

This is a true story about how cheese, history and a mountain village are inextricably entwined. It’s a long story because it goes back to Roman times. It has taken me 12 years even to begin to understand it.

You probably know that pecorino is an Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk, derived from the word for sheep: pecora. On the contrary, it’s the rare person outside Italy who knows that transhumance refers to the seasonal rotation of flocks and herds between different pastures. Even more obscure is the connection between transhumance and Saint Michael Archangel.

On 18 June a group of about 15 hikers, including me, stand expectantly in front of the church in the mountain village of Raggiolo, one of ‘The most beautiful towns in Italy’ (

Raggiolo, one of a few villages that still has a bar and grocery shop (Photo: Penny Barry)

Raggiolo, one of a few small villages that still has a bar and grocery shop (at bottom of the street, photo: Penny Barry)


Bell tower, Raggiolo

Bell tower, Raggiolo

We aren’t waiting for the Archangel, but for our guide Paolo Schiatti to lead us along an ancient transhumance route to a former shepherd’s hut on the crest of the mountain above Raggiolo where we get to watch pecorino and ricotta making and have a shepherd’s lunch. I’ve watched many shepherds make cheese, and I wonder whether here near Pratomagno in the Casentino (east of Florence) they make it in the same way as in the Garfagnana.

Our walk 'On the traces of transhumant shepherds'

Our walk will take us ‘In the footsteps of transhumant shepherds’

We learn from Paolo that the patron saint of shepherds is Saint Michael Archangel, but in Roman times the half-god, half-human Hercules was the favourite of pastoralists. According to Roman mythology he slew the fire-breathing monster Cacus who stole some of the cattle which he himself had stolen and was pasturing near Cacus’s cave. By one of those frequent transpositions of early Christianity, Hercules became the Archangel. In the New Testament Saint Michael defeats Satan to become a protector against the forces of evil.

San Michele, Lucca, with the monster Satan firmly underfoot (photo: Tracey Meredith)

San Michele, Lucca, with the monster Satan firmly underfoot (photo: Tracey Meredith)

Two feast days a year are devoted to the Archangel: 8 May and 29 September. In early May the shepherds took their flocks up to the alpine pastures. At the end of September they brought them down. From early mediaeval times they built shrines to Saint Michael along the transhumance routes. In the days when they wintered on the Maremma, the coastal plain of Tuscany, it took a whole week to walk to the alpine pastures above Raggiolo. We’re lucky we only have a 3-hour walk ahead of us, and no sheep.

Above the village we enter the chestnut woods (Photo: Penny Barry)

Above the village we enter the chestnut woods. (photo: Penny Barry)


After a steep climb, we're nearly even with the crest of the Pratomagno cross (photo: Penny Barry)

After a steep climb, we’re nearly even with the crest of the Pratomagno cross. (photo: Penny Barry)

The conversation about the Archangel might seem a distraction to a secular cheese lover wanting to know how Tuscan pecorino is made. Yet in Italy food and history are two facets of a common culture. The past spices the cuisine of today, and you can taste the difference between an industrial product made according to scientific principles and a traditional product made according to practices handed down through the generations.

Paolo (centre back in green shirt) shares some of his vast knowledge during a much needed break.

Paolo (centre back in green shirt) shares some of his vast knowledge during a much needed break.

Paolo’s way of encouraging us is to say, ‘Siamo arrivati’ (we’ve arrived) when we still have over an hour of the steepest part of the trail to go. At around 1000 m (3280 ft) we pass suddenly from the chestnut wood into a beech forest. The muffled silence might remind you of a sanctuary. To me it seems dead compared to the luxuriant undergrowth of a chestnut wood.

The clean floor of a beech forest

The clean floor of a beech forest


At last we truly have arrived.

At last we truly have arrived.


Alpine shepherds' hut restored by the village Brigade

Alpine shepherds’ hut restored by the village Brigade

Casetta di Bùite

We left with the mists we returned in the spring

following with our flocks the flow of life.

It was like this every time, every year

The Raggiolo Brigade

to the memory of transhumant shepherds Spring 2014

Angelo Luddi transfers the curd to the moulds.

Angelo Luddi transfers the curd to the moulds.

I always tell my guests that cheese waits for no man or woman. We’ve dallied too long. The cheesemakers, Angelo and Dino Luddi, have already added the rennet to coagulate the curd. Nowadays they use veal rennet which they buy from the pharmacy. They don’t lament the change from lamb’s rennet which they prepared themselves from a lamb’s stomach, even though the pecorino is less piquant.

They cut the curd using a wooden spino, an implement of the past. They use it not out of nostalgia but because it works well for the type of hard paste cheese they’re making. If there’s something modern that works better or is more convenient, they’re quick to adopt it, like the veal rennet. The past isn’t a prison.

A nice juxtaposition of traditional and modern: ancient spring, traditional curd cutting sticks, modern cheese moulds and Vim

A nice juxtaposition of traditional and modern: ancient mountain spring, traditional curd cutting sticks, modern cheese moulds, Vim and rubbish sack


Here's Vitalina, one of the cheesemakers on my cheese course, cutting the curd with her spino.

Here’s Vitalina, one of the cheesemakers on my cheese course, cutting the curd with her spino.

Dino’s job is pressing as much whey as possible from the curd.

A draining board from the days before stainless steel.

A draining board from the days before stainless steel. Microbiologists are just beginning to understand why wood is sanitary and safe.


I've never before seen anyone pinching the curd.

I’ve never before seen anyone pinching the curd.


Marzia, another cheesemaker on our cheese course, does it like this.

Marzia, another cheesemaker on our cheese course, presses the whey from the curd like this.


All the whey gets heated to to make ricotta.

Now the whey is heated to make ricotta.

As we explain during our cheese course, in Italy where it was born, ricotta is NOT cheese. That’s official. It’s a dairy product. The casein proteins and much of the fat in the milk go into the cheese. The main protein left in the whey is albumin. The protein in egg white is also albumin. When you cook egg white, it solidifies, and that’s what happens to the albumin in whey when it gets to about 90˚C (194˚F).

With two large pots of whey to heat, this is going to take a little while. We suddenly realise we’re starving, and wander off to find some lunch. The courses are ready in random order stretched out over three hours. Actually, most Tuscan Sunday lunches last this long. What I take to be antipasto consists of panini of prosciutto and salami with two wedges of pecorino on the side, all excellent. The pecorino has been supplied by Modesto Giovannuzzi. He tells me the sheep are at Castel Focognano (near Bibbiena), but doesn’t volunteer who made the cheese.

Modesto's impromptu cheese shop

Modesto’s impromptu cheese shop

I buy a wheel for the pecorino tournament at the end of our cheese course.

I check in with the ricotta. It hasn’t begun forming yet, but Angelo is adding some milk to the pot. I object that traditional ricotta shouldn’t have milk added. He agrees. He’s doing it to increase the yield for the big crowd today. He adds quietly,’The ricotta is much finer and smoother with nothing added to the whey.’ He moves over to salt the upper side of the pecorino.

Angelo pours a good quantity of sea salt (not iodised) on each form.

Angelo pours a good quantity of sea salt (not iodised) on each form. He uses more than my cheesemakers.

Besides adding flavour, the salt slows down the lactic acid bacteria so the cheese doesn’t become too acidic and also helps draw whey out of the cheese—essential if you want to mature it for several months.

Now he rubs it around on the surface.

Now he rubs the salt around on the surface.


He explains that tomorrow morning he'll turn the cheese out of the moulds and salt the other side.

He explains that tomorrow morning he’ll turn the cheese out of the moulds and salt the other side.

Around the corner of the hut, Modesto and his son Andrea are now busy making polenta dolce, a porridge made with chestnut flour instead of cornmeal. It saved the people of the mountains, the Garfagnana as well Pratomagno, from starvation during the Second World War. Some people never want to eat it again, but for most it’s the ultimate comfort food.

Chestnuts dried over a wood fire and ground in a water mill at Raggiolo

The chestnuts for this flour were dried by the traditional method over a wood fire and ground at the water mill of Raggiolo.

Drying the chestnuts, shelling them, sorting them and milling them is a winter occupation. You collect them after you’ve made your wine and before you begin harvesting your olives. In the days when the olive harvest took place at the end of November or even in December, your chestnut flour was already safely stowed in its chestnut-wood chests.

Photo: Heather Jarman

Modesto slowly adds the flour to boiling water and Andrea stirs like crazy with his polenta pole.


Photo: Heather Jarman

Modesto cuts it with a wire. My driver Marzio told me his grandfather used a willow twig and he presented me with one from the nearest willow tree.

A sudden commotion back around the corner signals that the ricotta strands are forming.

The coagulated albumin floats to the top.

The coagulated albumin is floating to the top.

Someone asks what the yield of ricotta is. Angelo doesn’t know, and I reply that for sheep’s milk it’s about 1.5%, but only half that for cow’s milk. Angelo says to me, almost accusingly, ‘You know the science, but we know the practice.’ He’s right. You could read every book about cheese and still not be able to make good cheese and ricotta. It’s the experience that counts, going back to your mother, uncle, grandmother, great-grandfather, and right back to your Roman ancestors and Hercules.

Aldo begins to skim off ricotta, but his wife Simonetta is demanding some liquid for her stale bread.

Aldo begins to skim off the ricotta, but his wife Simonetta is demanding some liquid for her pot of stale bread. (photo: Penny Barry)

You could fill a small cookbook with the Tuscan recipes for stale bread: zuppa, panzanella, pappa al pomodoro, aqua cotta to name just a few; and scottina, a shepherd’s dish. After skimming off the ricotta, the remaining liquid is called scotta. Around me it’s mostly fed to the farm animals, although some people say it’s a refreshing drink and a good broth for soup. To make scottina, you leave some of the ricotta in the scotta and ladle it over the bread.

Making scottina

Making scottina


I wouldn't go out of my way for this dish, but if you're in an alpine pasture and you don't have much else to eat, it probably hits the spot.

I wouldn’t go out of my way for this dish, but if you’re in an alpine pasture and you don’t have much else to eat, it probably hits the spot. I’d like to think they also had some salumi with them.


Doing our best!

Doing their best…


Time to head back down the mountain to Raggiolo

Time to head back down the mountain to Raggiolo

As we descend Paolo has an answer to every question I can throw at him and more. He tells me about how they preserved the chestnut flour by packing it into chestnut-wood chests to exclude the air. It was so tightly packed that you could cut it into blocks with a knife to take out the amount you needed. By summer it was a bit tired. To refresh it, they put it in a wood-fired oven until it turned dark brown and had an entirely different flavour. The conversation wanders to art history, politics, the problem of depopulation of rural villages like theirs and mine. Most people in the group have something to contribute. They own their history in a way I’ve never encountered outside Italy. Thank you Raggiolo for a thoroughly enjoyable and illuminating day.

You can learn about Tuscan cheese and experience for yourself our cheesemakers’ the strong sense of their history on our Theory & Practice of Italian Cheese course:

Posted in cheese, CHESTNUTS, sheep, TRADITION | 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

Travel, Textiles & Tradition

Guest blog by Susan Stover, artist and educator

On the eve of the Tastes & Textiles tour, I’m posting Susan Stover’s insights about the power of travel to invigorate one’s creativity. (All photos by Susan Stover.)


Travel can greatly impact an artist’s work. It can influence, be a catalyst for change, or further catapult the journey already started. In the absence of familiar surroundings, it can magnify what captures the eye and the emotions. All is new, exciting, and exhilarating.

Where is My Allegiance? Indigo-dyed silk, encaustic, mixed media on panel, 47" x 54" x3", 2015

Susan Stover Where is My Allegiance?, indigo-dyed silk, encaustic, mixed media on panel, 47″ x 54″ x3″, 2015

Both making art and traveling have opened up new experiences and challenged me in unique ways. There is so much to be inspired by—the atmosphere in the landscape, hues and textures of a traditional market, shrines and temples, and environments of living and creating. I recently returned from my second trip to Indonesia in the last 15 months. As the experiences and inspirations linger in my subconscious, they continue to influence my artwork. My love of textiles was rekindled as a result of these travels. Fabrics abundantly adorn shrines and temples, are used as offerings, typify ceremonial dress, and are displayed as consumer goods. I am inspired not only by the beauty of the fabrics, but also how they function in a society where art, life, and spirituality are all connected. Nowhere is this more evident than in Bali. Concepts of duality, animism, and the desire for harmony between the natural and supernatural worlds are the foundation of Balinese beliefs. My fascination with the connection of art and spirit lies in the mystery, the unanswered questions, the quest for balance and purpose, the desire for connectedness with others and with the sacred, however they choose to define it. Textiles embody these concerns, which are more evident in cultures other than my own.

Fabric at a textile market iin Bali, 2015

Fabric at a textile market in Bali, 2015

When traveling, I am conscious of how closely tradition and technology are related. Weaving and dyeing cloth are technologies that have existed for millennia. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, the western world is more removed from these technologies, as most cloth is made in factories. Our direct relationship to the production of fabric and items for survival does not exist. In countries like Indonesia, these traditions are part of cultural identity and there is a sense of pride in the hand making of them. Some of the places in Java and Bali that I visited still produce cloth exactly as it has been done for hundreds of years. The tools and settings of these shops look like they have not changed over the ages, and it was like stepping back in time. It was always surprising to see cell phones in these environments—the juxtaposition of ancient and modern. This is what I am after in my own work—taking something from one arena, bridging the gaps of time and place, and situating it in a new venue.

Row of canting tools for applying wax to fabric to create batik design, Java, 2015

Row of canting tools for applying wax to fabric to create batik designs, Java, 2015

There is an inherent beauty to the handmade, purposed item that looks old and worn. Often I think of history, what or who came before me, what was left behind, and how we are joined to others by the same activities that keep our hands busy. The rhythmic beating of a loom and the repetitive movements of stitching and stamping can be meditative and calming. There is a satisfaction to this type of labor. Textiles imply an association with human touch and human interaction and I am curious how the maker’s role functions individually and collectively in a community. What interests me is the information that textiles contain, as patterns and techniques encode knowledge from ancestors and tell us much about a culture’s cosmology and development. Perhaps it is my own desire for connection to the larger world that drives me to seek out authentic artisans working in methods that have been handed down from one generation to another.

Man stamping wax onto fabric in Java, 2015

Man stamping wax onto fabric in Java, 2015


Young man dyeing batik fabric in indigo in Java, 2015

Dyeing batik fabric in indigo in Java, 2015

Throughout the years, my work has incorporated the combination of textiles and painting. I have worked in many ways using dye, paint, thread, fabric, and fiber. Prior to traveling to Indonesia, I had been using surface design techniques on silk and embedding them into encaustic to develop my own visual language of unique mark-making and patterning. A shift happened in the work as a result of traveling—the fabric itself became the subject matter and a springboard for new content. I wanted to make work that looked like old cloths that were worn in a way that would suggest some sort of use or purpose. They could be fragments or relics and could incorporate techniques typically found in ritual textiles and costumes.

Artesian Wall, indigo-dyed silk, encaustic, horsehair, wood mixed media on panel, 36" x 36" x 3", 2015

Susan Stover Artesian Wall, indigo-dyed silk, encaustic, horsehair, wood mixed media on panel, 36″ x 36″ x 3″, 2015

Recently, I have been combining surface design techniques (such as discharge, silk painting, and indigo dyeing) on silk with encaustic on panel. There is marvelous allure of adding color to cloth and a magical alchemy of dyeing with indigo. When layering the silk into encaustic, the wax is beautifully absorbed by the silk. The silk then becomes semi-transparent, revealing rich subtleties of colored wax underneath. Murky layers of wax on top of the silk can add depth, mystery, and freeze the fabric in the moment. Working with encaustic in many ways is like working with fiber. There is a tactile quality to the wax that makes one want to touch it. The translucent layers of wax are similar to working with layers of dye. Wax can reflect and absorb light like various fibers. There are the textural and sculptural capabilities of wax as there are with fibers.

Bound fabric dyed in indigo in Susan Stover's studio

Bound fabric dyed in indigo in Susan Stover’s studio

When I started thinking of my “paintings” as “objects,” it stimulated ideas of working sculpturally and freed me from thinking within the confines of the panel. It opened up the possibilities of working with other fibers, materials, and techniques. Incorporating these materials and working in this way, my intention is to create artwork that evokes a sense of transcendent mystery and purpose. The goal is to imbue the work with a vulnerability and vitality that reflects the presence of the maker. Each piece is a personal meditation on what connects the past and present, the beauty of imperfection and age. The challenge is how to make the things that inspire me and at the same time place them in a contemporary context. How do I celebrate these inspirations, use these traditions, and express it in a way that is relative to my own culture?

Piece in progress in Susan Stover's studio

Piece in progress in Susan Stover’s studio

As I travel and seek inspiration, I am aware of how tourism and commercialism affect these places. Traditional weaving patterns can be found printed cheaply on cotton fabric. ”Fake” batiks are abundant. Natural dyes and materials are often replaced by cheaper synthetic ones. Symbolic meanings are in danger of being lost as techniques and knowledge may not be handed down to future generations. I believe that it is important to recognize the value and conservation of traditions and cultures with awareness and mindfulness of our impact on them. Threads of Life and the Bebali Foundation in Ubud, Bali, seek to preserve and restore indigenous textile cultures in Indonesia. They work with women’s weaving cooperatives to help manage their resources sustainably and relieve poverty in remote areas. The Bebali Foundation does botanical research of natural dyes and mordants. I spent a wonderful afternoon in the Bebali Natural Dye Garden dyeing with the indigo that is grown there. The garden beds are filled with different varieties of indigo and plants for other colors and mordants.

Woman using batik canting tools to design on fabric, Java, 2015

Woman using batik canting tools to design on fabric, Java, 2015

My consciousness and respect has grown for the beauty existing in other parts of the world as a result of my travels. I am grateful for the rich heritages that endure and am optimistic of how they might evolve. I am looking forward to future art inspiring journeys in Italy, India and a return to Java with others who share a similar interest in appreciating the artistry of cultural traditions.

Susan Stover teaches and shows her work nationally and internationally and maintains a full time studio practice in Graton, CA:

This article first appeared in the Surface Design Journal Winter 2015/2016 “Wax & Fiber” issue, Volume 39, Number 4. The Journal is available in single print issues for purchase at: .

A subscription to the quarterly Surface Design Journal is just one of many enriching textile-arts and education benefits enjoyed by members of Surface Design Association, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year. Members receive the beautiful print publication 4 times a year along with access to all of our digital editions (published since the Spring 2015 “Warp Speed” issue, Volume 39, Number 2).

Portal, indigo-dyed silk, indigo, encaustic, metal, tar, mixed media on panel, 16" x 8" x 1.5", 2015

Susan Stover Portal, indigo-dyed silk, indigo, encaustic, metal, tar, mixed media on panel, 16″ x 8″ x 1.5″, 2015

Posted in ART, CRAFTS, dyeing, textiles, TRADITION, weaving | Leave a comment

Slow Cake

Feasting is a way of celebrating special events, and many festivals have acquired a constellation of typical dishes. Often these are elaborations of everyday food, tarted up for the occasion. In many parts of Italy (maybe all, but I haven’t been everywhere) no meal is complete without bread, so what better food to make a fuss of.

The Garfagnana has its own special Easter bread called pasimata.

Easter cake at Daniela's shop

The sell-by date is August, but I bet it doesn’t last that long!


Paolo Magazzini, the village baker at Petrognola to whom I take my guests for bread lessons, recounted his procedure, the lengthy traditional way.

telling recipe for pasimata

Paolo turns a recipe into a thriller (photo: Alex Entzinger)

You take flour, sugar, butter, eggs, milk and lievito madre (starter dough).

Day 1 morning: mix all ingredients.

12 hours later: add more of the same ingredients except the starter dough.

Day 2 morning: add more of the same ingredients except the starter dough.

12 hours later: add sultanas, aniseed, vin santo (sweet Tuscan dessert wine), chestnut-flavoured liqueur.

Day 3 morning: light wood-fired oven.

Bake a batch of bread.

Put pasimata dough in round tins.

After one hour, take bread out. Oven will be exactly the right temperature for pasimata.

Bake pasimata for 40 minutes.

Remove from oven and eat enthusiastically.

sliced pasimata of the garfagnana

Bread dressed up like cake

The long rise over 48 hours allows time for the development of exceptional flavours and aromas.  Today many people make a ‘fast cake’ version in an hour by substituting baking powder for sourdough starter. Next Easter I’m going to organise a blind tasting of the slow and fast versions.

I didn’t ask Paolo for the quantity of each ingredient, since I can get my fix from him. For those not so lucky, here’s a similar recipe from Castiglione in Garfagnana, a walled town which during the Renaissance was batted back and forth like a ping-pong ball between Lucca and Modena. Perhaps they consoled themselves between battles by eating pasimata.


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 Read to the bottom of the blog and you’ll find a special offer.

Save the dates: 2–9 July 2017.


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

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, 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: Or did you pick and press olives with me. If not, treat yourself to my Autumn in Tuscany tour in November ( 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

Preserving Traditional Cuisine

‘The golden rules of authentic paella’ caught my eye on the ‘Food & Drink’ page of The Week (19 July). It reported that a ‘paella activist’ had founded a group dedicated to the preservation of Valencia’s signature dish. I signed into their website to explore more. In answer to the question, ‘Is there a unique authentic paella recipe?’ I read the reply, ‘Each zone and season offers variations and peculiarities, and there are as many versions as villages and cooks’. So why are they worried about variations in the recipe? In what does ‘authenticity’ exist?

Part of the answer must lie in the next sentence: ‘All of them use ingredients taken from the land. This is what nowadays is called Gastronomy KM0.’ The land is the territory of Valencia, and what can’t be found there can’t be used in paella. Maybe one should say, ‘what couldn’t be found there in the past’, but this raises another question of how far in the past does one draw the line?

It reminded me of the Slow Food Lucca Compitese’s successful efforts to keep alive the traditional zuppa alla frantoiana through their annual zuppa tournament. Many variations exist, but to stay true to its origin during the olive harvest at Lucca it must contain beans, cavolo nero, stale bread and extra virgin olive oil. It may contain other winter vegetables, but absolutely no zucchini even if they are now grown in hothouses and imported to the area. The same applies to tomatoes.

Risotto could use an action group too. It originated as a sort of rice porridge. The finished dish should be all’onda, as important a concept in cooking a risotto as al dente is to the correct cooking of pasta. The final consistency of risotto should be not too liquid and not too dry; when you shake the pan (a shallow, wide pan please) the risotto should form a wave (onda). How many risottos have you had that are more like paella? The website tells me, ‘As we all know, rice in authentic Paellas must stay dry and loose.’

Osso bucco and risotto alla milanese as served in Milan

This conservationist attitude to traditional dishes seems to be rare in England and the United States (and for all I know, in other countries too). Their citizens happily appropriate the names of dishes, but not the constraints. Any old dish made with rice might be variously titled ‘paella’, ‘risotto’ or ‘pilau’ with scant regard for their origins. I’ve had ‘cassoulet’ in England that was English pork sausage and tinned beans in tomato sauce. Some of these variations in foreign lands may be delicious, but why not give them different names? Risotto isn’t traditional around me in Lucca Province. Here a dish based on rice is usually called ‘riso ai funghi’ (rice and wild mushrooms), for example, on a restaurant menu. This neither capitalises dishonestly on a famous dish, nor distorts the public’s idea of what the true dish should be like.

So in addition to preserving traditional cuisine, let’s celebrate new untraditional recipes with creative new names.


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