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 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

Autumn in Tuscany

I can never decide which season I like best. The one I’m in always wins. Here are five reasons to love autumn.

Sweeping multicoloured vine leaves

Sweeping particoloured vine leaves

 

Picking olives with friends

Picking olives with friends…

 

And  going to the olive mill and tasting the new olive oil

…and going to the olive oil mill and tasting the new extra virgin oil

Hunting for white truffles with Riccardo and Turbo…

And eating them

…and eating them

You can do all these things with me (perhaps not sweeping my terrace), during my new small-group tour called ‘Autumn in Tuscany’. Read more about it in my blog on the Slow Travel Tours website at http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/autumn-in-tuscany/ and see all the details at http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/small_group_tours/autumn-in-tuscany/ (click on the row of tabs below the introduction). It’s my favourite season… until winter arrives.

Posted in holidays, LANDSCAPE, OLIVE OIL, TRUFFLES, Tuscany | 2 Comments

Tuscan Truffle Trophy

I’m just back from the second annual Tuscan truffle hound competition organised by Riccardo, my truffle hunter.

Dogs this way

Tuscan Truffle Association banner

The competition is about as exciting as a village cricket match without the beer tent. Very little happens, but it does have the merit of being easy to understand the rules, unlike cricket (at least for me). I used to listen occasionally to a cricket match on the radio enjoying the foreign language of the commentators. Truffle hunters also have their own language which seems to consist of one- or two-syllable utterances to which the dogs rarely listen. This video gives you some idea of the pace and mutterings.

[vimeo]https://vimeo.com/95670529[/vimeo]

If it’s not much of a spectator sport, at least it demonstrates the method used and patience needed to train a dog to be a good truffle hound. There are very few breeds that can’t excel, but you have to start the training when they’re just a few weeks old. Give them simple commands, teach them to retrieve a stick and eventually bury a plastic capsule with a fragment of truffle in it for the puppy to find—over and over and over again.

Burying the capsule could cause backache

 

Mangled capsule

Riccardo explains the psychology of training: dogs are pack animals and the man (I haven’t met a female truffle hunter yet) has to play the role of leader of the pack. Some men don’t have it in them.

Who's in charge?

Dog? What dog?

I didn't feel like digging truffles today anyway.

Others have figured out how to motivate their dogs to keep their noses to the ground.

Two noses are better than one.

This well-trained nose has found a truffle capsule.

Riccardo and Teo demonstrate best form. Note his subtle hand movements.

Now for some fun!

You're boss. What shall we do?

We'll crisscross the ring. Over there first.

Now to the right.

Well done!

While not exactly electrifying, the location is beautiful and the camaraderie enjoyable. What better way to spend a sunny Sunday than chatting to friends while sitting on a stone wall in the shade of a pergola at San Vivaldo monastery.

Convento San Vivaldo

Chewing the fat

When the trials are finished, all the dogs and owners converge on the ring to retrieve the buried capsules.

All noses to the deck

At this point a Franciscan friar emerges and surveys the scene.

Note the size of the opening...

...and the size of the friar.

He gazes at the small square marked out on the lawn, shakes his head and states that surely in so small a space every dog would find every truffle.

If he got through the door, maybe his dog could find all the capsules.

Meanwhile, the certificates are being prepared and the prize-giving begins.

Elegant

In 15th place, the man whose dog found none.

He needs the friar's magic.

No one’s a loser.

Everyone gets a bottle of wine and a bag of dog biscuits.

In first place, a man no one knows. He wants to be notified of the next contest, but doesn’t understand what an email address is.

The truffle trophy winner (left)

What sets a Tuscan truffle hound competition apart from a cricket match is lunch. We drift into Il Focolare (‘the hearth’), a restaurant in the cellars of one wing of the monastery, for an abundant and well-cooked lunch.

What every friar's cellar needs

What? No plastic capsules for antipasto?

They must be hiding in the cannelloni.

Roast pork, guinea fowl & chargrilled steak

Riccardo and I have taken many guests on real truffle hunts (no plastic capsules) followed by a truffle lunch at Riccardo’s home (click November, but you can hunt truffles in almost any month).  We’ve also designed an intensive truffle course, and soon we’ll have a truffle weekend on offer as well. Let me know if you’d like to be notified when it’s ready: info@sapori-e-saperi.com.

Posted in FORAGING, TRUFFLES, Tuscany | Leave a comment

Salumi Course in Tuscany

If your lifelong dream has been to stuff a pig in a sack, your moment has arrived. French charcuterie, Italian salumi, Spanish jamón and English cured meats are all the rage. Not only are gourmet hams and salamis hogging (sorry, I couldn’t resist) the cold counters at fashionable delicatessens and stylish online shops, but every farmers’ market boasts a stall or more selling artisan salami made from rare breed pork. Want to learn to butcher a pig, salt a pancetta? Just type ‘charcuterie course’ into Google and you get 2,360,000 results for courses from Dorset to Down Under by way of Denver.

Grace learns to make sausages with Ismaele Turri

If you’re a butcher, chef or pig breeder wanting to make Italian salumi, your choice is more limited. Even though when you enter ‘salumi course’, you get 237,000 results, not many are designed for professionals. But the top four are and they’re us: the Saperi e Saperi Advanced Salumi Course. Everyone who comes tells me our course is unique: it’s aimed at food professionals; it takes place in Tuscany; it lasts for four days, short enough for a small-scale pig breeder to get away and long enough to cover the subject in depth; the price is moderate—you don’t have to sell the farm or the restaurant to come.

Yorkshire butcher David Lishman massages salami

Ismaele shows chefs from British Columbia how to prepare a prosciutto

In my opinion, what makes the greatest difference is that we’re in Italy. ‘We’ is course leader Giancarlo Russo, native Tuscan, and course organiser me, adoptive Tuscan.

Giancarlo explains in excellent English (his wife is American)

Occasionally I'm needed to clarify

We know there’s no such thing as ‘Italian’ salumi, nor even ‘Tuscan’ salumi. Move 20 km and you find different styles and practices. We know if we use only one norcino to teach the course, participants will get a totally skewed idea of how salumi is made. They’ll think there are rigid rules, because each norcino is sure his method is best. Giancarlo is consultant to Slow Food on meat and contributor to the book Salumi d’Italia. He knows the vast range of salumi in Italy and that there’s no hope of covering all of it. What to do? We base the course in northwestern Tuscany and use three norcini more than 20 km apart. In his theoretical sessions Giancarlo covers some practices in other parts of Italy.

Mondiola, circular salami made only in the Garfagnana

We’ve chosen our norcini carefully. All of them are at least third generation butchers, having learned from grandparents and parents. They are true artisans. They are aiming at excellence, not a uniform product.

Each salami is different

They use the best maiale pesante (heavy pig of more than 155 kg) they can get, always Italian.

Some really big pig carcases

They don’t use starters, sugar or milk powder. They use a small quantity of potassium nitrate (E252), never nitrites. They dry their salami either naturally or in a drying cupboard and mature their products in a natural cellar.

A perfect natural cellar for curing salumi

They reveal all their secrets except the exact mix of spices, which is a family recipe.

Massimo Bacci writes his recipe to make sure we've got it right

You’re encouraged to take photos and videos. They want you to go home and make good salumi. Otherwise, they’d be wasting their time.

Cameras to the ready

Our first norcino is Massimo Bacci from Versilia, the northern coastal plain of Tuscany. Massimo is a consummate salumi maker and a natural teacher. He’s clear and patient; he explains and demonstrates and allows you to tie a salami as many times as you need to get it right.

Massimo ties a salami slowly

Drew Howard, sausage maker in Beijing, practises

Geoffrey Couper, culinary educator in British Columbia, gets the thumbs up

Massimo explains the stages in drying and maturing, and he produces the best lardo I’ve ever tasted, using the same marble basins as in Colonnata, higher up the mountain from him.

Massimo's lardo

A very old marble lardo box

His 83-year-old dad pops in from the adjoining shop every 20 minutes to make sure his 60-year-old son is giving us the correct instructions. Their mortadella nostrale (a salami, not cooked like mortadella di Bologna) always comes first or second in the all-Italy artisan salami competition.

Massimo's award-winning salami

From Versilia we speed down the autostrada to San Miniato, a town along the Arno River between Florence and Pisa, where we visit Maurizio and Simone Castaldi, two brothers who learned their art from their father and uncle. We first came to them so we could include the fennel-flavoured salami finocchiona in the course. The finocchiona zone lies between Florence and Arezzo, south of our other two norcini.

Maurizio and two types of finocchiona

Ingredients for finocchiona

During our first visit, we discovered that their strongest suit is the production of prosciutto, and we now include an in-depth study of prosciutto from salting to air drying.

Prosciutto heaven

Yorkshire butcher Carl Slingsby observes the correct way to slice a prosciutto

Now we head to our third norcino at Venturo farm in the Garfagnana, the mountainous area north of Lucca.

View from Venturo as we arrive

We’re just over the Apennines from Parma and Modena in the Po Plain, so many of the products are the same. Ismaele Turri learned from his father, as well as working in a neighbour’s butcher shop from the age of 14. He’s a farmer and pig breeder. He slaughters two of his largest pigs in honour of our course.

Not their turn yet—they have to be a lot heavier

Participants are guided from the butchering of the pig to all the various typical salumi of the Garfagnana: prosciutto toscano, coppa, guanciale, pancetta, salami, cotechino, soppressata, biroldo (blood sausage) and a few other surprises. Since we allow no more than seven people on the course, there’s lots of time for hands-on practice.

Ismaele lays out the various parts of the pig ready to be worked

Maya Tavor from Tel Aviv learns to stuff a natural casing

Everyone ties salamis with Ismaele's help

If you stay for the extension workshop on the Tuesday after the course, you watch a production run at the Rocchi family salumifico near Lucca. Their efficiency is a sight to behold.

Gino demonstrates making salumetti to Irish butchers & American chef

Large diameter Tuscan salami requires special skills to get it right

The Rocchi's make soppressata in an antique hemp cloth

Some light relief

At the end of the course we ask for feedback, which Giancarlo and I use to improve the course to meet the needs of future food professionals. Even experienced butchers who already make salami tell us they learn a lot on the course. Last year a couple who came on our first course got their salami accepted by Harrods. We’re proud to be the launchpad for such successes.

The class of January 2014

Posted in BUTCHER, COOKING, Salumi, Tuscany | 2 Comments

Seasonal Eating 6: Befanini

When I think of seasonal eating, I usually think of what’s available from my orto (vegetable plot), fruit trees and local farms at a particular time of year. But there’s another kind of seasonal eating: the traditional foods that help us celebrate holidays and rites of passage. In Tuscany and more especially in the Province of Lucca, this is the time to eat befanini, a simple biscuit or cookie.

Christmas cookies of Casabasciana

Befanini made by Eugenia of Casabasciana

The name comes from ‘Befana’, which in Italian derives from ‘Epifania’, or Epiphany in English, which in turn comes from the Greek verb meaning to appear. The date is always the 6th of January, the twelfth day of Christmas, the day with all those Drummers Drumming, but also the day when Christians celebrate the ‘Incarnation of Jesus Christ’ and the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem bearing gifts.

Magi arrive in manger

The three magi arrive bearing rich gifts in a presepe at Pescaglia

As far as I can discover, the Befana, a witch who travels around on a broomstick taking presents to children on the eve of Epiphany, is particular to Tuscany, and especially to the Province of Lucca. It’s first documented in the 13th century. For an image see: http://www.itclucca.lu.it/Teatro/comenius/befanaita.htm, and if you read Italian, you’ll discover a delightful explanation of the tradition of Befana. Americans will immediately wonder how this little old witch became associated with Halloween, or vice versa. If anyone has the answer, I’d love to know.

The befanini of Barga are the most elaborate I’ve seen, truly works of art.

Christmas cookies of Barga

Befanini made by Francesca of Barga

My friends Francesca (who created the befanini above) and Marta explained to me that these biscuits were made by peasants to offer to the Befana when she visited their farms. In an agricultural economy with little cash, sugar was scarce and only used for special occasions. Besides the sugar, the befanini acquired extra value by virtue of the labour lavished on their decoration.

In my village of Casabasciana we celebrate the Befana in the traditional way, which you can read about in my blog: The Good Witch Befana. One of the most satisfying things about celebrating with locals, is that you always learn something new. When I wrote that blog two years ago, I hadn’t been educated by Francesca and Marta. It seems the Befana isn’t a pagan character after all, and now I realise that giving money to the Befana is an innovation, a way of monetising the custom. But I suppose you can’t repair the church bells with befanini.

 

Posted in BAKING, FESTAS, HISTORY, TRADITION, Tuscany | 2 Comments

Snow Patterns

The travellers’ image of Tuscany is all sunshine, olive trees, vines and cypress-lined roads, and if you come in spring, summer or autumn, that’s mostly what you’ll see (although you’d be in for a surprise here in the Garfagnana). In winter the scene is completely different. We have snow — not much, but we can count on it every year. No one pretends it doesn’t happen, so it’s compulsory to have winter tyres on your car or chains at the ready. Snow ploughs clear the roads within a few hours. Far and near the snow reveals patterns that are invisible at other times of year.

Castelluccio from CasabascianaRoof at CasabascianaVine arborThanks to Klaus Falbe-Hansen for his photos.

Posted in LANDSCAPE, Tuscany | 2 Comments

How do you find…?

This sounds like a question you type into Google, but it’s what my clients ask me when I’ve taken them to a cheese maker on a mountain top or a handloom weaver in an unmarked house in a higgledy-piggledy mediaeval hamlet or a village festival that’s only announced by the huge number of cars parked along the road when you arrive. I don’t ask Google. In fact, Google usually hasn’t even heard of the people you visit on my tours.

Sapori e Saperi takes clients to handloom weaver

Romeo Ricciardi weaves in his attic

The answer is easy, but long. First, I live here (Google doesn’t). Second, I’m blessed with the ‘satiable curtiosity’ of Kipling’s elephant child. Third, I’m not afraid of appearing ignorant or stupid; the only way to learn is to ask lots of questions. Fourth, I go out and research everything that sounds exciting to me. Here’s an example.

During the last 24 hours I’ve been to the festival of Tappeti di Segatura Colorata at Camaiore, the Antro del Corchia, Ristorante Vallechiara at Levigliani di Stazzema, Miniere dell’Argento Vivo, tiro della forma sports club and Ristorante Pizzeria Al Barchetto at Turritecava, Gelateria Gely at Fornaci di Barga. It went like this.

Saturday 9 June

7.30–8.30 pm: Drive to Gabriella’s house in Capezzano Pianore, near Viareggio and Camaiore. Gabriella is one of my cooking teachers and has invited me to stay the night so she can introduce me to the treasures of Camaiore.

Camaiore city gate at night

Ancient gate to city of Camaiore

8.45 pm: Dinner with Gabriella, her husband Alfredo, her son and daughter-in-law.

10.00–10.15 pm: Alfredo drives Gabriella and me to Camaiore to watch the teams of carpet (tappeti) designers. Every year on the eve of Corpus Domini (a Catholic religious holiday celebrated on the ninth Sunday after Easter), patterned carpets of dyed sawdust (segatura colorata) are created on the paving stones of the two main streets of Camaiore. The enthusiastic artists work throughout the night so the public can view the finished carpets before 9.30 am when a religious procession walks along the streets and messes them all up.

Carpets for the streets of Camaiore poster

The poster

10.15–11.00 pm: We join the throngs watching the carpet makers of all ages kneeling on the street to sprinkle sawdust in the correct places to build up complex pictures.

Young and old work together through the night

Sifting dyed sawdust to make a pattern on the street

Moving a stencil into place 1

Huge stencils are used to define a pattern

Moving a stencil for Tappeti di Segatura

The stencil has to be put in exactly the right position

Placing stencil for tappeti di segatura

Just right — they’ve obviously done this before

 

Sacks of clippings for tappeti

Where is the brown sawdust? Marrone? Marrone?

Kneeling on bridge over tappeto

A low bridge is placed over the carpet to be able to reach the centre

Religious theme for tapetto

There are many themes: this one is religious

Relaxing in Camaiore during Tappeti di Segatura

Not everyone is working

Watching Tappeti di Segatura from balcony

Some watch from their balconies

Artisan hat shop in Camaiore

Lots of shops remain open including this artisan hat shop

11.00–11.15 pm: Drive back to Gabriella’s house.

11:15 pm: To bed.

Sunday 10 June

6.45 am: Rise and shine.

7.00–7.15 am: Quick cup of tea (one English habit I haven’t forsaken) and a dry rusk with Gabriella’s homemade wild blueberry jam.

7.15–7.30 am: Gabriella and I drive to Camaiore. Sensible Alfredo is still asleep.

7.30–8.15 am: Wow!

Banners hanging from windows

The houses are decorated

Tappeto di segatura with optical illusion

Optical illusion — the rainbow is actually lying flat on the street

Carpet with philosophical theme

Themes range from philosophical…

Carpet with environmental theme

…to environmental…

 

Carpet with scientific theme

…to scientific…

Carpet with chaos of creation as theme

…to the chaos of biblical creation…

8.15 am: Church bells ring calling the faithful to mass. Uh oh. That means the procession after the mass won’t start until 9.30 or 10. I have too much research to fit in today to stay, and besides that, who wants to see this beautiful handiwork trodden on? We change plans and head to Pasticcieria da Rosanno, Gabriella’s favourite, via a few exquisite little churches she tells me all about.

Bishop of Lucca arrives at Tappeti di Segatura

The Bishop of Lucca arrives

Baroque church organ

You have to admire the exuberance

8.25–8.45 am: Coffee and the lightest Italian brioche I’ve ever eaten.

8.45–9.00 am: Start back to car but I’m sidetracked by Gabriella’s casual comment, ‘That’s a good gastronomia’, as we pass Salumeria Nicola. In we go. It’s difficult not to buy some of everything, but I only get a piece of special pecorino called ‘Scoppolato di Pedona’, which I’ll enter in the England vs Italy sheep’s milk cheese tournament during my Cheese, Bread & Honey tour the week after this.

Seafood dishes at Salumeria Nicola

I want some of that bean and prawn salad

Ham baked in pastry at Salumeria Nicola, Camaiore

Ham baked in pastry

9.00–9.15 am: Return to Gabriella’s house and I hastily depart.

9.15–10.00 am: Drive to Antro del Corchia, a cave I’m vetting for a family for whom I’ve designed a tour in July. In my haste to make the 10.00 shuttle bus, I drive right past the turning to Levigliani and have to go back. That’s one reason why I do these reccies. No time to buy a ticket, but I’m waved onto the bus anyway.

Entrance to cave Antro del Corchia

Entrance to cave through old marble quarry

10.15–12.15 am: I’m no cave expert but the woman next to me is, and she’s impressed by the three underground lakes, a column that looks like a Golden Eagle plus a ‘petrified forest’ and ‘organ pipes’, and I’m relieved to hear that extensive tests have proved our breathing is but a drop in the ocean in such an enormous cave, the largest in Italy. No photos allowed in the cave.

12.15 pm: I was intending to go straight to the Miniere dell’Argento (silver mines), but naturally they’re closed for lunch. There’s nothing to do but take the guide’s advice and have lunch myself at the Ristorante Vallechiara at the other end of Levigliani. I phone Katherine, my communications manager, and tell her I’ll be late for the tiro della forma (cheese throwing) in the afternoon.

12.30–1.45 pm: I arrive at Vallechiara without a reservation. No worries. Mamma welcomes me into a pleasantly buzzing dining room where her son lays a table for me right in front of the speakers and mixing deck. I ask whether they can be turned down. No, but he lifts up my table and sets it behind the speakers, where the sound is muffled. A plate of pasta fritta (irresistible deep-fried bread dough), wine and tap water appear instantly (many restaurants make a fuss when I ask for tap water and my friends shrivel with embarrassment).

Pasta fritta at Ristorante Vallechiara Levigliani

Feather light pasta fritta (fried bread dough)

The son joins mamma and a waitress carrying around huge trays of antipasto. Bruschetta, four crostini, salumi and melon, olives and a few other delicacies land on my plate before I can order. It turns out Sunday lunch is a fixed menu. No choice, but who can complain about what’s delivered?

Primi at lunch at Vallechiara Levigliani

Tordelli and crepes for first course

First secondo Ristorante Vallechiara Levigliani

Main course of roast beef, roast pork and perfectly crisp roast potatoes

 

Pollo fritto verdure fritte

A second second course?! Deep fried chicken & veg presented by the son.

1.45–2.15 pm: I have to be at the mine by 2.00, so no time (or room) for the second main course or dessert. I go to the bar for coffee and to pay. After 10 minutes the son arrives and tells me with a grin it’s much harder to pay than to eat in this restaurant.  He sends a woman from the kitchen to make my coffee, but she doesn’t accept money. Finally another man arrives and I’m allowed to pay €20 for my delicious lunch that could have fed three. Incredible!

2.15–3.00 pm: Drive to the Miniere. The next tour starts at 3.00, so I sit in the sun. Someone greets me as a group emerges from the mine. It’s Nicolas Bertoux, a sculptor. I haven’t seen him and his sculptor wife Cynthia Sah in a few years. They’ve got more commissions than they can handle, and they’ve restored the studio and have a permanent collection in their private museum. I must come and bring my guests. I will.

Miniere dell'argento vivo hard hats

Putting on our hard hats for the tour of the mine

3.00–3.30 pm: We don our hard hats and enter the mine. It’s not a silver mine after all. It’s a mercury mine, one of the rare ones where free mercury sits around on rock ledges in little globules. It’s fascinating, but I’m so late for the cheese throwing that I tear myself away before the end of the tour vowing to return.

Cinnabar rock containing mercury

The red rock is cinnabar which contains mercury

Cinnabar crushing machine

A retired machine for crushing cinnaber

3.30–4.09 pm: Up over Cipollaio Pass (no one can tell me why it’s named for an onion field or seller), past the disused marble quarry I take my clients to, down past Isola Santa with its houses with stone roofs. I love driving on the curvy mountain roads. Maybe I’ll become a rally driver as my next career. Through Castelnuovo and down the Serchio valley to Turritecava, left at the sign to Pizzeria Il Barchetto (little boat) and down to meet Katherine and her husband Andrea — I suspect I’ll need a man at the cheese-throwing sports club.

4.09–5.30 pm: Tiro della forma, which means ‘cheese throwing’, is a traditional sport of the Garfagnana. In Cheshire, England, there’s an annual cheese rolling competition, but it’s a tame game compared to this pecorino-hurling sport that goes on throughout the year. I’m here to have a look and talk to the owner of the club about bringing guests, especially during the ‘Cheese, Bread & Honey’ tour. We’ll be making our own pecorino, so why not toss it around too?

Forme solo per tirare

Cheeses for throwing only (some people were buying others to eat)

I watch the pros and suspect a cricket bowler would be envious of their technique.

Throwing the pecorino

The run up to the throw

See it in slow motion on our Facebook page.

Matteo, the owner, is all in favour of Sapori e Saperi guests. Especially if we dine at his pizzeria. On the edge of his fishing lake, we find the cheerful staff clearing up after a wedding party; we check out the wood-fired pizza oven and approve the excellent menu of other typical local dishes. For half a second I contemplate sticking around until 7.00 for pizza, but add it to my future research list and opt instead for an artisan gelato in Fornaci di Barga.

Tiro della forma fishing lake

The fishing lake next to Pizzeria Al Barchetto

5.30–5.45 pm: Drive to Fornaci di Barga.

5.45–6.15 pm: Behind the counter of Gelateria Gely is a tall, dark, handsome stranger, the owner Paolo Citti. I’ve heard from Debra Kolkka (Bagni di Lucca and Beyond blogger) that he takes his ice cream seriously, and I want my clients to benefit from his long experience. I had already tasted his gelato the week before and compared it to three other gelaterias in the area: it’s in a class of its own. At first he’s wary. Maybe I’m a competitor, his recipes are secret, his laboratory is tiny, he’s very busy in the mornings making ice cream for his two shops. I tell him about the other artisans I take my guests to and about how important I believe it is for people to learn directly from artisans how much better their food tastes and why. I win him over in the end. We’ll have a go. I can bring up to three people (I bet he wouldn’t turn four away) for a lesson in the afternoon. Who’s going to volunteer?

Gelateria Gely Fornaci di Barga

Paolo Citti and me holding his fresh fruit strawberry and lemon ice

(The news shop across the road is selling parmesan damaged in the earthquakes. Everyone is pitching in to help the producers.)

6.15–6.45 pm: Drive home weary but exhilarated by the results of my research. Everyone I met was kind and welcoming. They were all enthusiastic about helping me and my clients discover the best of Italy.

 

 

Posted in cheese, FESTAS, ICE CREAM / GELATO, RESTAURANT, SEAFOOD, TRADITION, Tuscany | 6 Comments

Kissing In the New Year

New Year's kisses

It’s the custom at midnight at the New Year’s Eve dinner in Casabasciana to pop open the spumante, take a gulp and then get up and greet everyone with ‘Auguri! Buon Anno!’ and a kiss on each cheek.

At my first New Year’s Eve dinner in Casabasciana, there were three or four generations present. Now the younger people have their own party with loud music. We oldies prefer good food and conversation. We’ve agreed an amicable devolution. Appropriately, our dinner is in aid of an old people’s home, an ancient building overlooking the car park that’s being restored as and when there’s enough money for the next phase of construction.

The exact time of starting dinner is never fixed. Even at restaurants, you just say you’re coming for lunch or dinner. They don’t ask what time. Tonight it’s not before 8.30, so we congregate in the bar near the community hall to be ready to strike when summoned. I stop on the way to the bar to check on progress in the wood-fired oven…

The potatoes in the wood-fired oven are nearly ready

…and in the kitchen.

Anna Rosa, head chef for Casabasciana feasts, prepares the antipasti

We take our places at the long trestle tables and the courses arrive in leisurely fashion. First, the antipasti misti, an assortment of crostini and, on New Year’s Eve, there are always lentils. Being round, they symbolise the cycle of the years.

Assorted crostini and lentils

My favourite is the thin focaccia with lardo.

Next two primi:

Maccheroni with wild boar ragù

I can’t resist seconds of the maccheroni. As you can see, it’s not elbow macaroni, which is a southern Italian pasta; instead it’s simple squares or rectangles of handmade pasta.

Risotto ai funghi

Then two secondi. The hunting squadron donated a couple of wild boar as their contribution to the old people’s home. They’ve shot 173 since the season opened on 1 November. This one is young and tender.

Roast wild boar and potatoes

The other secondo is roast beef, medium rare and thinly sliced.

Someone has a 60th birthday. A specially commissioned poem is recited and the birthday cake arrives.

The arrival of the birthday cake

In addition there are cialde (more about these on Befana, 5 January) and clementines.

At 11.45, a couple of the younger generation arrive, get the sound system going and insert a tango CD. Obviously they think us oldies can’t manage the DJ side of things. Usually we don’t have fireworks, but this year, the youngsters surprise us with a display in the piazza.

Fireworks in the piazza

Enjoying the fireworks

Hugs and kisses and auguri to all!

Posted in FESTAS, Tuscany | 8 Comments

Confessions of a Novice Wine Taster

Since you seem to have to make a humiliating public confession to get noticed these days, I confess I’m a wine ignoramus. For someone who leads food and wine tours in Italy, I’m like a bird without its wings. It’s not that I can’t taste the difference between wines, but I can never remember which flavours and aromas go with which grapes or which wines are produced in which regions, let alone the characteristics of individual vineyards. Asked whether a particular wine smells and tastes more like black currants or ripe plums, I really can’t say. Does it have a hint of spice? I’m not sure.
Hoping it’s not to late to learn, I went yesterday to the 10th annual Anteprima Vini della Costa Toscana (Preview of Wines of the Tuscan Coast) in Lucca. This year 103 winemakers presented one wine each from the 2010 harvest. I took my friend Sam Gallacher, who had been president of the Peterhouse Wine Society at Cambridge, and together we launched bravely in at the south with Morellino di Scansano from the province of Grosseto and worked our way northward through the Bolgheris of Livorno (Sassacaia and Ornellaia conspicuous by their absence) to Lucca and Massa without a stop except to exchange views: bitter, thin, no nose, fruity, no character, full-bodied, strawberries, sour, meaty, burnt toast. Burnt toast? Must be a different kind of bread from the one I burn every morning. The sight of Pisa looming ahead was too much for us. We needed a break.
On the principle that a change is as good as a rest we headed to the enormous hall where the same vineyards were presenting their ready-to-drink vintages to the public. I made a beeline to Fattoria La Torre (Montecarlo) to taste their 2006 Esse made of 100% Syrah grapes. Next to the 2010 on the anteprima list I’d written ‘juicy blackberries’ (although I still wasn’t sure I didn’t mean black currants). What a disappointment to find the more mature vintage didn’t taste anything like the young one. To cheer myself up I tried their Saltair, a blend of Viognier and Vermentino, which I was relieved to find tasted just as good as I remembered, but I was too exhausted to think what it resembled other than ‘wine I like’.
After a quick collapse in some stylish garden furniture that a hopeful manufacturer was showing to make your private wine tastings on the patio more enjoyable, we faced up to Pisa. It was nearly closing time and the male sommeliers who were supposed pour the wines we wanted to taste had sloped off, leaving a cheerful and still energetic female sommelier from Pisa to help us. After a curious wine called Merla della Miniera (Blackbird of the Mine) made of 100% Canaiolo Nero grapes that seemed a bit like rotting meat to me and a biodynamic wine called Duemani (Two Hands) that tasted dusty, I decided my palette was hallucinating and gave up.
I’d spit out more wine in three hours than I’d drunk in a year and a half. I’d discovered  a new sweet red called Aleatico from Fattoria di Fubbiano (Colline Lucchesi), which I could imagine myself serving in place of vin santo, most of which I find too raisiny. I’d confirmed my previous tentative liking for the wines of the vineyards of Sardi-Giustiniani and Fabbrica di San Martino (both Colline Lucchesi). But could I now describe what the Sangiovese grape smells or tastes like? Not really. Oh, and I was concentrating so much on tasting that I forgot to take any photos.
All suggestions for a programme of improvement will be seriously considered (but no time for a sommelier course).
Posted in Tuscany, WINE | 2 Comments