By Alison Goldberger
2020 is definitely a year none of us will ever forget, that's for sure. It all started off so promisingly with lots of excitement about meeting all of you who had booked on a tour or course! Of course we all know how it ended—with a year very difficult for a small tourism business. Although we were disappointed we had to cancel many tours and didn't get to meet you, we were buoyed by all your messages, interaction on our social accounts and hope you enjoyed the virtual tours we ran. And of course, it wasn't ALL bad, and Erica and I have survived the year in good health! So we'll start our review at the beginning, before we had even heard of the virus that would characterise the year...
One of our first posts on Facebook was this stunning photo taken from Erica's window. She captioned it: 'The view from my window. Must be a good omen for 2020!' It makes me laugh a little now looking back at this.
As I said in the introduction, 2020 started off great! The Art & Science of Gelato course got into full swing and we welcomed the super talented Sorravee 'Gin' Pratanavanich. Gin had grand plans, after learning with us she was due to head off to take up a chef internship at a hotel in Abu Dhabi. Looking ahead, Gin would like to open a pastry shop and gelateria in Bangkok.
We were also delighted to be able to run the Advanced Salumi Course Tuscany in January. Two of our artisans met during this course, Mirko who leads the Art & Science of Gelato course learned how to make salami from artisan norcino Massimo Bacci.
Mirko wasn't the only one learning however. We met lots of interesting participants during the January Advanced Salumi Course Tuscany. Here we see them learning all about knots. Knots are important to hold things in place and to squeeze air out. To produce a nice looking product, you need to tie tidy knots. And as you can see, our participants were taking this very seriously!
On the blog in January we also shared a beautiful piece by Lin Hobley about her experiences of the Tastes & Textiles: Woad and Wool tour. Read it here.
February saw us on the Advanced Salumi Course Bologna-Parma. We left Tuscany for Emilia (the northwestern part of Emilia-Romagna). This region of Italy is particularly famous for not one, but two delicious types of salumi— Prosciutto di Parma and Mortadella di Bologna! Check out the blog post here for more pictures and information about what happened during this tour in February!
March of course brought with it COVID-19, and in Italy things became serious very quickly! It was still an unknown entity in March, and we weren't sure how things would play out. We welcomed a couple of intrepid souls onto the Advanced Salumi Course Tuscany in March, in what would be the last course for a while! We were still hoping that things would all blow over but were concerned about the impact the travel bans would have on those looking to come on courses and tours in the near future. Anyway, Australian vodka producer Katie Krauss and American head chef Seamus Platt joined us. They managed to learn everything the course had to offer before dashing off on the last flights home!
Erica quickly had to get used to life under lockdown, long before many other countries started to introduce such measures. It did, however, result in her having a bit of an adventure! As flights started to get cancelled across Europe, one unexpected result was the car of some friends trapped in the Pisa airport car park, which was due to close. After calling in various favours the car was freed...read exactly how in the blog post here or click the car image above!
It also allowed for a bit of cooking and exploring the beautiful surroundings outside her door. More information and pictures are here in the March round up blog post.
Across Italy people started to pull together in the face of tough lockdowns, travel bans and an unknown virus. Many sang and played music from balconies and out of windows. Antonio Daniele, head cheesemaker at Caseificio Prime Querce, and one of the artisans who teaches our Mozzarella & its Cousins course made this graphic and said: 'We must withstand and fight. We'll come out of this stronger than before.'
In April we started to adjust to the new normal. For Erica, even cooking dinner turned into an epic adventure! This meal took her on a journey to remember people she'd met along the way and about the history of the ingredients. It really is a fantastic story, you can read the whole thing here - or by clicking the image above.
Lockdown meant Easter alone for Erica, but her neighbours certainly wouldn't see her starve! She wrote in a Facebook post: "Under lockdown they couldn't invite me to eat with them. At 11.30 am the doorbell rang. It was Eugenia with three slices of pie with different fillings—rice, lemon and chocolate. At 12.30 the doorbell rang again. It was Daniela bringing her homemade tortelli and sugo. I was only planning marinated and grilled goat chops with cannellini beans and insalata with local red wine. Now I had a three-course lunch. Such kindness and generosity, and I certainly didn't feel alone."
In April we also ran one of our first 'virtual tours' to give you all a taste of what you would have been experiencing, had you been allowed to visit Italy. We all travelled around Sardinia on the Celebrating Sardinia tour and had a great time! You can read the whole thing for yourself in the blog post here, or by clicking the image above.
In May we would have been running the Theory & Practice of Italian Cheese course, but that was not to be of course. So we also offered a little preview on Facebook. We visited Enea Giunti's goat farm and learned how to make fresh goat cheese. We stayed at Agriturismo La Torre at Fornoli and met Vitalina who shared her extensive knowledge of cheese making. We milked cows at Marzia Ridolfi's and drove up to Daniela Pagliai's to see her small modern dairy and how she makes a number of different cheeses from one pot of milk. And all this in the company of Maria Sarnataro, a real expert on cheese! Read all about what else we saw in the blog post here.
The Tastes & Textiles: Woad and Wool tour was also meant to run in May, but instead we ran it as a virtual tour. It was a fascinating tour with so many interesting sights and photos, which you can see here in the blog post.
Another month and another virtual tour, this time it was the Tastes & Textiles: Hanging by a Thread tour. Card weaving, farm accommodation, vineyards, Garfagnana potato bread, knitting, felting, weaving, wonderful food, an ethnographic museum, a woolen mill - it was all there and more. Read all about it in the blog post here.
After the tour Erica shared some of the delicious meals she'd been making. She had been experimenting with ricotta. The people who sell it in the open-air market won't sell a small amount. She has to buy a whole one. This spring she tried this simple sauce for short pasta made with fava beans (broad beans) and ricotta - delicious!
The classic dish everyone around Erica makes with ricotta is ravioli. She said of this meal: 'I have a lot of chestnut flour in my freezer—gifts from friends who collect, dry and mill their own. I made pasta di castagna (about 1/3 chestnut flour) with a filling of fresh ricotta, young nettle tops, an egg, salt, pepper, nutmeg. The slightly bitter nettles contrast well with the sweet chestnut flour. The sauce is simple melted butter with fresh sage leaves.'
This recipe in particular got my mouth watering! There is a self-seeded cherry tree hanging over Erica's orto (veg garden). In June it produces a small crop of mildly sour cherries. Every year she makes one focaccia with the cherries, but it never turns out exactly the way she wants it. Until this year. It's exactly the thickness and degree of sweetness she'd been searching for. Persistence pays off!
July and August
With some restrictions lessening in Italy, Erica took the chance to do some travelling! At the end of July she headed off to Pompei. She first saw the sights of Napoli and was welcomed by her collaborator on the cheese courses, Maria Sarnataro. First they tried some tasty delicacies, including the famous sfogliata.
While in Pompei Erica hired a wonderful private guide, Francesco Tufano, an archaeologist who could answer all of her questions and more! Read all about the trip here in the blog post.
The second half of Erica's trip took her from Pompei to Salerno where she and Maria visited some mozzarella dairies. She was very impressed when she visited Caseificio Barlotti and met brothers Enzo (pictured) and Gaetano Barlotti. She hopes to bring future participants on the Mozzarella & its Cousins course for a tasting in their beautiful garden. She had some samples of his bocconcini, ricotta and a new brie-style cheese, all made with the milk of their own buffalo herd. The mozzarella and ricotta are among the best she'd tasted. Read all about this part of the trip in the blog post here.
Erica also took a research trip to Le Marche for the Tastes & Textiles: Woad & Wool tour. It's during these types of trips she meets the artisan's we visit on tours and finds the incredible restaurants we dine in! Perhaps you don't know where Le Marche is. Le Marche means 'The Marches', which in English refers to an area of land on the border between two countries or territories (eg, the Welsh Marches). In fact, Le Marche borders three other regions, Emilia Romagna, Tuscany and Umbria, with the Adriatic Sea to the northeast. Before the unification of Italy in 1861, they had a lot of borders and ports to protect, which means lots of spectacular fortresses and castles to visit! This photo above was one of my favourites from the trip, showing masked men waiting for their wives to finish shopping in Urbania.
During the trip she also met some fascinating people, including Federica Crocetta, who has a passion for dyeing textiles with natural plant dyes, and Emanuele Francione, who learned the craft of textile block printing with rust from his grandfather. Read all about the tour in the blog post here.
In September Erica was back home, and making passata! You can read all about it in the blog post here, or by clicking the photo above.
There was also some excitement for Mirko, who teaches the Art & Science of Gelato course as he opened a new Cremeria Opera just outside the walls of Lucca. Erica and Mirko had a little celebration...wearing masks of course!
In October Erica attended a fantastic lunch cooked by her favourite Lucca chef Damiano Donati. She said: 'His restaurant in the centre closed during lockdown. I was forlorn. Now he's popped up at Fattoria Sardi vineyard better than ever. He calls his fixed menu for Sunday lunch Fuoco e Materia (Fire and Matter). He was always fascinated by contrasting textures. Now he has a wood-fired oven in his kitchen and is playing with smokey flavours too, and it works. Here he is relaxing on the terrace after lunch. The dishes included: squash cooked two different ways and wrapped in chestnut leaf parcels, beetroot risotto, chicken stuffed with pork accompanied by smokey crushed potatoes. If you opt for the wine tasting, you get a different delicious biodynamic wine paired with each course.'
There was also a little time to squeeze in some truffle hunting for a private tour! Truffle hunter Riccardo instructed Brendan in how to use three of his senses—sight, smell and touch—to assess whether the truffle is poor, mediocre or excellent. This 66 gram truffle is excellent, and after his truffle lunch with his wife and child, he decided to buy it so they could go on indulging in truffles for the rest of their holiday.
We were also delighted to be able to hold a REAL LIFE Art & Science of Gelato course in October! We welcomed Niels, chef on a super-yacht. On the October course we teach how to make sourdough panettone as well as gelato so you know how to do it in time for Christmas. For his unique flavours Neils created pineapple and rosemary sorbetto, date and whisky gelato and Piña Colada sorbetto!
In November Erica went to Frantoio Lenzi to get her year's supply of olive oil. At the height of the harvest, frantoi (olive mills) are open 24/7 and it's always chaotic. She picked up bag-in-box new oil. You can recycle the box, but not the bag. However, by excluding air it keeps the oil from oxidising so rapidly and preserves the health benefits and the flavour for longer. The oil is fruity (tastes like olives!), medium picante and medium bitter. Her conclusion: a nice rounded flavour.
2020 would have brought us the first participants on our new Olive Oil: Tree to Table in Tuscany course, but it was not to be. Nevertheless, we ran a virtual tour to whet your appetite! Read all about it in the blog post here.
One of the most popular blog posts of the year was about the abandoned farm houses of Casabasciana. Wonderful photos and stories, can be seen in the blog post here.
The year wound down with a poignant blog post featuring a video about the death of peasant farming. It was made by farmers in Umbria, but it could have been made anywhere in Italy—or in many other countries in fact. We visit many small farmers during tours and one of the things that was important when setting up Sapori e Saperi Adventures was to help preserve this way of life. You can watch it in our blog post here.
After such a trying year it was nice for Erica to join her local community to decorate the village Christmas tree, a long-standing tradition which was just a little different this year.
We hope you have had a healthy 2020 and wish you all the best for 2021. We'd love nothing more than to welcome you onto one or more of our tours and courses. Get in touch with Erica at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or for answers to any questions you may have.
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Sapori & Saperi Adventures is making tourism work to sustain the rural economy and its people.
In 2005 when I was thinking about starting Sapori & Saperi Adventures, I made a list of what I wanted to achieve. I had already met small-scale family farmers cultivating the land, rearing animals and producing traditional products much as their parents and grandparents had. I had also noticed the connection people felt with the countryside and caring for it. Even city dwellers had roots in the land. Either they or their close relatives still owned farmland. They went out from the cities to pick grapes and olives. I observed that although farmers worked hard, they seemed content with their labours, proud of their produce, and had time for leisure, more leisure than I had. Often extended families stayed together, the old teaching and caring for the young and being cared for in their turn.
I don’t want to romanticise, at least, not too much. Many more people have left the land than stayed. They found the work too hard or not satisfying. But those who had stayed communicated a joy which I hoped to transmit to the travellers who came to me. And I wanted to help preserve their way of life. Much of what you pay in fees to me, goes to them. You too are helping preserve their way of life. And the fact that you come all the way from distant parts of the world to see them at work reinforces their self-esteem, and perhaps helps convince their children that the family farm is worth defending.
But small family farms are under attack everywhere from agribusiness. The following film, the funeral of peasant farmers, was made by farmers. They are not romantics. They know the hardships and the value of their way of life. It takes place near a small village in Umbria, the province just to the south of Tuscany, but it could be anywhere. Please watch it (and have your hankies to hand).
As I started writing this blog, I Googled ‘family farm’ and discovered that the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is also worried about the demise of the family farm. Last year they introduced the UN Decade of Family Farming. Here’s why:
‘The UN Decade of Family Farming 2019-2028 aims to shed new light on what it means to be a family farmer in a rapidly changing world and highlights more than ever before the important role they play in eradicating hunger and shaping our future of food. Family farming offers a unique opportunity to ensure food security, improve livelihoods, better manage natural resources, protect the environment and achieve sustainable development, particularly in rural areas. Thanks to their wisdom and care for the earth, family farmers are the agents of change we need to achieve Zero Hunger, a more balanced and resilient planet, and the Sustainable Development Goals.’
My wish for 2021 is that together we will help save a few family farms.
What is it about an abandoned house that makes it so fascinating? Does it offer an escape route for our imaginations, like a fairy-tale, conjuring up fantasies of life in other times? Or perhaps it helps us feel connected to the past and ultimately to all humanity? Or maybe it’s just simple voyeurism: peeking through the curtains at a lost way of life? Whatever the reason, I felt a surge of curiosity when I first discovered the roofless casa colonica, or farmhouse, at Surignano.
I approached the house on a well-defined dirt drive that cut through the chestnut woodland. It sat on the southwestern edge of a gently sloping plateau near a stream crossed by a still intact wooden bridge. I thought it must have been the house of a well-to-do landowner. The imposing stone building stands three storeys tall. At ground level two impressive arched doorways lead into the former cantinas, which would have housed animals and farm equipment. There were three or maybe four spacious rooms on each of the floors above, though the floorboards and beams are too rotten to risk exploring. Questions filled my mind. Who had built this magnificent house? And when? Who lived in it? How did they make a living?
That was in 2009 before Saperi & Saperi had taken off and I still had free time to explore along woodland paths leading out from my village of Casabasciana. In 2020, the year of Covid-19, with no tours or courses taking place, I’m drawn again to explore in the direction of Surignano. It’s along what was the main road to Brandeglio, the village I can see from the windows of the upper floor of my house in the village, 2.5 km (1.5 mi) as the crow flies to the southwest across the Liegora River.
This ‘main road’ was in fact no more than a footpath, because until the 1960s walking was the only mode of travelling between villages. It is still well used by walkers and maintained by men of the village and a group that uses it for an annual mountain bike event.
As I walk I try to imagine the landscape 70 years ago. People have told me that all the land was terraced and cultivated with cereals, vines and olives. Everyone had a few sheep, a couple of pigs and maybe a cow or two. It’s almost impossible to visualise what it was like. I can see remnants of dry-stone walling, but not even a ghost of those numerous families working the land. My view in every direction is blocked by trees — mainly chestnut infested by acacia, brambles, wild clematis, broom and tree heather.
After 30 minutes I arrive at Castelluccio, the farmhouse where my neighbour Domenico was born and brought up. It is not abandoned. He goes there every afternoon to keep the roof intact and the brambles and wild clematis at bay. It and the surrounding land give a hint of what the countryside would have looked like in the past. He arrives in his 4x4 Fiat Panda on the strada sterrata (dirt road) that descends from Crasciana, the village above mine. I often find him there if I stop to drink the icy cold water his grandfather piped in from a spring higher up.
I cross that road and continue southwest towards the Liegora River, now on another strada sterrata suitable for a 4x4. I pass a couple of crumbling buildings that must have been either metati (drying houses for chestnuts) or sheds for storing equipment closer to fields. Another 10 minutes and I reach the road that I remember leads to Surignano, but I’m sure I need to take a fork off it to the left. Now I notice that a logging operation has cleared a huge swathe of land and, I presume, erased the former drive and destroyed the neat terracing.
Continuing straight I come to log piles surrounded by carpets of spring flowers. I find the old wooden bridge, now nearly invisible and decaying under velvety green moss.
Finally, dropping down through a thicket of birch saplings, I emerge behind the house. Struggling around to the front the façade shocks me, like seeing a friend after 11 years, so much older, greyer and wrinkled.
What a story this house must be able to tell! Layers of history of the land and the people who lived here. But it is mute, sulking after decades of neglect. By now my Italian is up to asking questions of my neighbours in the village. At first they aren’t very interested, but the few clues they throw me are more tantalising than having the whole story land in one indigestible bundle on my doorstep.
– Have you found Cerro? It was even more beautiful than Surignano. –You know, my mother Olga lived there. –The forestry commission planted that ugly fir tree plantation without even asking the owner’s permission. –Did you see the church San Martino on the way? On the left, diagonally across the corner. Only a part of the façade is left. It’s from the 8th century.
– My grandmother lived at Lupinaia. I often walk out to look at it. –It’s been restored, by a family perhaps from Ponte a Moriano. But it belongs to the frazione of Crasciana, not Casabasciana. –I heard that the wife doesn’t like it, so they hardly come anymore.
–There used to be a path opposite the Croce del Bacco that led to Collemaresi. –You can also get there from just before the path crosses the Rigrado stream, but it’s probably blocked by brambles. –Go straight down from the Metato di Bacco to the three pine trees, and then straight down another 100 metres. You can’t miss it. Here, I’ll show you the pine trees from my gate. –Memmo Nardi lived there. His grandson Guglielmo still comes to Crasciana every winter.
–Vallecchia is below Castelluccio. –The Logi family were contadini there but they moved into the village in the ‘50s. –Someone took me there once. If I can remember the way, I’ll take you.
One by one I found all six farmhouses and their attendant outbuildings. All but Castelluccio and Lupinaia are knee-deep in brambles and wreathed in ivy and wild clematis, all partially collapsed. They were built in the 1780s. All seem to speak of a prosperous past, but now I know that the prosperity was mainly that of the landowners. Apart from Domenico and his family who owned Castelluccio, the inhabitants were tenant farmers paying rent, usually a percentage of the produce, to the owners. Their descendants tell me that Collemaresi, Cerro, Vallecchia and half of Surignano were owned by the Finucci family, who lived in the grand house opposite the one I rent in the village. They are gone too.
The houses were large because families were large. Typically couples had 5 to 8 children. When sons married, their wives came to live with them in the family home, and grandchildren swelled the head count. Jobs on the farm were numerous and required many hands to plough, plant, prune, harvest, care for animals, make cheese, slaughter the pig and cure the meat, cook, clean, weave, sew, cut firewood, maintain buildings and equipment. But it wasn’t all work. In the long winter evenings they would gather round the kitchen fireplace for the veglia, storytelling and playing games.
In addition to the houses themselves, there is the network of mulattiere (mule tracks) and paths that connected them to each other, to sources of water and to villages with shops, schools, markets and craftspeople. They reveal social and economic relationships.
Domenico showed me a set of cadastral maps in the ex-schoolhouse, documenting land ownership around the village. I asked our village president to have them scanned so I could study them. Unfortunately the plots of land are identified only by numbers, and I don’t have the key to who owned each one and how ownership shifted. But on them you can see the old paths.
Trying to find them in the woods is a gloomy task, and highlights how inadequate are the number of able hands left in the village to maintain them. During every storm trees come down blocking paths, landslides cover others, cobblestones wash out, people no longer use them, boar and deer find other routes, acacia and broom colonise the abandoned tracks.
Most of the villagers are more realistic than I am. They know maintaining the countryside as it was would be a series of fruitless battles lost to the inexorable forces of nature. But occasionally my curiosity has inspired someone to recover the past. We now have a WhatsApp group called Casabasciana in Storia (Casabasciana in History) where people occasionally post information and photos from the past. One day I asked Giovanni how the people at Surignano and Cerro got their water. He told me there’s a spring halfway between them with a lavatoio (laundry), but I couldn’t find it. Then suddenly a couple of days later, he posted a photo of it to the WhatsApp group. He had gone out and cleared the brambles, and described to me exactly how to get to it.
Many of the farming activities are ones you learn about first hand on my tours and courses, because I’ve found people who, with a bit of mechanisation and marketing, are still making mixed farming pay at the family level. But it’s more difficult now. That’s partly because almost no money was required right up until the 1960s. Farms were self-sufficient. There was very little that needed to be bought in. But after the war, in the ‘50s and ‘60s the introduction of the internal combustion engine catapulted subsistence farmers into the cash economy. They needed tractors, cars, chainsaws and the petrol to run them. They could no longer repair everything themselves, so they had to pay for expertise to keep their machines running.
Finally, agribusiness dealt a mortal blow. My next blog will mourn the death of all but the most resilient small family farms.
This article originally appeared on Slow Travel Tours here.
There’s a baby in the house. It’s my new-born olive oil course this autumn, on which you’ll find out how to get the maximum enjoyment from olive oil.
Do you have any idea how exciting it is to visit an olive mill to see and smell the new olive oil pouring out?
And what about the flavour? If you haven’t been in Tuscany in the autumn, you will have a hard time imagining how intense and delicious it is. Then there’s the food for your eyes: those old silver-haired beings rooted on terraces retained by dry-stone walling.
Who will have fun learning about olive oil? Many educators focus on a particular group of people: chefs, gourmets, home cooks, dieticians, olive cultivators, olive oil vendors. They reason that each group wants to know different things, that their curiosity is confined to their own particular box.
I have a different methodology and more faith in the innate curiosity of people. I always design my courses for the person I was when I first arrived in Lucca. When it comes to olive oil, I knew nothing except that some dishes should be cooked with it. I used a supermarket brand of extra-virgin olive oil, not the cheapest and not the most expensive. I didn’t know what I wanted to know. I didn’t even know what questions to ask.
In my fifteen years in Tuscany, a whole universe of olive oil has opened up before me and yet there’s always more to discover. Just this week I visited Pietro Barachini, a propagator of olive trees. I saw the forest of tiny cuttings which would be ready for sale only after two years. Then it takes ten years or more for the tree to be in full production. Producing olive oil is not instant gratification!
What about tasting the oil? What is that medium-priced supermarket extra-virgin olive oil missing (is it even really extra virgin)? What defects can you taste in it? Every day you have guided tastings.
You won’t become an oil judge overnight, but you’ll discover a brand new palette of flavours from the fruity tomato-leaf scented Sicilian oils to our spicy, bitter Tuscan oils. Your mind will be racing with ideas for using different oils with different ingredients. Your lessons making gelato and chocolate with olive oil will stimulate your creativity.
We also want you to know about the health-giving aspects of olive oil. They make a significant contribution to the Mediterranean diet and are another good reason to consume high quality oil.
You’ll also get answers to your practical questions, like how to find good olive oil in your own country, what the writing on the label means and how to store the oil to slow down its deterioration until next year’s new oil is available.
If you want to learn in five thrilling days what it has taken me fifteen years to find out, come on the Olive Oil: Tree to Table course this autumn. It’s taught by Elisabetta Sebastio, a professional olive oil taster and judge, sitting on panels that decide which oils will get the highly sought-after DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) each year, along with several other experts who want to pass on their knowledge at whatever level you’re at from beginner to experienced professional.
By the end you could be jumping up and down with excitement at having the tools and confidence to make your own choice of which olive oil to buy and how to use it in your home or your restaurant’s kitchen. If you sell olive oil, you’ll be able more intelligently to advise your customers. If you’re a producer, you’ll have the opportunity to talk with experts. The culture of olive oil will be in your blood.
If you have an open mind and an insatiable curiosity, ask for a booking form now: email@example.com
If you’d like to read more about olive oil, here are some of my other blogs: Olive Juice, No Olive Oil, Olive Oil is Fast Food
By Alison Goldberger
Erica recently took a research trip to Le Marche for the Tastes & Textiles: Woad & Wool tour and posted some wonderful stories and pictures on Facebook for us to follow along. I personally got major travel jealousy, it looked fantastic! It’s not ALL fun though. It’s trips like these that help her find the inspiring artisans who you visit on the tours — not to mention the fantastic restaurants you will dine in. She has many artisan friends in Tuscany and wanted to add to her knowledge of the adjacent region of Le Marche, visiting new and interesting people to get them involved in her tours.
It's likely you don't know where Le Marche is. Le Marche means 'The Marches', which in English refers to an area of land on the border between two countries or territories (eg, the Welsh Marches). In fact, Le Marche borders three other regions, Emilia Romagna, Tuscany and Umbria, with the Adriatic Sea to the northeast. Before the unification of Italy in 1861, they had a lot of borders and ports to protect, which means lots of spectacular fortresses and castles to visit! There's a map below to help you orient yourself. Enjoy this trip through Le Marche and Erica’s interesting tales…
The people Erica met on tour
We begin with the people Erica met on her tour, as these people are what really make the tours special. First stop was Sansepolcro (still in Tuscany 5 minutes from the Umbrian border) where Erica discovered Biancheria di Massi which sells exquisite fabrics. She wrote: ‘It was founded in 1820 by the Massi family and the current descendant, Lucia Massi, is the most delightful person who knows everything about her weavers and the region.’ You can see (and buy) household linens and fabric for yourself in May if you join us on the Woad & Wool tour or in September on the Tuscan Heritage tour!
Next I’ll introduce you to Federica Crocetta. She's the owner of Locanda Le Querce (see below). Federica trained as an architect before becoming interested in textiles.
She completed a diploma in textile arts. She cultivates woad and a number of other dye plants and is always experimenting. Her latest enthusiasm is eco-dyeing.
She also makes baskets. You’ll do a natural dyeing workshop with her on the tour in May.
Often when Erica explains that her clients are knowledgeable and really keen to learn, people get excited and introduce her to their creative friends. Federica took her to meet Emanuele Francione, a young man who learned the craft of textile block printing with rust from his grandfather.
The wooden blocks he uses were carved by hand by his grandfather.
Of course Erica had to include a workshop with Emanuele in the Woad & Wool tour. You'll learn how to make the rust paste and will print an apron. Emanuele has an idea for how you'll use your new apron. Research in progress.
After meeting these fascinating people (and there are more), I'm not surprised that Erica decided to add an extra day to the Woad & Wool tour to include them.
The food Erica ate on tour
The first dining stop was dinner at a smugglers' den at Cospaia and we eat here during the Tuscan Heritage tour. The true story of Cospaia stretches credulity. In 1441, after a crushing defeat at the battle of Anghiari, the Papal State agreed to cede some territory to the victorious Republic of Florence. Through an error of geography on the part of the diplomats who negotiated the treaty a tiny sliver of land only one kilometre wide remained outside both states. Seizing their opportunity, the people of Cospaia declared their independence. They remained contentedly without any government or taxation until 1826. Since no duty was extracted on goods entering or leaving, it also became a centre of smuggling. Today, on the shores of a trout lake, the restaurant Il Covo del Contrabbandiere offers an excellent short menu using local ingredients.
Next up, panzanella. Panzanella is peasant food. Another ingenious Tuscan method of using up stale bread. Soak it in water and vinegar, squeeze it dry, put it in a bowl with chopped tomato, thinly sliced red onion and basil, and season it with olive oil. The Cantina del Granduca at Anghiari has turned it into a gourmet dish by adding other salad vegetables. Light and cool. Perfect with local salumi on a hot summer day.
Oh, and what are these 'worms' typical of Montefeltro in Le Marche? They're called passatelli and are made of breadcrumbs (yet another dish for using up your stale bread!), grated parmigiano, eggs and grated lemon rind. They're formed using an instrument that looks a bit like a slotted spoon. You press and rub simultaneously and the pasta comes out through the holes. Typically it's served in broth, but at Agriturismo Biancospino they serve it with funghi porcini and sausage. Yummy!
This meal helped to ease Erica’s disappointment in Urbino (see what she said in the places section below!). One thing she found to delight her in Urbino is this crescia fogliata, a puff pastry made with flour, lard, egg and water (or milk). cooked on a griddle and filled with local salumi, cheese, etc. She had it with ciauscolo, the local spreadable salami. Lovely and crispy when hot, but a bit heavy as it cools.
The new place Erica stayed on tour
During her trip Erica stayed at Locanda Le Querce (The Oak) and it will be the new accommodation for the first four days of the Woad & Wool tour.
Erica says: 'It looks ancient, but it's the creation of architect-owner Federica Crocetta, who also teaches our natural dyeing workshop (see the people section above). Can't beat breakfast on the patio.'
The places Erica visited on tour
Erica tends to head off the beaten track on her tours, and it was no different on her research trip. Here’s where she visited…
On the way to Le Marche she stopped at Anghiari (in southeast Tuscany at the border with Umbria), where we spend a half-day on the Tastes & Textiles: Woad & Wool tour in May and the Tuscan Heritage tour in September. It’s perched spectacularly on top of a cliff overlooking the plain where the famous battle of Anghiari took place in 1440–41. You follow winding cobbled streets lined with honey-coloured stone and brick churches, artisan workshops, the Busatti textile mill and shop, interesting museums and excellent restaurants.
Erica’s friend Penny accompanied her on this research trip and when asked at the end, ‘If you could only come back to one town, which one would you choose?’, she quickly replied, ‘Anghiari!’ Here are some of the reasons why: stupendous city walls…
A vibrant Wednesday market...
Picturesque gates and streets...
An elegant theatre and several interesting museums.
Speaking of which, for a small town, Anghiari has more museums than most. Among the important works of art at the Museo di Palazzo Taglieschi is this 'Madonna and Child' by Jacopo della Quercia.
In the same museum reported Erica, '...(forgive me cat lovers) I had to laugh at the name of this 18th-century hand gun—"mazzagatto" means "kill the cat", and given the number of feral cats with fleas in my village, I almost wished I owned one'.
Who could have imagined a woodcock museum, described plausibly as ‘The first and only museum in the world dedicated to the woodcock “The Queen of the Woods”’! Then there was a museum of the 'camicia', the history of the shirt from the beginning of time (I wish she hadn't forgotten to take photos).
Here’s something you might not notice on your own. That half-size door is a 'door of the dead'. In Etruscan times (pre-Roman) you never took a corpse out of a house through the same door the living used. This custom carried on into mediaeval and Renaissance times in Central Italy, the territory in which the Etruscans flourished. And here it is beneath a display of toy crossbows. I hope they don't produce any victims for the door!
Anghiari could blow its own horn a bit louder!
From Anghiari it's a short drive over the border to cross the northernmost part of Umbria (near Città di Castello), up over the mountain pass Bocca Trabaria, and down into the Metauro River Valley in Le Marche. In case you're still wondering where Le Marche is, here it is running from the Apennine Mountains on the southwest down to the eastern coast of Italy on the Adriatic. Erica stayed in the province of Pesaro Urbino within the confines of the ancient kingdom of Montefeltro of which Urbino was the capital.
Next Erica hit Urbino and this is what she had to say: 'I'll know I'll be pelted with rotten fruit, but I was pretty disappointed by Urbino. It took ages to find a parking space, the wait to get into the Ducal Palace was over an hour standing in blazing heat (I gave up), the restaurant I'd chosen was closed.' Oh dear.
But she did enjoy a nice tidbit in Urbino: this detail in the marble presepe by 16th-century sculptor Federico Brandani in the Oratorio San Giovanni (Saint John the Baptist). A cloth containing three round shapes on the side near us and a small barrel (grappa?) on the far side hangs over a beam. Could the balls be cheeses? This arrangement is called 'a cavallo' (on horseback) in Italian, which is where the name of the cheese 'caciocavallo' derives from, since two cheeses were tied by a rope and hung over a beam to age (not in a cloth as far as we know).
Here's a close up. What do you think? Potatoes and tomatoes hadn't been introduced to Europe yet.
So where do you go when Urbino is too hot and crowded and you can't get into the ducal palace? To Sassocorvaro. Erica says: 'Absolutely empty. After a cold, refreshing lemon soda (Italian ones are tart and taste like lemon, not just sugar), I join a fascinating guided tour of the "rocca" (fortress). It was built around 1475 by the architect to Federico da Montefeltro (the duke whose palace I missed in Urbino) for his brother Ottaviano Ubaldini. It was a fortified home and school where military power fused with the philosophy of alchemy in an ideal union. Much later during the Second World War many of the greatest Italian paintings were hidden there to keep them safe. As so often happens, a disappointment turned into a great opportunity.'
Mercatello sul Metauro is another delightful place to visit which is never over-crowded. Like Urbino and Sassocorvaro, it was within the orbit of the cultivated Federico da Montefeltro and Ottaviano Ubaldini.
In 1474 the latter became Count of Mercatello and commissioned a residence from Francesco di Giorgio Martini, the same architect who designed the fortress at Sassocorvaro. I remember Beatrice, our guide at Mercatello, telling us why the house remained incomplete (those stones poking out at the corner were meant to connect to an additional section of the house), but I’ve now forgotten. You’ll have to come on the Woad & Wool tour in May 2021 to find out.
There are many exquisite details and enticing food. It's where we have our bobbin lace lesson and lunch cooked by the men of the Accademia del Padlot.
Frontino is another un-touristed place that deserves a visit. On the Woad & Wool tour, we'll eat in the restored water mill in the Mutino Valley, and drive up to the village on the ridge above. It’s worth it just for the view...
...but the ‘International Scarecrow Exhibition’ will put a smile on your face. I hope the new addition to the collection works: ‘Corona go!’
A little further down the road is the Franciscan monastery Montefiorentino with this painted organ loft. Somewhere nearby is a wood-fired oven bakery which Erica only found out about after she left. Next trip!
Other tour highlights
When you take a small group tour there are plenty of opportunities to experience authentic Italian life that you would perhaps miss on a tour without a local guide. Erica loves to spot interesting things and share facts. This one, is a great observation of daily life, she says: 'Life as normal in Urbania (on the way to Urbino) — undeterred by masks, men gossip in the piazza while their wives do the shopping and prepare their lunch.'
Erica is also passionate about history and traditional farming culture, meaning you not only learn a lot about Italy and your tour subject when you visit but you also gain some knowledge about other interesting things. On Facebook asked viewers what this machine does and gave two clues: 1. It’s in Mulino Divino, the water mill at Frontino where we’ll have lunch on the Woad & Wool tour, and 2. You put your grain through it before it gets ground into flour.
There were some good guesses but no one got it right. It is in fact called a ’svecciatoio’. ‘Veccia’ means vetch. Often in Italian sticking an ’s’ in front of a word means ‘un-‘, and the ending ‘-toio’ means a place or instrument that does the first part of the word. So this is an ‘unvetching’ machine, that is, one that removes vetch seeds (and other small weed seeds) from grain after reaping, threshing and winnowing it. It works on the principle that the grain seeds are larger and heavier than the weed seeds. Please don’t ask for any more mechanical details. She was proud to have got her brain around this much. We don’t know how old it is, but it was manufactured by a company that was founded in 1881.
The exploration didn’t stop when Erica returned home either. She explains: ‘I’m always tempted by local artisan products, and at Mulino Divino I saw some locally produced pasta: extruded through bronze dies and dried slowly.'
'Back home my basil was getting out of hand and was shouting "pesto"! The pasta tasted like wheat (good sign) and the pesto like, well, I admit it: Tuscan pesto, not Genovese. Delicious all the same. Buon appetito!’
And with that Erica signed off from her tour updates. Please join us on the Tastes & Textiles: Woad & Wool tour in May 2021 or the Tuscan Heritage tour in September 2021. We’d like to see all these wonderful things through your eyes!
Find out more information on the website and drop Erica an email with any questions or to book your spot!
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It’s a bumper year for tomatoes. We have many such years here in Casabasciana. I often hear my neighbours lamenting that their husbands planted too many plants and they can’t face making another batch of passata. But this year, the glut is universal. A friend in England sent me this photo of his prize specimen.
A friend in Quebec has so many this year that he phoned specially to find out what I do with mine. Here’s what I told him.
I make passata di pomodoro, a puree of tomato pulp, which you bottle (can) or freeze and use for making more complicated dishes, especially in winter when there are no decent fresh tomatoes (hothouse tomatoes are too disappointing to waste money on). As with all traditional recipes there are many versions. I make the simplest, pure tomato, which I learned from Alessandra Bandoni of Toscaneggiando who does cooking lessons for me.
Time: 2.5 hours (with two people working)
2 or 3 capacious pots (to cook tomatoes and boil jars)
sieve (to drain cooked tomatoes)
bowl or pot (to put under the sieve)
Passatutto Master (to puree tomatoes)
2 shallow bowls (to fit under the 2 outlets of the Passatutto)
14 250 ml / 8.5 oz clean jars and new lids
a wee, tiny brush to clean the interstices of the Passatutto
The Passatutto Master is essential. It not only purees the tomatoes, it removes the skins and seeds and spits them out to the side, while directing the puree out the front. Life is too short to do this by hand. It isn’t very expensive and doesn’t require electricity; you crank it by hand. I think it’s available everywhere. I wish I had a commission for every time I’ve recommended it!
7 kg / 15 lb 8 oz tomatoes (best varieties are fleshy, not watery)
The quantity isn’t important, but while you’re messing up the kitchen, you may as well do more rather than less.
Wash the tomatoes and divide them among your pots. Do NOT skin them first. Do NOT add anything else: no salt, no herbs, no water. If you use only tomatoes, your puree will be suitable for any other recipe requiring tomato, and you can add seasonings to suit the dish.
Cover the pots and place on burner at medium-low heat. Check frequently to make sure they’re not burning on the bottom.
When liquid starts to come out of the tomatoes, raise the heat to medium-high.
Meanwhile, assemble the Passatutto and stick with the crank sticking out over the edge of your worktop or table (so you can turn it). It sticks to the table by the suction cup on its foot. To help it stick, dampen the table (it also helps to hold the machine down while you crank it). It will leak a little from below the handle, so put a cloth or sponge on the floor beneath to catch the drips.
As soon as the tomato skins split (the liquid will probably be level with the tomatoes), turn off the burner and move the pot to the table.
With a slotted spoon move the tomatoes to a sieve set over a bowl or another pot. Let them drain for a couple of minutes (you want your passata to be thick, not watery). Tip them into the top of the Passatutto, turn the crank and watch as the skins and seeds are magically separated from the pulp.
Fill the jars with the pulp. The jars should be filled to within 1 cm (1/2 in) of the top. Screw the lid on.
Continue until all the tomatoes have been processed. Then put the skins and seed through the Passatutto again (and even a third time if you like). You’ll get a couple more jars of passata.
Place as many jars as fit in one layer in one of your pots and cover with tepid water. The water should be 8 cm / 3 in above the top of the jars.
Cover the pot with a lid and place on a high burner. Bring to a full boil. Boil for 20 minutes ago sterilise the tomatoes. A couple minutes extra won’t hurt.
Turn off the burner and leave the jars to cool in the water.
Do the washing up. The Passatutto comes apart to make it easy to wash, but you’ll need this little brush (which doesn’t come with it) to get into some of the tiny crevices. The first time I didn’t know, and when I when to use the machine the next year, the inner cylinder was mouldy.
As the jars cool a vacuum will be created in the jar and the lid will become concave. If any are not concave by the time the water is cool, you may not have filled the jar full enough, or tightened the lid too hard or not enough, or the lid may be defective. You can diagnose the problem, remedy it and re-sterilise, but if it’s only one or two jars, it’s easier to freeze the passata.
Label the jars and admire your passata. When you open a jar in mid-winter, the scent of summer will waft through your kitchen.
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This blog post is part 2 of my recent travels around Italy. You can read the first part 'Food & Wine in Napoli & Pompei' here. But for now, let's start with the second half of my tour...
I take the train from Pompei to Salerno and change for the regional train heading south. Maria Sarnataro picks me up at the station at Vallo di Lucania. We arrive at her home just in time for dinner.
She has a surprise for me, a manteca.
It’s butter encased in caciocavallo cheese and it has a story. The people of Basilicata who take their Podolica breed of cattle to alpine pastures for the summer make caciocavallo which they mature until they descend to the valleys in autumn where they sell it. They make ricotta from the whey, but there’s too much for them to consume fresh. It can’t be kept for more than a few days and there's nowhere to sell it. So, by an ingenious and complex process of draining, heating and cooling, they extract the butterfat from the ricotta.
To conserve the butter without refrigeration they encase it in a thin layer of caciocavallo curd. Piero, Maria’s husband, is an agronomist. Part payment for his consultancy with these people was this manteca.
There are so many mozzarella dairies in Salerno Province that you could spend several weeks visiting all of them. There are two that I’ve heard excellent reports of and haven’t managed to visit: Barlotti and Vannulo. Vannulo is organic, only sells from their own shop at the dairy and often comes at the top on lists of the 10 best mozzarellas. Maria has booked lunch there. On the way we stop at Barlotti where she introduces me to brothers Enzo and Gaetano Barlotti.
We eagerly accept Enzo’s invitation to bring the participants on our mozzarella courses for a tasting. You taste so much bad mozzarella everywhere else that we need to educate our palates while here.
He presents us with samples of his bocconcini, ricotta and a new brie-style cheese, all made with the milk of their own buffalo herd. The mozzarella and ricotta are among the best I’ve tasted. The ‘brie’ is a little bitter and needs some work, but it’s exciting that they’re experimenting with new cheeses.
Many of the mozzarella dairies offer tastings in beautiful settings and some have a dining room where you can sit down to a multi-course lunch. Vannulo has perfected the tourist experience, which as you probably know by now, puts me right off. Maria is a friend of the owners, but they don’t welcome us when we arrive, and are nowhere to be seen. Maria tells me that it used to be different, but now it’s all hired staff, who display not an ounce (not even a gram) of passion for their products. Our vegetable salad from their organic garden is good, the mozzarella not outstanding. They’ve installed a leather workshop which sells their own handbags, etc, but they take no interest in us visitors. The museum of agricultural implements is marginally interesting, but I’ve been to better ones. If you come on the mozzarella course, you won’t be visiting Vannulo on our tasting afternoon.
Francesca Fiasco’s vineyard at Felitto couldn’t be further from a tourist experience. The only sign on the road is Francesca herself waiting to show Maria and me her vineyards and cantina (cellar). She exudes passion and authenticity and does virtually all the work herself right down to designing the labels.
She cultivates autochthonous varieties such as fiano, aglianico and piedirosso (the one I saw at Pompei) as well as varieties such as sangiovese and merlot, which arrived in the area so long ago that they are included in the DOC.
She produced her first wine in 2016 and is already being recognised by wine critics. She gave me a case of wine with a handwritten label. Sadly, I couldn’t carry it back to Lucca on the train. I know Maria will make good use of it. She not only teaches cheese courses, but also sommelier courses.
Just so you know my trip isn’t all hard work eating and drinking, this morning Maria takes me to her favourite secluded beach, fairly free of tourists (especially in these times of Covid-19).
You have to go a long way to find gelato as good as Mirko Tognetti's of the Cremeria Opera at Lucca. Here I am at Sapri in southern Campania enjoying Enzo Crivella’s latest creation which he’s describing animatedly.
They sound an unlikely combination, but it works. Try it! You have to make a perfectly balanced bread gelato. Maybe best to come on Mirko’s and my gelato course first! 😃
That marks the end of my tour. I'd love to welcome you onto one of our tours or courses soon. Take a look at our website to find out dates and details and get in touch with me to book your spot. I look forward to seeing you!
Since we’re free to travel around Italy again and there are relatively few tourists, I decided to try out public transport and Pompei. I’ve never visited before. Even though I worked for 10 years as an archaeologist, I studied the neolithic, prehistory, not that modern Roman stuff with written records. Now that I live and walk among Roman remains, I’ve totally changed my attitude. I drive over the mountain to Pescia (home of Tommaso who teaches the wine-dyeing workshop during my Tastes & Textiles: Wine to Dye For tour). I park in the free car park at the station and board the train to Florence, from where I’ll change for the high-speed train to Napoli.
The number of new and existing cases of Covid-19 is very low in Italy. Both Trenitalia and its rival Italo (pronounced eat-a-law) are trying hard to sanitise and respect social distancing. In the trains all the passengers are wearing masks and using the hand sanitiser installed at every door. Nevertheless, during lockdown we were trained to be very cautious, and even if the risk is very low, I admit I would have felt safer in my own car or a hire car or van with a driver I trust, like I use for my tours.
Arriving at Napoli, my collaborator on my cheese courses is waiting to welcome me. Maria Sarnataro was born in Napoli and has booked me into Palazzo d'Auria, a beautiful B&B right in the middle of the historic centre. I’m relieved to have her by my side. It’s my first visit to the city and there are so many rumours about it being dangerous. In fact, I soon realise it’s no more dangerous than any large city, London, Paris, Milan or Rome. And the people are so welcoming!
And here is my spacious apartment...
When Maria and I are together, food is always uppermost in our minds. After checking into the B&B, Maria conducts me immediately to sample the famous sfogliata (more properly called sfogliatella) of Napoli in one of its most famous pastry shop.
She explains there are two types. Both are filled with pastry cream containing ricotta and crystallised fruit, but riccia is a crispy puff pastry and frolla is more like a cake. Of course we have to try both!
We’ve only gone a few steps from our sfogliata tasting at Scaturchio when Maria turns into another bakery, this one famous for its taralli. If you’re thinking taralli from Puglia, forget it. Apart from the shape, the taralli of Napoli are a different thing entirely, and in my opinion, are in a completely different class. Next time you’re in Napoli, arrive with a good appetite and head straight for Leopoldo!
Enough food for the body. Now I want some food for the mind. I go to the National Archaeological Museum to check out the artefacts discovered during excavations at Pompei. Of course I’m drawn to those related to food production and eating.
Then there's this interesting pan. I asked our Facebook followers if they had an idea what it could be used for. We had a few suggestions: snails or donuts!
Dinner had to be the true Neapolitan pizza at Pizzeria Sorbillo - Centro Storico, only a few steps from my B&B. The menu of pizzas was long and creative, but in the end I chose a simple margherita with mozzarella di bufala DOP and a bottle of craft beer to wash it down. (Be sure to book in advance. Outside there was a crowd of people waiting to get a table.)
You must book your ticket for the Pompei archaeological site in advance online. Now a tip for those of you who want to take the train from Napoli to Pompei. There are two services: the normal Trenitalia service and something called Circumvesuviana. Both depart from Napoli Piazza Garibaldi but they stop at different places in Pompei. Since I wanted to enter at Piazza Anfiteatro, I chose the normal Trenitalia service, for which I could also buy a ticket online. The Circumvesuviana requires you to buy the ticket from a nearby newsagent or a ticket machine at the station, and I didn’t want the stress of arriving early to buy a ticket. Maria said I’d made the right choice. To save you wondering, as I did, why Napoli Centrale and Napoli Piazza Garibaldi are at the same place on Google maps, they ARE in the same place except that the latter is beneath the former; to get to it you descend an escalator from inside the main station. Google can’t yet display 3D. I got off the train at Pompei and walked 10 minutes to the entrance to the archaeological site. Here’s a preview of what you'll see.
For what is probably my only visit to Pompei, I had decided to splurge and hire a private guide. I lucked out with Francesco Tufano. He’s an archaeologist and could answer all my questions and more. I asked him to concentrate on food and food production, but I'm glad he couldn’t bear to omit many of the other interesting facts and features. Starting with Roman wine, archaeologists discovered exactly where and how far apart the vines were planted by pouring plaster into the holes left in the soil by the roots when the site was covered by volcanic ash. From that evidence they have planted a new vineyard with an old variety of grapes and are cultivating it according to methods found in Roman sources. I should have bought a bottle of the wine, but I didn’t have time. That’s the trouble with fast travel. Plan to spend a whole day!
More about food and dining at Pompei. Francesco explained that Romans of that period (Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD) ate breakfast at home but lunched out. The photo below shows the breakfast room in a domus, the city home of a well-to-do citizen. The ‘steps’ at the back were a waterfall, and at the front are Carrara marble benches on which the people reclined while eating. There was a pool in the centre.
This house was equipped with its own oven, but many people bought bread from a bakery.
Lunch Pompei style! We walk along the pavement (sidewalk) of the main street paved with flat slabs of stone, uncharacteristically empty of tourists.
Being thirsty, we stop for a drink at one of the Roman fountains.
This lunch place reminds me of tavernas in Greece in the late ‘60s (maybe today too, but I haven’t been back) where, instead of a menu, the dishes were on display. The pots in holes in the counter kept food either hot or cold. You chose what you wanted and went to the dining room at the back to eat it.
A little way down the street, after the phallic symbol pointing to the brothel on the right (prostitution was legal), we come to a bakery on the left.
Further along are the baths. Men and women weren't allowed in at the same time and entered and exited by different gates.
A parting photo from Pompei. The statue isn't antique. It's modern. I'll leave you to look it up on Google.
I’m headed further south to the National Park of Cilento to stay with Maria, my collaborator on my cheese courses who showed me around Napoli when I arrived. We'll post another blog next week featuring my three days of mozzarella, wine and other good food!
If you'd like to join us to explore Italy during one of our many tours or courses, please visit our website and drop me an email to find out more!
Another tour that didn't take place due to the coronavirus. Since many of you enjoyed the virtual Celebrating Sardinia tour and the Theory & Practice of Italian Cheese course, I’m going to lead you on a virtual Woad & Wool tour. Arm yourself with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and enjoy the journey.
Since my tours take you far away from the well-trodden tourist routes, a couple of maps will help you get your bearings.
Saturday 16 May 2020
You’ve already arrived at Arezzo, a beautiful little town in southeastern Tuscany. I advise arriving a day or two before the tour so you can get to know it. There are many things to enjoy, and I only take you to the ones you probably won't find on your own.
You’re probably a weaver or spinner or dyer, or maybe you’re interested in beautiful handcrafted objects even though you don’t make them yourself. You definitely like eating good natural food made with local ingredients! Right now we’re having lunch at my favourite restaurant in Arezzo, La Tagliatella, where mamma is in the kitchen, a son is a distinguished sangiovese wine sommelier (Chianti is mostly sangiovese grapes) and I’ve never seen another tourist. I introduce you to my dear friend and co-leader Cheryl Alexander of Italian Excursion, and we’re all talking excitedly as we get to know each other.
After lunch we drive east and slightly north, over a mountain pass from Tuscany into the region of Le Marche. Take a good look at the trees. They were felled and floated down the Tiber River to be used as beams for many of the magnificent churches of Rome. We descend to the Metauro River valley and arrive at Oasi San Benedetto, a 9th-century former Benedictine abbey.
In the abbey dining room, dinner cooked by the inimitable Patrizia Carlo is super-abundant and anything but plain. The first of our stomach-stretching exercises.
Sunday 17 May 2020
Today we get to know the Metauro River valley. Fifteen minutes down the valley is Mercatello sul Metauro. Beatrice Cantucci has organised our morning, which starts with a tour of her mediaeval town.
As fascinating as her tour is, it’s the women of the local lacemaking club and the men of the Academia del Padlot who win the day. The women are such good and patient teachers that you manage to make a creditable strip of lace even if you’ve never touched a lace bobbin before.
Of equal skill among the pots and pans of the kitchen are the men who cook our lunch in their clubroom over a bar (=pub).
They’re delighted when I ask if we can come into the kitchen to watch them at work. I’d be incredibly nervous frying so many eggs, but there’s no better combination than perfectly fried egg and the crispy fried goleta di Mercatello (pork cheek similar to bacon).
After lunch some of you might opt to go back to the monastery for a virtual rest, but I wouldn’t advise it because our visit to the Roman house in Sant’Angelo in Vado is too interesting to miss. Unfortunately for the inhabitants, but fortunately for us, in the 6th century AD the Ostrogoths totally destroyed the town and it was completely silted over by the Metauro River. The mosaic floors of the Domus del Mito (House of Myth) are so well preserved that you feel as if the Roman family, who lived here toward the end of the 1st century AD, have gone shopping and will be back soon.
Monday 18 May 2020
Today is our virtual woad dyeing workshop with Max, one of the highlights of our virtual Woad & Wool tour. We roll out of bed, grab some breakfast and meet Max next door at his Museum of Natural Colours.
The lengthy preparation of blue dye from leaves of the woad plant (Isatis tinctoria) made it affordable only by the aristocracy. One of those was Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, who ruled this part of Le Marche in the 15th century. I’m sure you know this portrait by Piero della Francesca, who we’ll meet later in the tour.
He’s depicted in red, but in fact the Montefeltro colours were blue (woad) and gold (reseda or dyer’s weld). I hope this year was a better year for reseda. Since last year was terrible, we used imported annatto instead.
Max does lots of workshops with children, and besides the dyeing, you find yourself grinding pigments and painting with them.
In the afternoon we join Patrizia in the kitchen for a lesson preparing food of various colours. 'I just got some local violet potatoes’, she says excitedly. ‘Let’s make gnocchi’. And you do.
Tuesday 19 May 2020
Sad to say, this morning you must leave the virtual Oasi di San Benedetto, but I promise you that the rest of the virtual Woad & Wool tour will be equally entrancing. We drive from the region of Le Marche back over the mountain pass into Umbria. A friend of mine who studies history obsessively explained to me that Le Marche translates as ’The Marches’ which in mediaeval Europe was a border between realms, in this case three: Tuscany, Umbria and Romagna (now part of Emilia-Romagna). We are touring the orchards at the Archeologia Arborea (Arboreal Archaeology) with the inspirational Isabella dalla Ragione.
With her father she started salvaging ancient local fruit varieties, many dating back at least to the 15th century. She studies their representations in paintings and books and has discovered recipes for how they were used. There are so many more interesting facets to Isabella’s life that I can’t tell you everything in this small space. A good reason to come on the real tour in May 2021.
It’s a 10-minute drive into Città di Castello where we have lunch at Trattoria Lea, take a quick look around the town and meet at Tela Umbra a Mano for a private tour of the linen mill and its museum.
Can you believe, they are still weaving fine linen sheet-width fabric by hand! Two women sitting next to each other at each 19th-century loom.
In the museum you see antique Perugia towels, the blue decoration dyed with woad. Sorry no photos allowed, so you’ll have to come to see them. And there’s a touching love story and a friendship with Maria Montessori, the founder of Montessori schools. We could easily spend more time in this fascinating city, but it’s getting late and we have a half hour drive to our accommodation at Agriturismo Terra di Michelangelo.
Wednesday 20 May 2020
Last night our virtual Woad & Wool tour took us to Agriturismo Terra di Michelangelo. Yes, that most famous Renaissance artist was born only 10 minutes from the farm. I’m not taking you there because on my research trip I decided, although they’ve done their best, a simple house is just a house. Instead we’re going to Anghiari to visit the much more exciting Busatti weaving mill. It’s still in the private ownership of the Busatti family, and the first time I went I was privileged to be shown around by Giovanni Busatti himself, who even took us up to the private guest apartment on top floor.
Today Michelangelo Formica, head of sales, leads us into the bowels of the building where the 19th-century jacquard looms are clanking away.
Michelangelo shares my philosophy about the value of quality. When he’s at an international textile fair, if he’s approached by a buyer asking for his lowest price, Michelangelo replies, ‘I’m not the right supplier for you’.
At the end of the tour, you can’t resist buying some of their luscious linens. It’s worth checking the scrap room where you’ll find real bargains.
Until you come on the tour in May 2021, you can shop online at here. If any restauranteurs are reading this, Busatti will work with you to create unique table linens for your restaurant. Sorry if this sounds like an advertorial, but I love the people and the establishment.
Depending on how long you spend shopping at Busatti (last year Jenny bought fabric for a huge table cloth), you have free time to explore Anghiari and have lunch. I have two favourites. Last year I went to Talozzi Bistro, so today I’m going to the Cantina del Granduca (the Cellar of the Grand Duke). It sounds posh, but don’t forget it’s his cellar where a mother and son preside. You can even get a good salad, which by now you’re really craving.
Soon it’s time to meet in the main piazza for the 10-minute drive to Sansepolcro. The early Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca was born here, and we’re going to the Civic Museum to see some of his work. The masterpiece here is his 'Resurrection'. Aldous Huxley called it the greatest painting in the world.
This absorbing video gives you an excellent foundation for our visit. After the museum, some of you visit the Aboca Museum of medicinal herbs and others wander through the town. I’m going to the duomo to revisit a painting that makes me laugh.
Now we return to our agriturismo to learn how to make the classic Tuscan cantuccini (you probably call them biscotti), which are so good after dinner dunked in vin santo (Tuscan dessert wine).
But first a relaxing aperitivo on the terrace. Gabriele serves us the salumi (prosciutto, salami, etc) he makes from his heritage Cinta Senese pigs.
Thursday 21 May 2020
Today the virtual Woad & Wool tour heads north into the Casentino. Never heard of it? You’ll know it well by the end of the tour. It’s only an hour’s drive through rolling hills to the mediaeval fortified town of Poppi where we meet Luca Bellugi at the workshop of his late aunt Elisa. She was an accomplished weaver and fashion designer, but is most famous for having woven a blanket for the Pope and curtains for Jacquie Kennedy.
It’s lunch time, and I hope by now you have complete trust in me. If not, your heart will sink as we drive onto the forecourt of an Esso station. We enter the small marquee at the side and there before us, as if by magic, is an elegant dining table. Course after elegant course of local food paired with local wines arrive in the hands of the three Marzi brothers and their nephew Francesco.
After our virtual gourmet lunch at the Esso station, we’re happy to reach the Castello di Porciano above Stia where we’ll stay until the end of the virtual tour on Monday.
Now we’re dining at the water mill Mulin di Bucchio, very near the source of the Arno River, the one that flows under the Ponte Vecchio at Florence and down to the sea at Pisa. You can see its strange route here from top right (near where we’re sitting) running south and hanging a U to go back north to Florence.
I don’t know why, but water mills fascinate me. Perhaps it’s the simplicity of the machinery (even I understand how it functions) and the energetic efficiency.
Naturally flour is the protagonist of the meal.
Friday 22 May 2020
Everyone who wants a virtual morning walk in the sun down the hill from the castle to Stia should leave now. Those going with the driver can relax for another 15 minutes. We arrive at the Museo dell'Arte della Lana (Museum of the Art of Wool) for our tour and weaving workshop with Angela Giordano. The museum is in a woollen mill, a beautiful example of 19th-century industrial architecture.
All the machinery was powered by water. It finally closed in 2000 after a steep decline due to competition from synthetic fabrics. The strong, warm rustic wool is called panno casentino.
After being woven the fabric is fulled (washing and beating to compact the fibres) and napped (pulling up fibres using hooked needles to create a fuzzy surface). Both processes increase the water resistance and warmth of the fabric, important characteristics in a shepherd's cloak as well as garments intended for an aristocrat's draughty castle.
I first heard about the museum when I received an invitation to a temporary fashion exhibition there.
Angela leads us in a weaving workshop. Experienced weavers can do monk’s belt weaving, and the rest backstrap weaving.
It’s only a 5-minute walk to our restaurant on the old main street of Stia. On our way we step into Pieve Santa Maria Assunta. When you’re in a romanesque church, always look up. The capitals of the columns often depict strange pagan creatures.
Filetto restaurant next door presents a short menu of typical Casentino dishes. I’m having acquacotta. It means ‘cooked water’, but is in fact yet another Tuscan dish for using up stale bread. You stew onion, celery and tomatoes in vegetable broth, and at the end of the cooking poach one egg per person right in the pot.
After lunch we finish our workshop with Angela, before going next door to Tessilnova. where owner Claudio Grisolini is expecting us. It was his father who popularised panno casentino culminating in Audrey Hepburn wearing a coat made of it in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’.
Claudio takes us behind the scenes to a vaulted room which was part of a woad processing mill.
It’s been a full day. Time to relax with an aperitivo and dine at Osteria Toscana Twist—local Tuscan ingredients prepared with a modern twist.
Saturday 23 May 2020
Virtual yesterday was dedicated to weaving and textiles. Virtual today it’s food. We’re off to visit cheesemaker Lorenzo Cipriani and his pasta wizard mother Miranda. Picture yourself travelling along winding mountain roads and then a dirt track to their sheep farm at the end in the Casentino Forest National Park. It’s a beautiful day, and Lorenzo decides to make cheese outside. In the photo below he’s taking curd from the pot to make raviggiolo. You probably haven’t heard of it, partly because it’s only made in a few places in Tuscany, but mainly because you have to eat it very fresh, within two or three days. Way too short a shelf life for supermarkets! We have it as antipasto for lunch drizzled with Lorenzo’s olive oil.
Next out of the cheese pot is pecorino. Lorenzo cuts the curd to allow the whey to come out, then gathers the curd with his hands, lifts it from the whey and puts it in moulds to drain and eventually to age.
In the kitchen we gather around Miranda to watch her make tortelli di patate (potato ravioli), a speciality of the Casentino. We don’t make them in my part of Tuscany. To you they might sound like carbohydrate stuffed with carbohydrate, but they’re wonderfully light and flavoursome served with sage butter and grated pecorino.
You have a free afternoon on the virtual Woad & Wool tour. Maybe you walk on one of the many paths around the castle or maybe you write emails to family and friends or maybe you relax in the sun.
Now we’re at dinner at La Buca in Soci, just down the river from Stia. Last night was your chance for vegetables. Tonight the speciality is tagliata. Tagliata means sliced. In Tuscany it's a thick rib steak, grilled rare and cut vertically into slices. There are other dishes on the menu, but if you like beef, this is the place to have it. They serve it with the most more-ish fried potatoes I’ve ever eaten.
Sunday 24 May 2020
I’m so excited about today’s activities on the virtual Woad & Wool tour. I’m taking you to the Osteria da la Franca at Corezzo for a hands-on lesson making the tortello alla lastra and then to the herbal pharmacy and hermitage of the Benedictine Monastery of Camaldoli. Tortello and raviolo are members of the same family: little stuffed pasta pillows (if they end in ‘i’, they’re plural). What you call them depends on where you are and what they’re stuffed with. The tortello of Corezzo is stuffed with potato, similar to the tortello Miranda made for us, but they’re not cooked in boiling water. Instead they’re cooked on a lastra, a slab or sheet or plate, in this case of stone which is heated over an open fire, like a griddle.
Owners Daiana and Mattia (and their three young children) welcome us and introduce us to their cook Loredana. She’s a patient teacher and you’re excellent students.
Don’t eat too many! Loredana and Mattia have prepared a big lunch for us.
As we drive along the mountain road to Camaldoli, are you thinking, ‘Why another Benedictine monastery? We’ve already stayed in one.’ Camaldoli is different. There is still a community of monks and hermits living here. The setting is extraordinary. Not bare and rocky like the nearby and better known Sanctuary La Verna where St Francis is said to have got the stigmata. Here the mountains are lush and wooded, because for centuries the monks planted 4–5,000 fir trees every year, helping prevent global warming before it became critical. We visit the herbal pharmacy at the monastery. The museum is full of fascinating instruments: stills for distilling essences and huge ceramic storage jars.
I would have liked to have walked up to the hermitage, but since it’s raining lightly, we drive. We glimpse the hermits’ simple houses through a gate.
But it isn’t all austerity, as testified by the interior of the chapel.
We take a different route down and pass a clearing full of Eremurus bulbs glowing like candelabras in the misty air.
We arrive slightly chilly and damp at the Locanda dei Baroni, opposite the monastery, happy to find a fire burning in the hearth.
Monday 25 May 2020
It’s the last day of the virtual Woad & Wool tour and time to leave the castle where Federica, Martha’s righthand woman, has looked after us so well. Don’t be too sad. There’s one more adventure awaiting you at Arezzo. We have a virtual visit to a painting restoration studio. It was recommended to me by the woman who also told me about the wool museum at Stia. Before my first visit in 2017 I had no idea of how you restore ancient paintings. The work is detailed and painstaking, but also exciting. I’ve visited three times and the women, who call themselves Art Angels, have always been working on a polyptych of 13th-century wooden panels painted by Pietro Lorenzetti, the older but less famous brother of Ambrogio, whose 'Allegory of Good and Bad Government' you might have seen in Siena. Marzia shows you the techniques they use to uncover the original painting.
The good news is that they finally finished! The opening was scheduled for 17 April, but had to be postponed due to Covid-19. I wonder what they’ll be working on next year.
And now it’s time for virtual hugs and kisses (allowed under social distancing rules) before we scatter to further travels and home.
If I’ve whetted your appetite for Tastes & Textiles tours, head on over to my Tastes & Textiles web page to find out more. You’ll find dates for tours in 2020 and 2021.
There are still places on the Wine to Dye For tour starting on 15 September 2020. If you’re interested, let me know. I’m not requiring a deposit until we’re all more certain about the possibilities for travel this year.
If it weren’t for the coronavirus, the Theory & Practice of Italian Cheese course would have started on Thursday 7 May.
Since we were all staying at home and washing our hands, I posted each day on Facebook what you would have done if you had signed up for the course. I'm reproducing it here in case you missed it over there. It won’t be a virtual course, because I believe the best way to learn to make cheese is to be in the dairies of my cheesemakers not only watching, but also smelling, touching, hearing and tasting. Not only learning to make cheese, but also learning the philosophy of making cheese by tradition, instead of from recipes. The fascination of making the same cheese every day and not getting bored. Because for a cheesemaker, every day the milk is different, the weather is different. Every day you learn something new.
Thursday 7 May
We pick you up at Pisa and take you to Agriturismo Cafaggio near San Miniato on the Arno River. It has a famous national white truffle fair every November, and we're having truffles for dinner after the introduction to the course by my co-leader Maria Sarnataro.
There's nothing virtual about my truffle hunter Riccardo. Hunting for truffles and training dogs are his hobbies. He's a trained nurse, and in reality, he’s on the COVID-19 frontline taking swab tests at care homes.
Friday 8 May
This morning we’re at Enea Giunti’s farm to learn about making lactic fermented goat’s milk cheese. As soon as we arrive, you feel transplanted to a parallel universe, where simplicity and personal fulfilment triumph over technology and commerce.
We start in the dairy where Enea has three days’ production on the go so you can see every stage of the slow acidic coagulation.
Someone asks what starter cultures Enea uses. He waves his hand around the room: ‘The bacteria that live here. We’ve been friends for many years.’ He doesn’t know how the Geotrichum candidum arrived either, but it did.
Before lunch we go down to see the goats. Enea opens the gate and we go out with him, the dogs (which understand three languages) and the goats to experience the life of a goatherd.
Every Wednesday Enea makes sourdough bread in his teensy-weensy bakery where he stone grinds the heritage varieties of wheat he cultivates and bakes the bread in a wood-fired oven he built. Once a week he delivers his cheese and bread to a private buying group. His wife Valeria is an artist and cooks our lunch and we get to taste Enea’s delicious cheese. You can read a little bit more about Enea in my blog.
If you have excess milk or want to broaden your product range, gelato and ice cream (yes, they’re different) are obvious candidates, so we’re off to the Cremeria Opera in Lucca for a lesson. I used to think all you have to do to make good gelato is follow a recipe. Since meeting Mirko Tognetti and launching our gelato course, I’ve learned there’s a lot more to it than that. You have to understand the principles of balancing ingredients in order to produce consistently full-flavoured and smooth-textured gelato that will keep for months in a freezer, especially if you’re inspired to create your own flavours. An example of the importance of the balance is our many attempts to use Enea’s fresh goat cheese. Because the percentage of fats and milk solids varies significantly through the milking season, our gelato was either sandy or way too solid. For the next cheese course starting 27 August (I hope), we’re going to make ricotta gelato. The composition of ricotta is more consistent, and Mirko makes a fabulous one.
Saturday 9 May
For the rest of the course we stay at Agriturismo La Torre (the Tower) at Fornoli (Bagni di Lucca / Thermal Springs of Lucca). I try to base all my courses and tours at agriturismi to invest directly in the rural economy. La Torre produces olive oil and honey and has a restaurant with a cook who uses foraged plants when they’re available.
We drive 40 minutes on narrow, winding mountain roads to reach Vitalina’s farm. Calling it a farm will conjure up a mistaken idea in your heads. You arrive at the end of a valley where the river disappears into a gorge. All you see is a stone house, a couple of stone out-buildings and ramshackle wooden sheds with corrugated iron roofs perched on steep slopes clothed in mixed deciduous woodland. Vitalina’s husband Pellegrino (pilgrim) spends his days following the goats on paths through the woods. Vitalina makes her simple hard-paste caprino (‘capra’ means goat) in one of the stone out-buildings and matures it in another next to the river where the running water helps maintain the correct temperature and humidity.
As we climb the steep path to the goats, Vitalina tells you that in a territory of shepherds her family was always known as the ‘goat people’. When she was a child, she was always out with her father and uncle looking after the goats and learning to make cheese.
One of the great dramas of the course is Pellegrino setting out with the goats. Click the picture below to view the video.
As you can see, between 25% and 30% of the animals are sheep. They’re not improved breeds, but are mixtures of the local goats and sheep of the Apennine Mountains whose peaks soar above the farm. Vitalina makes three different cheeses using pretty much the same method: pure caprino, mixed sheep and goat's milk, mixed goat and cow’s milk. You might not have realised that you can mix milks and how good they are.
We descend to the dairy to watch and participate in making the cheese and then ricotta with the whey.
You can only buy Vitalina’s cheese and ricotta from her doorstep, and people drive long distances to get it. She attributes the excellence of her products to never refrigerating her milk. Between Easter and the end of August she makes cheese and ricotta twice a day! Many participants on the course have dreamed of returning to work alongside her.
After a brief rest, we arrive at Marzia Ridolfi’s in time for the evening milking. We used to watch Marzia milk the cows, some by hand and others using a portable machine. However, it was too painful for all of us. In Italy most dairy cows are kept in stalls for their whole lives. Drive through Parma and Modena Provinces where 3.75 million wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano were produced last year, and you’re lucky if you see one cow in a pasture! But Marzia's sheep and goats are free range, and I love watching her son Federico milk the mixed flock of white Garfagnina and black Massese sheep.
Marzia’s family is dear to me. She lives with her mother-in-law Ida, her husband Roberto and two of their grown children. The elder daughter moved to Lucca (50 minutes’ drive away), but Federico and Stefania decided to stay on the farm. Not many young people do these days, and I like to think that my bringing cheesemakers from all over the world added to their sense of self-esteem and influenced their tough decision to stay on their smallholding. Ida is a powerhouse. She was a butcher, norcino (person who cures pork), baker, cheesemaker and winemaker, and despite being in her 80s, is still going strong. She taught Marzia to make cheese and Roberto all the other skills, which they in turn are handing down to their children. Marzia’s cheesemaking is very similar to Vitalina’s method, although the small differences are interesting to note.
However, the highlight of our visit is the family dinner. With 12 to 15 of us around the dining table and almost all the ingredients coming from the farm, it must be very similar to Sunday lunches of the past when extended families gathered for a special meal.
Sunday 10 May
We’re driving up to Daniela Pagliai’s alpine pastures at Agriturismo Taufi. She and her husband Walter still do the seasonal transhumance, taking their cows on the 3-hour walk up the mountain where they are outdoors in lush alpine meadows. I take you to Daniela partly because her dairy is a good example of a small modern one, in contrast to Vitalina’s and Marzia’s traditional ones, modernised only enough to meet current health and safety standards. Another reason is that, probably like many of you, she makes a number of different cheeses, and you learn the technique of making several types from a single pot of milk.
Lastly, most of her cheeses are excellent, but as she serenely admits, she makes lots of mistakes—bitter, cracked, mould, cheese mites. There’s no better way to learn about defects than to see and taste them for yourself. One big lesson is that cheese requires concentration, and if you want to produce consistently good cheese, it’s advisable not to make 10 types of cheese, butter, yoghurt and gelato as well as having 30 cows, three children, a farmshop and an agriturismo.
Daniela's dairy is at Melo at 1007 metres (3304 feet) above sea level. Now we ascend to the alpine pastures at 1231 metres (4039 feet) for lunch. We're just in time to catch the cows (and one goat) coming to the milking parlour. Click the picture below to view the video.
On Sunday late afternoon Maria delivers two presentations, one on defects that might occur in Tuscan cheeses and the other, more light-heartedly, on how to compose a good cheese board. I’d like to tell you a little about Maria because she’s quite an expert on cheese and wine, and is a warm generous person as well. She lives a little south of Paestum in Salerno Province in the region of Campania (Naples is the capital). She studied agronomy at university and got her doctorate in environmental and territorial research, but gradually segued into teaching in the fields of cheese and wine. She’s the national vice-president of ONAF. ONAF stands for Organizzazione Nazionale degli Assagiatori di Formaggio, which translates literally as the National Organisation of Tasters of Cheese. But ’tasters' doesn’t convey the range and depth of knowledge its members must have. They must know the details of the vast range of cheeses made in Italy (officially 487), about the procedures for making and maturing them and the legislation (both Italian and European) governing the cheese industry. They constantly visit dairies in all parts of the country. Some of the members are top consultants on cheese production and ageing. In addition, they determine the methodology for tasting cheese and set the criteria for judging the visual, tactile, olfactory and flavour properties of cheeses. As if this weren’t enough, she has an equal expertise in the field of wine. We’re very privileged to have her as our instructor!
Monday 11 May
We’re having lunch at Il Prisco, one of the three restaurants belonging to Agriturismo Venturo where I base part of my Advanced Salumi Course Tuscany. This morning on the virtual Theory & Practice of Italian Cheese course I took you to Caseificio Bertagni in the Garfagnana. Verano’s dairy is the largest we visit on the course, but is by no means industrial.
Verano’s family has always made cheese, first on their farm and now in this purpose-built dairy. Verano’s experience is vast, and so far, he has answered satisfactorily every question participants on the course have thrown at him. Verano collects cow, sheep and goat milk from small farms in the territory surrounding his dairy. He knows the farmers personally and knows whose milk he can trust for his raw milk cheeses and which he has to pasteurise.
He has a lab and shows you how to test the milk. He’s the only person we visit who uses starter cultures, but they’re selected strains from the Garfagnana. He understands the differences between mesophyllic and thermophilic bacteria and when to use them. We watch him make a pot of cheese and then ricotta.
Next we go to the maturing room.
Finally we get to taste the cheese. I'm interested in whether you think the larger production has compromised flavour.
The main course ends after lunch. For those of you who chose to come on the one-day extension to a Parmigiano Reggiano dairy, we’re off on a scenic drive to Modena Province on the other side of the Apennine Mountains.
Tuesday 12 May
We’re on the extension trip to the Theory & Practice of Italian Cheese course, and we’re at Caseificio Sociale Santa Rita Bio. They’re a group of organic dairy farmers who rear both the ubiquitous black and white Friesians plus the nearly extinct native white modenese cow. The latter give only 9–12 litres of milk per day (1/4 the yield of Friesians), and the group produces just two wheels of parmigiano a day. We’re at a large dairy where Santa Rita Bio have six pots dedicated to their organic cheese. I’m partial to small producers, but I changed my mind when I visited.
Here, new pots of parmigiano are started at intervals throughout the morning to allow three people to perform all the crucial production steps, which means we get to see everything from adding the whey starter to putting the curd in moulds and the salting.
Parmigiano is made from the unpasteurised partially skimmed milk of the evening milking and the whole milk of the morning milking. The pots are traditional un-tinned copper. You notice immediately they're so tall that they have to be sunk into the floor to be at a comfortable level for the cheesemakers. This is a world away from the cheesemakers you visited during the main course.
Everything is tightly controlled by the DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin) ‘police’, and you can’t call your cheese Parmigiano Reggiano DOP until it's branded by the Consortium when it's 12 months old. The experience of tasting the parmigiano made with the modenese cow milk matches the excitement of watching it being made. I thought the 10-year-old one would be dry and strong, but it was moist with a complex flavour beyond any cheese I’ve ever tasted (and that’s a lot). Not to be missed!
After our virtual visit to the parmigiano dairy the virtual cheese course is over. I just wanted to include one extra photo. If you’re a cheesemaker, you probably know David Asher’s indispensable book The Art of Natural Cheesemaking and his The Black Sheep School of Cheesemaking. David came to visit me and I took him to Vitalina’s and another cheesemaker so far up a mountain that I can’t include it in the course. As he was leaving, he said he'd seen enough to write another chapter for his book. I was so proud of my cheesemakers!
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