You’re in Italy and would absolutely love to find a local farmer to ask questions about what on earth they are doing in the field. Where can you pick up the best local olive oil? Or you just need to ask what that local dish is…and perhaps the secret recipe? But you don’t speak Italian, you know no one and an internet browse is the best you can do to find the answers.
This is one of the reasons people love to travel with Erica, she knows everyone (really, no hyperbole here, it’s unbelievable) and her fluent Italian allows her to respectfully ask locals those burning questions guests have.
She’s always out exploring and meeting new people, suppliers, restauranteurs and has been at it again. She headed just over the mountain from her home, to Pescia and met lots of wonderful and interesting people, as well as eating some truly delicious food. Here’s some of the things she saw. Maybe they will appear on one of the tour programmes, or for private travellers one day soon…
Perterra agricultural cooperative
This inspiring project was formed by young people – the oldest is 32 – who had no background in farming. In Italian the word Perterra means ‘for the land’ but can also mean to be down to earth, or to have your feet on the ground. That gives you the vibe these guys are going for. With a grant from the Tuscan region, three years ago they bought 40 hectares of abandoned farmland, including a lake, some woodland and a few crumbling farm houses. They are gradually restoring its productivity and already have organic certification. They raise sheep to make pecorino, pigs to sell to a norcino who turns them into delicious salumi, olives for olive oil, Trebbiano grapes which they give to a Slow Food guide vineyard which makes the wine they sell in their shop, and they grow their own hay. They’re not only making an agricultural difference, but also a social difference. They were asked by their environmental health officer whether they could find work for an unemployed, slightly autistic young man. He’s now their shepherd, spending contented days walking with the sheep.
Experiences to offer
At Agriturismo Albero e Foglia (Tree and Leaf) Stefano Natali creates dreamy experiences for his visitors! For instance, you can be a shepherd for a day and spend the morning with him and the sheep before coming back for a picnic and then make some delicious pecorino. It’s a life he had to build. His grandparents were from Medicina, where he now lives but had left. He came back and met his wife, who had a job elsewhere but lost it. It didn’t make sense to live in remote Medicina and travel for work so they decided to carve out a living for themselves using the land his grandparents had farmed before them as well as land from his wife’s family too.
Biodiversity in olive cultivation
Pietro Barachini is the third generation to propagate olives in Pescia. He propagates olive varieties from all over Italy (400 different ones!) with the aim of maintaining biodiversity of olive cultivation. He will be part of our brand-new olive oil course, where he will give us a tour of the nursery and lead an olive oil tasting. Find out more about the Olive Oil: Tree to Table course here.
Celebrations in Pescia
Erica also made sure she signed up for a local celebration. It was a dinner for the San Francesco quarter of Pescia preliminary to the Palio di Pescia which took place the following Sunday. The Palio is an archery competition (not a horse race like the one at Siena), in which the quarters of the city compete. Each one hosts a propitiatory dinner on a different night prior to the big event. She described it as ‘magical’. The setting, the food, the musicians and flag wavers – sounds amazing and certainly an experience that would be difficult to find without local knowledge and great language skills.
Take a look at our website to browse the tours and courses offered at Sapori e Saperi, which all offer wonderful insights into life in Italy.
By Alison Goldberger
While Erica is off making sure the participants on the Advanced Salumi Course have the best time—I’m updating her blog. I’m Alison—a former participant on the Advanced Salumi Course, journalist and organic pig farmer. I’m originally from Scotland but have been living in Austria for five years. I absolutely loved taking part in the salumi course, so much so I asked Erica if I could work with her. Introductions over, I’m now going to delve into the world of Celebrating Sardinia and tell you why this should be your go to destination for your 2019 holiday!
Island life with Italian flair
Sardinia is an island in the Mediterranean Sea—not to be confused with Sicily which is at the toe of Italy - Sardinia sits somewhere out from the shin of Italy (think of the boot!). The country is a mixture of rugged hillside, beautiful sandy beaches with sparkling blue waters and incredible prehistoric sites. The trip takes place in May—one of the best times to see Sardinia as it turns out! You’ll be met with warm weather and clear skies.
Unforgettable food – in restaurants and local homes
The gastronomic delights on this tour don’t disappoint. You will be spoiled with a tasting menu at Sa Piola restaurant cooked with local, seasonal ingredients. A special lunch on the tour comes from shepherd Giulio as he welcomes tour participants around his farmhouse table. A chilled out, wonderful moment you can only experience when travelling with Erica, who searches for unusual people and places away from the normal tourist trails. There’s also wine, seafood, pecorino and the famed roast suckling pig along the way – you definitely won’t go home hungry!
Learn from local artisans
Shepherd Giulio also makes the famous pecorino sardo and you can watch this whole process! You will leave with an appreciation of how liquid milk turns into hard cheese—it really is a spectacle to behold! You also meet a potter to see how she creates traditional clay objects—as well as making something yourself to show off back home! A bread lesson is also on the agenda, from Rita Fois who learned how to make it from her grandmother and mother. After your visit to the luminescent white salt pans, you’ll understand all about where that essential culinary ingredient comes from. A fantastic wine tasting from a sommelier can’t be forgotten – the indulgence continues!
A unique boat tour and seafood lunch
It would be impossible to spend time on an island without hopping onto a boat and taking in the turquoise blue waters as they’re supposed to be seen! Mauro Pintus and his family take you aboard his fishing boat. You’ll learn about fish in the region and can have a go at drawing up the nets. You can feel the excitement and trepidation of a fisherman as you wait to see what you’ve caught! Lunch is cooked from the very fish you catch—can’t get any fresher than that! Mauro and Roberta will also serenade you as they play guitar and sing Sardinian songs.
Learn about the real Sardinia away from the guidebook-wielding tourists
Sardinia is an island rich in history and this tour really makes the most of it. You can watch traditional processions of people from across Sardinia—they’re part solemn religious festival, part social gathering, part fashion show of regional dress, part performance of traditional music! The tournament of incredible cavalieri performing daredevil tricks on horseback is also a sight to behold! The final procession sees villagers travel in colourfully decorated ox carts, with a fireworks display to end. You’ll always have a guide and local people to chat to and ask questions—so you can learn everything about the area and these fantastic traditions!
Read more about the Celebrating Sardinia tour here!
Just a little building work going on here to test delivery of our blog posts to your inbox. I hope it won't take as long as most building projects.
Meanwhile, here's a preview of the next course to be announced.
Olive Oil: Tree to Table
Dates (to be confirmed): October 31–November 5 | November 14–19 | December 5–10
If you'd like to be notified as soon as the course is announced, sign up for our newsletter: http://eepurl.com/hVwz6
Christmas in Italy demands panettone. By now this seasonal sweet bread has travelled round the world and can be found piled mountain-high in fine food shops and supermarkets everywhere. But my panettone is different from all of them. It's a present from Mirko Tognetti of Cremeria Opera Lucca, who teaches our gelato course.
If you have a gelateria in a climate with cold winters, the challenge is to find a winter product. An even bigger challenge for Mirko was to make a panettone that could hold its head up proudly in the company of his superlative natural gelato.
He started using lievito madre (sourdough starter) last year to make Sicilian brioche, the traditional accompaniment to granita. There’s a good historical case for making panettone solely with lievito madre. Legend attributes its invention to the Visconti court of Milan in the 1300s, long before yeast began to be manufactured industrially.
But it isn’t easy to achieve good results with lievito madre in the presence of eggs and sugar. On Friday 8 December, the last day of our gelato course, Mirko still wasn’t entirely satisfied with his trial panettoni. Production was to start on Tuesday the 12th. On Saturday morning he set off for Reggio Emilia at 5 am to spend three days with an expert at working with lievito madre to improve his skills at handling the starter dough. The results are dramatic.
I wish you could be here to share Mirko’s panettone and the love he’s put into his creation.
Details of our Gelato Course
Enea is one of the cheesemakers to whom I take my guests.
He lives on a farm at the end of a dirt road that runs along the top of a ridge. At the point where the tarmac runs out, there’s a vineyard. Bumping slowly along the rutted road you pass a house, then nothing for 10 minutes. As the nose of the ridge begins to dip toward the valley, you spy a ramshackle house with solar panels on the roof. If you come in July, you’ll think you’ve arrived at a farm machine museum until you see Enea putting his heritage wheat through the vintage thresher.
Enea and his wife Valeria are nearly self-sufficient. They have a herd of goats, two cows, a few chickens, a couple of horses, a vegetable garden, an olive grove and fields of cereals and hay. They’re hoping for another cow.
During the spring and summer Enea milks the goats every morning, makes cheese with their milk and then, with the help of his working dogs, takes them out to graze. The dogs are tri-lingual. I don’t think the goats are. On days when we’re there and he doesn’t go out with them in the morning, their complaints are perfectly comprehensible nonetheless.
On Wednesdays he makes sourdough bread. His bread shed contains a wood-fired oven and a tiny mill where he grinds enough of his heritage wheat for the week’s batch of bread. On Wednesday evenings he goes to town to deliver his produce to a group of friends who buy collectively
They’re self-sufficient for art and music too. Valeria paints and Enea plays the guitar. The solar panels and batteries keep them in touch with the outside world via their cell phones, computer and internet connection.
One of the guests in the last group I took there asked Enea why he chose to make cheese. He told us this story:
‘When I finished school, I knew I didn’t want to go to university, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I enjoyed helping a friend pick his olives. Then I rented an apartment from a cheesemaker with goats. He was French and made French-style soft goat cheese. I watched him and began to help him. I saw he was always smiling, and I decided that was the life I wanted.’
Enea is one of the cheesemakers who teaches our course Theory and Practice of Italian Cheese. Details at: http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/courses_with_artisan/theory-practice-of-italian-cheese/.
‘Relax!’ is a command to me as a tour organiser and to you as a traveller. There’s no way you can see everything, so we may as well leave time to rest, absorb and enjoy. My favourite way to wind down is to go to a village festival, called a sagra. It’s impossible not to relax, while at the same time soaking in the local culture.
The village of Cascio is top of my list for an experience without deadlines. I’ve already written about its wood-fired oven sagra in spring (http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/a-feast-from-wood-fired-ovens/). At the end of July and early August the village puts on its equally relaxing Sagra delle Crisciolette. See below for a note about the criscioletta. Right now, we’re going to the sagra.
Just click here to take you to the Slow Travel Tours website for your anti-stress therapy (and to find out what a criscioletta is): http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/relax/
This is a true story about how cheese, history and a mountain village are inextricably entwined. It’s a long story because it goes back to Roman times. It has taken me 12 years even to begin to understand it.
You probably know that pecorino is an Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk, derived from the word for sheep: pecora. On the contrary, it’s the rare person outside Italy who knows that transhumance refers to the seasonal rotation of flocks and herds between different pastures. Even more obscure is the connection between transhumance and Saint Michael Archangel.
On 18 June a group of about 15 hikers, including me, stand expectantly in front of the church in the mountain village of Raggiolo, one of ‘The most beautiful towns in Italy’ (http://borghipiubelliditalia.it/project/raggiolo/).
We aren’t waiting for the Archangel, but for our guide Paolo Schiatti to lead us along an ancient transhumance route to a former shepherd’s hut on the crest of the mountain above Raggiolo where we get to watch pecorino and ricotta making and have a shepherd’s lunch. I’ve watched many shepherds make cheese, and I wonder whether here near Pratomagno in the Casentino (east of Florence) they make it in the same way as in the Garfagnana.
We learn from Paolo that the patron saint of shepherds is Saint Michael Archangel, but in Roman times the half-god, half-human Hercules was the favourite of pastoralists. According to Roman mythology he slew the fire-breathing monster Cacus who stole some of the cattle which he himself had stolen and was pasturing near Cacus’s cave. By one of those frequent transpositions of early Christianity, Hercules became the Archangel. In the New Testament Saint Michael defeats Satan to become a protector against the forces of evil.
Two feast days a year are devoted to the Archangel: 8 May and 29 September. In early May the shepherds took their flocks up to the alpine pastures. At the end of September they brought them down. From early mediaeval times they built shrines to Saint Michael along the transhumance routes. In the days when they wintered on the Maremma, the coastal plain of Tuscany, it took a whole week to walk to the alpine pastures above Raggiolo. We’re lucky we only have a 3-hour walk ahead of us, and no sheep.
The conversation about the Archangel might seem a distraction to a secular cheese lover wanting to know how Tuscan pecorino is made. Yet in Italy food and history are two facets of a common culture. The past spices the cuisine of today, and you can taste the difference between an industrial product made according to scientific principles and a traditional product made according to practices handed down through the generations.
Paolo’s way of encouraging us is to say, ‘Siamo arrivati’ (we’ve arrived) when we still have over an hour of the steepest part of the trail to go. At around 1000 m (3280 ft) we pass suddenly from the chestnut wood into a beech forest. The muffled silence might remind you of a sanctuary. To me it seems dead compared to the luxuriant undergrowth of a chestnut wood.
Casetta di Bùite
I always tell my guests that cheese waits for no man or woman. We’ve dallied too long. The cheesemakers, Angelo and Dino Luddi, have already added the rennet to coagulate the curd. Nowadays they use veal rennet which they buy from the pharmacy. They don’t lament the change from lamb’s rennet which they prepared themselves from a lamb’s stomach, even though the pecorino is less piquant.
They cut the curd using a wooden spino, an implement of the past. They use it not out of nostalgia but because it works well for the type of hard paste cheese they’re making. If there’s something modern that works better or is more convenient, they’re quick to adopt it, like the veal rennet. The past isn’t a prison.
Dino’s job is pressing as much whey as possible from the curd.
As we explain during our cheese course, in Italy where it was born, ricotta is NOT cheese. That’s official. It’s a dairy product. The casein proteins and much of the fat in the milk go into the cheese. The main protein left in the whey is albumin. The protein in egg white is also albumin. When you cook egg white, it solidifies, and that’s what happens to the albumin in whey when it gets to about 90˚C (194˚F).
With two large pots of whey to heat, this is going to take a little while. We suddenly realise we’re starving, and wander off to find some lunch. The courses are ready in random order stretched out over three hours. Actually, most Tuscan Sunday lunches last this long. What I take to be antipasto consists of panini of prosciutto and salami with two wedges of pecorino on the side, all excellent. The pecorino has been supplied by Modesto Giovannuzzi. He tells me the sheep are at Castel Focognano (near Bibbiena), but doesn’t volunteer who made the cheese.
I buy a wheel for the pecorino tournament at the end of our cheese course.
I check in with the ricotta. It hasn’t begun forming yet, but Angelo is adding some milk to the pot. I object that traditional ricotta shouldn’t have milk added. He agrees. He’s doing it to increase the yield for the big crowd today. He adds quietly,’The ricotta is much finer and smoother with nothing added to the whey.’ He moves over to salt the upper side of the pecorino.
Besides adding flavour, the salt slows down the lactic acid bacteria so the cheese doesn’t become too acidic and also helps draw whey out of the cheese—essential if you want to mature it for several months.
Around the corner of the hut, Modesto and his son Andrea are now busy making polenta dolce, a porridge made with chestnut flour instead of cornmeal. It saved the people of the mountains, the Garfagnana as well Pratomagno, from starvation during the Second World War. Some people never want to eat it again, but for most it’s the ultimate comfort food.
Drying the chestnuts, shelling them, sorting them and milling them is a winter occupation. You collect them after you’ve made your wine and before you begin harvesting your olives. In the days when the olive harvest took place at the end of November or even in December, your chestnut flour was already safely stowed in its chestnut-wood chests.
A sudden commotion back around the corner signals that the ricotta strands are forming.
Someone asks what the yield of ricotta is. Angelo doesn’t know, and I reply that for sheep’s milk it’s about 1.5%, but only half that for cow’s milk. Angelo says to me, almost accusingly, ‘You know the science, but we know the practice.’ He’s right. You could read every book about cheese and still not be able to make good cheese and ricotta. It’s the experience that counts, going back to your mother, uncle, grandmother, great-grandfather, and right back to your Roman ancestors and Hercules.
You could fill a small cookbook with the Tuscan recipes for stale bread: zuppa, panzanella, pappa al pomodoro, aqua cotta to name just a few; and scottina, a shepherd’s dish. After skimming off the ricotta, the remaining liquid is called scotta. Around me it’s mostly fed to the farm animals, although some people say it’s a refreshing drink and a good broth for soup. To make scottina, you leave some of the ricotta in the scotta and ladle it over the bread.
As we descend Paolo has an answer to every question I can throw at him and more. He tells me about how they preserved the chestnut flour by packing it into chestnut-wood chests to exclude the air. It was so tightly packed that you could cut it into blocks with a knife to take out the amount you needed. By summer it was a bit tired. To refresh it, they put it in a wood-fired oven until it turned dark brown and had an entirely different flavour. The conversation wanders to art history, politics, the problem of depopulation of rural villages like theirs and mine. Most people in the group have something to contribute. They own their history in a way I’ve never encountered outside Italy. Thank you Raggiolo for a thoroughly enjoyable and illuminating day.
You can learn about Tuscan cheese and experience for yourself our cheesemakers’ strong sense of their history on our Theory & Practice of Italian Cheese course: https://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/theory--practice-of-italian-cheese.html
Sant’Antioco is a small island off the southwest coast of the large island of Sardinia, an island squared you might say. It’s afflicted by two winds: the maestrale from the northwest and the levante from the east. One or the other blows nearly every day, but since they take turns, there’s always a calm sea for fishermen (and us) on the leeward side of the island.
On a bright spring morning the fishing boats are tied up to the quay, squeezed in side by side. Too many fishermen chasing too few fish. Many of them augment their income by offering pescaturismo, fishing excursions for tourists. I’m excited. For years I’ve wanted to learn about fishing in the Mediterranean, but it took a long time to find the right place and fisherman.
We arrive at our boat the ‘Alessandro P.’ and the live Alessandro, son of fisherman Mauro Pintus with whom we’re going fishing. Soon Mauro, his wife Roberta and their 14-year-old daughter arrive all lugging groceries. We climb aboard…
Read more about our idyllic day at sea at http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/gone-fishin/
Join us next April for more adventures on our Celebrating Sardinia tour: http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/small_group_tours/celebrating-sardinia/
It was martedì grasso, Fat Tuesday, the last day of Carnival before Lent, and I was in Oristano in Sardinia. Oristano has celebrated this day for a long time, 552 years to be precise, as the festival Sa Sartiglia. You can imagine that in over more than half a millennium it has accumulated many meanings and observances.
At its most basic and obvious it’s a giostra, a joust like the one at Arezzo with a feat to perform at the end of a charge on horseback. At Sa Sartiglia the horseman (with one or two exceptions they are all men) attempts to insert his lance in a small hole in a star dangling by a thread while galloping at full speed.
At a more fundamental level is the idea of trasvestire. Although our noun ‘transvestite’ derives ultimately from the same Latin root as this Italian verb, don’t be fooled. In Italian the word means simply ‘to disguise’ or ‘to dress up as’ anyone or anything. For Sa Sartiglia, farmers and craftsmen dress up as knights and joust with fate. In the past it was their day of glory in which to display their horsemanship and affirm their equality with the nobility. Wearing their eerie, expressionless white masks, they disguise their wrinkled, bronzed peasant faces.
Still curious about dressing up? Read the rest of the blog at: http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/cross-dressing-in-sardinia/
Even more curious and want to see for yourself? Come with me to Sardinia on my Celebrating Sardinia tour: http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/small_group_tours/celebrating-sardinia/(click on the tabs below the introduction to see all the details). There’s one place left on this year’s tour from 28 April to 7 May, and in case you like to plan further ahead, dates for 2018 are already there too.
Did you know that olive oil is the only common cooking oil that is the juice of a fruit? All the other oils we use in our kitchen come from seeds: sunflower, rapeseed (canola), peanut and grapeseed. This realisation leads directly to another question. Would you cut an orange, leave it on the counter for a week and then squeeze and drink the juice? Would you step on an apple, leave it on the table for three days and then eat it? Yet that’s what happens to many olives before they’re pressed to extract olive juice.
I’ve tasted and written a lot about olive oil, but this idea had completely escaped me until I met Elisabetta Sebastio last year. She’s a professional olive oil taster both for Italian Chambers of Commerce and international olive oil competitions. We ran our first full-day olive oil class during my Autumn in Tuscany tour in November. It was a revelation for all of us.
Learn more on the Slow Travel Tours website: http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/olive-juice/
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