‘Going to the farm and having lunch there was so very special. We all enjoyed everything about the day. It is surely one we will remember forever!’
So wrote Janie Trayer about the day tour she and her group of five women took with me. Panini Girl (Janie Trayer’s blogging name) and I share a love of Italy. Hers is in her blood, having inherited it from Italian grandparents, whereas I dug mine up as an archaeologist only a few decades ago. We both came to Italy recently to find a life we had heard about or knew in the past. We didn’t feel like tourists, but we discovered people and places we wanted to share with others and we’ve both ended up leading tours to Italy.
Because of her Italian background Janie found a different Italy from mine. She contacted me because she wanted to include one day out of her urban-based tour connecting with rural people and food. She asked me to take her group to a cheesemaker in the Garfagnana, since she hadn’t been able to find one by searching the internet. Most of the farmers, artisan food producers and craftspeople I take people to meet are invisible electronically. The telephone landline at Cerasa, the farm we visited, functions only intermittently; they have an unreliable email address and no website. None of the family speaks English. Yet the Cavani family are the most important component in a government initiative to preserve the traditional Garfagnina Bianca breed of sheep.
We approached the farm, situated in a clearing high up on the wooded slopes of the Appennine mountains, on a single-track road. It was only paved last summer and is still strewn with rocks loosened by the herds of goats that wander sure-footedly on the scree above the road. The going was slow, but Marzio Paganelli’s expert driving got us to the farmyard safely, and as we stepped out amid tail-wagging puppies and parti-coloured hens, we were greeted by Mario, Gemma and their daughter Ombretta. Gemma had already added rennet to the warm sheep’s milk, so we hurried into the little dairy at one end of the house to watch her cut the curd into tiny pieces with a stick.
While the curd was settling to the bottom of the pot, we went down to the cellar where previous weeks’ cheeses were maturing, along with Mario’s pancetta and salamis. Outside on the slope above the house we marvelled at the enormous chestnut trees that are also under the care of the Cavanis. Each tree is identified by a name plaque that also gives its date of birth, several going back to the 17th century.
Back in the dairy Gemma plunged her arms into the pot of whey and gathered the curds at the bottom into a huge mass which she lifted to the surface, cut into three pieces and put into plastic perforated moulds to allow the whey to drain out of the cheeses. She handed samples of the warm unsalted curd around for all to taste. Then she relit the burner under the pot of whey in order to make ricotta, which means ‘recooked’. When it gets nearly to boiling point, the albumin proteins (same ones that are in egg whites) denature into white strands which are skimmed off and put into plastic baskets with sloping sides. It was too hot to taste immediately, but we had it for dessert with homemade blueberry jam. Heavenly!
The large dining room doubles as an exhibition space and shop for Ombretta’s hand-dyed woollen garments and rugs, woven or knitted from the wool of their sheep. She’s experimenting with making dyes from local plants and had achieved a warm brown from chestnut shells. Having chosen some irresistible pieces, we all sat down to Gemma’s homemade pasta and ragù, stuffed chicken thighs, pecorino cheese (of course) and that incomparable ricotta.
We could have sat in the sun on the terrace all afternoon, but Ercolano Regoli was expecting us at his water mill in the valley. Having bought some of the formenton otto file maize that we watched coming off the grindstone, we headed back toward Lucca, stopping in Barga and then at the Devil’s Bridge.
Despite the long day Panini Girl still had the energy to blog at the end of it. You can read what she wrote about the day on the farm and find out about her autumn tour at: http://paninigirl.wordpress.com/.
Since you seem to have to make a humiliating public confession to get noticed these days, I confess I’m a wine ignoramus. For someone who leads food and wine tours in Italy, I’m like a bird without its wings. It’s not that I can’t taste the difference between wines, but I can never remember which flavours and aromas go with which grapes or which wines are produced in which regions, let alone the characteristics of individual vineyards. Asked whether a particular wine smells and tastes more like black currants or ripe plums, I really can’t say. Does it have a hint of spice? I’m not sure.
Hoping it’s not to late to learn, I went yesterday to the 10th annual Anteprima Vini della Costa Toscana (Preview of Wines of the Tuscan Coast) in Lucca. This year 103 winemakers presented one wine each from the 2010 harvest. I took my friend Sam Gallacher, who had been president of the Peterhouse Wine Society at Cambridge, and together we launched bravely in at the south with Morellino di Scansano from the province of Grosseto and worked our way northward through the Bolgheris of Livorno (Sassacaia and Ornellaia conspicuous by their absence) to Lucca and Massa without a stop except to exchange views: bitter, thin, no nose, fruity, no character, full-bodied, strawberries, sour, meaty, burnt toast. Burnt toast? Must be a different kind of bread from the one I burn every morning. The sight of Pisa looming ahead was too much for us. We needed a break.
On the principle that a change is as good as a rest we headed to the enormous hall where the same vineyards were presenting their ready-to-drink vintages to the public. I made a beeline to Fattoria La Torre (Montecarlo) to taste their 2006 Esse made of 100% Syrah grapes. Next to the 2010 on the anteprima list I’d written ‘juicy blackberries’ (although I still wasn’t sure I didn’t mean black currants). What a disappointment to find the more mature vintage didn’t taste anything like the young one. To cheer myself up I tried their Saltair, a blend of Viognier and Vermentino, which I was relieved to find tasted just as good as I remembered, but I was too exhausted to think what it resembled other than ‘wine I like’.
After a quick collapse in some stylish garden furniture that a hopeful manufacturer was showing to make your private wine tastings on the patio more enjoyable, we faced up to Pisa. It was nearly closing time and the male sommeliers who were supposed pour the wines we wanted to taste had sloped off, leaving a cheerful and still energetic female sommelier from Pisa to help us. After a curious wine called Merla della Miniera (Blackbird of the Mine) made of 100% Canaiolo Nero grapes that seemed a bit like rotting meat to me and a biodynamic wine called Duemani (Two Hands) that tasted dusty, I decided my palette was hallucinating and gave up.
I’d spit out more wine in three hours than I’d drunk in a year and a half. I’d discovered a new sweet red called Aleatico from Fattoria di Fubbiano (Colline Lucchesi), which I could imagine myself serving in place of vin santo, most of which I find too raisiny. I’d confirmed my previous tentative liking for the wines of the vineyards of Sardi-Giustiniani and Fabbrica di San Martino (both Colline Lucchesi). But could I now describe what the Sangiovese grape smells or tastes like? Not really. Oh, and I was concentrating so much on tasting that I forgot to take any photos.
All suggestions for a programme of improvement will be seriously considered (but no time for a sommelier course).
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