I try to take the train to Pisa airport from Bagni di Lucca, a 20-minute drive from my village of Casabasciana. But a train journey that takes 1 hour and 15 minutes at 8.12 in the morning, takes 3 hours at noon because there’s a two-hour layover at Lucca. So this morning I drove to the airport along the Serchio River valley. Bamboo has colonised much neglected land around Lucca, especially in stream and river valleys. This appears to be generally a good thing, since strong, tall bamboo canes are needed to support tomato plants, of which there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, including the canestrini, a knobbly variety found only in Lucca province. At first I found a good, accessible stand of bamboo along the road to Bagni di Lucca in the Lima valley. But now that more and more strangers are invading the area (including me), the old-timers are erecting fences, and last summer the track to the bamboo was blocked by a chain. I found another really good stand on the Serchio flood plain along the road to Lucca. This morning as I passed, bulldozers were busy clearing the whole stretch. It looked naked in the bright sunlight.
When you get to Lucca, you have to know you follow the green autostrada signs to ‘Firenze’ and ‘Genova’. There is not a single indication anywhere around Lucca that there is an airport only half an hour away at Pisa. I put this down to ancient animosity between the two cities. When getting on the autostrada you follow signs to Livorno which lead you, almost accidentally, to the airport on the way. To get to the centre of Pisa, you take the airport off-ramp, drive through the airport and out again, following signs saying ‘PIsa’ followed by a bull’s-eye denoting the city centre. Woe betide anyone who exits at Pisa Nord, thinking they’ll be at the airport or the Leaning Tower. Think again! I wonder whether those who program GPS systems have got this one right. I won’t even attempt to tell you how to find your way back to Lucca.
At the airport there’s a long-stay car park, but low rates only kick in after the first 7 or 8 days, during which you pay the same rate as the short-stay car park; last time I looked it was €15 per day. Much better is Park to Fly, on the wrong side of the tracks from the airport. You follow signs to ‘Chericoni’, who were the previous owners. It only costs €8 a day, even for just one day, with a free shuttle service to and from the airport. On a warm, sunny day like today, now that baggage surcharges have disencumbered us of large suitcases, it’s a nice 10-minute walk. Book on line at www.parktofly.it.
Today I go straight through security to the departure lounge, remembering to remove Renato’s sausages from my bag and put them in a separate plastic tray. Last time they set the x-ray machine off, being the culinary equivalent of hand cream. The lounge is nearly empty. Everyone must be out doing their Christmas shopping. British Airways announces boarding for their flight to Heathrow, departing before my EasyJet flight to Gatwick. One couple walks up to show their boarding passes. A few minutes later a single young man rushes up. Shortly after him a woman with a child and baby in a push chair arrive at the desk. Increasingly frequent calls in Italian and English announce the imminent departure of the BA flight. Another couple saunters up. Then a group of four immaculately dressed Italian businessmen, including one sporting shades, who could be a pop singer or actor, plus one stylish young woman. Now an announcement naming three missing passengers. Someone comes back from the plane having found one of the missing persons. In the end I count 17 adults, 1 child and a baby. If you want to avoid the crush of Ryanair and EasyJet, fly BA — if they’re not on strike already.
I go with Marco on the way home from the mill. It turns out he’s from Saltocchio, the village on the way to Lucca that Alberto, who is not from Saltocchio, told me took its name from from a battle there in which one of Hannibal’s elephants had lost its eye (‘saltare’ means jump and ‘occhio’ means eye). Marco’s legend is completely different. There used to be a small lake in the shape of an eye in front of the church and a boatman ferried worshippers across to its door, hence ‘jumping over the eye’. In a couple of hundred years will people wonder why a particular spot on the South Bank of London is called ‘London Eye’?
The mulino is a building from the past that is becoming part of the future of the Garfagnana. Chestnut flour used to be so important in the local diet that there were seven water mills in the tiny valley below our village and many hundreds more throughout the Garfagnana. Today there is barely a trace of them left. However, with diagnoses of coeliac disease and wheat allergies on the increase, chestnut flour, completely free of gluten, is enjoying a comeback, and that from the Garfagnana has attained the exalted status of DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) from the EU. This may not seem very momentous, but it has raised the prestige and price of a homely commodity, making it more attractive and worthwhile to produce.
To meet increased demand, the early 17th-century mill at Fabbriche di Vallico, was recently restored to its former glory, and several others have also been refurbished. All the water mills I’ve seen in this area north of Lucca are driven by a horizontal wheel, mounted in a beautiful arched stone chamber directly below the grindstone. At the outer ends of the wheel spokes are shallow metal cups, which used to be made of chestnut wood. Water shoots out of a narrow channel at the back of the chamber, striking the cups and turning the wheel which in turn drives the huge circular grindstone. The lower stone is fixed, while the upper stone spins and can be raised or lowered to change how fine or coarse the flour will be. The type of stone from which the grindstone is made and how it’s dressed also determines the texture of the flour.
We drive along the beautiful Turrite River valley to Fabbriche, where Domenico reverses the car up to the door of the mill. We enter onto the welcoming warm upper floor of the mill. The miller keeps two wood-fired stoves burning to maintain a low humidity and prevent the chestnuts from re-hydrating and squashing into a paste when they’re ground. By now Marco has arrived too, and he and Domenico carry in the sacks on their shoulders and pile them onto a large set of scales with weights that the miller slides along the balance arms. Each sack weighs about 40 kg (88 lb).
The miller charges in kind for his services by taking a small percentage of the flour to sell directly from the mill. [2018–More recently I've been told this is not the case, and that people pay for the miller's services. I don't know whether the law has changed or whether my Italian was too poor in 2012 to understand correctly.]
Since the mill grinds only chestnuts to avoid gluten contamination from wheat and other cereals, it’s only open from the end of November when the chestnuts are ready for milling until all of this year’s crop is ground. Now that I’m writing this, I wonder whether he’ll finish by Christmas, but I know that if you go in spring or summer, it’s shut up tight. Even though four grindstones work from morning to night every day except Sunday, there’s a big backlog of chestnuts waiting to be ground. I feel proud of our white hemp sacks with their blue embroidered initials which are much handsomer than everyone else’s utilitarian plastic sacks.
I can’t wait to go downstairs where the flour is being ground, but before descending the steep, narrow wooden steps, the miller shows me the chestnut-wood boxes, one per grindstone, which are actually chutes into which he pours the chestnuts, and through which they descend into the hoppers that feed the chestnuts unbelievably slowly, only one or two at a time, into the hole in the centre of the upper grindstone. Downstairs each pair of grindstones is housed in its own wooden (chestnut, of course) cupboard, with doors to keep the flour from flying out and getting into the miller's lungs.
The miller goes to the stones at the far end which he had been setting up with a new batch of chestnuts when we arrived. He pulls a lever to start the flow of water, which we can’t see from here, starts the hopper vibrating, turns a sort of steering wheel to adjust the height of the upper stone and reaches over to feel the fineness of the flour as it sprays out from between the two stones. It’s not right. He turns the wheel a little more and feels the flour again. After a couple more tests, he’s satisfied that it’s exactly right and closes the doors to the cupboard.
I notice a sign on the wall next to the cupboard on which ‘biologico’ (organic) is written. I shout over the roar of the four whirling stones: ‘Why is only this one organic? Aren’t all chestnuts organic?’ Both Domenico and the miller rub their thumbs and forefingers together in the Italian sign for money. The miller explains: ‘This one is for producers who have paid for the organic certification so that they can sell their flour at a higher price, but yes, I’m right that all chestnuts are organic. No one sprays or fertilises chestnut trees.’ He leads us to a plastic sack of flour from the certified chestnuts and tells us to take a pinch and taste it. Not bad. Then he takes us to a sack of flour ground from uncertified chestnuts from Coreglia. We sample it. The sweet chestnut-y flavour explodes in my mouth. The implication is that people who go through the bureaucracy and cost of getting organic certification are more interested in money than in the flavour of the flour. They won’t have lavished enough care on the drying, cleaning and sorting processes as we at Casabasciana did. I think to myself that there are probably some who care passionately about the flavour and some who don’t in both camps. You have to taste the flour before buying and when you find one you like, stick to that producer.
The jury is still out on our own flour. When I left for England a week later, it wasn’t yet back from the mill. As soon as I return next week, I’m going straight to Ebe’s to try it.
By now the chestnuts of Casabasciana had had two months of care lavished upon them. What with collecting them, drying them, shelling them and sorting and cleaning them, they should have been feeling properly mollycoddled. Now was the big moment, the first dry sunny day for a week, when they were to be taken to the mulino, the water mill, to be ground into flour. There were 12 sacks of chestnuts ready for the first trip, so we have to go in two cars.
Marco goes ahead to stop for petrol on the way, and I accompany Domenico in his Suzuki 4×4. The journey is as interesting as the destination. He describes something of his life when he was a boy growing up at Castelluccio in the ‘50s and talks about the evolution of the landscape and movements of people in those days. When he was 10, he went to school every morning in Casabasciana, a 45-minute walk along a woodland path, and returned home again at lunch time.
Children didn’t play in those days. In the afternoon he went out on the mountain with the sheep. They had 15, as did most families, and his mother Olga made pecorino cheese and ricotta from their milk. What with chickens, rabbits and a pig, chestnuts, wheat and vegetables, plus a couple of horses for transporting goods, they were virtually self-sufficient. I ask whether they felt life was hard. He replies, ‘We didn’t know anything else. We were happier than people are now. Now everyone needs a car, a television, all those things that require money. It was simpler then.’
Franca gets to the community hall at 7.30 every morning to sort chestnuts. When I arrive around 9.00 there are already four family members around the table. Now that I’ve discovered the therapeutic value of talking, I decide to find out more about them. There’s Olga who is 85 or 86. I think of her as Domenico’s mother, rather than the other way round, because she lives in her son’s house, opposite mine, with him and his wife Ebe. Olga walks with a stick, which seems totally unnecessary to me. I met her once coming along the woodland path from Casteluccio, the farmstead where she raised her family, which is a brisk 45-minute walk from our village. Her stamina at the chestnut table is unbeatable, and her speed and accuracy of sorting puts the rest of us to shame. I reckon she could do all 24 sacks of them as quickly by herself and she just tolerates us to make us feel needed. I ask her whether anyone is living at Casteluccio now. No, no longer, but they used to cultivate all the land there. She doesn’t sound sad or nostalgic. Times change, and it wouldn’t be practical to live there now. Then I ask about a couple of houses farther out, one of which has recently been restored. Do I mean Lupinaia? Well, I don’t know. I didn’t know every house had a name. Someone asks whether I discovered Sovignano. The house with the beautiful Roman arches? Some English people bought it a few years ago, but never restored it. They think they bought it on the internet and when they arrived and saw the state it’s in, abandoned in the midst of the chestnut wood, they lost heart. The others now start throwing names into the ring and try to describe to me where they are — houses, churches, water mills, streams. The conversation becomes animated. Names are repeated, rolled around in the mouth to recapture the flavour of them. Each place is like a family member with its own personality. The landscape is a patchwork of names. Nowhere is omitted, nowhere is nameless wilderness.
The sweet chestnut has three layers of protection, which makes for much hard work for those who want to turn the fruit into flour. There’s the green spiny outer covering. When the chestnut is ripe at the end of September or early October, it drops from the tree and this outer case splits open revealing the middle shell, the shiny dark brown one we see on fresh chestnuts in shops and, at this time of year, roasting on street corners of some cities. Inside the leathery dark brown shell is the final protective layer, a thin reddish brown skin. Inside this hides the cream-coloured nut.
It’s the remnants of the shell and this pesky inner skin that is occupying all our time now. When we collected the chestnuts, the prickly outer case was left on the woodland floor where it rots very slowly — beware sitting on the ground in a chestnut wood! After being dried for at least 40 days and nights in a metato (a special chestnut-drying hut), most, but not all, of the dark brown shell and inner skin was removed in a machine resembling a giant cheese grater.
Chestnut flour is naturally sweet, and the goal is to produce the sweetest flour possible. You shouldn’t have to add sugar to a chestnut cake, but the shell and skin are bitter, as are chestnuts that accidentally got burnt in the drying process. All the chestnuts and pieces of chestnuts have to be sorted and cleaned by hand to remove them.
We gather in the old school that now functions as a community hall. In the centre of the room is a large shallow wooden box with a screen bottom resting on trestles. Members of Franca and Peppe’s family are bent over around the sieve, pushing the chestnuts from one end of the sieve to the other. Each person quickly removes some of the bad pieces, scrapes off remnants of inner skin with a serrated kitchen knife and pushes them on to the next person who does the same until they reach the other end, where Franca and Olga remove the last of the offending bits and shove the good ones out the end into a plastic bucket, which Franca empties periodically into antique hemp sacks embroidered with family initials. I love the way they happily mix old and new — the utilitarian plastic buckets next to the beautiful hemp sacks, also perfect for their purpose.
This is the most boring work imaginable. The others are talking, but I don’t understand when they race along in the local accent. Everyone’s back aches. We stand, we sit. I stand on one leg and then the other, try a tai chi stance. Glance at my watch. Still two hours till lunch. Then someone asks me a question. I ask them to repeat it and understand the second time round. I reply and we have a short conversation. When we stop talking, I realise my back doesn’t ache. I listen more intently and join in. I begin to realise, that’s the remedy. And now it’s lunch time.
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