Weaver-artist Lin Hobley writes about her experiences on the Tastes & Textiles: Woad & Wool tour last May.
One of our first outings set the tone for the rest of the tour. We drove to the small medieval village of Mercatello sul Metauro where we were met by our charming Italian guide, Beatrice, who took us on a walking tour of the village and the church.
We participated fully in a bobbin lace making workshop and each of us was guided through the process by several amazing lace makers who all produce incredible lace pieces that are works of art.
We then joined a family-style lunch at Academia del Padlot, hosted by a group of men who had been cooking together for at least 15 years. Lots of drinking, toasting, eating and merrymaking, all in Italian, but the language of food and wine is universal. We visited behind the scenes in the kitchen where the men were evidently having a wonderful time.
Their wives and children joined us and there was a wonderful sense of camaraderie. We felt like we had been gathered into the hearts of their families.
The meal included the best of the local wines and pecorino cheeses and prugnoli, the local mushrooms in season.
After feeling thoroughly fêted and having had slightly too much of the local wine, we got back to our the ex-monastery where we were staying with just enough time for a walk in the country and a quick watercolour sketch before we regrouped.
Erica took us to visit the ruins of a Roman house in Sant’Angelo in Vado, where the mosaic floors were carefully and very thoroughly preserved. It was magical and we were able to imagine the life of a Roman family.
Over the next few days, we enjoyed all the activities that were on the itinerary, and as a weaver, I loved seeing the functioning weaving studios, of individual weavers and also the larger establishments that worked with the same looms that had been used since the 1800s. Here's a still-functioning linen loom at Tela Umbra a Mano in Città di Castello.
Each and every visit had something different to recommend it, most especially the welcoming and very knowledgeable artists and guides.
Every meal was a unique culinary experience as Erica took time to explain the local foods and wines and we felt like we were beginning to learn some of the names in Italian.
Throughout the tour, we experienced such a variety of different places, workshops, demonstrations, fabulous meals and tours. We got to know and have fun with our fellow participants, and Erica and her co-leader Cheryl made us feel comfortable and special every minute
When I look back on the experience, some of the moments that stand out for me were not just those on the planned itinerary. Several unexpected pleasures stay in my memory. On the tour of the monastery at Camaldoli and the monks’ living quarters, the mystical atmosphere created by a fine rain, rather than spoiling the day, made it even more magical. It was easy to imagine what the monks’ life might have been like. On the same day, the visit to the ancient chestnut tree that involved a rainy muddy walk did not deter Erica one bit. It was a small touch of magic.
I shared a touching interchange with the 10-year-old son of the weaver’s nephew at Elisa’s weaving studio when we played checkers. Despite not sharing a common language, we still connected in a special way.
There was the sweet Italian teacher of tombola lace who showed so much patience in sharing her passion for her craft.
I loved the walk one morning when staying at the Castello di Porciano where I was amazed by the beauty of the red poppies sprinkled over the hills, a Monet painting come to life. On the same walk getting back to the Castello we discovered an enormous moth and shared the experience with two elderly Italian ladies who lived in the cottages surrounding the castle, laughter being our common language.
I was touched by a special evening that Erica planned to celebrate my birthday that made up for being away from my family. But the thread running throughout the trip was Erica’s passion for sharing everything Italian: food, wine, art, local history and craft. It was an unforgettable ten days full of discovery, variety, unique experiences, memories and new friendships
By Alison Goldberger
2019 has been a year of welcoming talented and interesting guests to our plethora of tours and courses with Italian artisans. Tours and courses run throughout every month – it’s action packed here in Tuscany! Here’s a small selection of some of our favourite tours and images from the year! If you paid us a visit, thank you! And we look forward to welcoming more of you in 2020!
The first course of the year was the ever-popular Advanced Salumi Course Tuscany. This course was wonderful but we also had the sad job of saying goodbye to Giancarlo Russo who has collaborated with us on most of the Courses with Artisans since 2010. He followed his family to Florida where he’s selling Italian wines. We miss his broad knowledge about everything Italian as well as his kindness and sense of humour.
In February we visited a new dairy keen to share their knowledge with our guests on upcoming mozzarella courses. We met Salvatore and his team at Caseificio Giusti. The mozzarella course allows our participants to get hands on with the mozzarella-making process so dairies like this that are open to visitors are key. Our participants are mostly professional cheesemakers looking to add something to their business, or to improve on the mozzarella they currently make.
We also welcomed a lovely group of keen gelato-makers to the Art & Science of Gelato course at Cremeria Opera with the talented Mirko Tognetti!
We visited two lots of free range pigs and made salumi with their butcher-owners, one at the biodynamic Il Grifo farm, Bagno di Reggio Emilia and these sleek Nero di Parma pigs at the organic San Paolo farm, Medesano, during the Advanced Salumi Course Bologna-Parma. During the year we revealed some exciting news about this course! Previously you had to take the course in Tuscany first, but this year it we added some more hands-on work so you can take it on its own. It is of course also still possible to do them together though – they run one after the other!
Here are the smiling faces of our fun group on the Theory & Practice of Italian Cheese course!
Oh May! You brought us the fantastic Celebrating Sardinia tour! And what a tour it was. Trying to choose just one photo is difficult as this tour is filled with so much colour and interesting things to see and do. But I’ve chosen this colourful image of two of our guests standing in front of one of the decorated ox carts that parade during the Festa of Sant’Antioco. This year it was possible to get up close to the carts – something that wasn’t allowed in previous years. What a treat!
Oh, and we can’t forget the foodie surprise of the year! The wonderful feast at…wait for it…a gourmet Esso petrol station! This place was found during the Tastes & Textiles: Woad & Wool tour. It’s called Piacere Quotidiano (Daily Pleasure) and is owned by four brothers – they serve the best food in the area—all locally sourced!
Here’s Giulia Paltrinieri showing us the fascinating craft of card weaving during the Tastes & Textiles: Hanging by a Thread tour. We visited her at the restored Fortezza Verrucole and learned that the earliest archaeological remains of card weaving date from the 7th century BC at a site near Rome.
In July we were absolutely delighted to congratulate Roger Longman of White Lake Cheese on winning not one, but three awards in the Yorkshire Cheese Awards for his English Pecorino. He won Supreme Champion, Best New Cheese and Best Speciality Cheese for Ewe Beauty. He found out the news while on our Mozzarella & its Cousins course, but had previously taken the Theory & Practice of Italian Cheese course in 2016. He said he’d never have been able to make such good pecorino without it. We love to hear about the achievements of our former course participants. Whether that's winning awards or creating that perfect product at home – we are always happy to get some news in our inbox.
In August Erica took a fact-finding trip to Pescia to scout out some interesting people to visit during upcoming courses. There, she met Michele who showed her around the land of the Perterra agricultural cooperative. The project was created by young people with no background in farming. They bought 40 hectares of abandoned farmland with a grant from the Tuscan region and are now restoring its productivity. A truly fascinating project. Check out our blog post about this project and the other gems found in Pescia.
Creativity was flowing in September as we ran the Tastes & Textiles: Wine to Dye For tour. Our guests met the talented Tommaso Cecchi de’ Rossi who showed them his special technique for using wine as a dyeing mordant.
One of the great things about our tours and courses is that although they are well-planned, we also have some room for some unexpected trips! This was the case during the Giants of Sardinia tour. We came across coral and gold filigrana artisan Francesco Sanna. He works alongside his brother Giovanni. Francesco demonstrated various filigrana techniques. The coral they use comes from Sardinian waters and is responsibly fished.
The year came around full circle with the Advanced Salumi Course Tuscany marking our last course of the year! Here are our smiling course participants with norcino Massimo Bacci.
December is a time to relax, celebrate the holidays and think about the year ahead. This picture shows Lucca dressed for Christmas – 'always dreaming'. We hope you’re dreaming about travelling with Sapori e Saperi Adventures in 2020. We wish you all the best for the coming year!
If you’d like to join us in 2020 take a look at our website to see the full selection of tours and courses. For more info and to book drop Erica an email at email@example.com. We can't wait to see you!
I'm Sue, a guest writer, and I've just returned from touring Italy with Erica on the Wine to Dye For and Giants of Sardinia tours. I'm from the States, west of Seattle and south Victoria, BC. I confess to being a textile and food junkie – both come from a passion for texture and color – the physicality of the materials I play with. I couldn't live without working with my hands; textiles and food are great playgrounds with luscious results.
I thought I'd literally dyed and gone to heaven on the Wine to Dye For tour.
Dyeing with wine was only a small part of the tour. We visited the Fondazione Lisio in Florence where silk velvet and brocade are still hand woven – soft, silky and fluffy – playing with clouds!
Producing and re-producing woven textiles is a very structured activity, we saw that, as well as wildly creative pieces at the leather school. The students were from all over the world – the mixing and matching colors and texture combinations were fabulous. But I must say my heart and eyes were captured by the mixed leather pieces with ancient and new artifacts combined sometimes boldly and others subtly in very functional handbags with out of this world prices – oh well! Inspiration.
For me this mixture of old and new was the most fascinating discovery during our travels. It was everywhere and not limited to the very expensive. It was very exciting to see younger and older Italians working together – sometimes easily and sometimes not – to preserve old artisanal traditions and at the same time develop products to meet current interests, creating new economies. At a home show in Lucca I met a young woman who, along with her five sisters, had invented a washable paper for new packaging and storage products.
There was also the “Renaissance Man,” Renato, who taught us to make baskets, so talented with his hands that he built a medieval wooden lathe. This connecting past to future has a long history in Italy; in Florence I had a chance to see Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions – originally in wood – precursors to many modern machines including the helicopter!
I also found that many of these artisan entrepreneurs own the entire process from growing/raising, harvesting, processing and packaging – most often family enterprises. This was true for shepherds tending flocks to making cheeses – our cheese, freshly made, was delicious. Farmers who were millers and bakers taught us to make delicious bread; and I met a weaver growing and processing her own flax, spinning (a challenge I could not meet) then weaving it.
A very old way of doing business, new again on a small scale giving the producers total control, except for Mother Nature, over their artisanal products. Most, if not all, are very conscious of sustainability and few have desires to become giant corporations. They still sit down to the tastiest family meals, made mostly of their own and other local products. Home cooked meals – yes, “just like mamma made!” And sometimes now, made by the men in the family.
I got a glimpse of a sustainable, artisanal community and economy not available to just anyone. One you had to be introduced to and Erica does just that. Thinking of that fondente gelato still brings tears to my eyes—sharp, dark velvety chocolate—or the sparkling lemon basil bursting like prosecco bubbles in your mouth.
I thought the Wine to Dye For tour was perfection, but Erica had other ideas, and I can see her point. The new version is more compact, focusing on the contiguous areas of Pistoia and Pescia in Tuscany, with a little foray to Florence for the leather and silk weaving schools. You no longer visit the mountains of the Garfagnana, but her Hanging By a Thread tour in June 2020 is based there. With the help of her Italian friends she has found additional interesting artisans.
I can see I will need to do this tour again with the new producers and making sure to leave time to add a one-day home gelato course to my trip (check with Erica about it).
Tours mentioned in my blog:
Tastes & Textiles: Wine to Dye For
Tastes & Textiles: Sea Silk in Sardinia
Tastes & Textiles: Hanging by a Thread
Giants of Sardinia
Click on the tabs below the introduction and read the information in the the window below: Highlights, Itinerary, Group Leaders, Accommodation, Price & Stuff, What People Say and Map.
If you have any questions, contact Erica at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Alison Goldberger
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
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