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!
April should have seen us flying off to Sardinia to run the wonderful Celebrating Sardinia tour! Of course this year that wasn't possible because of Covid-19. However, we decided to run the tour anyway — on Facebook! Our followers were treated to fabulous pictures and interesting facts from the tour. And you can find it all here, in case you missed it. Enjoy!
Tuesday 21 April 2020
Today I’d be packing to take a Ryanair flight from Pisa to Alghero, a town in the northern part of the island of Sardinia. My Celebrating Sardinia tour based in southwest Sardinia would have started on Friday. Since my guests wanted to see some other parts of the island and Alghero is the home town of Antonio Arca (pictured), the co-leader for my Sardinian tours, he agreed readily to a little informal pre-tour tour of his territory. Since none of this is happening due to the coronavirus, I’m going to pretend I’m going and give you a virtual tour.
Wednesday 22 April 2020
On with our virtual pre-tour tour in north Sardinia. Antonio picks us up at our hotel and we drive north along the coast stopping for a walk along the beach and ending at Capo Caccia, the name of Antonio’s Sardinian food importing business in London. We lunch at the home of a friend of his and then proceed inland and up and up and up to Supramonte ('over mountain’) where we spend the night in these beautifully restored shepherds’ huts.
Thursday 23 April 2020
Day 3 of our virtual pre-tour tour in north Sardinia. Just below Supramonte the town of Orgosolo sprawls down the mountainside. The houses are decorated with protest murals. Our guide explains that the paintings started in 1969 as an expression of discontent about the government’s treatment of remote mountain villages. Since then the themes have expanded to express sympathy with other downtrodden people and protest movements. There’s another attraction, but I’ll leave that as a surprise for when you come on the tour.
When I think of lunch, I really wish this weren’t just a virtual tour. Back up at Supramonte Gino and his team have been preparing the classic Sardinian porceddu (also called maialino and porcetto), young pig spit-roasted over hot coals and flavoured with myrtle leaves. Of course there’s an abundant antipasto and many other courses including boiled mutton and local pecorino. Happy and satiated we climb into the van for the drive back to Alghero.
Friday 24 April 2020
Today the virtual Celebrating Sardinia tour begins. Massimo Privitera, our delightful driver for the tour, picks us up in Alghero. It’s a long way to Sant’Antioco. My philosophy is that the journey is as important as the destination. Rather than speeding down the super-highway, we travel slowly along a scenic route, stopping for a good lunch along the way.
Saturday 25 April 2020
Our first virtual full day in Sant’Antioco is jam-packed with activities. After our cappuccinos we’re going to meet Stefano Castello and his strange triple pipe, the launeddas. It requires circular breathing, a technique that allows you to produce a continuous note by breathing in through your nose while blowing out through your mouth into the pipe. Just try it! The instrument is fiendishly difficult to play, you fine tune it using beeswax and there is no written music. You have to learn by ear from a maestro. How has this instrument survived in Sardinia for three millennia? And why have I only seen men playing it? I have a theory, but you’ll have to wait until next Saturday to find out. Here’s Stefano near the Tomb of the Giants, where I first heard him play and which we’ll be visiting later in the week.
It’s still Saturday of our virtual Celebrating Sardinia tour. After enjoying lunch at our favourite organic café, we stroll along to the grand opening of the 661st Festa of Sant’Antioco, the patron saint of Sardinia and the celebration that gave me the idea for this tour. People from all over Sardinia arrive in their distinctive village costumes for the offering of ‘Is coccois’, an elaborately decorated sacred bread. As much as I enjoy the procession, what I like best is watching the preparations, like this wife adjusting her husband's collar. I was especially captivated by the young people wearing their costumes as if they were jeans and sitting on the curb gazing at their cell phones.
It’s aperitivo time and I hope you still have some energy to stroll along the main street of Sant'Antioco for our virtual passeggiata sampling food at the stalls of small food producers and admiring the wares of craftspeople from many parts of Sardinia. All generations from great-grandparents to babies gather round for the music and dancing. Can you keep from tapping your foot?
Sunday 26 April 2020
One of the highlights of our virtual Sunday on the Celebrating Sardinia tour is — you guessed it — another procession! This time we have a succession oxcarts which must keep all the florists of Sardinia in business for the whole year.
With all those oxen on parade, the unsung hero of the morning is the pooper scooper. Here’s his moment of glory.
Anyone for yeast for your virtual dinner? If this doesn’t sound very appetising, think long-rise pizza dough and craft beer at Birrificio Rubiu. Let’s hope I haven’t made the same mistake as last year when I booked at their pizzeria in Cagliari instead of the brewery in Sant’Antioco. They fit us in anyway, and we didn’t go hungry. Whew!
Monday 27 April 2020
On our virtual Monday morning, at the end of a dirt track we arrive at Giulio's. I hope you're enjoying our virtual Celebrating Sardinia tour so far! Before taking you to a producer or an event, I check it out in person. I first met cheesemaker Giulio Basciu on a research trip in February 2017 with my architect friends Laurence and Nina.
You watch Giulio make pecorino cheese and then ricotta and will stay for his homemade and home-grown lunch.
Something you might not notice hanging on a hook is this traditional shepherd’s cloak in which Laurence looks quite at home.
I don’t often include museums on my tours, because you can find them on your own, and in general I have nothing to add to the excellent videos and storyboards museums provide. But the Archaeological Museum of Sant’Antioco is on the fringes of town and even taxi drivers have trouble finding the front door. On the slopes above the museum is a tofet, a Phoenician-Carthiginian cemetery dedicated to remains of infants buried in terracotta pots. Child sacrifice or high infant mortality? You can make up your own minds when you’re there. For now, I want to show you one of the many beautiful objects on display inside the museum building which show off the exquisite workmanship of jewellers of that era. Don’t you wish we had a time machine and could visit the jeweller's workshop?
Tuesday 28 April 2020
Since Friday evening at the start of your virtual Celebrating Sardinia tour, you’ve been staying in the town of Sant’Antioco on the island of Sant’Antioco. In the early 13th century, because of harassment by Saracen pirates, the people of Sant’Antioco moved away from the coast and the seat of the diocese was moved to Tratalias, where they began building the cathedral in 1213. Today, whether or not we’re attacked by pirates, I’m taking you inland to Tratalias. You’re going to have a pottery lesson with Antonella Ajò, who will teach you three simple techniques you can use to make either a useful or decorative object.
Antonella wasn’t a potter by training, she was inspired by the romanesque cathedral of Tratalias to make pottery models of all 66 romanesque churches still intact in Sardinia.
Having completed the project, she has allowed her creative muse to take her in other directions. I love her models of daily life.
I don’t know about you, but this virtual eating isn’t filling me up. It makes my tummy rumble just thinking about Lorella’s home cooking which we’re having for lunch today at her Agriturismo Sirimagus. Everyone misses vegetables in restaurants, but Lorella always includes what she has in her garden.
Her sommelier husband Gianni chooses a local wine for every dish.
Behind the scenes at their farm are fruit trees, tomatoes and friendly pigs.
Wednesday 29 April 2020
Since Saturday of this virtual tour Celebrating Sardinia, fisherman Mauro Pintus and I have been checking the weather to decide whether we’ll go fishing today or Friday. Today is perfect—sunny and calm! We walk down to the Lungomare and board the ‘Alessandro P’, where his son Alessandro is preparing the boat and his wife Roberta is unloading groceries to go with the fish we catch for lunch. Today is the most relaxing of the tour. You can lie on the top deck and bask in the sun or stay below and help with the work. I love to watch every detail of the fishing. Mauro goes out the evening before and lays the line of netting. He knows exactly where the fish will be depending on the season and the weather. We come along and reel in the net to see what we’re having for lunch. Lifting the net is precision work. Either Mauro or Alessandro drives the boat very slowly forward while the other reels in the net.
The work done, suddenly the net is whisked away and a table appears all laid for lunch. The freshest, best cooked fish I’ve ever eaten. Brava Roberta!
It’s late afternoon of our virtual fishing trip as we glide back along the coast of the island of Sant’Antioco.
You have the best view of the town of Sant’Antioco from the boat as we come in to moor. It’s not a perfect jewel like Tuscan hilltop villages, but its sun-baked friendly face recalls its North African and Spanish past.
Sant’Antioco the Martyr is said to have been a doctor in the Roman province of Mauretania (Morocco & northern Algeria) banished early in the 2nd century AD for teaching Christianity. He landed on the island of Sulci (now Sant’Antioco).
Thursday 30 April 2020
You should wake up this morning feeling excited. What a virtual Celebrating Sardinia day we have in store! Last year my usual bread teacher wasn’t available. I asked the potter Antonella Ajò whether she knew anyone who makes bread at home and would be willing to teach. She introduced me (electronically) to Anna Marras and her group dedicated to keeping their traditions alive. Usually I test every activity myself, but there was no time. I was holding my breath and crossing my fingers when we arrived. No need. Anna and her friends, some in their traditional costumes, are bustling around getting ready. We immediately get to work mixing various types of dough: for weekly bread, for stuffed bread and for decorated festival bread all of which we learn to do ourselves.
They light the wood-fired oven. Start a huge pot of boiling water to cook an enormous sack of malloreddus pasta they’d made the day before. Other people keep arriving. We go to another house where the men are roasting the pork in a wood-fired oven.
Slowly it dawns on us that we're the excuse for a grand feast for all the members of the group. Anna is pushing to teach us pasta next time, but I want to repeat the bread. Whoever wins, it’s guaranteed to be a fantastic day.
After that gigantic lunch we need a virtual siesta, and I hear the (real) good news that there were only three new cases of Covid-19 in Sardinia. I want to introduce our driver Massimo properly because at 4.30 he’s coming to pick us up to show us his island. Massimo is one of the kindest, most generous people I know. When I’m preoccupied and tearing my hair out because someone wants to change tomorrow’s activity, Massimo is there for you (and me) smiling and ready to help with whatever you need. He takes us to see the ruins of the Bronze Age nuraghe Grutti Acqua with its underground pools, ritual lake and view over the island.
On to the so-called Giants’ Tomb.
We stop at the Genovese Torre Canai (lookout tower) and finish our tour at Mario & Pinella’s fish shack near Massimo’s house for aperitivo (that’s him 2nd from the left). How we manage to eat dinner is beyond me. I’m omitting Massimo’s stunning surprise for when you come on the tour in 2021.
Friday 1 May 2020
I’m feeling sad. Our virtual Celebrating Sardinia tour is nearly over. But I perk up when I remember I’m taking you to the salt pans this morning. The expanse of white at the edge of the lagoon is awe-inspiring.
And it doesn’t end there. Canals carry water from the sea at Porto Pino 20 km (12.5 mi) away, evaporating as it goes. We don’t visit the canals on the tour, but my insatiable curiosity took me there on a research trip and I’m including a photo so you can see what’s behind the scenes.
Here you see salt crystals forming at the edge of one of the pans. See how red the water is? The colour comes from microscopic brine shrimp on which flamingos feed, which is why their feathers are pink.
One thing we don’t see today is the little train that used to chug along a track carting salt from the pans to the processing plant at the far end. I saw it the first time I visited, but it has been replaced by huge lorries.
Are you feeling virtually thirsty? I thought so after all that salt, so we’re going for a virtual wine tour and tasting. As soon as we walk into Cantina Sardus Pater we see the craziest thing — Alberto Massa filling a bottle from a petrol pump!
When we stop laughing, Alberto leads us down into the bowels of the Cantina where production takes place. He tells us that the vin ordinaire of France used to come from the vine-covered hills of Sant’Antioco, until the EU implemented quotas. The Cantina decided to go up-market. They’re now making fine wines which they export to many countries of the world.
Having done some virtual packing in preparation for our departure tomorrow from Sant’Antioco, we set off for Agriturismo Sa Reina, a biodynamic farm that cultivates cereals and artichokes. Anja teaches you to make malloreddus pasta using stone-ground flour from their farm. Judging by the photos you’ve done a good job.
The flour is swept away, the tables rearranged and a dinner produced with ingredients from the farm appears. (My iPhone was so tempted by the food that it ate all my photos before I could download them. You’ll have to come on the tour to see and taste how good it was.)
Saturday 2 May 2020
The final day of our virtual Celebrating Sardinia tour has come all too soon. We put our virtual suitcases in Massimo’s virtual van and head to Cagliari (pronounced Cal-yi-a-ri), the capital of Sardinia. On Tuesday we had left our pottery drying on the window ledge at Antonella’s workshop so she could fire it for us. On the way to Cagliari we stop to pick it up. How exciting to see our finished creations, and Antonella, who greets us like old friends.
At Cagliari we hastily leave our bags at the Gallo Bianco (White Rooster) hotel and rush eagerly to the Mercato San Benedetto. The abundance of fresh Sardinian produce knocks you off your feet.
After a quick lunch, we head to the National Archaeological Museum where I may have discovered the reason for the persistence and popularity of the launeddas. This bronze figurine dated to the 10th century BCE in the National Archaeological Museum in Cagliari (Sardinia) is labelled as an ithyphallic launeddas player. No wonder it's still being played today!
I hope you enjoyed your virtual Celebrating Sardinia tour and are now safely in your real homes.
If this has whetted your appetite, come next year from 16–25 April 2021. Visit the website to find out more, and to book drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our Giants of Sardinia tour from 3–10 October 2020 still has places too. If you'd like to come, but aren't sure whether it will be safe, don't worry. Fill in a booking form now and pay the deposit later when we know whether travel is likely to be possible.
Here are some more of my favourite photos because it's so hard to leave Sant'Antioco. And here’s a link to my blog about how I discovered Sant’Antioco. I encourage you to follow the link at the end to the full blog on the Slow Travel Tours website.
Stay safe and well and wash your hands so we can soon drink a toast together in Sardinia: 'Salute!' (to health)
Some dinners are tweets: heat up the leftovers and pour a glass of wine. Others are more like short stories taking more time and connecting you to other people and places.
I take the kitchen compost down to the orto (vegetable garden). The cavolo nero is beginning to flower. I’d better use the remaining leaves. I ponder what to cook as I walk back up to the house. I settle on infarinata. I'm remembering the infarinata we had at the Vecchio Mulino during the Advanced Salumi course that had just ended.
I have a good idea of the ingredients — broth from cooking biroldo (a blood sausage which I can get at my village shop, but not the broth), beans, cavolo nero, some odori (onion, carrot, celery) and cornmeal. Since I’d never made it at home, I decide to check a couple of my local cookbooks.
I bought Le Ricette di Marilena many years ago from the inimitable Andrea Bertucci at the Vecchio Mulino.
She’s from Fosciandora, which is on the southern edge of the Garfagnana. When I think of that area, I think of Marina Donati, the weaver to whom I take guests on my Tastes & Textiles tours. Marina is a courageous woman who decided to preserve the traditional patterns of the Garfagnana instead of creating her own. She sold her scarves, tableware, rugs and handbags at weekly markets, packing and unpacking her van and setting up her stall single-handedly.
Marilena wants me to throw dried beans pre-soaked overnight, finely chopped cavolo nero, squashed garlic, potato and onion both finely chopped, a stock cube (which I refuse to use) and salt and pepper into a pot of water and boil for two hours. Halfway through I’m to add some pork stock. After two hours I whisk in the cornmeal and stir continuously for 40 minutes and serve hot, seasoned with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, or leave to get cold. The leftovers can be cut into little squares and fried.
The other cookbook is one I bought when I first arrived in Lucca in 2004. The author Emiliana Lucchesi was a researcher and collector of recipes. Her book includes recipes gathered from the mountains of the Garfagnana to the beaches of Viareggio. It ranges from recipes of the peasants to those of the well-to-do, from home cooks to restaurant chefs. She relates stories and legends. I’m very fond of it.
Emiliana’s recipe is similar yet different. She wants me to use fresh borlotti or scritti beans, which are summer vegetables, and basil, which dies at the first frost. Yet she herself states that infarinata is a robust and tasty winter dish. She suggests adding some pork skin, which might give a hint of the missing broth from biroldo. She cooks the beans separately, sautés the odori (which include carrot and celery) to which the beans and their liquid are added. There’s a nice touch about drizzling the olive oil on the hot dish in the form of a cross.
Even the name of the dish is inconstant. Marilena calls it ‘farinata’ and includes in brackets the alternatives ‘menomatoli’ and ‘pacchiarini’. Emiliana calls her recipe ‘infarinata garfagnina’, but also notes that at Pietrasanta and Querceta on the coastal plain it’s known as ‘intruglia’ or ‘incavolata’. She prints ‘L’infarinata’ which gives the whole recipe in verse in the Garfagnana dialect (or perhaps Garfagnana Italian).
And to complicate matters further, if you ask for ‘farinata’ at Massa, you’ll get what we in Lucca call ‘cecina’, a chickpea flour galette cooked in a shallow copper pan in a wood-fired oven. I recently found Mauro Agostini who makes the pans, and we’ll be going to visit him during the Tastes & Textiles: Wine to Dye For tour in September. Not only will we learn how the pans are made, but also how to make cecina and enjoy lunch cooked by his son-in-law Jimmi in a battery of copper pots.
By now I’ve spent a pleasant hour or more (who’s counting) exploring the variety of traditions of a single dish in the relatively small area of Lucca Province. That’s what Italy is like: confusing and endlessly interesting at the same time. I don’t know where the idea of a single Italian cuisine came from.
Up to the shop to do my weekend shopping. I ask Eugenia, the owner and one of my cooking mentors, how she makes infarinata. She starts with lardo (fresh pork back fat) minced with odori. I must remember to tell participants on my salumi courses about this delicious confection which you can use when making minestrone or spread on hot toasted crostini.
She sautés more odori in the melted lardo, adds the pre-soaked and boiled borlotti beans and then proceeds more or less like Emiliana, but without the basil and pork skin. Since this is the Casabasciana recipe, I decide to proceed more or less with her recipe.
I go down to the orto to pick the cavolo nero leaves. What will become of it this year? I think about Penny, my friend who does more of the work than I do but is locked down in England. Rolando who digs it every spring is locked down in his own village in the valley.
I put the beans to soak. I’m slightly embarrassed. The beans aren’t from the Garfagnana; they’re ‘Cera’ beans from Agriturismo San Cassiano, the farm where we stay during the mozzarella course. It’s in southern Italy, in the region of Campania where you have to go for the best mozzarella di bufala. Andrea the farmer and his mother Rosanna the cook share precisely my philosophy about agriculture and food. They are affectionate and generous to me and my guests. I always load up with their beans and Rosanna’s jams, both of which taste intensely of themselves. I was especially sad not to be able to see them due to having to cancel the mozzarella course at the end of March because of the coronavirus.
I simmer the beans with a crushed clove of garlic and a few sage leaves.
SUNDAY LATE AFTERNOON
I unhook my copper paiolo from next to the fireplace. The paiolo has a slightly rounded bottom and a sturdy iron handle by which you hang it over the fire. It’s ideal for making soups, stews, polenta and infarinata. I bought mine in one of my favourite shops in Lucca in Via San Paolino, nearly opposite the church that the Puccini family frequented. It’s stuffed full of every type of home, kitchen and agricultural implement you can imagine, mostly made of metal, but not all.
I chop the onion, carrot and celery and sauté it in olive oil. I add cavolo nero and potato, the beans and their liquid, some strips of skin from prosciutto (which Renato, Eugenia’s husband gave me Saturday morning) and more water and start them simmering.
I light the fire in the kitchen fireplace.
When the vegetables are cooked, I slowly add the farina di formenton otto file (flour of eight-row maize) which I got last time I visited Ercolano Regoli at his water mill in Pieve Fosciana.
Ercolano owes his name to Beato Ercolano, a 15th-century Franciscan friar who founded what is now Agriturismo Ai Frati, where we stay during the Tastes & Textiles: Hanging by a Thread tour. Most people in the Garfagnana have nicknames, but Ercolano is so kind and good, the essence of a saintly being, that he is always called by his real name, Ercolano.
I stir with a spurtle, a turned wooden stick used by the Scots when making porridge. In reality, polenta is also a porridge, a mush or pap which can be made from many types of flour. In the Garfagnana we also make polenta dolce (sweet porridge) from chestnut flour. As I stir, I think about my dear friend Sarah who gave me the spurtle. I’ve known her for decades, from her days as administrator for the Academy of Ancient Music, then tai chi lessons together which led her to study the Alexander Technique which she now teaches in Edinburgh.
I learned from Alvaro Ferrari, master polentaio (polenta-maker) of the Garfagnana when I first arrived here, that 40 minutes is not long enough to adequately cook our whole-grain formenton otto file cornmeal. It requires a minimum of 1 hour, and he adds, if your guests are late, all the better. But the best secret I learned from him is that you don’t have to stir your polenta continuously. Just drape a damp cloth over the top of the pot, cover it with a lid and simmer as slowly as possible for an hour. No stirring! You can get on with preparing the rest of the meal. Whether this method would work with a stainless steel pan, I can’t say. When cooked in copper, it doesn’t stick to the bottom.
I hang my covered paiolo on the hook in the fireplace, making sure the cloth isn’t hanging down the sides (my cloth is singed to remind me not to make that mistake again).
I open a bottle of Alessandro Bravi’s Garfagnina Rosso wine. Alessandro makes it below Camporgiano, north of Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, the administrative capital of the Garfagnana. His sangiovese grapes grow in vineyards even higher in the Garfagnana and don’t ripen until the end of October or early November. Alessandro likes a challenge.
The aromas and flavours of the finished infarinata are beyond my powers to describe: the pungent scent of this season’s olive oil as I drizzle it over the hot infarinata, the intense flavour of corn and beans, the slight bitterness of the cavolo nero and the throng of friends who have been present along the way, if not in body, then in spirit. A happy ending to a short story.
By Alison Goldberger
March, what a month it’s been for us all! We went from looking forward to a month filled with courses to living under a lock-down. Who could have expected what was to unfold?
However, we were extremely lucky to have two talented students join us on the Advanced Salumi Course Tuscany at the beginning of the month just when the coronavirus came to northern Italy and we all still hoped it could be contained. The course was fully booked but travel restrictions and strict government rules were already starting to be put in place meaning some of our participants didn’t make it.
We welcomed Seamus Platt who is head chef at The Shambles in Seattle and sources all his ingredients locally. I was particularly interested to hear his pigs come from a small farm that has a variety of old breeds. Katie Krauss is an ex-chef who now produces her own premium distilled vodka and dry gin in Australia. She’s also teaches salumi making. An interesting pair! Below are some of our favourite photos from the course.
As soon as the students were dropped off at the station Erica had to quickly negotiate the realities of the new coronavirus lock-down. One unexpected problem was trying to get a friend’s car out of an airport car park before it closed down. While they were stuck in England Erica had to rescue the car…without breaking the strict new rules. Read all about it in her blog post.
Now it’s the little things that keep us all going! Erica has been enjoying cooking some delicious, and seasonal meals. Such as castagnaccio made from chestnut flour. It’s a real comfort food but naturally sweet and with no added sugar. It’s made from chestnut flour, a little extra-virgin olive oil, grated orange rind, water and topped with walnuts and rosemary. Best hot from the oven! The woman who owns her village shop has also been baking colombine (literally ‘little doves’) early as a treat for the locals! It’s usually eaten at Easter and is a yeasted bread dough with just a little sugar and butter – it should be neither sweet nor savoury so it can be eaten with either jam or salumi. Above you’ll see a photo from a beautiful walk she took along the mulattiera from her village to the hamlet of Corona (a complete coincidence!) – she wrote about it for Slow Travel Tours here.
It’s definitely not an easy time for small businesses but we are looking forward to welcoming you back to Italy soon to share the knowledge of our artisans and show you the most beautiful, off the beaten track parts of this fantastic country.
If you have any questions about future tours, please get in touch with Erica at email@example.com. We wish you all good health!
When they issued the country-wide community containment decree for coronavirus on the evening of Monday 9 March, I’m sure the last thing the Italian government had in mind was K&P’s car. My English friends had left it in the care of Europark, an excellent, inexpensive private car park five minutes’ walk from the terminal at Pisa Airport. K&P were in England, planning to return on 23 March.
On the morning of Thursday 12 March I received a panicky email from P. Their flight had been cancelled; they didn’t know when they would be able to get back. What would happen to their car? When I phoned Europark, they were panicky too. They had been ordered to close as soon as possible. Their terms guarantee that the car park will be under video surveillance 24-hours a day. If they closed, they wouldn’t be able to fulfil this condition. They had to empty the car park by Saturday morning. Everyone except K&P had either managed to get back earlier to pick up their cars or would be back before Saturday. K&P’s car was the only one that would be left. We had to get it out. But how?
I read the whole decree in Italian. It contained much interesting information and caring thoughts for Italian citizens, but nothing about cars marooned in car parks. The only conditions under which an individual was allowed to move from his or her home were:
For whichever reason you were travelling, you had to carry with you a self-declaration of the purpose of your journey. The penalty for not having one or lying was either three months in prison or a fine of 206 Euros. Already two people from Lucca had been checked by the police and fined.
First brilliant idea: Maybe it was within the scope of my driver’s ‘proven need to work’. He could go with a colleague and drive the car up to me. He didn’t think so. His work is providing the public service of driving people from A to B, not driving someone else’s car.
Second brilliant idea: Maybe we could find a car bodywork garage with a tow truck who would go get it. Surely it was within their ‘proven need to work’. My driver would phone his mate to find out whether he could do it and how much it would cost. He would also ask the police whether he himself could do the job under the terms of the decree. By now it was late Thursday afternoon, and they wouldn’t be open until Friday morning.
Meanwhile, I was emailing P and phoning Europark to make sure nothing had changed there and to find out what they needed from K&P to release the car to someone else. P was also organising with neighbours down the hill to park the car at their house where they could keep an eye on it.
On Friday morning my driver confirmed that his friend could pick up the car. It would cost a goodly sum, but at least the car would be free. The police had said it wasn’t within their authority to state whether my driver could do the job or not. I phoned the bodywork garage. They were busy all day Friday. They could go on Saturday. I phoned Europark. By Saturday they would be closed.
Third brilliant idea: I phoned my car mechanic. If I ran an artisan car repair course, Roberto would be my man. He understood the problem immediately. He would ring his friend Stefano, who has a car roadside rescue business near Lucca. I could phone Stefano in five minutes. Stefano turned out to be the white knight of this saga. He could be at Europark at 3 pm with his low loader. What make of car was he to pick up? Me and cars. I’d ridden in the car, but had no idea. I remembered K&P talking about wanting a Jimmy, so that’s what I said.
I needed the name of Stefano’s company for P’s email to Europark. Stefano pronounced it, and I heard what sounded like Boodado e Terrenche. It took some inventive searching on Google to find Bud e Terence. It seems that to liberate a car, you have to be an aficionado of Italian films. Of course I know many of the classics, but I’d never heard of this thin and corpulent duo who were starring in films from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, nor of the Bud & Terence film festival at Masone in Ligura.
I sent the wording of the email for Europark to P, leaving blanks for the model of car and the registration number. She copied me into the email to Europark, but I didn’t read it. At 2.58 pm, Stefano rang me. He was at Europark, but the car they had given him wasn’t a Jimmy. Uh, oh. I checked P’s email. Sure enough, it wasn’t a Jimmy. It was a Diahatsu Terios. Stefano would be here in an ‘oretta’ (this should mean a ‘little hour’, but in fact means a little over an hour). He’d phone me from Topo Gigio bar and lunch place, a landmark at the bottom of our hill known by everyone for miles around, and I’d drive down to meet him and guide him to A&J’s house.
Would the police be checking our tiny winding road? I prepared two self-declarations, one for going shopping at Bagni di Lucca (I could go buy something if necessary) and one for returning home. As it turned out, Stefano was already coming up the road as I headed down. What a hero! If you ever need roadside rescue anywhere in Italy or France (probably other countries too) — when we’re allowed to travel — give him a ring (+39 339 6239872).
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