At noon on Wednesday 9 April in Florence, Dr Francesca Camilli of the Italian National Research Council will present a paper to the 1st European UNESCO-SCBD* Conference on ‘Linking Biological and Cultural Diversity in Europe’. Her paper is entitled: ‘The Garfagnana Model: exploitation of agricultural and cultural biodiversity for sustainable local development’.
One of her prime examples will be Cerasa farm, a mountain paradise which is no secret to my clients who have written rapturously about their visits (here, here, here, and here May 2012). Mario, Gemma and their daughter Ombretta are a fundamental part of a project, overseen by the Germplasm Bank set up by the Comunità Montagna della Garfagnana (now the Unione dei Comuni), to preserve the indigenous Garfagnina Bianca sheep.
If you’ve noticed some sheep lurking in the foreground of a nativity scene by Giotto, it could have been this breed, which was once common in the Apennine Mountains.
Mario and the dogs look after the sheep.
Gemma makes pecorino cheese and ricotta from their milk.
Ombretta dyes their wool with natural dyes and has them knitted and woven into saleable products.
Mario rears rams to sell to other farmers who want to join him in preserving the breed.
Another strand of the Germplasm Bank project is the botanical station at Camporgiano. They have rescued dozens of indigenous varieties of fruit and vegetables. Besides being grown at the station, each variety has been entrusted to a custodian, a local farmer responsible for its propagation and preservation. I visited the station last year where the Director Dr Fabiana Fiorani explained their work.
In 2013 the Garfagnana submitted several apple varieties to the European Pomological Exhibition at Limoges where it gained the distinction of ‘Custodian of Biodiversity’.
Watch this space for the announcement that I can take you to the botanical station followed by a visit to one of the custodians and lunch in their home. The next opportunity to visit Cerasa is during the Cheese, Bread & Honey tour in June.
The UNESCO conference lasts for three days, during which dozens of international experts deliver research papers. It could be a big yawn, but judging by some of the titles, I for one would be awake. For example, a paper by J. J. Boersma of Leiden University is intriguingly titled ‘Could the rewilding of Europe be seen as progress?’, with the implication that the answer is ‘yes’. To me the most interesting theme is that biodiversity of domesticated plants and animals appears closely connected to cultural diversity arising from the traditions and identity of a place. Finding the balance between tradition and modernity may be the virtuous path to sustainable rural development.
The mere fact of an international conference organised by UNESCO on the topic of biodiversity and sustainable development raises hope that the planet will not be entirely subjugated to the interests of agri-business. A more local, but equally important action took place yesterday, also in Florence, when Slow Food organised a demonstration against the introduction of GM corn in Italy. Fingers crossed!
Find out more: Joint Programme Between UNESCO and CBD, Convention on Biological Diversity, Linking Biological and Cultural Diversity in Europe Conference programme, Les Croqueurs de Pomme
*Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, based in Montreal, Canada
By Gina Piazza and Heather Jarman
One of the great pleasures of organising tours and courses is getting to know my clients. Often this happens during the initial phases of communication, even if people are booking a Small Group Tour or one of our Courses with Artisans for which the dates and programme are already fixed. People ask questions, I reply and we get to know each other. A wonderful example of this is the emails between Gina and me as she and her husband from California were preparing to come on the Advanced Salumi Course which is taking place right now.
ME (during the previous course): The course is going well. We had a good day yesterday. But one man on this course is having problems understanding because he has never done any butchering and doesn’t know pig anatomy. This reminded me of you telling me that you didn’t have any butchering experience. I think you will get more out of the course if you at least do some reading up on the internet and maybe look at some diagrams of pig anatomy.
GINA: I did help butcher a half hog just a few weeks ago!! I completely dissected the head and then helped saw it in half for roasting. I deboned the shoulder, cut rib chops, and trussed up a shoulder roast stuffed with garlic and herbs- it was fantastic!!
After the course we bought an entire hog head and I made pig head pozole- I’ll send pics later but it took 2 days to complete and it was delicious! Had some friends over and made a party of it-
See you in a few weeks! YAY!
Ps…Is it raining a lot?
ME: I’d never heard of pozole. Looked it up on the internet and got an ‘authentic’ recipe for pork shoulder and saying it takes 1 hour 45 minutes. Yours sounds much more authentic! Would love to see the photos.
We’ve just had three whole days of sun!!
GINA: We had to split the head in fourths to get it into 2 pots-
Boiled it with herbs for 3.5 hours…
…soaked hominy overnight then cooked all 2.5 pounds of it (dried white corn) for 3.5 hours, cut up 5 pounds of pork shoulder and boiled for 2 hours, then took 3 types of dried chilis and garlic charred them on an iron skillet, de-seed the chilis and soak the skins in hot water for 30 minutes. Blend garlic, chilis and chili water in a blender to make a paste that seasons the soup base. So you see, if I bought canned hominy, that would save time but taste horrible. I boiled and shredded the head one day…
…and make everything else the next- the broth from the head is amazing!! We put some aside to add to both a ramen and a Cannellini bean soup- delicious.
ME: Amazing!!! Your description and photos would be perfect as a guest blog on my blog.
GINA: Let’s do it! AND, tonight I’m casing 20 pounds of farce for Sbriciolona salami to dry cure for 4 months- I’ll document that too. We’ve made Cotechino, Gaunciale, and Cacciatorini as well.
ME: Great!! You’ll be able to teach the course by the time you arrive!
GINA: The day began with lots of rain so it was a perfect time make salami! We didn’t even change from our pajamas! I prepared 20 pounds of pork leg and hog casing the night before, then proceeded to turn the casing inside out with the awesome trick of running the water through.
I ground the pork to stuff into the 20 feet of hog casing for our final product of fifteen, 1 yard each Sbriciolona salami, that will air cure first for 4 days in the shed, then for four months in a temp and humidity controlled stripped out refrigerator.
My husband, Kirby, also prepared 20 pounds of pork leg to make Cacciatori and spicy Italian sausage. I won’t bore you with the details of how we got to this point because in truth, our kitchen is small and tempers are short…..but, I’m still married and we poured a BIG glass of wine and toasted- to our salamis, that hopefully won’t crash down from the ceiling!
THREE WEEKS LATER
When Gina and Kirby arrived on the course we hugged and kissed on both cheeks like old friends! She’s excelling on the course.
I’m eager to follow Gina and Kirby’s progress after the course, and I hope to visit them when I visit my sister in California.
As soon as Marzio saw my last blog ‘What Grandparents Ate‘, he phoned to tell me I’d got it all wrong. Picchiante aren’t pig’s lungs; my dictionary is correct: they’re cow’s lungs. Could be. Ismaele rears beef cattle as well, including the rare Pontremolese breed.
I emailed Ismaele to find out what he’d given Marzio. The reply just arrived with a variant of the name picchiante: ‘Il picchiatello è di manzo’ (the lungs are beef).
Health warning: Vegetarians and hesitant carnivores may find this blog disturbing.
At the end of the last Advanced Salumi Course I was chatting with the norcino (pork butcher) Ismaele Turri and my driver Marzio Paganelli outside Ismaele’s butchery.
Marzio asked me whether I’d ever eaten picchiante. I’d never even heard the word, so I wasn’t sure. They’re lungs, he explained, and his grandmother used to make a delicious dish with them. Did I want to try them? I wasn’t sure, but thought I ought to in the name of research. Problem is, where could he get them? He hadn’t seen them at a butcher shop in years.
Ismaele rears pigs, and when one is slaughtered, he gets the whole animal back from the abattoir—head to tail, skin, offal, bones and blood. Nothing missing.
He led us into the cold room; I briefly saw something long, grey and smooth before he popped it in a plastic bag and handed it to Marzio. No money changed hands. We fixed Tuesday for the dinner.
I phone Tuesday midday to check what time to arrive. Marzio is already in the kitchen. He says if it doesn’t come out well, we don’t have to eat it. I consider taking a pork chop.
When I arrive at 8 pm, his wife Carla tells me she’d gone out for the day to avoid cramping his style. I’m relieved that there are good smells coming from the kitchen. Marzio loves to recount recipes as if they were stories. This is what gave me the idea of ‘Cooking with Babbo’. Babbo is the Tuscan equivalent of ‘dad’ or ‘pa’. I bring my guests to the Paganelli’s summer haunt, a renovated chapel on the ridge above their home in the valley, and we cook whatever Marzio feels like. No menu, no recipes.
While a ragù simmers, he’ll grab a jug and lead you down to the spring below the house, or take you to the veg patch to pick tomatoes.
Carla is there too, and steps in to teach her to-die-for tiramisu. As a rule I don’t approve of cooking lessons as the only introduction a traveller gets to our food. Tuscan cuisine relies above all on good primary ingredients, and you have to know where to find them and how much better the flavour is than industrial food. That’s why I take my guests to visit artisan farmers and producers. But ‘Cooking with Babbo’ is as much a lesson in the dynamics between Italian husbands and wives as a cooking lesson. It’s a cultural experience.
This time Marzio lifts the lid to a simmering pot and shows me the deep, rich red sauce from which small brown cubes of meat protrude. The story begins. He chopped two onions and sautéed them for several minutes in extra virgin olive oil, pressed from his own olives.
He had already prepared the lungs. That’s what took longest, because you have to remove all the tubes so the finished dish won’t be chewy. He added the cubed lungs to the onions along with a small clove of garlic and a pinch of peperoncino (chile pepper), and sautéed them for an ‘abundant 15 minutes’, splashed in some white wine and evaporated it (sfumare), added chopped, peeled tinned tomatoes (much better in winter than tasteless hothouse ones) and some tomato paste. Then some hot water (or vegetable stock) to cover. He put the lid on the pot and simmered it for ‘an abundant 50 minutes’. Time is often as important an ingredient as the physical ingredients.
The recital over, the pot is brought to the table along with a platter of hot, fairly firm polenta which he has piled in a mound and decorated with a fork. Formenton otto file, he states. It’s the old variety of maize whose stoneground meal makes polenta that actually tastes like corn.
He cuts a slice of polenta with a knife and struggles to carry it to my plate. His grandfather used a pliable willow branch, which was perfect for cutting the polenta and getting the slice to a plate in one fell swoop. Carla spoons the picchiante in umido, the lung stew, to the side of the polenta. We look at each other, exchange the ritual buon appetito, and taste it. I’d expected a slightly slimy texture, but the cubes of lung are resistant while not being tough and the flavour is deep and complex. Truly delicious!
As we enjoy Marzio’s creation, we ponder the origin of the word ‘picchiante’. The Italian for ‘lung’ is ‘polmone’. Maybe it’s Tuscan. When I get home, I check my Italian-Italian dictionary compiled by two Tuscan scholars, Devoto and Oli. They confirm the word as 16th-century Tuscan, but say it refers to the lungs of a cow. Nevertheless, the Italians in my village know I’m talking about pig lungs when I tell them what I’ve eaten. It also means door knocker, and was applied to lungs because they lie near the heart.
Marzio and Carla talk nostalgically about all the ingredients that have disappeared from shops and the dishes that no one makes anymore. They think young people don’t like them, and wouldn’t eat them even if their parents could be bothered to prepare them. Every year Carla’s family reared a pig which they slaughtered in January. Marzio and I chorus, ‘Il giorno di Sant’Antonio’, the 17th of January. Sant’Antonio is the patron saint of animals, and it always seems strange to me that this is the day of the slaughter, but Carla thinks he only protected young animals. Anyway, no part of the pig was wasted; there were traditional ways of eating or using everything.
Not only every cut of an animal was used, but a large variety of wild and cultivated plants formed part of the daily diet.
This is partly old people’s talk. We’re at that age when the world seems to be going to the dogs. But I’m cautiously optimistic. I see hopeful green shoots: farmers’ markets, artisan bakers and butchers, restaurants featuring liver, pigs’ feet and foraged plants. And Marzio is still making his grandmother’s picchiante in umido.
Participants on our Advanced Salumi Course taste a vast array of salami, prosciutto, capocollo, soppressata and other cured pork delicacies, some not so delicate. For dinner they get to try other typical dishes of the areas where the course takes place. On our first night we’re in Versilia, the northern coast of Tuscany. Gabriella Lazzarini, one of my cooking teachers and a skilled chef, lives here near Viareggio and invites us to her home for a seafood meal, which is one of the highlights of the course.
Not only is it special eating in a private home, but Gabriella’s repertoire of local recipes is exceptional. She buys fish from the small family fishing boats called pescherecci that bring their catches to the molo (quai) in Viareggio. They fish off the rocks close to the coast, and the fish look strange to people who are used to seeing branzino (sea bass), orata (gilt-head bream), tuna and other large, usually farmed or endangered species served in most of the seafood restaurants here.
You don’t have to enrol in the salumi course to eat at Gabriella’s home. All Sapori e Saperi Adventure’s guests can choose a meal with her as one of their activities.
The other unique dining experience is on Saturday night after we’ve moved east over the Alpi Apuane to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. We go to the Osteria Il Vecchio Mulino where our host is Andrea Bertucci, who is known affectionately as ‘Andreone’, which means ‘big Andrea’.
You can see that the love of his life is food. But Andrea doesn’t cook; in fact, his osteria doesn’t even have a kitchen. Andrea is a food collector. He finds the best products in the Garfagnana, and sometimes further afield, which he serves as a tasting menu. The nearest analogy is a tapas bar, but his place is more like a hybrid of a corner grocery, wine bar and a cheese and salami maturing cellar.
Since the menu depends on his latest finds, there are always surprises. In his tiny oven, not a microwave, he heats crostini and savoury tarts.
There’s usually a salumi board, but I suspect we’ll be salumied-out on the course and ask him for alternatives. On a two-burner electric hot plate he warms up local specialities prepared by his mother or friends. This time it’s polenta formenton otto-file, an heirloom variety of corn, with roe deer ragù.
Every time we thank Andrea and say we must leave, he produces another goodie: cinta senese salami, cured roe deer loin, fruit salad he made that very day, 15 February, which is San Faustino’s Day, the patron saint of singles. I’ve checked on Google and it’s true!
If your lifelong dream has been to stuff a pig in a sack, your moment has arrived. French charcuterie, Italian salumi, Spanish jamón and English cured meats are all the rage. Not only are gourmet hams and salamis hogging (sorry, I couldn’t resist) the cold counters at fashionable delicatessens and stylish online shops, but every farmers’ market boasts a stall or more selling artisan salami made from rare breed pork. Want to learn to butcher a pig, salt a pancetta? Just type ‘charcuterie course’ into Google and you get 2,360,000 results for courses from Dorset to Down Under by way of Denver.
If you’re a butcher, chef or pig breeder wanting to make Italian salumi, your choice is more limited. Even though when you enter ‘salumi course’, you get 237,000 results, not many are designed for professionals. But the top four are and they’re us: the Saperi e Saperi Advanced Salumi Course. Everyone who comes tells me our course is unique: it’s aimed at food professionals; it takes place in Tuscany; it lasts for four days, short enough for a small-scale pig breeder to get away and long enough to cover the subject in depth; the price is moderate—you don’t have to sell the farm or the restaurant to come.
In my opinion, what makes the greatest difference is that we’re in Italy. ‘We’ is course leader Giancarlo Russo, native Tuscan, and course organiser me, adoptive Tuscan.
We know there’s no such thing as ‘Italian’ salumi, nor even ‘Tuscan’ salumi. Move 20 km and you find different styles and practices. We know if we use only one norcino to teach the course, participants will get a totally skewed idea of how salumi is made. They’ll think there are rigid rules, because each norcino is sure his method is best. Giancarlo is consultant to Slow Food on meat and contributor to the book Salumi d’Italia. He knows the vast range of salumi in Italy and that there’s no hope of covering all of it. What to do? We base the course in northwestern Tuscany and use three norcini more than 20 km apart. In his theoretical sessions Giancarlo covers some practices in other parts of Italy.
We’ve chosen our norcini carefully. All of them are at least third generation butchers, having learned from grandparents and parents. They are true artisans. They are aiming at excellence, not a uniform product.
They use the best maiale pesante (heavy pig of more than 155 kg) they can get, always Italian.
They don’t use starters, sugar or milk powder. They use a small quantity of potassium nitrate (E252), never nitrites. They dry their salami either naturally or in a drying cupboard and mature their products in a natural cellar.
They reveal all their secrets except the exact mix of spices, which is a family recipe.
You’re encouraged to take photos and videos. They want you to go home and make good salumi. Otherwise, they’d be wasting their time.
Our first norcino is Massimo Bacci from Versilia, the northern coastal plain of Tuscany. Massimo is a consummate salumi maker and a natural teacher. He’s clear and patient; he explains and demonstrates and allows you to tie a salami as many times as you need to get it right.
Massimo explains the stages in drying and maturing, and he produces the best lardo I’ve ever tasted, using the same marble basins as in Colonnata, higher up the mountain from him.
His 83-year-old dad pops in from the adjoining shop every 20 minutes to make sure his 60-year-old son is giving us the correct instructions. Their mortadella nostrale (a salami, not cooked like mortadella di Bologna) always comes first or second in the all-Italy artisan salami competition.
From Versilia we speed down the autostrada to San Miniato, a town along the Arno River between Florence and Pisa, where we visit Maurizio and Simone Castaldi, two brothers who learned their art from their father and uncle. We first came to them so we could include the fennel-flavoured salami finocchiona in the course. The finocchiona zone lies between Florence and Arezzo, south of our other two norcini.
During our first visit, we discovered that their strongest suit is the production of prosciutto, and we now include an in-depth study of prosciutto from salting to air drying.
Now we head to our third norcino at Venturo farm in the Garfagnana, the mountainous area north of Lucca.
We’re just over the Apennines from Parma and Modena in the Po Plain, so many of the products are the same. Ismaele Turri learned from his father, as well as working in a neighbour’s butcher shop from the age of 14. He’s a farmer and pig breeder. He slaughters two of his largest pigs in honour of our course.
Participants are guided from the butchering of the pig to all the various typical salumi of the Garfagnana: prosciutto toscano, coppa, guanciale, pancetta, salami, cotechino, soppressata, biroldo (blood sausage) and a few other surprises. Since we allow no more than seven people on the course, there’s lots of time for hands-on practice.
If you stay for the extension workshop on the Tuesday after the course, you watch a production run at the Rocchi family salumifico near Lucca. Their efficiency is a sight to behold.
At the end of the course we ask for feedback, which Giancarlo and I use to improve the course to meet the needs of future food professionals. Even experienced butchers who already make salami tell us they learn a lot on the course. Last year a couple who came on our first course got their salami accepted by Harrods. We’re proud to be the launchpad for such successes.
If you come on my Tastes & Textiles tour, you’ll meet Romeo and Nada, two of my local heroes. Not love-struck teenagers defying their families, but two people quietly taking their lives into their own hands and following their dreams.
Before they retired, they worked at a shoe factory near Lucca. But Romeo harboured a burning desire to learn to weave. Until 20 or 30 years ago, many young women were taught to spin and weave, and wove their trousseaux by hand. An 80-year-old woman in Romeo’s village of Convalle still carries on the craft. As soon as he retired, he asked her to teach him the skill. She accepted his proposal, and being an excellent student, he is now weaving for pleasure and for sale.
Romeo found an abandoned floor loom, which he lugged up to his attic and restored. An old bicycle wheel powers his bobbin winder.
The lamp above his loom is a copy of his teacher’s. The old newspaper tacked around the shade directs the light onto the area he’s weaving and keeps it from shining directly into his eyes. A few shelves for spools of thread, and his workshop is complete.
Among jumbled sacks in the adjoining roof space are some filled with antique hemp which he uses for some of his pieces. Hemp used to be grown everywhere in the area. When you’re walking around the hills, you occasionally see depressions which are the remains of pools in which the hemp stalks were retted to free the fibres of the stem.
The fibres were spun by hand with a distaff and drop spindle. A few women can still be found glumly spinning at village festivals.
These days I suspect it’s just theatre and you wouldn’t find them spinning while watching the telly in the evening. Although one goat herd I discovered above Fabbriche di Vallico, who stays up in the alpine pastures all year, spins away the long winter evenings.
Romeo doesn’t set up his own warps. He leaves that task to his teacher. They’re beautifully straight and taut on the loom. She must feel proud to be contributing to the quality of her student’s products, but I hope he’s learning to do it himself for the day when she’ll no longer be capable.
Romeo has made his own the traditional Lucca textile pattern ‘rosa di maggio’, the rose of May. He weaves it in the pure form he learned, but like a musician improvising variations on a theme, he plays with colour, length and width, showing me a new idea almost every time I visit.
His main pieces are household linens: table runners, table mats, napkins, tea towels and small rugs. It’s one of the places I worry about taking clients, because it takes extreme willpower not to buy everything myself.
Romeo’s wife Nada has discovered her own talents in the enterprise. She and her mother do most of the hand finishing, although Romeo ties fringes while watching football matches.
Nada’s creative energies go into making adorable stuffed animals from offcuts of the fabric. I give them as presents to the children of families who come on my personalised family adventures.
I met Romeo and Nada at the annual Festa della Zucca (Squash Festival) at Piegaio, the village below their own.
They travel around to monthly fairs and annual festivals, ranging as far as Forte dei Marmi on the coast and Castiglione di Garfagnana on the slopes of the Apennines. I don’t think it’s for the money. I can’t remember ever seeing them without a smile of contentment on their faces.
This sounds like a question you type into Google, but it’s what my clients ask me when I’ve taken them to a cheese maker on a mountain top or a handloom weaver in an unmarked house in a higgledy-piggledy mediaeval hamlet or a village festival that’s only announced by the huge number of cars parked along the road when you arrive. I don’t ask Google. In fact, Google usually hasn’t even heard of the people you visit on my tours.
The answer is easy, but long. First, I live here (Google doesn’t). Second, I’m blessed with the ‘satiable curtiosity’ of Kipling’s elephant child. Third, I’m not afraid of appearing ignorant or stupid; the only way to learn is to ask lots of questions. Fourth, I go out and research everything that sounds exciting to me. Here’s an example.
During the last 24 hours I’ve been to the festival of Tappeti di Segatura Colorata at Camaiore, the Antro del Corchia, Ristorante Vallechiara at Levigliani di Stazzema, Miniere dell’Argento Vivo, tiro della forma sports club and Ristorante Pizzeria Al Barchetto at Turritecava, Gelateria Gely at Fornaci di Barga. It went like this.
Saturday 9 June
7.30–8.30 pm: Drive to Gabriella’s house in Capezzano Pianore, near Viareggio and Camaiore. Gabriella is one of my cooking teachers and has invited me to stay the night so she can introduce me to the treasures of Camaiore.
8.45 pm: Dinner with Gabriella, her husband Alfredo, her son and daughter-in-law.
10.00–10.15 pm: Alfredo drives Gabriella and me to Camaiore to watch the teams of carpet (tappeti) designers. Every year on the eve of Corpus Domini (a Catholic religious holiday celebrated on the ninth Sunday after Easter), patterned carpets of dyed sawdust (segatura colorata) are created on the paving stones of the two main streets of Camaiore. The enthusiastic artists work throughout the night so the public can view the finished carpets before 9.30 am when a religious procession walks along the streets and messes them all up.
10.15–11.00 pm: We join the throngs watching the carpet makers of all ages kneeling on the street to sprinkle sawdust in the correct places to build up complex pictures.
11.00–11.15 pm: Drive back to Gabriella’s house.
11:15 pm: To bed.
Sunday 10 June
6.45 am: Rise and shine.
7.00–7.15 am: Quick cup of tea (one English habit I haven’t forsaken) and a dry rusk with Gabriella’s homemade wild blueberry jam.
7.15–7.30 am: Gabriella and I drive to Camaiore. Sensible Alfredo is still asleep.
7.30–8.15 am: Wow!
8.15 am: Church bells ring calling the faithful to mass. Uh oh. That means the procession after the mass won’t start until 9.30 or 10. I have too much research to fit in today to stay, and besides that, who wants to see this beautiful handiwork trodden on? We change plans and head to Pasticcieria da Rosanno, Gabriella’s favourite, via a few exquisite little churches she tells me all about.
8.25–8.45 am: Coffee and the lightest Italian brioche I’ve ever eaten.
8.45–9.00 am: Start back to car but I’m sidetracked by Gabriella’s casual comment, ‘That’s a good gastronomia’, as we pass Salumeria Nicola. In we go. It’s difficult not to buy some of everything, but I only get a piece of special pecorino called ‘Scoppolato di Pedona’, which I’ll enter in the England vs Italy sheep’s milk cheese tournament during my Cheese, Bread & Honey tour the week after this.
9.00–9.15 am: Return to Gabriella’s house and I hastily depart.
9.15–10.00 am: Drive to Antro del Corchia, a cave I’m vetting for a family for whom I’ve designed a tour in July. In my haste to make the 10.00 shuttle bus, I drive right past the turning to Levigliani and have to go back. That’s one reason why I do these reccies. No time to buy a ticket, but I’m waved onto the bus anyway.
10.15–12.15 am: I’m no cave expert but the woman next to me is, and she’s impressed by the three underground lakes, a column that looks like a Golden Eagle plus a ‘petrified forest’ and ‘organ pipes’, and I’m relieved to hear that extensive tests have proved our breathing is but a drop in the ocean in such an enormous cave, the largest in Italy. No photos allowed in the cave.
12.15 pm: I was intending to go straight to the Miniere dell’Argento (silver mines), but naturally they’re closed for lunch. There’s nothing to do but take the guide’s advice and have lunch myself at the Ristorante Vallechiara at the other end of Levigliani. I phone Katherine, my communications manager, and tell her I’ll be late for the tiro della forma (cheese throwing) in the afternoon.
12.30–1.45 pm: I arrive at Vallechiara without a reservation. No worries. Mamma welcomes me into a pleasantly buzzing dining room where her son lays a table for me right in front of the speakers and mixing deck. I ask whether they can be turned down. No, but he lifts up my table and sets it behind the speakers, where the sound is muffled. A plate of pasta fritta (irresistible deep-fried bread dough), wine and tap water appear instantly (many restaurants make a fuss when I ask for tap water and my friends shrivel with embarrassment).
The son joins mamma and a waitress carrying around huge trays of antipasto. Bruschetta, four crostini, salumi and melon, olives and a few other delicacies land on my plate before I can order. It turns out Sunday lunch is a fixed menu. No choice, but who can complain about what’s delivered?
1.45–2.15 pm: I have to be at the mine by 2.00, so no time (or room) for the second main course or dessert. I go to the bar for coffee and to pay. After 10 minutes the son arrives and tells me with a grin it’s much harder to pay than to eat in this restaurant. He sends a woman from the kitchen to make my coffee, but she doesn’t accept money. Finally another man arrives and I’m allowed to pay €20 for my delicious lunch that could have fed three. Incredible!
2.15–3.00 pm: Drive to the Miniere. The next tour starts at 3.00, so I sit in the sun. Someone greets me as a group emerges from the mine. It’s Nicolas Bertoux, a sculptor. I haven’t seen him and his sculptor wife Cynthia Sah in a few years. They’ve got more commissions than they can handle, and they’ve restored the studio and have a permanent collection in their private museum. I must come and bring my guests. I will.
3.00–3.30 pm: We don our hard hats and enter the mine. It’s not a silver mine after all. It’s a mercury mine, one of the rare ones where free mercury sits around on rock ledges in little globules. It’s fascinating, but I’m so late for the cheese throwing that I tear myself away before the end of the tour vowing to return.
3.30–4.09 pm: Up over Cipollaio Pass (no one can tell me why it’s named for an onion field or seller), past the disused marble quarry I take my clients to, down past Isola Santa with its houses with stone roofs. I love driving on the curvy mountain roads. Maybe I’ll become a rally driver as my next career. Through Castelnuovo and down the Serchio valley to Turritecava, left at the sign to Pizzeria Il Barchetto (little boat) and down to meet Katherine and her husband Andrea — I suspect I’ll need a man at the cheese-throwing sports club.
4.09–5.30 pm: Tiro della forma, which means ‘cheese throwing’, is a traditional sport of the Garfagnana. In Cheshire, England, there’s an annual cheese rolling competition, but it’s a tame game compared to this pecorino-hurling sport that goes on throughout the year. I’m here to have a look and talk to the owner of the club about bringing guests, especially during the ‘Cheese, Bread & Honey’ tour. We’ll be making our own pecorino, so why not toss it around too?
I watch the pros and suspect a cricket bowler would be envious of their technique.
See it in slow motion on our Facebook page.
Matteo, the owner, is all in favour of Sapori e Saperi guests. Especially if we dine at his pizzeria. On the edge of his fishing lake, we find the cheerful staff clearing up after a wedding party; we check out the wood-fired pizza oven and approve the excellent menu of other typical local dishes. For half a second I contemplate sticking around until 7.00 for pizza, but add it to my future research list and opt instead for an artisan gelato in Fornaci di Barga.
5.30–5.45 pm: Drive to Fornaci di Barga.
5.45–6.15 pm: Behind the counter of Gelateria Gely is a tall, dark, handsome stranger, the owner Paolo Citti. I’ve heard from Debra Kolkka (Bagni di Lucca and Beyond blogger) that he takes his ice cream seriously, and I want my clients to benefit from his long experience. I had already tasted his gelato the week before and compared it to three other gelaterias in the area: it’s in a class of its own. At first he’s wary. Maybe I’m a competitor, his recipes are secret, his laboratory is tiny, he’s very busy in the mornings making ice cream for his two shops. I tell him about the other artisans I take my guests to and about how important I believe it is for people to learn directly from artisans how much better their food tastes and why. I win him over in the end. We’ll have a go. I can bring up to three people (I bet he wouldn’t turn four away) for a lesson in the afternoon. Who’s going to volunteer?
(The news shop across the road is selling parmesan damaged in the earthquakes. Everyone is pitching in to help the producers.)
6.15–6.45 pm: Drive home weary but exhilarated by the results of my research. Everyone I met was kind and welcoming. They were all enthusiastic about helping me and my clients discover the best of Italy.
Yesterday I took three generations of women to Vitalina’s dairy to learn to make ricotta and then to Beatrice Salvi’s hotel for a lesson in baking a traditional Garfagnana ricotta pie.
You can’t make ricotta unless you make cheese first, so the added bonus was they learned to make goat’s milk cheese too. Before we arrived Vitalina had spent 2 hours milking 70 of her goats. She heated 60 litres of unpasteurised milk to blood temperature and added rennet. By the time we arrived, the milk proteins had coagulated to a gel and were ready for Liz, one of the guests of Sapori e Saperi, to have a go at cutting it to separate the curds and whey.
Vitalina showed Maggie and Abby how to gather the curd which turned out to be harder than they thought, but they had fun feeling around for the curd at the bottom of Vitalina’s grandfather’s tinned copper pot.
Vitalina learned from her grandfather and father and makes goat’s milk cheese and ricotta twice a day. After a little experience it’s really very easy.
Notice that the curd is white but the liquid in the pan is yellow. That’s the colour of whey. Now the ricotta lesson begins. Vitalina turns the burner on high to start ‘recooking’ the whey. Ricotta means recooked and it can only be made from the whey. That’s why you have to get all the cheese curds out before you can make it. And by the way, almost all the fat comes out with the curds. While the whey is heating up, Maggie helps Vitalina press the remaining whey out of the cheese and Vitalina adds the whey to the pot.
When the whey gets near boiling, the albumin protein molecules in the whey denature, which means they open up to expose their connection points so they can attach to other molecules to form white strands, just like when you boil an egg and the previously clear egg white turns to solid white. The white strands are ricotta. Luckily they float so you don’t have to plunge your arms into boiling whey. You just skim them off the top and layer them gently in the ricotta mould.
Vitalina gives us some warm ricotta to taste. Everyone exclaims in unison: ‘Delicious! It’s nothing like the ricotta we buy in the States. This is so much better.’ Since ricotta is virtually fat free, they’re also bewildered as to why in the States there are two types of ricotta: full fat and fat free. I’m bewildered too and cynically guess it’s a marketing ploy. If anyone knows the answer, please leave a comment.
Clutching our precious ricotta we go to lunch at L’Altana, my favourite restaurant in Barga. The cooking is excellent, but what I love about it is that the staff are equally good. One of our group is coeliac, and as soon as I tell our waitress, she goes off and comes back with a menu on which the items without gluten are marked. Since the menu changes daily, she’s done it specially for us.
Then we walk to Villa Moorings Hotel where the owner, Beatrice Salvi, teaches us to use our ricotta in the traditional Garfagnana torta squisita, which means ‘very delicious pie’. First we make pasta frolla, a sweet pastry made of flour, egg, sugar, baking powder and melted butter. It’s the basis of most pastry in our area. The eggs come from Beatrice’s father’s farm. The yolks are deep orange, nearly red, and the whites are yellow and thick.
The filling is made of ricotta, eggs, sugar, chocolate chips and a little Sassolino, an anise-flavoured liqueur. Goat ricotta is ideal for filling ravioli, but Beatrice and I were worried that it would be too strong for the pie, and Beatrice had bought some industrial cow ricotta just in case. Everyone tasted both of them except Beatrice. She said she didn’t like ricotta! I’m afraid I’m a bit of a bully when it comes to tasting, and finally she took a tiny spoonful of our goat ricotta. I wish I’d got a photo of the smile on her face. The industrial ricotta was a tasteless paste by comparison. We used our artisan ricotta, and the torta squisita, topped with a thin meringue, was truly delicious.
This is Real Bread Maker Week in the UK and in special tribute to such an important event I’m writing about Garfagnana Potato Bread.
The Garfagnana is a spectacularly beautiful mountainous region in northwest Tuscany, due north of Lucca.
As traditional cuisine goes in Italy, potato bread is new. I’ve been told that during the second world war, bread flour was scarce in the Garfagnana. It doesn’t do well on the rocky mountain terraces and has to be brought up the Serchio Valley from the Lucca plain. Since the valley was part of the Gothic Line during the war, not much could pass through the crossfire between the Germans and Americans. Potatoes, however, thrive, and people started adding mashed potato to bread dough to eke out the flour.
Since it also has the beneficial effect of producing a moister loaf which lasts for a week without turning into those rigid white bricks of southern Tuscany, people continued to make it. It has so far infiltrated the traditional cuisine that Slow Food has honoured it with Presidium status, and what was a staple of peasants now appears as a glamorous star on the tables of foodies.
The doyen of Garfagnana Potato Bread is Paolo Magazzini of Petrognola.
Paolo’s mother was the village baker before him. When she was no longer fit for the arduous task, Paolo couldn’t bear to see the tradition die and took over her role. He built a new wood-fired oven that can hold 50 1-kilo loaves, instead of the 20 loaves his mother’s oven could bake at one time.
During the week he bakes to order and his customers come to his wife’s shop in the village to collect their loaves. On Friday night he bakes as many as 150 loaves and on Saturday morning drives down the valley to Lucca, dropping off bread at shops and restaurants on the way.
I take my clients to Paolo’s bakery to bake potato bread with him. He’s a natural teacher as well as a Real Bread Maker. The next blog will describe what we learn.
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