If you come to Lucca for only a day, arriving from Florence late morning and off early the next to get to the Cinque Terre, you’ll miss the pleasures of Borgo Giannotti. Compared to the amphitheatre, the Guinigi Tower with oaks growing on top, the wedding-cake columns of San Michele church and the massive encircling walls of the historic centre, Borgo Giannotti doesn’t look like much.
Immediately outside the north gate of Lucca, it was a meeting point for merchants coming from the port of Viareggio, a place to stop and refresh themselves before turning up the Serchio Valley to sell their merchandise in the Garfagnana. It developed into a thriving artisan quarter, and retains that vibrancy of people making and doing things, occupations that the waves of mobile phone shops haven’t yet totally swept away. So come with me for a Saturday morning trawl in Borgo Giannotti.
We might be mistaken for drunks, rare as they are here in Lucca, weaving from one side of the street to the other following the trail of my favourite places. On the left we come to coffee importers and roasters Bei & Nannini.
It’s not my favourite coffee, but I like the shop front and, apart from the coffee beans themselves, it’s local. It was founded in 1923 by Guido Nannini and Giovanni Bei and is still in the ownership of the two families.
There are many small groceries, delicatessens and specialist food shops in Borgo Giannotti. You can do all your shopping from the friendly vendors in the space of a few hundred metres without ever entering the anonymity of a supermarket. Crossing over to the right we find a fishmonger.
Over on the left is one of many fruit and vegetable shops. Since it’s Saturday, we’ll continue up the street to the farmers’ market.
Still on the left, look at that exquisite tiled shop front (it was even more beautiful before some developer painted over the ochre wash above).
On the right we come to a bakery with many enticing goodies in its window.
I suspect torta di erbi is a relict of Renaissance, and maybe mediaeval, times when sweet and savoury were often mixed in a single dish. As strange as it sounds, this delicious tart is filled with Swiss chard, parsley, bread crumbs, raisins, candied peel, pine nuts, grated pecorino and parmigiano, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, rum and eggs. Becchi means ‘birds’ beaks’ and refers to the form of the pastry; shaping them is a skill in itself.
Over on the left again is a tap where locals come to fill their water bottles for drinking at home. It’s free!
Next to the fountain is Angolo Bazaar where you can find almost any utensil or container you need for your household and many gifts to take to friends at home. It used to be on the corner (angolo), but moved down one space to make way for a discount sport shoe shop. Via Stalle means street of the barns—something like a mews in London.
You could spend a couple of hours in this Aladdin’s cave starting with the baskets at the front and penetrating into deeper and deeper caverns stacked from floor to warehouse ceiling with crockery, wooden kitchen utensils, garden tools, hosepipes, canvas—an inventory too long to list.
I’ve brought my sickle and pennato lucchese (a kind of billhook) to be sharpened opposite at L’Arrotino. Many people take their utensils to artisan sharpeners, and itinerant ones come to some open-air markets. The Bertinis have been sharpening knives in Borgo Giannotti since 1956. They also sell quality knives from those forged traditionally in Italy to Japanese knives of Damascus steel. Every kitchen needs at least one!
Continuing on the right, we come to a delicious smelling grocery stuffed with tasty products, including tortellini fresh from the Favilla pastificio of Lucca.
There’s something special along the road to the right, but first we’ll continue to the top of Borgo Giannotti.
When it’s lunch time, we can eat at Buatino, where the cook changes the menu every day to take advantage of seasonal ingredients.
We cross over the outer ring road and come to the Foro Boario. This has nothing to do with wild boar. Boario refers to cattle and the Foro Boario was the cattle market, used in September when herders brought their animals to sell in the city. The Festa della Carne e della Macelleria Tradizionale (Festival of Meat and Traditional Butcher Shops) held annually in the middle of September commemorates this practice. More in the old spirit of farmers selling their produce to the public is the farmers’ market that takes place at the Foro every Saturday morning.
If you buy your fruit and vegetables here, they’ll be fresh and seasonal. You’ll meet the growers and can ask for recipes for ingredients you’ve never used before.
Time for a coffee at the bar opposite the Foro and then we walk back to the monument, which turns out to be a road sign.
We turn left and if I weren’t with you, you’d walk right past this grey-green building and boring gate.
You would be missing a great treat. It’s a handmade tile factory founded by the current owner’s great-grandfather in 1902 to make tiles in the ‘Liberty’ or Art Nouveau style, which was all the rage in Europe at the time.
Press your nose against the dirty showroom window (perhaps never washed since 1902?) and you can see some of the patterns that Francesco Tessieri’s four artisans still make by the same techniques.
They’re closed on Saturdays, but if we come on a weekday, Francesco will take us into the workshop and explain as we watch the process. Among his many commissions were restorations of floors in the homes of Gucci and Pavarotti.
Around the corner are some over-the-top examples of ‘stile Liberty’ houses whose floors are surely paved with Tessieri tiles.
Our tour is done and it’s time for a delicious lengthy lunch accompanied by good wine and conversation. So like the merchants of old, why don’t you make Lucca your city to dawdle in, to catch your breath and refresh yourself?
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This blog was originally published on Slow Travel Tours on 13 January, 2013.
As a tour designer and guide I don’t get many opportunities to experience what it’s like for you to travel to a place you’ve never been to before. The only chance I have is when I research a new tour or course. And I did just that in March 2018. I want to offer a mozzarella course (update: I now do). Since we don’t make mozzarella in Tuscany (not properly, anyway), I had to go to Campania in the south, the home of water buffalo and birthplace of mozzarella. You probably know Naples, Pompei and the Amalfi Coast, but I hadn’t even been to any of these.
It was a bit daunting going south of Rome to the infamous Mezzogiorno of lawlessness. But I had a big advantage over the average tourist: I had locals to show me around. I had met a Scottish woman on a Ryanair flight from London Stansted to Pisa. Her Italian husband was from the province of Salerno, just south of Naples. I knew that Salerno and Caserta provinces were famous for their mozzarella. When I told her of my plan, she said they live in Florence now, but her husband knew the Cilento area inside out (central and southern part of Salerno Province).
A couple of months later I found myself at Santa Maria Novella station in Florence, boarding a train bound for Salerno with Audrey and Enrico. I was to stay at their house in Trentinara. They were renting a car and they were going to introduce me to owners of agriturismi (farm accommodation), a mozzarella dairy and restaurants. Everything I would need for the course.
First a stop at an agriturismo Aia Resort Cilento owned by Vincenzo, an architect friend of Enrico’s. It’s perfect for the course: tasteful rooms with private baths, a swimming pool, pizza oven and BBQ.
It was after dark when we arrived at their house and, while Enrico lit the fire, Audrey took me next door to meet her mother-in-law Antonietta. Even though we planned for dinner to try the restaurant owned by Enrico’s cousin, it was compulsory to sit down at the table to sample Antonietta’s stuffed artichokes (carcioffule ‘mbuttunate), lately picked from her garden. I had to forcibly prevent her putting two on my plate.
The next morning we met my cheese and salumi courses colleague Giancarlo Russo, who had arrived separately, and proceeded a short distance down the road to a private house to meet Lilla and her son Antonio La Mura. Lilla is a great cook (as it seems is everyone from this area) and might give a short cooking lesson either during the mozzarella course or during an optional extension before the course. We gathered around the table in the kitchen to talk. But no talk without food in these parts. Antonio went to the cellar and came back with his own salsiccia (air-dried sausage). Lilla sliced her homemade bread, made with sour-dough starter and baked in a wood-fired oven, while Antonio uncorked a bottle of excellent homemade wine.
Giancarlo and I have tasted a lot of sausage and salami in our day, and this was exceptional. Encouraged, Antonio disappeared down below again and re-emerged with two cheeses and a salami, all of his own production.
Last (at least we were hoping it was), a cured sausage called nnoglia, which was stuffed with lungs and other of the least noble parts of the pig. Usually it’s used to flavour vegetable soups, but Lilla threw it on a grate over the fire that warmed the room. More delicious than you can imagine.
She just happened to have some pastries from the local shop, and we weren’t allowed to leave without coffee and a digestivo, her homemade finocchietto, alcohol infused with fennel leaves and flowers. Good thing we hadn’t booked lunch at a restaurant!
After that feast of salumi, we had to see Antonio’s pigs…
and his cows…
in the oak and chestnut woods where they have parties in the summer.
That evening at 10.30 Giancarlo and I had an appointment at Caseificio Prime Querce to watch the whole process of making mozzarella and its pasta filata (spun curd) relatives scamorza, burrata and caciocavallo. The head cheesemaker Antonio (everyone seems to be named Antonio) is, of course, a close friend of Enrico. He showed us every step, explaining the reason for each process and giving us generous samples to taste.
But the mozzarella wouldn’t be at its peak until it had bathed in brine for another five hours. We finally left around 2.45 am. The next morning Antonio stopped by Enrico’s house to drop off two bags of mozzarella, one hand-formed and the other moulded by machine. It was a revelation! Juicy, firm and milky. How can I go back to eating week-old mozzarella in Tuscany?
We still hadn’t had a tour of the town with Enrico and Audrey, so we set off up the streets of Trentinara, hailed and stopped at every corner by Enrico’s cousins and friends. At the top we made the day for Zì Cosimo, the basket weaver. I learned that here ‘zì/zà’, literally meaning ‘uncle/aunt’, is a title of respect for older people.
On the way to the restaurant for lunch we passed Enrico’s aunt carrying a basket of freshly baked bread from her wood-fired oven.
We were wondering how we could stuff in lunch after gorging on mozzarella for breakfast, but we needn’t have worried. Locanda Lu Vottaro, owned by the chef Cristina—you guessed it, a friend of Enrico, was closed, but she opened specially for us and prepared a superb tasting menu.
It was time to leave our friends Audrey and Enrico, this town and the people who we felt we already knew well. Suddenly I realised this must be what it’s like to go on a tour with Sapori e Saperi Adventures. You’re met at the station, transported to your accommodation, escorted to see places and meet people you could never find on your own. They open their arms to you because you’re accompanied by us, their friends. What better way to spend a holiday?
Take a look at the result of this course for professional cheesemakers and keen amateurs: Mozzarella & its Cousins. If you're not a cheesemaker, don't worry, there are less specialised small group tours and courses like Olive Oil: Tree to Table for you.
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This blog was originally published on Slow Travel Tours on 28 March 2018.
The guests on our inaugural Giants of Sardinia tour excelled themselves with a little help from our stellar food producers.
They scampered to the top of the megalithic nuraghe Barumini.
They picked and brined olives with Davide Orro and his mother Angelica.
They manipulated with dexterity the dough for Oristano wedding bread with Davide’s sister Ester.
It was no problem at all tasting the rest of Davide’s superb wines with seductive labels designed by his other sister Maura.
They learned the proper way to make Italian risotto with Marcello Stara’s rice under the tutelage of his friend Rossella.
With butcher Paolo Lilliu they overcame the difficulties of stuffing Sardinian sausages…
…and ate them barbecued for lunch.
Even if their Casizolu, a Slow Food caciocavallo-type cheese, wasn’t quite perfect, it was lots of fun modelling the curd.
It seemed that making stuffed pasta culurgiones was going to defeat them, but practice makes perfect and success was theirs in the end.
I’m glad we didn’t have to do battle with the Bronze Age nuragic giants at Cabras.
But I bet our guests would have succeeded in making a peace treaty, and the giants would have joined us for a blow-out feast at our agriturismo L’Orto!
Come on one of our small group tours so you too can glow with achievement and join our guests’ hall of fame. Choose your tour now: http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/small-group-tours.html
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This blog was originally published on Slow Travel Tours on 11 November 2018.
By Alison Goldberger
2020 is definitely a year none of us will ever forget, that's for sure. It all started off so promisingly with lots of excitement about meeting all of you who had booked on a tour or course! Of course we all know how it ended—with a year very difficult for a small tourism business. Although we were disappointed we had to cancel many tours and didn't get to meet you, we were buoyed by all your messages, interaction on our social accounts and hope you enjoyed the virtual tours we ran. And of course, it wasn't ALL bad, and Erica and I have survived the year in good health! So we'll start our review at the beginning, before we had even heard of the virus that would characterise the year...
One of our first posts on Facebook was this stunning photo taken from Erica's window. She captioned it: 'The view from my window. Must be a good omen for 2020!' It makes me laugh a little now looking back at this.
As I said in the introduction, 2020 started off great! The Art & Science of Gelato course got into full swing and we welcomed the super talented Sorravee 'Gin' Pratanavanich. Gin had grand plans, after learning with us she was due to head off to take up a chef internship at a hotel in Abu Dhabi. Looking ahead, Gin would like to open a pastry shop and gelateria in Bangkok.
We were also delighted to be able to run the Advanced Salumi Course Tuscany in January. Two of our artisans met during this course, Mirko who leads the Art & Science of Gelato course learned how to make salami from artisan norcino Massimo Bacci.
Mirko wasn't the only one learning however. We met lots of interesting participants during the January Advanced Salumi Course Tuscany. Here we see them learning all about knots. Knots are important to hold things in place and to squeeze air out. To produce a nice looking product, you need to tie tidy knots. And as you can see, our participants were taking this very seriously!
On the blog in January we also shared a beautiful piece by Lin Hobley about her experiences of the Tastes & Textiles: Woad and Wool tour. Read it here.
February saw us on the Advanced Salumi Course Bologna-Parma. We left Tuscany for Emilia (the northwestern part of Emilia-Romagna). This region of Italy is particularly famous for not one, but two delicious types of salumi— Prosciutto di Parma and Mortadella di Bologna! Check out the blog post here for more pictures and information about what happened during this tour in February!
March of course brought with it COVID-19, and in Italy things became serious very quickly! It was still an unknown entity in March, and we weren't sure how things would play out. We welcomed a couple of intrepid souls onto the Advanced Salumi Course Tuscany in March, in what would be the last course for a while! We were still hoping that things would all blow over but were concerned about the impact the travel bans would have on those looking to come on courses and tours in the near future. Anyway, Australian vodka producer Katie Krauss and American head chef Seamus Platt joined us. They managed to learn everything the course had to offer before dashing off on the last flights home!
Erica quickly had to get used to life under lockdown, long before many other countries started to introduce such measures. It did, however, result in her having a bit of an adventure! As flights started to get cancelled across Europe, one unexpected result was the car of some friends trapped in the Pisa airport car park, which was due to close. After calling in various favours the car was freed...read exactly how in the blog post here or click the car image above!
It also allowed for a bit of cooking and exploring the beautiful surroundings outside her door. More information and pictures are here in the March round up blog post.
Across Italy people started to pull together in the face of tough lockdowns, travel bans and an unknown virus. Many sang and played music from balconies and out of windows. Antonio Daniele, head cheesemaker at Caseificio Prime Querce, and one of the artisans who teaches our Mozzarella & its Cousins course made this graphic and said: 'We must withstand and fight. We'll come out of this stronger than before.'
In April we started to adjust to the new normal. For Erica, even cooking dinner turned into an epic adventure! This meal took her on a journey to remember people she'd met along the way and about the history of the ingredients. It really is a fantastic story, you can read the whole thing here - or by clicking the image above.
Lockdown meant Easter alone for Erica, but her neighbours certainly wouldn't see her starve! She wrote in a Facebook post: "Under lockdown they couldn't invite me to eat with them. At 11.30 am the doorbell rang. It was Eugenia with three slices of pie with different fillings—rice, lemon and chocolate. At 12.30 the doorbell rang again. It was Daniela bringing her homemade tortelli and sugo. I was only planning marinated and grilled goat chops with cannellini beans and insalata with local red wine. Now I had a three-course lunch. Such kindness and generosity, and I certainly didn't feel alone."
In April we also ran one of our first 'virtual tours' to give you all a taste of what you would have been experiencing, had you been allowed to visit Italy. We all travelled around Sardinia on the Celebrating Sardinia tour and had a great time! You can read the whole thing for yourself in the blog post here, or by clicking the image above.
In May we would have been running the Theory & Practice of Italian Cheese course, but that was not to be of course. So we also offered a little preview on Facebook. We visited Enea Giunti's goat farm and learned how to make fresh goat cheese. We stayed at Agriturismo La Torre at Fornoli and met Vitalina who shared her extensive knowledge of cheese making. We milked cows at Marzia Ridolfi's and drove up to Daniela Pagliai's to see her small modern dairy and how she makes a number of different cheeses from one pot of milk. And all this in the company of Maria Sarnataro, a real expert on cheese! Read all about what else we saw in the blog post here.
The Tastes & Textiles: Woad and Wool tour was also meant to run in May, but instead we ran it as a virtual tour. It was a fascinating tour with so many interesting sights and photos, which you can see here in the blog post.
Another month and another virtual tour, this time it was the Tastes & Textiles: Hanging by a Thread tour. Card weaving, farm accommodation, vineyards, Garfagnana potato bread, knitting, felting, weaving, wonderful food, an ethnographic museum, a woolen mill - it was all there and more. Read all about it in the blog post here.
After the tour Erica shared some of the delicious meals she'd been making. She had been experimenting with ricotta. The people who sell it in the open-air market won't sell a small amount. She has to buy a whole one. This spring she tried this simple sauce for short pasta made with fava beans (broad beans) and ricotta - delicious!
The classic dish everyone around Erica makes with ricotta is ravioli. She said of this meal: 'I have a lot of chestnut flour in my freezer—gifts from friends who collect, dry and mill their own. I made pasta di castagna (about 1/3 chestnut flour) with a filling of fresh ricotta, young nettle tops, an egg, salt, pepper, nutmeg. The slightly bitter nettles contrast well with the sweet chestnut flour. The sauce is simple melted butter with fresh sage leaves.'
This recipe in particular got my mouth watering! There is a self-seeded cherry tree hanging over Erica's orto (veg garden). In June it produces a small crop of mildly sour cherries. Every year she makes one focaccia with the cherries, but it never turns out exactly the way she wants it. Until this year. It's exactly the thickness and degree of sweetness she'd been searching for. Persistence pays off!
July and August
With some restrictions lessening in Italy, Erica took the chance to do some travelling! At the end of July she headed off to Pompei. She first saw the sights of Napoli and was welcomed by her collaborator on the cheese courses, Maria Sarnataro. First they tried some tasty delicacies, including the famous sfogliata.
While in Pompei Erica hired a wonderful private guide, Francesco Tufano, an archaeologist who could answer all of her questions and more! Read all about the trip here in the blog post.
The second half of Erica's trip took her from Pompei to Salerno where she and Maria visited some mozzarella dairies. She was very impressed when she visited Caseificio Barlotti and met brothers Enzo (pictured) and Gaetano Barlotti. She hopes to bring future participants on the Mozzarella & its Cousins course for a tasting in their beautiful garden. She had some 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 she'd tasted. Read all about this part of the trip in the blog post here.
Erica also took a research trip to Le Marche for the Tastes & Textiles: Woad & Wool tour. It's during these types of trips she meets the artisan's we visit on tours and finds the incredible restaurants we dine in! Perhaps 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! This photo above was one of my favourites from the trip, showing masked men waiting for their wives to finish shopping in Urbania.
During the trip she also met some fascinating people, including Federica Crocetta, who has a passion for dyeing textiles with natural plant dyes, and Emanuele Francione, who learned the craft of textile block printing with rust from his grandfather. Read all about the tour in the blog post here.
In September Erica was back home, and making passata! You can read all about it in the blog post here, or by clicking the photo above.
There was also some excitement for Mirko, who teaches the Art & Science of Gelato course as he opened a new Cremeria Opera just outside the walls of Lucca. Erica and Mirko had a little celebration...wearing masks of course!
In October Erica attended a fantastic lunch cooked by her favourite Lucca chef Damiano Donati. She said: 'His restaurant in the centre closed during lockdown. I was forlorn. Now he's popped up at Fattoria Sardi vineyard better than ever. He calls his fixed menu for Sunday lunch Fuoco e Materia (Fire and Matter). He was always fascinated by contrasting textures. Now he has a wood-fired oven in his kitchen and is playing with smokey flavours too, and it works. Here he is relaxing on the terrace after lunch. The dishes included: squash cooked two different ways and wrapped in chestnut leaf parcels, beetroot risotto, chicken stuffed with pork accompanied by smokey crushed potatoes. If you opt for the wine tasting, you get a different delicious biodynamic wine paired with each course.'
There was also a little time to squeeze in some truffle hunting for a private tour! Truffle hunter Riccardo instructed Brendan in how to use three of his senses—sight, smell and touch—to assess whether the truffle is poor, mediocre or excellent. This 66 gram truffle is excellent, and after his truffle lunch with his wife and child, he decided to buy it so they could go on indulging in truffles for the rest of their holiday.
We were also delighted to be able to hold a REAL LIFE Art & Science of Gelato course in October! We welcomed Niels, chef on a super-yacht. On the October course we teach how to make sourdough panettone as well as gelato so you know how to do it in time for Christmas. For his unique flavours Neils created pineapple and rosemary sorbetto, date and whisky gelato and Piña Colada sorbetto!
In November Erica went to Frantoio Lenzi to get her year's supply of olive oil. At the height of the harvest, frantoi (olive mills) are open 24/7 and it's always chaotic. She picked up bag-in-box new oil. You can recycle the box, but not the bag. However, by excluding air it keeps the oil from oxidising so rapidly and preserves the health benefits and the flavour for longer. The oil is fruity (tastes like olives!), medium picante and medium bitter. Her conclusion: a nice rounded flavour.
2020 would have brought us the first participants on our new Olive Oil: Tree to Table in Tuscany course, but it was not to be. Nevertheless, we ran a virtual tour to whet your appetite! Read all about it in the blog post here.
One of the most popular blog posts of the year was about the abandoned farm houses of Casabasciana. Wonderful photos and stories, can be seen in the blog post here.
The year wound down with a poignant blog post featuring a video about the death of peasant farming. It was made by farmers in Umbria, but it could have been made anywhere in Italy—or in many other countries in fact. We visit many small farmers during tours and one of the things that was important when setting up Sapori e Saperi Adventures was to help preserve this way of life. You can watch it in our blog post here.
After such a trying year it was nice for Erica to join her local community to decorate the village Christmas tree, a long-standing tradition which was just a little different this year.
We hope you have had a healthy 2020 and wish you all the best for 2021. We'd love nothing more than to welcome you onto one or more of our tours and courses. Get in touch with Erica at email@example.com for more information or for answers to any questions you may have.
If you landed here by chance and would like to be notified of future posts, you can sign up here. If you’d like periodic news about our tours and courses, sign up here.
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!
Enea is one of the cheesemakers to whom I take my guests.
He lives on a farm at the end of a dirt road that runs along the top of a ridge. At the point where the tarmac runs out, there’s a vineyard. Bumping slowly along the rutted road you pass a house, then nothing for 10 minutes. As the nose of the ridge begins to dip toward the valley, you spy a ramshackle house with solar panels on the roof. If you come in July, you’ll think you’ve arrived at a farm machine museum until you see Enea putting his heritage wheat through the vintage thresher.
Enea and his wife Valeria are nearly self-sufficient. They have a herd of goats, two cows, a few chickens, a couple of horses, a vegetable garden, an olive grove and fields of cereals and hay. They’re hoping for another cow.
During the spring and summer Enea milks the goats every morning, makes cheese with their milk and then, with the help of his working dogs, takes them out to graze. The dogs are tri-lingual. I don’t think the goats are. On days when we’re there and he doesn’t go out with them in the morning, their complaints are perfectly comprehensible nonetheless.
On Wednesdays he makes sourdough bread. His bread shed contains a wood-fired oven and a tiny mill where he grinds enough of his heritage wheat for the week’s batch of bread. On Wednesday evenings he goes to town to deliver his produce to a group of friends who buy collectively
They’re self-sufficient for art and music too. Valeria paints and Enea plays the guitar. The solar panels and batteries keep them in touch with the outside world via their cell phones, computer and internet connection.
One of the guests in the last group I took there asked Enea why he chose to make cheese. He told us this story:
‘When I finished school, I knew I didn’t want to go to university, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I enjoyed helping a friend pick his olives. Then I rented an apartment from a cheesemaker with goats. He was French and made French-style soft goat cheese. I watched him and began to help him. I saw he was always smiling, and I decided that was the life I wanted.’
Enea is one of the cheesemakers who teaches our course Theory and Practice of Italian Cheese. Click here for all the details.
This is a true story about how cheese, history and a mountain village are inextricably entwined. It’s a long story because it goes back to Roman times. It has taken me 12 years even to begin to understand it.
You probably know that pecorino is an Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk, derived from the word for sheep: pecora. On the contrary, it’s the rare person outside Italy who knows that transhumance refers to the seasonal rotation of flocks and herds between different pastures. Even more obscure is the connection between transhumance and Saint Michael Archangel.
On 18 June a group of about 15 hikers, including me, stand expectantly in front of the church in the mountain village of Raggiolo, one of ‘The most beautiful towns in Italy’ (http://borghipiubelliditalia.it/project/raggiolo/).
We aren’t waiting for the Archangel, but for our guide Paolo Schiatti to lead us along an ancient transhumance route to a former shepherd’s hut on the crest of the mountain above Raggiolo where we get to watch pecorino and ricotta making and have a shepherd’s lunch. I’ve watched many shepherds make cheese, and I wonder whether here near Pratomagno in the Casentino (east of Florence) they make it in the same way as in the Garfagnana.
We learn from Paolo that the patron saint of shepherds is Saint Michael Archangel, but in Roman times the half-god, half-human Hercules was the favourite of pastoralists. According to Roman mythology he slew the fire-breathing monster Cacus who stole some of the cattle which he himself had stolen and was pasturing near Cacus’s cave. By one of those frequent transpositions of early Christianity, Hercules became the Archangel. In the New Testament Saint Michael defeats Satan to become a protector against the forces of evil.
Two feast days a year are devoted to the Archangel: 8 May and 29 September. In early May the shepherds took their flocks up to the alpine pastures. At the end of September they brought them down. From early mediaeval times they built shrines to Saint Michael along the transhumance routes. In the days when they wintered on the Maremma, the coastal plain of Tuscany, it took a whole week to walk to the alpine pastures above Raggiolo. We’re lucky we only have a 3-hour walk ahead of us, and no sheep.
The conversation about the Archangel might seem a distraction to a secular cheese lover wanting to know how Tuscan pecorino is made. Yet in Italy food and history are two facets of a common culture. The past spices the cuisine of today, and you can taste the difference between an industrial product made according to scientific principles and a traditional product made according to practices handed down through the generations.
Paolo’s way of encouraging us is to say, ‘Siamo arrivati’ (we’ve arrived) when we still have over an hour of the steepest part of the trail to go. At around 1000 m (3280 ft) we pass suddenly from the chestnut wood into a beech forest. The muffled silence might remind you of a sanctuary. To me it seems dead compared to the luxuriant undergrowth of a chestnut wood.
Casetta di Bùite
I always tell my guests that cheese waits for no man or woman. We’ve dallied too long. The cheesemakers, Angelo and Dino Luddi, have already added the rennet to coagulate the curd. Nowadays they use veal rennet which they buy from the pharmacy. They don’t lament the change from lamb’s rennet which they prepared themselves from a lamb’s stomach, even though the pecorino is less piquant.
They cut the curd using a wooden spino, an implement of the past. They use it not out of nostalgia but because it works well for the type of hard paste cheese they’re making. If there’s something modern that works better or is more convenient, they’re quick to adopt it, like the veal rennet. The past isn’t a prison.
Dino’s job is pressing as much whey as possible from the curd.
As we explain during our cheese course, in Italy where it was born, ricotta is NOT cheese. That’s official. It’s a dairy product. The casein proteins and much of the fat in the milk go into the cheese. The main protein left in the whey is albumin. The protein in egg white is also albumin. When you cook egg white, it solidifies, and that’s what happens to the albumin in whey when it gets to about 90˚C (194˚F).
With two large pots of whey to heat, this is going to take a little while. We suddenly realise we’re starving, and wander off to find some lunch. The courses are ready in random order stretched out over three hours. Actually, most Tuscan Sunday lunches last this long. What I take to be antipasto consists of panini of prosciutto and salami with two wedges of pecorino on the side, all excellent. The pecorino has been supplied by Modesto Giovannuzzi. He tells me the sheep are at Castel Focognano (near Bibbiena), but doesn’t volunteer who made the cheese.
I buy a wheel for the pecorino tournament at the end of our cheese course.
I check in with the ricotta. It hasn’t begun forming yet, but Angelo is adding some milk to the pot. I object that traditional ricotta shouldn’t have milk added. He agrees. He’s doing it to increase the yield for the big crowd today. He adds quietly,’The ricotta is much finer and smoother with nothing added to the whey.’ He moves over to salt the upper side of the pecorino.
Besides adding flavour, the salt slows down the lactic acid bacteria so the cheese doesn’t become too acidic and also helps draw whey out of the cheese—essential if you want to mature it for several months.
Around the corner of the hut, Modesto and his son Andrea are now busy making polenta dolce, a porridge made with chestnut flour instead of cornmeal. It saved the people of the mountains, the Garfagnana as well Pratomagno, from starvation during the Second World War. Some people never want to eat it again, but for most it’s the ultimate comfort food.
Drying the chestnuts, shelling them, sorting them and milling them is a winter occupation. You collect them after you’ve made your wine and before you begin harvesting your olives. In the days when the olive harvest took place at the end of November or even in December, your chestnut flour was already safely stowed in its chestnut-wood chests.
A sudden commotion back around the corner signals that the ricotta strands are forming.
Someone asks what the yield of ricotta is. Angelo doesn’t know, and I reply that for sheep’s milk it’s about 1.5%, but only half that for cow’s milk. Angelo says to me, almost accusingly, ‘You know the science, but we know the practice.’ He’s right. You could read every book about cheese and still not be able to make good cheese and ricotta. It’s the experience that counts, going back to your mother, uncle, grandmother, great-grandfather, and right back to your Roman ancestors and Hercules.
You could fill a small cookbook with the Tuscan recipes for stale bread: zuppa, panzanella, pappa al pomodoro, aqua cotta to name just a few; and scottina, a shepherd’s dish. After skimming off the ricotta, the remaining liquid is called scotta. Around me it’s mostly fed to the farm animals, although some people say it’s a refreshing drink and a good broth for soup. To make scottina, you leave some of the ricotta in the scotta and ladle it over the bread.
As we descend Paolo has an answer to every question I can throw at him and more. He tells me about how they preserved the chestnut flour by packing it into chestnut-wood chests to exclude the air. It was so tightly packed that you could cut it into blocks with a knife to take out the amount you needed. By summer it was a bit tired. To refresh it, they put it in a wood-fired oven until it turned dark brown and had an entirely different flavour. The conversation wanders to art history, politics, the problem of depopulation of rural villages like theirs and mine. Most people in the group have something to contribute. They own their history in a way I’ve never encountered outside Italy. Thank you Raggiolo for a thoroughly enjoyable and illuminating day.
You can learn about Tuscan cheese and experience for yourself our cheesemakers’ strong sense of their history on our Theory & Practice of Italian Cheese course: https://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/theory--practice-of-italian-cheese.html
Sant’Antioco is a small island off the southwest coast of the large island of Sardinia, an island squared you might say. It’s afflicted by two winds: the maestrale from the northwest and the levante from the east. One or the other blows nearly every day, but since they take turns, there’s always a calm sea for fishermen (and us) on the leeward side of the island.
On a bright spring morning the fishing boats are tied up to the quay, squeezed in side by side. Too many fishermen chasing too few fish. Many of them augment their income by offering pescaturismo, fishing excursions for tourists. I’m excited. For years I’ve wanted to learn about fishing in the Mediterranean, but it took a long time to find the right place and fisherman.
We arrive at our boat the ‘Alessandro P.’ and the live Alessandro, son of fisherman Mauro Pintus with whom we’re going fishing. Soon Mauro, his wife Roberta and their 14-year-old daughter arrive all lugging groceries. We climb aboard…
Read more about our idyllic day at sea at http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/gone-fishin/
Join us next April for more adventures on our Celebrating Sardinia tour: http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/small_group_tours/celebrating-sardinia/
What happened to Janet after indulging in artisan food in Tuscany? Here’s the unexpected answer in my latest post on the Slow Travel Tours website: http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/life-changing/
Shortly after she returned home to California I received a WhatsApp message from her which began:
“You have ruined me!!!”
I was worried, but not for long. Read the rest of my blog on the Slow Travel Tours website: http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/life-changing/
I’ve long wondered how to incorporate the rich agricultural heritage of the Lucca plain into a tour. Watching a bean stalk grow would try the patience even of a very slow traveller.
On Thursday I visited the organic farm Favilla in the suburbs of Lucca, where I was welcomed by Andrea, the owner’s son. As he spoke about his farm and its crops, the words tumbled out of his mouth and his face was alive with the enthusiasm he and his family devote to their project. The list of crops is long leaving no season without its fruits: wheat, vegetables and fruit.
To find out more about the small group tour germinating at Sapori e Saperi Adventures, read the rest of my blog at http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/a-tour-sprouts/. Read to the bottom of the blog and you’ll find a special offer.
Save the dates: 2–9 July 2017.
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