Super-highways rarely belong to the country they’re in. While racing along with cars and lorries overtaking on all sides, you could be anywhere, except for the blurred glimpses of houses or fields beyond the crash barriers. The village of Molina di Quosa tumbles like a stream down a mountain valley and spreads out on that ribbon of land squashed between the Serchio River and the hills of the Monti Pisani overlooked by the autostrada and the railway that link Lucca to Pisa. And that’s all I knew about it despite my many trips between the two cities. Now a couple of friends and I were heading there at a sedate pace on a small twisting country road for a festival based around new olive oil and chestnuts, vintage cars and Vespa scooters, with a wild mushroom exhibition thrown in for good measure. It must be a winning combination since before we even reach the village, parked cars line the verges and coming into the village itself we nose up to a queue of stationary cars held up by a policewoman to let the crowds cross the road. We abandon the car in a field that has been requisitioned as the festival car park and walk back along the main road, passing several large elegant villas skulking behind high walls and heavy iron gates. I must read that history of Pisa, in Italian, that I bought at Pisa airport in one of my fits of wanting to know everything about everything between the sea and the Garfagnana. It might explain why anyone with money and status would have wanted to live on the Serchio River bank kilometres from anywhere. The original main street of the village runs perpendicular to the road we drove in on, up the side valley. We turn up it between shops and houses on one side and, on the other, stalls selling craft jewellery, kitsch wooden carvings and honey. After a porchetta stall (we make a mental note to return for lunch), we come to the first roasting chestnuts and the first olive oil stall…
The signora tells me that her olive groves are at Montemagno, but she takes the olives to the frantoio (press) at Vicopisano which is an excellent modern press. The olives were picked yesterday and pressed and bottled early that morning in time for the festival. The owner of the olive press arrives just in time to verify both the quality of his frantoio and the timing of her pressing. She offers me a slice of bread doused with oil — these oilanteprima are the times I’ve ever seen oil poured over bread in Italy, but I notice a stack of small plastic cups and ask to taste the oil in one of them. She agrees this is the best way to taste the oil, but ‘many of us’, she circles her hand to encompass the anonymous bystanders, ‘are ignorant’. She pours a small puddle of thick green oil into the cup. I hold the cup in one palm to warm it while keeping the other hand firmly clamped over the top. After a minute or so, I put the cup to my nose and raise my hand enough to sniff up the pungent aroma. Then I slurp up some of the oil with lots of air and taste the strong heady flavour, bitter at the edges and peppery at the back of the throat. The most interesting producer for me is a young man who is offering comparative tastings of his last year’s oil and this year’s, also just pressed that morning. But these first few bottles contain oil only from the bitter leccino variety of olives, since they’re the ones at the top of his slopes and ripen earlier than the sweeter frantoio and moraiolo lower down. Last year’s bottles contain a blend of all three varieties, and have a decidedly gentler flavour, partly due to the blend and partly a result of ageing in the bottle. His azienda is organic and he’s joining forces with some other producers, including a norcino (pork butcher) to present taste workshops. He invites me to visit.
Next instalment: roast suckling pig panini and what non-foodies get out of village festivals.
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