Monday, April 11, 2016

Excursions in Tuscany - one long post

As part of the Cooking in Tuscany trip, we were able to enjoy a number of excellent visits to things we may never have done on our own. The cooking was only a small part of the total package. The excursions set up by Christina, our guide, really were terrific.

Cheese Manufacturer - Garfagnana

Our first excursion was to a family owned, small cheese manufacturer where we were able to see how
Ricotta cheese was made. Ricotta means "twice cooked" so first the milk was heated to get rid of bacteria, then heated again to begin the process of making the Ricotta. (Ricotta is not officially cheese as it does not go through all the cheese making processes.)

So, we dressed in our white hats, coats and booties to keep as sterile as possible. I'm sure the owner had more hair in his beard than on his head but he didn't have anything to cover it up.

We watched the owner stir up the heated, pasteurized milk, using some modern tools but also old tree branches which were used in the past. The warm milk was transferred to another vat where his assistant hand scooped it into plastic cups which would be turned over a number of times to compress the cheese, then cooled. As this was all hand made,  each plastic cup is a little different so the Ricotta is sold by weight.

Very interesting and informative although I've forgotten most of what I learned there.

Pietransanta is a small town in northern Tuscany known for its art festivals and some artists, for example, Michaelangelo. Michaelangelo was especially impressed with the marble quarries nearby that produced the clean white marble he used in his sculptures.
Often the main square is loaded with unique, modern sculptures. The one below was interesting. It had several mirrors in it that allowed this view. But, Judy did not understand what I was trying to do as she could not see herself in any mirrors. They were angled just so to give this view.
While walking to our next visit, we passed an ancient church that had been converted into a gallery. Christina knew the owner so we got a sneak preview of a show that was to open later that day. We met the artist, Renaldo Bigi, who is a well known modern, abstract artist and scultptor. His large format works in the medieval church really had an awesome effect.
After that visit, we went to an artist's studio where people rent space to work on their projects. One man was a sculptor, another made jewelry and another was making pottery. Some of these artists were friends of Christina so we got a personal tour of the various studios.
Then it was time for lunch where the specialty of the area was olive oil. Every region/town has their own specialty which is unlike and better than any other in the world. Quite a competition for the best olive oil, wine, cheese, meat, etc, etc, etc.

On a return trip to the Garfagnana area, we were treated to another specialty thanks to Christina. Andre welcomed us into his eclectic food and wine shop. It was not a real restaurant but he was able to serve us his Mama's special vegetable soup. He is also in possession of the largest mortadella you will ever see.

On the way back to Lucca, we passed by the Devil's Bridge. Legend has it that the builder of the bridge was not going to finish on time. He made a deal with the devil where the devil would finish the bridge in one night in exchange for the soul of the first person to cross the bridge. The town leaders got wind of this deal and they sent a pig across the bridge thereby confounding the devil who went back into the forest with his tail between his legs.So, Judy re-enacted that trickery by pulling a pig out of her poke (purse) and walking over the bridge. All our souls were saved.

Carrara and the lard factory

Carrara is world famous for its marble quarries. In fact what looks like snow on the top of the mountains is really white marble. Back in the Roman days, the workers (aka slaves) subsisted mainly on bread, wine and lard. Yes, lard. The lard kept their energy up so they could work all day.

So we had to visit a home where they processed and sold lard. I had visions of lard in tubs like butter, but this was more like prosciutto with more fat than meat. It is made through an aging process and takes weeks/months to cure correctly. During this time it is stored in marble "boxes" that go back to Roman times. The owner and his wife served us a great lunch, including sliced lard, and gave us a tour of his little shop after entertaining us with his harmonica. Quite a character.

 Fresh lard
 Fat from the back of a hog. (Fat back?)
 Aging with herbs and spices in marble box.
Explaining the process. We have a great video of this conversation.

Carrara Marble Quarry

After our lunch with lard, we drove back down the marble mountain to a small family owned quarry where we were given a fascinating tour. Here our guide, friend of the owner and Christina, explains that this column base was left by the Romans 2000 years ago. They actually did some of the carving on site so they wouldn't have to drag extra stone.

With the use of heavy equipment, the quarry can be run by only a fraction of what it took in the old days. Plus the machines don't eat lard.

Here is one of the saws they use to make horizontal cuts in the stone. That's the saw behind Judy.

 Then they would used chain-like cutters to make the vertical cuts.

 This is a pile of chunks of marble that will be pulverized and sold to the paper mills for pulp. The going rate is 3Euro per TON. Yes, per ton.

They are almost through harvesting this section of the quarry. It could be dangerous to have the roof cave in on you. But, we were standing on about 300 meters of marble underneath our feet. So, they will be at it for a long time. This marble is called Grey Marble as it has streaks of grey in it. It is sold mostly to China and Japan and is used for flooring, counter tops, etc. The White Marble from a quarry nearby is used for sculpting. Michaelangelo was a purist and used that particular Carrara white marble.

  Judy trying to sneak away with a souvenir.

This was a very interesting tour to see how they extract the marble and how much marble has already been extracted and how much remains. On the way in and out of the mountains, there are lots of stock piles of marble ready to be loaded onto ships and sent abroad. Carrara's port is one of the busiest in the world.

Cinque Terre
We spent 1 day in Cinque Terre which is an area along the coast that includes 5 little villages perched aside the cliffs leading down to the Mediterranean. They are linked by walking trails and a railroad. What a beautiful area.

 You can make out the villages along the coast line.

 Names of the 5 towns that make up the Cinque Terra
 You have to walk down to the town from a parking lot above. Very few vehicles are allowed in the town. Deliveries are sometimes made from a private parking lot to the merchants with modified Vespas.
 Brightly colored buildings...

 Artsy photo through an ancient gateway.

 Clock tower with ruins.
 Utilities are expensive, so no clothes dryer. Clean laundry hangs everywhere.
 One of the few actual beaches in the area.
 View through the window of a Romanesque church, hundreds of years old...
 Tiny port
Church and bell tower (actually ringing 12 noon at this point)

As usual, we had to try the specialty of the region. This time it was anchovies. They were served 3 ways. I understand they were pretty tasty. I passed mine to Judy and had a second helping of pasta.

 2 Villas

Our last excursion was just before out last class with Gianluca

The first was to a beautiful villa that has been converted into an organic winery and olive oil-ery. A former restaurant owner from Lucca had been selling the wine from this villa and then decided to concentrate on the wine and olive oil.

The villa was in his wife's family.

A view through the olive trees.

Beautiful plantings everywhere.

 The villa had amazing paintings and furniture that was centuries old.

  We had a wine and olive oil tasting in the old kitchen.
 Here are a few of his barrels
His wine was excellent. Supposedly, the bottle can be left open (as in no cork at all) for days without spoiling the wine. Even after a week, it will remain good with just one of those vacuum tops. Of course this was a moot point for me.

Villa Bernardini

After a short walk, we came to the Villa Benardini and met the Marquis who invited us in for lunch. He was a really pleasant young man. He sat at our table for lunch and when asked how long he had lived in the villa, he said, "I am born here."  His family goes back to before the Crusades, which he said they had helped to finance, not fight. The gardens are beautifully maintained with a landscaped amphitheater behind the house which is sometimes used for weddings, receptions and recitals.

 Sculpture in the garden
 The Marquis' Coat of Arms
 Salon where the Marquis and his brother played as kids.

 View of the amphitheater from the second floor.

Lemon trees in the greenhouse being prepared to be wheeled back out side to the gardens.

That morning, coincidentally, I had rented a bike for a tour around Lucca. I came across Piazza Bernardini with its own church and surrounding buildings. That was the "city" home of the Marquis until he moved permanently to the Villa with his family.

The last official event of the trip was dinner at the Cooking School. We made mini pizzas, raviolis, lamb and Grandma,Grandpa cakes.   What a great way to cap off a terrific trip. It totally exceeded our expectations.