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 (including olives). They have chosen to cultivate heritage wheat varieties: Senatore Capelli, a durum wheat that originated in the early 1900s; Verna, a soft wheat dating from the ‘50s; and the granddaddy of them all, emmer or farro (Triticum dicoccum). Andrea walked over to a bouquet of Brobdingnagian wheat, showing me the distinctive baffi (‘moustaches’, whereas we say ‘bearded’) of Senatore Capelli.
So where are the fields, I asked, looking through the window at the featureless plain surrounding the house. He explained that they’re scattered about, but lie mostly on the rolling hills on the other side of Lucca, where you can follow the edge of the fields on foot or bicycle. ‘It’s worth it just for the beauty of the cypress-lined lane and the view over the countryside.’
But what can we do besides take a walk? How do we get to know this wheat? He’s ready with exciting answers. In early July we can help harvest it with sickles and tie it into sheaves. I’d like to try, providing I don’t have to do it all day.
Now this robust wheat has grabbed my hand and is taking me on its journey. The path beside the fields leads to the mill, not geographically, but temporally, after the threshing and winnowing. It’s Aldo’s mill in the Garfagnana where I often take my guests to marvel at the gyrating water wheels and inhale the sweet smell of fresh stone-ground wheat flour and maize meal.
Overlooking the mill is Gabriele’s biodynamic vineyard Podere Concori. I’m sure the wheat won’t miss us if we nip over for a wine tasting.
Then we’re on the road down the coast to the tiny pastificio south of Livorno where the flour is made into pasta by the slow traditional method: mixing the paste, extruding it through bronze dies and finishing the shaping by hand. Can we go? Will they give us a demonstration? Yes, yes. And the little factory that transforms their fruit and vegetables into jam and preserves is on the way. We can stop there too, probably for a marmellata lesson, but certainly for brunch.
Only half an hour further along the Tuscan coast is Populonia with the dual attractions of Etruscan remains and an unspoiled beach. My Italian friends have been trying to drag me there for years, but I never make the time. Now I will.
I’m beginning to spin my own web connecting with my other suppliers. How about a pasta lesson with Alessandra, complete mistress of the rolling pin. And we could use whatever fruit is ripe, which we would pick ourselves, to make gelato with Mirko Tognetti, at the third best gelateria in Italy right here in Lucca.
While my mind wanders, Andrea has moved onto making bread with their low-gluten Verna wheat flour. After Easter his dad will be giving an all day course at the Brilla about making sourdough. A must for the tour. The Brilla is a restored rice mill on the shores of Lago Massaciuccoli (Puccini lived on the other side for most of his adult life). Potential there for birdwatching from a silent electric boat among the reeds. Magical!
Oh, and Signora Favilla can make lunch for us at their home with their produce.
By now I have a picture of a family determined to follow its principles no matter how difficult, perhaps enjoying the process of surmounting obstacles. There are closer mills than Aldo’s, but he’s the only one they trust not to mix their organic flour with non-organic. Many pastifici near Lucca would do, but the pasta wouldn’t be as good. As I leave, Andrea loads me up with bags of pasta and jars of jam. Charming, generous and hospitable. How could I have thought plants would be boring?
There’s much research still to do, but I’m pencilling 2–9 July 2017 for the tour. Anyone who comes up with a tour name I decide to use, gets a 10% discount on two places if the tour goes ahead. Contact me at email@example.com.
Erica Jarman invites you on inspiring culinary tours of life behind the scenes that you won’t find in any guidebook — get to know the food artisans and craftspeople of Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont and Liguria. Come join me and my Italian friends and dip into a lifestyle where lunch is more important than business. Find out more at Sapori e Saperi Adventures and follow Erica’s own adventures on her blog.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.