Posted by Heather Jarman – Sapori e Saperi Adventures

Cutting the curd

Cooking a meal is the arrival at the end of a journey — a fascinating journey of exploration. I pick up today’s clients, Joanne, her daughter and her two granddaughters, from their apartment in Lucca at 9.00 am, and we head north up the Serchio River valley. At Borgo we stop to walk over the four unequal arches of the Devil’s Bridge while I tell them the legend of how the Devil was tricked by the bridge builders. Fifteen minutes later we’re driving up a steep, winding road to a picturesque hill village. Marzia greets us at the top of the village and leads us to the dairy in which she makes cheese and ricotta from the milk of her own animals — cows, sheep and goats. She added the rennet to the warm milk about an hour ago so that we can watch the more exciting part of the transformation from liquid milk to solid cheese. We’re all offered tastes

Have a taste

at various stages so we not only see, but also smell and taste what’s happening. After the cheese is draining in the moulds, she makes ricotta from the whey, and again we’re offered samples. All the while she tells us what she’s doing and why, and I translate into English. I think she’s surprised at how much is mysterious about something she does twice a day and takes for granted. I tell Marzia we need to buy some ricotta and mature pecorino cheese for the cooking lesson the next day. She leads us outside and down a narrow passageway to her shop. No signs give any clue to the shop’s whereabouts. If you live in the village, you know. If you don’t, you don’t need to know. It wasn’t until I had friends in the village that I found out about her. On our way back to the car, we see the goats out on the hillside and pick stinging nettles along the verge, also for the cooking lesson the next day. I’ve brought gloves for everyone, and since they’re from nettle-free Australia, I teach them how to tell the difference between true nettles and dead nettles, mimics growing in the same weedy patches.

Squeezing out the whey

At the cooking lesson we’re going to make ravioli, which in Lucca are pasta pockets filled with ricotta and spinach, or wild nettles in the spring when their leaves are young and tender. Alessandra, the cooking teacher, tastes the ricotta. Her eyes light up with pleasure and she screws her forefinger into her cheek, the ultimate Italian compliment to tasty food. She’s been searching in her local cooperative market for its equal, but Marzia’s still wins. Joanne and her family are feeling smug because they know why. They’ve seen the animals that give the milk, they’ve watched the care Marzia invests and knows she isn’t going to take any shortcuts that might jeopardize the quality or healthiness of her product. They know their ravioli are going to be the best.

By now they understand that a cooking lesson is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s only

Skimming off the ricotta

by searching out and visiting artisan producers that you can be sure of having the highest quality ingredients that require the simplest cooking methods. If you love Italian cuisine and want to reproduce it at home, this is a much more important lesson than the one with the cooking teacher. And you need a guide, because the artisans are hidden in nooks and crannies in the landscape, which are invisible even to canny travellers. They’re the real inhabitants of rural Italy, and their food isn’t just a collection of recipes; it’s the path into the culture of a strange and wonderful world.

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Heather picking olives

Heather Jarman helps you discover the hidden culinary treasures of Lucca in northwest Tuscany. You can join me for a day, a week or as long as you like. But please treat yourself to more than a mere cooking lesson! Find out more at Sapori e Saperi Adventures and follow Heather’s own adventures on her blog.

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