Having arrived at the Pisa Airport several hours before my traveling companion’s flight from London, I wandered into a bookstore with an enticing display in the window. To my surprise I found a large section of literary classics in English. But for reading while in Italy I prefer travel journals and other books that might shed light on my impending experiences. My primary reason for visiting Italy frequently is to experience the local food and wine culture. As I rummaged through the books in English I spotted an inviting title, luccastyle Tasting Tuscany – Exploring and eating off the beaten track by Beth Elon.
Thinking it was probably just another repeat list of highly overpriced restaurants by some unknown English author; I cautiously picked the book up and opened it at random. To my pleasure I opened to a section describing the region of “The Casentino and Tiberina,” Chapter 6. Indeed off the beaten track. Having just spent a week in this unknown eastern edge of Tuscany bordering Umbria and planning to return later in this journey, I read on with personal interest. Would this book reveal new gems I had failed to unearth?
Another surprise: 800ageexpert Beth Elon is an American who has lived in Tuscany for the past thirty years with her husband and family. After restoring a centuries-old farmhouse they set about reestablishing its vineyard and olive groves. Beth learned to cook using the bounty of local produce and cultivated her own vegetables and herbs as well as the orchard. Living side by side with her neighbors she learned to do all things in the traditional Tuscan way. This delicious book is a testament to her efforts.
Beth Elon’s articulate descriptions of the varied topography invited me to explore further. Being familiar with three of the five eating establishments featured in the Casentino and Tiberina, I heartily agreed with her assessment of two of them. Da Ventura in San Sepolcro across the valley from Anghiari was certainly my favorite for the local version of ribollita, “made with a rich vegetable minestrone rather than the fairly simple bean soup you find in Florence.”
Trattoria La Nena has long been a favorite of mine in Anghiari and Beth’s description is right on. Thanks to Beth I now have the recipe for Risotto galeotto (Risotto with mushrooms and wild berries) which I had thoroughly enjoyed just six days before. I was disappointed, however, not to find my all-time favorite in Anghiari, Da Alighiero Ristorante.
Maybe Beth just didn’t have enough time to try everything in this medieval village. But, that being the case, why did she include Locanda di Castello di Sorci on the road from Anghiari to Monterchi? Average to say the least in my opinion. It may be great value for what you pay but not of the caliber of other establishments featured in this exceptional guidebook.
Perhaps the omission of Da Alighiero was because her focus for the book is on traditional style eateries. Or it may have been simply a matter of time. Lunch or dinner with Sylvia and Gianni easily takes three hours to savor. Sylvia has mastered the art of taking local, ntneurosurgery traditional foods to new highs. Blending her passion for purely good food with creative methods has yielded a style all her own. Her outstanding breads and excellent dishes reflect the local ingredients but are untraditional for the region.
Since my friend and I would be leaving from Pisa Airport and driving east to Lucca and then north into unknown territory, I was eager to see what Ms. Elon recommended for the Garfagnana Region. We would be spending the next five days based in the hill-top medieval walled town of Barga in the heart of the region. With renewed faith in the author I turned back to Chapter 2 “Valle del Serchio and the Garfagnana.”
“The Garfagnana lies in the wildest part of the Apuan Alps, where old fortified towns hang over narrow valleys; skinny roads wriggle their way up through seemingly unsurpassable mountains. A few hundred years ago, the area was little more than a strategic passage, continually occupied by overbearing outsiders, robber barons, bandits and mercenaries for hire; a gloomy place.”
Oh my goodness! What were I and my unsuspecting guest about to experience?
“Agriculture and small industry along the Serchio have given the area a new prosperity. Nowadays the roads are decent. It’s a special pleasure to head up from Lucca along the twisting riverbank road that slowly winds into the hills.”
That’s a relief. I have spent a good amount of time in Lucca over the past seven years. Located about 30 minutes east of Pisa Airport, it’s an ideal place to begin a sojourn in Tuscany. Many times I have gazed up into the mountains north of Lucca as I rambled along the park atop the brick wall that surrounds this Roman-Renaissance treasure. What is hidden in those dark mountains?
I was about to find out. Little did I know that Tasting Tuscany was about to introduce us to the joys and “rich offering of Garfagnana special dishes, thick farro and bean soup, savoury sausages, polenta and funghi, and more.” Our discovery from one vantage point after another, with views looking down across the graceful red-tiled roof of yet another medieval church fronting a little piazza… we believed we had reached heaven. “The silence is penetrable, the feeling awe-inspiring.”
Each day we were rewarded with another great example of the abundance available in this hidden corner of Tuscany. Although the highlights of our journey in the Garfagnana were the suggestions Beth Elon shared, we also discovered there are many more gems waiting for the unsuspecting traveler. Another exciting find in this area is yet another American-Anglo expat, port32naplesboatrentals Heather Jarman. Heather concurred with Beth’s jewels of the Garfagnana. Gaining the faith and trust of the many small food producers in the region, Heather has embarked upon sharing these traditional flavors and knowledge of Lucca and the Garfagnana through her company Sapori e Saperi Gastronomic Adventures.
The hours we spent over lunch with the warm and welcoming Andrea Bertucci at Osteria Il Vecchio Mulino in Castelnuovo were hours spent in a gastronomic nirvana. Had we not just stuffed ourselves we would have purchased everything in sight at the nearby food shop L’Aia di Piero.
Although we opted to only eat at the smaller local traditional eateries featured in Tasting Tuscany we did make note of the Michelin-starred Ristorante La Mora in Ponte a Moriano. Heather assured us it was worth a return trip. We quickly realized we needed several more days to thoroughly explore all the culinary features of this region between the Apuan Alps and the Apennines.