■ 12 November 2013 by James Martin
Today we are preparing to leave the Lunigiana for our other home in California. We took our last Tuscan pizza napoletana out onto the terrace so we could overlook Enrico’s sorry orto or vegetable garden. It’s a soggy mess. The orto I mean. We were glad when he planted plenty of leeks, but now they’ve rotted from the constant, heavy rains.
But with death comes resurrection—of a sort. The year’s good news came when the bridge over the river in nearby Serricciolo, the Ponte di Serriciolo was finally replaced by a brand new bridge—with walkways!
The bridge was open a couple of months ago. The walkways? Well, that took a couple of months. It was hard to figure. They were out there every day, puttering around with big equipment. But the walkways were always closed.
The thing is, the walkways go nowhere. Yes, you can walk across the bridge but on the other side the road narrows. A reasonably sane person can go no further. I define a sane person as one who would think it crazy to share a lane with Italian drivers. I think I might not be alone in this. You see, on the other side, the road continues and the shoulder disappears. Completely.
But still, nice guesture. And there is something to see. Yes, it’s that statue on the left. The base of the statue is a hunk of the old bridge. Thanks to you, Madre della Lunigiana, we are now protected. It’s all in its own little platform on the far side of the bridge. It’s as if they said, “geez, there’s no reason for a walkway, but it’s in the contract. We’ll get the priest to bless a statue and we’ll put it here so you have to use the walkway to get to it.”
Pretty smart, don’t you think?
And those clouds hugging the far mountains! Purty, no? Gonna miss it.
Italy Travel Toolbox
- All About Italy Rail Passes
- How to Ride Italian Trains (video)
- Italy Maps
- Italy Cities Climate and Weather
- Italy Autostrada Map
- Cinque Terre Hiking Map
■ 1 November 2013 by James Martin
It smelled good at the Ristorante Venelia today. It was a holiday, All Saints day, and everyone was out and about with their children and most were having the tagliolini al tartufo. You see it in the picture. We smelled, we ordered without even hearing the waitress recite the menu.
Two plates of it came steaming to the table. I held back and took the picture you see above. Beautiful, eh? Then we stuck our heads in the steam, breathed deeply, and dug in.
At which time the diner at the next table over leaned toward us. He had a serious look on his face. He spoke to us in English, “They’re not real truffles, you know.”
Our forks, which had been twisting away at the ravishing tagliolini like little whirling dervishes, screeched to a halt. So, someone took the time to paint all those intricate lines on a radish or something? Were we going to die?
“These we call scorzone. Not the real truffle you get in Piemonte, the white one. This smells very, very good, but I don’t like it in the mouth.”
So we relaxed. I slid a sliver of truffle on to my fork. Yes, the taste—a little like you’d imagine cardboard to taste if it were infused with some truffle steam and you were in the habit of eating wood pulp.
“The owner found these this morning, he told me.”
The taste wasn’t sexy like a winter white truffle. Not even close. But it was a truffle, or at least people call it one, a summer truffle. Tuber Aestivum Vitt is the scientific name. It’s not the same as a summer black truffle, which is Tuber Melanosporum Vitt—but you probably know it as the Perigord truffle. It’s quite common in Tuscany, and it’s sometimes called “The Tuscany Truffle” because it grows well here.
And there was still that alluring smell…
So that was our primo. They didn’t charge an arm and a leg for it—and it was clearly specified on the menu exactly the type of truffle that was used, so nobody was trying to rip anyone off. For 12 euro the plate was quite an enjoyable one.
So look at the picture again. If you were searching out the winter white truffle, the best kind of truffle, you wouldn’t see the black on the outside. If it were the second-best black perigord truffle, it would be less yellow in the inside. This is the kind of truffle you get when you purchase those bottles of cheap, preserved truffles.
But let’s get back to the rest of the meal. Over on the right is what I ordered.
Piccione. Pigeon, called squab for the squeamish, stuffed with all manner of funghi or forest mushrooms. Oversalted, but a fantastic dish in spite of it. I ate fried squash flowers with it.
We are full. There is unlikely to be a late meal on this all saints day.
■ 23 October 2013 by James Martin
The clouds were dark, the air was warm. After days of rain we decided to go for a walk to see if the streams that flow from the hills through the outskirts of our little village were swollen and nasty.
The streams were fine. We saw no fish frolicking trout-like in the shadows, however.
On the way home, the light and rhythmic crunch of gravel that accompanied us was joined by the clattering hum of a jeep.
The jeep stopped. We walked on a bit, thinking nobody stops for foreigners, then looked over.
“Would you like some eggs?” the driver asked.
“Si, si!” replied Martha, who is a connoisseur of unborn chickens still in the shell.
(I have switched the languages, of course, just for fun.)
The driver leaned out of his jeep and started laying egg after egg into Martha’s palms. He almost stopped at 4, but then remembered that his regalo had to be in odd numbers, so he gently laid the fifth egg in her hand.
“The chickens, you know, never stop laying. But nobody buys the eggs, so the price got so cheap I’d rather give them as a gift.” he said with a smile which would have brightened Broadway.
So we thanked him profusely and began walking up the hill toward our humble abode. On the way we said “buona sera” to our neighbor, the one with the yapping little dog. She asked to see the eggs. She noticed they were local.
“Where did you get them?” she inquired.
We were rather startled by the question. We didn’t steal them, dammit. But then again, we didn’t know the man who gave them to us either.
We yammered a bit while trying to think of the right Italian words and eventually told her some guy just up and gave them to us. I added, “nobody buys them, he said, so he gifted them to us.”
She rolled her eyes. “Of course, we all have our own chickens.”
And that’s why I live here. Free eggs. And they’re not poison either, like they are in the states. And they taste like they’re supposed to taste.
Oh, and neighbors who quiz you. Just to keep you on your toes.
Popular These Days
■ 15 September 2013 by James Martin
Anatomy of a Lunigiana Feast
A Sagra is a celebration of food. It’s not an ancient thing, it’s a relatively modern word and concept. These feasts happen most every weekend. You learn to read the sagra posters tacked everywhere and decide upon which to attend.
When you move to Italy, you come to understand that some sagre are more important than others in your area. We’ve learned that some of our neighbor’s more lofty accolades go to the Sagra delle focaccette di Vaccareccia.
Vaccareccia is a tiny village in the Lunigiana whose whole reason for being seems to be this once-a-year festival. 2013 was no exception, despite the drizzle.
Everyone is here. The neighbor without eggs because her chickens were eaten by a wolf was there. The almost toothless woman who wins prizes at Karaoke competitions was there, as was her almost blind husband, who insists on driving the car, albeit so slowly hardly anyone notices unless they have the misfortune of being behind him.
How They Make Focaccette
It’s simple. You build a fire to warm up the teste, little terracotta plates. They get quite warm. Then you get one of those those nifty stacking devices you see in the picture below and put down the first testa. You put a ball of dough in the testa, then cover it with another testa, more dough, etc., etc.
When it’s up to the top, you squish it all down, let it cook for a short period of time, then disassemble the whole deal, throwing the resulting focaccette in a basket to be sliced open and stuffed with pancetta, stracchino, Gorgonzola, or sausage. 2 euros are charged for each at the festival.
You’d think with all the food worship that seems to go on around here, the “kitchen” for making these things would be a palace of stainless steel that would be the envy of Mario Batalli or something, but no, what we have is a Focaccette Shack. There are no cats on the hot tin roof, but then again, it was raining.
I’m sorry you missed it. Man, was it good.
■ 4 June 2013 by James Martin
It was a chance to buy wine made just up the trail from us along with cheese of the region, to chow down on our justly famous Zeri lamb with friends Mike and Martha of A Path to Lunch, and to taste “coffee” made of toasted grain.
On Sunday night the place was hoppin’, flags were being thrown in all the big piazzas, and many were actually caught. Even the little kids participated. Royalty danced in a stately manner and peasants danced with spirit and joy.
We couldn’t miss giving you a minute and a half glimpse of the medieval part of the festival in a video made with my NEX-7, which didn’t do too badly for a still camera that also does video.
All this got us to update our page on Fivizzano, where we’ve also included an old engraving showing the walled city and a picture from the same angle today, so you can compare how Fivizzano has/hasn’t changed over the years: Fivizzano Map and Guide.
■ 2 June 2013 by James Martin
Dammit, now I want a drone of my own.
Sure, drones are getting a lot of bad press these days. Mostly it’s because the government uses them to kill people—or to spy on people to be killed later.
But put a camera on a little drone with helicopter wings designed for seeing things from a new angle and you have something great. I mean, if you’re sunbathing nude in your backyard with the maid you might not want to see a drone with a camera overhead. I understand that. But if you were a castle and borgo you would be proud to be seen from overhead, I should think.
We have something like 160 castles and castle ruins in our little corner of Tuscany, called La Lunigiana. That’s a lot, a high density we would say. It would be perfect for someone with a drone and a lot of time to fly it.
Here’s what makes me giddy with desire for a drone of my own:
This is just one of our little mountain hill towns with castle. Purty, ain’t she? Wouldn’t you want someone to document each little town like this?
■ 21 May 2013 by James Martin
“The most rain in 200 years,” he said, glancing up at the sky.
And then there was the water rushing past the bridge. Usually it’s barely a trickle this time of year. Now it’s got some serious whitewater to it at times.
Lots of water has consequences. Good and bad consequences I suppose. It makes your pictures look bad. Well, not really bad, but it looks like you put your picture in Photoshop and cranked up the green like an addict cranks up the crank.
But really, the view below is the view you get when you take the narrow little road from Fivizzano to Comano. You’re almost to Comano, the Castle tower at Castello is about to come into view. There’s a space to pull off, pretty much the first one you’d dare use. Then this:
See what I mean? Oh, yeah the lens had a smudge the size of Kansas on it, but what you see is pretty much the new growth green, scoured by constant rain until it’s polished like the silvery ball embedded in a pretty girl’s tongue.
We’re looking at the edge of the Tosco Emiliano National Park. It’s pretty country all around.
And if you noticed the picture way at the top, you’ll notice snow. It’s late May. What’s that doing there?
Odd year, innit?
■ 7 April 2013 by James Martin
Crosini (4 kinds x 2), affettata, (sliced meats,3 kinds x 2), sgabei (fried bread), torta di patati (potato pie) Risotto (artichoke and mushroom), ravioli with meat sauce, pork with potatoes, tagliata con rucola (sliced steak with arucola), fried kid with fried artichokes, tiramisu covered in strawberries. Coffee.
It sounds like I’m telling you the choices on the menu, doesn’t it? But no, this is Sunday in the Luni, short for the Lunigiana, but oddly apropos in an Englishy sort of way. This is what you’re having to eat. All of it. An endless array of appetizers, then two primi piatti, risotto and pasta, then three meat courses, then desert (although if you’re a mathematician perhaps you thought you were caught in a diabolical progression and there’d be four deserts, but, happily, no). All served by a women who can selectively ignore any protest of the amount of food she might pile on your plate. She is more selective if the voice is masculine.
You start eating happily. The food is the food cooked in house, by women who’ve been doing it forever. Then, you’re stomach begins to quiver, then protest. You do to. So, Martha says, “basta uno” or “one is enough” and get’s one piece of something. I say “basta uno” and she throws a second on the plate. Picolo!” she says. It’s small, live with it, she means.
Soon you get defensive. You cover your plate with your hands after two huge ladle-fulls of risotto. The minute things calm down and you slowly remove them, plop goes the third.
Then, upon seeing her with a platter waltzing toward your table, you bend over your plate, cradling it in your arms and drawing it toward your breast as you lean over, covering it with your head. Soon you feel the plop, then the long-simmered juices trickling ever so deliciously down the cavern between your ear and skull…
It’s a battle eating Sunday lunch at the Ristorante Apuane, which isn’t alone in the game of Sunday excess. Entirely Luni. But you do it. Once you were poor, now there’s food. It’s cathartic. Live with it.
Oh, I forgot to mention why I like living here. All this, with bottled water and wine, runs you 25 euro per person. No tipping. Ristorante Apuane di Gregori Cristina in Magliano. A bar most of the week, a good food/stomach torture chamber on Sunday. Boy, them people can cook!