The divine cuisine of Garfagnana
"Do you know about food, Richard?" asks the woman across the table from me.
"Oh yes," I reply. "I've been eating it for years, several times a day."
But we both understand there's a difference between eating food, enjoying food and really knowing food the way Paolo the baker, Andrea the restaurateur, Gabriella the cook and our guide, Heather, do. They make great food great fun.
Heather's company, Sapori e Saperi (Flavours and Knowledge), runs tours in the Garfagnana in northern Tuscany, introducing visitors to the region's food and the people who produce it.
Today she's brought us to the tiny neighbouring villages of Sant'Anastasio and Petrognola for their annual farro festival, one of dozens of food fairs that take place in Italy during summer.
The Garfagnana is not the Tuscany we know from calendars, with vineyards and pointy conifers on the brows of rolling hills. The valley of the Serchio River is rough, heavily forested country with the rocky outcrops of the Apuan Alps on one side and the Appennine Mountains on the other. It attracts hikers, horse riders and hardcore cyclists. And it's famous for food.
On the fringe of Sant'Anastasio village we buy tickets for 16, then climb the cobbled streets to an eight-course progressive farro lunch that lasts all afternoon.
Farro is an ancient grain crop, sometimes referred to as spelt but Heather assures us what we're about to eat is not spelt but emmer wheat. That doesn't leave us much the wiser but we'll soon learn a lot more about it.
After a palate-cleansing glass of sparkling spumante, we're ready for lunch. It's farro, farro, farro, farro, pork, beans and farro. We start with antipasto on farro bread, then farro salad with tuna and pesto. To follow there's warm farro with leeks and farro minestrone.
Then we drag our distended stomachs over the rocky footpath to the next village, Petrognola, for the main course, barbecue pork ribs and spicy sausage with beans.
We still have to tackle the savoury farro cake, the sweet farro cake and Petrognola's famous farro beer, made by local truck driver-turned-brewer Roberto.
The ambience is just like that on TV food shows, in which families sit at long tables in the courtyards of ancient farms. We imagined the Italians staged such events only for Jamie or Nigella's camera crews, so it's nice to know it really happens this way.
The food is served on plastic plates and unlabelled red wine arrives regularly in huge jugs. Musicians thump out folk tunes on tuba, clarinet and accordion, while in shady corners artisans demonstrate blacksmithing, basket weaving and hemp spinning.
Heather takes us to meet Paolo and his Australian-born wife, Daniela, who run the Petrognola bar. Paolo is also the local baker and miller.
He proudly shows us around his bakery and farro mill. Few foreigners are at the festival, so we're minor celebrities, with villagers asking us to pose for photos and buying us rounds of drinks.
We have another food appointment at Andrea's place in the Garfagnana capital Castelnuovo. Il Vecchio Mulino is unlike any restaurant we've visited. The osteria consists of a counter and two long tables surrounded by shelves of dusty wine bottles and immense hams. News clippings on the wall tell of Andrea's worldwide fame and influence in the slow food movement. He's successfully created a venue where locals can drink wine for a euro and Michelin-starred chefs drop in to learn new tricks and to chew the fat.
We could happily eat there forever but tomorrow Heather's arranged for us to visit Gabriella, who runs cooking courses in Casabasciana, for another food orgy. It is simple Tuscan fare and simply fabulous; crostini with chicken liver figatelli, spicy prosciutto, rough-cut pasta with a delicate sauce of pork and zucchini flowers and wine from Trebbiano grapes, indigenous to the area.
Gabriella explains each dish and my pen and camera work overtime trying to document it all. Then I decide I'll never remember it all anyway and just eat instead. I might not know much about food but I know what I like.
THREE OTHER THINGS TO DO IN GARFAGNANA
Carrara: Marble from the quarries of the Apuan Alps was used for Michelangelo's sculpture and is in bathrooms worldwide. Guided tours of the mines and the Museo del Marmo (marble museum) run from Carrara and from Lucca. Museum entry is 4.50. Just up the hill, the village of Colonnata is famous for its lardo (cured pig fat). Yum!
Take the bambinos to Collodi. The village 15 kilometres northeast of Lucca celebrates Pinocchio in the Parco di Pinocchio and the elaborate Garzoni Gardens and Butterfly House. Entry is 20 euro.
Lucca: You must go there; the medieval city is one of the most beautiful in Italy.
The writer was the guest of Sapori e Saperi.