High in the Appuan Alps National Park region in the area called Garfagnana (in the province of Lucca in northern Tuscany) lies the fairy tale village of Isola Santa. It is a village of stone houses amidst the lush greenery surrounding a small lake. A lovely church with a bell tower is silhouetted against the mountains and cliffs that form the Turrite Secca river valley.
Historical records from the 1200s show that this village was a small hospice throughout Medieval times where pilgrims and the sick could find shelter on the road between Garfagnana and Versilia coast. In the 1500s, the hospice was torn apart and later rebuilt as the Church of San Iacopo (in 1608). The bell tower was added in 1899. The church still stands today.
In 1949, the power company constructed a dam for electricity on the Turrite Secco River that forever changed the makeup of the village: The dam submerged a part of the village buildings, damaged others and created the lake that is now a part of the scenery. More buildings were constructed higher up the mountain and there are still a few inhabitants, a B&B, a Bar/Restaurant and some tourist activity as people come to picnic by the lake in the summer. On many days you can still see the part of the village that lies submerged in the lake like a ghost town. There are walking trails in Isola Santa that will allow you to explore the town and the lake area and also hiking trails throughout the national park area..
How to reach Isola Santa:
- From Lucca: through Castelnuovo di Garfagnana (58 km
- From Forte Dei Marmi (about 30 km from the ”Versilia” Toll Road excit
- From Massa through the “Del Versilio” Pass (about 28 km)
Experts will tell you that Tuscan food is exceptional because it is based on “fresh ingredients.” Fantastic! What does that mean?
Imagine holding a fresh egg that is still warm from the hen. Hear the distinct snap as you crack that egg and place it on a flat surface. Take in the fresh smell. See the shiny orange (yes, orange) perfectly round, thick yolk that stands about ¾ inch high. Notice the compact and lustrous white of the egg, so very distinct from the yolk. Observe that the entire circumference of the egg is around 4-5 inches. Perfect.
You combine this egg with freshly ground (Italian) flour to make pasta dough. The color of the dough is a vivid gold, the smell of the pasta is enticing and the texture is smooth and firm in your hands.
Toss that pasta into briskly boiling salted water. It retains its shape and easily cooks to an “al dente” (firm in the middle) phase.
Finally, combine your perfectly cooked pasta with your favorite sauce or ragú (that you made using all the freshest possible ingredients). Heaven!
Compare the egg used in this case with that of an egg bought from your local grocery store. Crack it and the shell might crumble into many pieces. Place it on a flat surface; you will often see a pale yellow yolk that blends into the white of the egg. The egg white is runny and quickly spreads all over the surface.
You may, of course, not be able or willing to reach under a hen’s rear end to retrieve a warm egg. The point is, always be meticulous about using the freshest possible ingredients. Learn to read the signs of freshness and quality.
This is how the Tuscans approach cooking – with simplicity, attention to freshness and details and love. This is how my 99-year-old mother still cooks today.
Try this approach, no matter what you are making. This can apply to cooking, sewing, writing, painting or whatever you enjoy. Your outcome is only as good as the attention and love you put into each detailed step of the process, each moment along the way.
And, when your end result is something totally wonderful? Like the Tuscans, share it joyfully with people you love!
On my very recent trip to Tuscany I was in the Maremma area (Southwest Tuscany) famous for its wines, Italian cowboys, Etruscan ruins and beaches. As I visited the Necropolis (burial ground) of Etruscans in Populonia.
While there, I was captivated by the beautiful colors of the sea and the seashore. So now I learn that some Maremma beaches are among Italy’s 15 best as chosen by the Italian Touring Club’s top 15 list for 2013.
My husband and I have been traveling around Tuscany for the last two weeks. There are so many beautiful places that one can soon lose count of all there is to see.
One town not well-known by American tourists is the historic town of Pietrasanta in northwestern Tuscany. Pietrasanta has been a marble and art town since before the time of Michelangelo who came here to find the whitest possible marble. Henry Moore also spent much time in Pietrasanta and, today, artists such as Fernando Botero live here part of the year.
On of the most valuable gifts from Pietrasanta to the world are the marble artisans who take the clay or plaster cast sculptures of the artists and transform them in beautiful marble statues. They still use their old manual instruments to transform the dimensions of the small originals to the large statues. They do have some modern machinery and computer help now but most of the work is still done by hand by specialized artisans.
The statuary was beautiful and it was also fun to see works by Gina Lollobrigida and the figures of Superman and Batman.
Most any significant marble work of art or architecture has originated in Pietrasanta. Pietrasanta is also a center for foundry work. Old works of art stand next to the new such as the paradise and inferno frescoes by Botero.
Our dear friend Ambra escorted us to a very large and well-known marble workshop Laboratorio Cervietti where we witnessed some of the marble workmanship first-hand and saw sculptures from past exhibits. This was indeed a special treat.
The small town is also full of art galleries, shops, excellent restaurants and wine shops and boutique hotels. There are often exhibits near the central ‘piazza’ near the beautiful duomo and campanile. One can sit at the Caffe Michelangelo and gaze out at all the goings on.
Pietrasanta is definitely worth a visit.
See photo gallery: Click here
My home town of Viareggio in Tuscany is known for its beaches, luxury yachts and “Liberty” style (Art Deco, Art Nouveau) architecture.
This article discusses how Viareggio has foregone neon signs to keep the old-style typeface.
Lucca is one of my favorite towns in Tuscany. Apparently, I’m in good company as Forbes Magazine has declared Lucca the second most idyllic place to live in Europe.
Lucca is full of old world charm minus the tourist crowds and its prices are lower than Florence or Venice.
When you are looking for “true” Tuscan (or Italian) recipes of any kind, you may become very perplexed over numerous versions of the same recipe. Which one is the right one? Which is the “classic?” Let me try to shed some light on this quandary: In Italy, each person or restaurant, puts a personal spin on a recipe. The variations depend on personal taste, family background, specific area of Tuscany (or Italy) and what is easily available and very fresh in that area. Tuscans are notorious for being fiercely independent, even when it comes to recipes.
Again, we can use a musical analogy. Many musicians can play the same piece of music but it is the interpretation that makes one stand apart from another. Each recipe has a personal interpretation. To make it even more complicated, Tuscans will hardly ever be able to give you a precise recipe: It’s “A handful of this, a pinch of that” as cooking is often learned from watching other family members and done “a occhio” (by eye-balling) quantities.
Cooking is not a chemistry formula, it is an artistic experience; it is a way to express your creativity, enjoy all the steps of the process and render a wonderful result.
When Italians do give you recipe ingredients and measurements, it is always in weight (not cups or teaspoons). A perfect example of this is Tuscan Crostini (appetizers). First of all, when you say “Crostini” to Tuscans, they automatically assume you are referring to chicken liver crostini. If the crostini are any other kind, they are referred to by color or by naming the main ingredients (such as Crostini di Tonno – tuna – or Crostini di Pesce – fish). There are probably as many variations on Tuscan Crostini as there are Tuscans.
Have you tried making Tuscan Crostini? You should try the Tuscan way: Take a basic recipe, and adjust it to your taste by using variables or optional items, such as sage or bay leaves, chopped carrots, lemon juice, wine, etc. Just be careful not to overcook the chicken livers (they should not be too dry). Make certain that whatever you use is “in tune” with the rest of the ingredients. Then you will have your own “authentic recipe.” Please write in and let us know if you come up with something you really love!
Crostini Toscani (Tuscan Chicken liver crostini)
Basic recipe (This is one version. There is another listed below in the “Recipes” section)
Preparation time: 20 minutes.
Cooking time: 20 minutes.
- One onion
- ¼ carrot (optional)
- ¼ celery (optional)
- 3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 300g chicken livers
- Stock (optional)
- One tablespoon capers
- 4 anchovy fillets
- Freshly chopped Italian flat leaf parsley or sage (or preferred herb) roughly chopped 50g butter.
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 500g unsalted bread, preferably country bread
- Wine (optional)
Chop the onion (carrot, celery) and sauté in the e.v.o.o. Clean and wash the chicken livers, cut them roughly, add to the sautéed ingredients and brown well. If they dry out too much, moisten with a little stock or wine, but allow it to evaporate. Cook until done but not dry or overcooked. Remove from heat. Add the capers, and anchovy fillets, chopped herb leaves and butter. Using a large kitchen knife, chop the entire mixture very finely. Lightly toast the slices of bread and spread with the liver paste. If the slices of bread are crisped under a grill, they may be moistened with a spoonful of stock before spreading with the liver mixture. Some like crostini crisp and some prefer them moistened. The liver paste could also be served in an attractive bowl, surrounded with crisply toasted bread and decorated with herbs.
Since I am headed for Tuscany tomorrow, I especially enjoyed this article on wines from Montalcino in Tuscany. The “Big Brother” is, of course, Brunello di Montalcino>
Below is a lovely article on why Lucca is a great destination for A Tuscan Holiday:
One of life’s great pleasures is definitely chocolate! I am very excited by the recent successes of the “Valley of Chocolate” in Tuscany. The area between Pisa and Prato (near Florence) has developed into THE place where great artisanal chocolate is produced.
Many people are already familiar with Amedei chocolate www.amedei.com. For the third year in a row, this chocolate maker in Pontedera has won the Golden Bean award for “the best bean to bar chocolate in the world” from the London Academy of chocolate. Started by brother and sister Alessio and Cecilia Tessieri in 1990, Amedei produces the highest quality chocolate using the best cocoa beans from Central and South America. Their products include Amedei Porcelana Single Origin Dark Chocolate – 70% Cocoa, an ultra luxury chocolate. Amedei is also known for their concerns for carefully selecting the farms and farmers they work with and campaigning for fair treatment and living conditions for them and their workers.
Other famous chocolate makers in this area are Federico Salza of Pisa http://www.salza.it, Simone de Castro of Montopoli, Adrea Slitti of Monsummano Terme http://www.slitti.it, Corsini of Pistoia, Cioccolato &C of Massa e Cozzile in Pistoia, Caffe Pasticceria Rivoire in Florence (their hot chocolate is so legendary that I even ordered it on the hottest days of summer), Paul de Bondt from Pisa, Luca Mannori http://www.mannoriespace.it the patisserie champion creator of the “Seventh Veil Cake” (composed of 7 different kinds of chocolate) and Roberto Catanari, the originator of the entire ‘chocolate movement.’
The goal is for Tuscany to become known for the quality and origins of their handmade, high quality chocolate production in the same way as they are known for the production of art, wine and for their landscapes of unparalleled beauty.
None of this is truly surprising as Tuscany’s history with chocolate goes back centuries. Christopher Columbus was not impressed with the chocolate he sampled. Cortes was told chocolate was an aphrodisiac and brought it back to Europe. Chocolate remained “Spanish” until a Florentine traveler Antonio Carletti described the process of making chocolate to the Duke of Tuscany in the 17th century. Chocolate quickly radiated out from Florence to the other major cities in Italy.