This is the territory of Lunigiana. Basing ourselves in historic Aulla, we sample a kaleidoscope of secret tastes, from chestnut bread to ‘peasant pasta’, cured lard to freshly pressed olive oil. This is a hands-on tour, with bread-baking, a cookery class and a walk in the mountains with a shepherdess and her sheep amongst the memorable experiences – and, of course, a host of lunches and dinners at the region’s finest restaurants are included.
Fly to Pisa, arriving mid-afternoon and then we transfer to the historic town of Aulla, where a welcome drink awaits at our comfortable base for the next five nights, the Hotel Demy. To whet our appetites, we are treated to a pre-dinner talk on the distinctive tastes of this glorious region before setting off for Le Querce, a farm-stay known in Italy as an agriturismo, set in the hills outside Aulla. This rustic restaurant serves up homemade regional favourites with a particular emphasis on game and the unusual Novegigola pasta sauce made with leeks.
Around an hour from Aulla are the chestnut woods of Regnano. Here we watch traditional chestnut bread (Marocca di Casola) being made and sample some ourselves. We then take a walk through the woods to discover more about this important food source, visit one of the few remaining chestnut drying huts and enjoy a splendid picnic prepared by the locals. In the afternoon, we return to Aulla, with some time to explore the town. Dinner is at our hotel this evening.
Panigaccio, the traditional bread of Lunigiana (and more specifically that of the town of Podenzana), is round, unleavened and baked in terracotta dishes called testi. The recipe and the cooking method have not changed in two millennia, and these simple, fresh breads make a delicious accompaniment to cured meat and cheese, or a chocolate-smothered sweet treat. This morning we see the baking trays made by hand and the breads prepared, before settling down to a memorable lunch at Da Gambin restaurant, where panigaccio is of course the star of the show.
Again, a couple of hours are at leisure upon our return to Aulla, before heading out to Locanda Gavarini, by way of some lovely scenery, for dinner. This restaurant has been run by the same family since 1906, with the fourth generation now at the helm, serving up typical dishes of the Lunigiana region in a characterful setting.
On the slopes of the Apuan Alps, just a few miles from Tuscany’s Ligurian Coast, the town of Massa is one of the oldest in Italy – dating back even to the Stone Age. Today, visitors are entranced by a wealth of historic buildings – a dramatic castle and ducal palace, fine churches and elegant villas. There is time to make your own discoveries of Massa this morning, though first we visit a unique shop selling stockfish (dried) and salt cod.
A traditional fish lunch (and the chance to sample some almost- forgotten dishes) is provided at the homely, family-run Trattoria da Milla. In the afternoon we visit the Olio Moro olive grove to walk the plantation, see the oil presses, enjoy a professional oil tasting demonstration and, of course, take part. Dinner this evening is taken back in Aulla at Da Pasquino, a classic Lunigiana restaurant specialising in homemade breads, local cheeses and grilled meats.
This morning we set out into the pristine, beautiful landscape of the Tuscan-Emilian Apennine National Park on our way to the Montagna Verde Agriturismo. In this glorious mountain setting, local cooks present a cookery class introducing yet more Lunigianese specialities. With appetites truly sharpened, we settle down for lunch at this ancient farm. On our way back to Aulla, in Fivizzano, we stop off to see how China Clementi, an alcoholic elixir made with bitter herbs, has been made since it was first produced in 1884. A short walk away from our hotel is our dinner venue, the highly-rated Per Bacco restaurant, serving up note-perfect antipasti, risotto, pasta and indulgent desserts including panna cotta and semifreddo.
Turning our attention away from food for a few hours, we discover one of the region’s other great contributions to Italian culture – marble. The quarries of Carrara, rich in white and blue-grey marble, have been in constant production since the time of Ancient Rome, and supplied the stone for countless masterpieces of Renaissance sculpture, including Michelangelo’s David. We visit one of the many quarries in the area, then stop to savour a taste of Lardo di Colonnata, pork fat traditionally cured with salt and herbs in local marble and white as the stone itself.
Following lunch in Colonnata, we take a guided afternoon tour of the Ethnographic Museum of the Lunigiana in the 14th century mills of Villafranca – a fascinating showcase of age-old farming, handicraft and culinary techniques and traditions, encompassing wicker weaving, wood working and hemp cultivation. Our hotel for the final two nights of the tour is the delightful Ca del Moro Resort, set in beautiful woodland and meadowland outside Pontremoli. Dinner is provided at the hotel this evening.
Nearby Zeri is a region of rugged mountains, picturesque villages and sheep farms – Zeri lamb is highly prized in Italy for its unique provenance and sublime quality. We have a wonderful treat lined up this morning – the opportunity to follow a Zeri shepherdess and her flock into their mountain pastures, and learn what makes this particular breed so special. If she is making cheese, we will try some, and there is also the chance to sample typical mountain dishes (including lamb) during lunch at La Catinella.
We return to the hotel in the afternoon, with a little free time to relax around the pool or take a trip into Pontremoli. In the evening we head out to the elegant Villa Brignole for an unforgettable farewell dinner – the menu is a veritable highlight reel of Lunigianese specialities.
After a couple of hours at leisure we make our last visit of the tour, to a family home where ancient ovens are used to produce testaroli. These pancake-like disks, made with water, flour and salt, are cut into rhombus shapes and eaten like pasta – particularly delicious as the porous batter absorbs any sauce with which they are served. Testaroli have been made since Roman times, and in more recent centuries became known as the ‘peasant’ alternative to pasta; but these days it is considered a dish in danger of being forgotten. We then proceed to Pisa for our return flight to London, arriving late afternoon.
Five nights at the centrally located 3* Hotel Demy and two nights at the Ca del Moro Resort, with daily breakfast