Beauty so stunning and delicious you’ll think you are living a dream.
Autumn Beauty on the Tuscan Mountains means savoring the delights of local flavors, drinking spring water. It means eating hand-picked Porcini mushroom, it means drinking home-made wine along with home-made cheese and local honey. Fresh fruit, naturally in season right off the back yard. It means fire-red scenery with strokes of yellow-green and brown. It means the sound of the rattling leaves caressed by a cool breeze, while warm sun rays kiss your cheeks. Autumn in the mountains in Tuscany means crystal blue lake water and the unmistakable smell of burnt wood. This and much more is Garfagnana, in the province of Lucca in Tuscany.
Beauty for the eyes, beauty for the palate, and beauty for the soul.
Last Sunday we took a day trip into the mountains. We set off from Lucca early in the morning, and we drove for roughly one hour and a half on small winding roads all the way up to 1500 meters above the sea level. Slowly slowly we entered into something that looked a lot like a slice of paradise, where everything is peaceful, calm, quite and serene. Stunning colors everywhere I looked, and a perfectly blue sky to fram it all in. After a morning spent smelling the fresh Autumn air and picking chestnuts off the ground we arrived to Castiglione di Garfagnana a small town known for a big building called Casone di Profecchia, which hosts people from all over throughout the year. This place is famous for serving the best local food all made from scratch for really affordable prices. Naturally, having said all this, this is where we decided to stop and have lunch. We enter this big building in the middle of the woods and we find a line of people waiting to be seated. Surprisingly we are all escorted by the waitress to our tables in just a few minutes. We get to have the nicest spot: under the window and next to the fire-place, which was sweetly burning two enormous logs of wood. We sit down and we are right away served the beverages, their local red wine and some sparkling water. In this restaurant there are no menus, the guests eat what they are given, and that was fine by us, since we were pretty certain that anything the waitress might bring us would be quite delicious. We start with some hors d’oeuvre: bilordo (blood salame), crostini with raw sausage, fresh home-made mozzarella and prosciutto (cured, seasoned ham). All served with freshly baked home-made bread and fried dough along with fresh stracchino cheese.
In the mountains this time of the year, it is the time for Porcini mushroom. People go into the woods especially on the week-ends and spend hours looking at the ground hoping to find the exquisite gift from nature. This year Mother nature has been very abundant with its presents and, from what I hear, the woods are full of lovely Porcini waiting to be picked. Soon enough after our delicious antipasto we were served a tray full of fried mushroom: soft and full of flavor on the inside yet crunchy and crispy on the outside. A real treat for the palate!
The cuisine in Tuscany varies from town to town, and up here in the mountains the way to prepare the batter to fry the mushrooms is different from the way my grandmother, who was from the valley, used to make it. The difference is that in my family, they would use not only white flour in the batter but also an equal part of coarse corn flour, which gives a more complex texture to it.
As we were sitting at the table enjoying the merry atmosphere of the early afternoon, the warmth coming from the fireplace and the sweet smells coming from the kitchen, we were served one more irresistible dish. Tortelli with meat Ragu’. This is a typical dish for the whole Lucca area. The way the sauce, called Ragu’, is prepared may vary from area to area, especially for what corcerns the spices. Some people use cloves and cinnamon, while others just salt and black pepper. Actually, people even use differnt kinds of meat. Originally the recipe is made with equal parts of pork and beef. Some people use just beef, others also like to make this sause with sausage, in Italian called salsiccia, which gives it a deeper and tastier flavor. Anyway, it is prepared, I am pretty sure, it results into quite an exquisite dish. Here below, I am going to share the version made with beef and sausage. If among my readers there is someone who has a special ragu’ recipe and would be willing to share it with all of us that would make me very happy: learning new things is a lovely way to keep growing.
Meat sauce with deep flavor and succulent texture isn’t hard to make; it just needs time and a low flame. Usually salsiccia comes very well flavored at least with salt and pepperd, we can add some garlic and chopped oregano and sage to the meat as it browns.
1 pound Italian sausage, salsiccia
1 onion, minced
1 carrot, minced
1 celery stalk, minced
Olive oil, extra vergin
1/4 cup minced flat-leaf parsley, plus extra for garnish
half a hand-full fresh thyme
half a hand-full fresh rosemary
3 Tbsp tomato paste
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, with its juice
With the tip of a small, sharp knife, slit open the sausage casings. Crumble the meat into a wide heavy skillet and set over medium-low heat, add some olive oil. Let the meat fry gently. Saute’, breaking up any large chunks, until all the meat has browned, about 5 minutes. Add onion, carrot, celery, and parsley. Stir. Cook over very low heat, stir often, until the vegetables turn soft and are beginning to carmelize, and the meat is browned. This might take as long as fourty minutes or evern more, but your patience will be rewarded by the final flavors.
Add the tomatoes, smash the whole ones with a fork and bring to a simmer, uncovered, until thickened, about 30 minutes. Mix tomato paste with 1 cup hot water. Add to pan, reduce heat to very low, and continue cooking until the ragu’ is velvety and dark red in color. About 10 minutes. Sprinkle black pepper and salt over the top, stir and taste. This is a very versatile sauce that can be used to flavor and garnish all types of pasta, tortelli, rice, lasagne, can be used as a stuffing as well. Salsiccia is a well loved kind of meat that can also be enjoyed by itself , raw, spread on bread, grilled or even boiled. Any way you’ll decide to prepare it, you can be certain you will make your guests happy, just like we were for sure delighted to eat such a succulent treat, during our trip into the mountains!