Like many middle-class, Guardian-reading parents, I’m stricken with guilt that my family lives mainly on food bought from supermarkets and shops and not usually from farmers’ markets or local producers or – better still – grown in our own backyard. So when I read of Sapori e Saperi’s ‘gastronomic adventures’ in Tuscany , I was enchanted by the idea of combining our family holiday with the opportunity for our boys to learn more about where food really comes from, and even to learn to cook some of it for themselves.
Sapori e Saperi is the brainchild of ‘food guru’ Heather Jarman, a former archaeologist specialising in the history of agriculture. Having moved to Tuscany, a bastion of the Slow Food movement, she hit on the idea of introducing fellow foodies to the traditional flavours of the Garfagnana, a historical region that is now part of the Province of Lucca and is famed for its chestnut forests, porcini mushrooms, wild boar and pecorino cheese.
"It was off to watch beekeeper Francesca show us how she extracts honey from her hives and filters it. When we’d been taken through the process, she set out some honey on a table and let us taste acacia and chestnut varieties on bread and cheese, while her rare-breed chickens – including a rooster who looked as if he was wearing a blond wig – darted around our feet."
The Garfagnana is stunning, as we discovered, bleary-eyed after our night-train from Paris to Florence about an hour and a half southeast. Driving up, we ascended into forest-clad hills threaded by tiny spaghetti-like roads, backed by mountains often swathed in cloud. It’s a land, according to a local saying, ‘of wolves and outlaws’, and I have read that the Italians even use the word Garfagnana as shorthand for ‘the back of beyond’ (accompanied by a wave of the hand over their shoulder).
At the top of many of those perilous roads perch minuscule medieval villages with narrow cobbled streets accessible only on foot. One such village is Casabasciana, where Heather lives, and where she sometimes puts up guests on the top floor of her vast village house complete with its own chapel. Other guests choose to stay in accommodation with a swimming pool, either at a B&B or an agriturismo.
We loved the village, despite the tortuous drive to reach it from the bottom of the valley, which seemed to grow longer with each ascent. Although the streets are quite steep and the steps and cobbles potentially treacherous for the unsure of foot, children can run around this medieval labyrinth without fear of traffic or fumes, or play freely in the convivial piazza where something different was going on every night of our stay, whether it was ballroom dancing or a ping-pong tournament.
The Foodie Itinerary
We arrived late in the morning, and after unwrapping our gifts (a mezzaluna and pizza-cutter for the boys, a potato ricer for Dad, rose-scented toiletries for Mum, and aprons for each of us), watched as our oldest boys, six and five – were whisked off to Heather’s allotment to pick tomatoes for lunch. (Their little brother, not yet two, was not technically part of the holiday – Heather’s family tours are designed for children aged five and up).
Back from the allotment, Ethan and Ripley were tearing up stale bread with abandon, more than happy to help Heather prepare the panzanella (Tuscan bread salad with tomatoes) that we were to enjoy in her shaded courtyard herb garden with fresh local bread, prosciutto and salami. Before we ate, Heather took the boys off to one of the three village fountains to fill a couple of bottles with fresh springwater to accompany our meal.
Heather’s only ‘rule’ is that guests taste everything once, and my husband and I were amazed to see the boys tucking into the fresh tomatoes, which they wrinkle their noses up at home. At the table they sampled things – with only a little encouragement – that they wouldn’t normally at home and declared that they liked them. It was looking good…
Tummies full of simple but delicious Italian food, we retired upstairs to nap after our two-day journey to Italy, rising in time to follow Heather to a medieval festival taking place in another hilltop village, Lucchio. (You don’t need to hire a car – Heather will drive you around – but you’re able to do more in your free time if you have your own wheels). This was essentially an eating tour of the medieval village with its cobbled alleys zigzagging up to a dramatic fortress – as we climbed, we stopped at stalls to sample the likes of necci (chestnut-flour pancakes with or without ricotta), foccacia, salty local sausage, bruschetta with oil and garlic or tomato, and local cakes and crêpes. It was a strange way of having dinner, with locals in medieval costume processing past us, but an interesting one. Even two-year-old Zac made a new culinary discovery, gobbling up the farro salad (farro – emmer wheat – is a Neolithic grain probably now uniquely grown in this region; my husband wasn’t a fan of the salad but became quite fond of the local farro beer…).
Our next activity, the following morning, was a cooking lesson with Stefano Brandani at his restaurant, La Taverna dei Birbanti (‘Bad Boys’ Tavern’), even further up the wiggly road from Casabasciana, in Crasciana. Ethan was a little disappointed that the personable Stefano didn’t turn out to be quite as actively naughty as he’d cast him in his imagination, but he was impressed by his pierced eyebrows, tattoos and grizzled, mischievous charm.
The boys had previously had an Italian cookery lesson at Cucina Caldesi in London, but this was something else. As I wandered cobbled village streets with Zac, stalking somnolent cats and stopping to admire and sniff terracotta pots overflowing with flowers or fragrant herbs, Ethan, Ripley and their dad, were taught how to make such delights as pasta fritta (an antipasto of fried pizza dough), pappa al pomodoro (bread and tomato soup), involtini (thin rolled slices) of beef scattered with rosemary and sage and wrapped around a sliver of prosciutto, and a ricotta cheesecake with wild woodland berries.
Although the lesson lasted two to three hours (with a couple of breaks when the junior masterchefs played with the restaurant dog in the sunshine), the boys’ concentration throughout was exemplary, and it was a proud moment when we all sat down at one of the restaurant tables - amidst other diners – and tasted their wares. Everything was wonderful, from the pizza dough served with prosciutto crudo, lardo (extraordinarily sinful but delicious pig fat cured with wild mountain herbs) and creamy stracchino cheese to the delectable cheesecake, and we resolved that we would definitely try most of the recipes again at home, especially the melt-in-the-mouth involtini and the cheesecake (Heather provides all recipes in a folder for you to take away with you; she also translated during the lesson).
Full of food and drink (including one of Stefano’s excellent aperitifs of Aperol, bitter lemon, sodawater and Prosecco) and still tired from our journey, we returned home for a nap. Had we been motivated or finished lunch earlier, Heather has a raft of suggestions for local activities. Sapori e Saperi holidays are planned in advance through discussions between Heather and parents yet remain relatively flexible - if the kids are too tired for certain activities or outings, many can be skipped.
More cooking was on the agenda that night when Heather taught Ethan and Ripley to use their mezzaluna, a half-moon-shaped instrument for fine chopping. First she took us down to the outskirts of the village in search of wild nepitella (lesser calamint), then the boys helped gather sage and rosemary in her own garden. Tearing them from their stalks in the kitchen, they set to chopping them (and some garlic). Heather also got them involved in pushing a new batch of pomarola (an intensely flavoured Tuscan tomato sauce) through a mouli-legumes. We feasted that night on herby, garlicky chicken, rosemary sautéed potatoes and salad.
Living Like Locals
The following day was the Ferragosto bank holiday, so we drove down to the provincial capital Lucca, Italy's only town still entirely surrounded by its Renaissance walls; you can hire bikes to ride along them. We found a friendly café by the Basilica di San Frediano with its extraordinary golden 13th-century mosaic, in front of which Ethan and Ripley performed a swashbuckling sword fight. Had we gone inside, we discovered afterwards, we could have seen the mummified body of Saint Zita within a glass shrine. Then we went to ogle the Piazza Anfiteatro, filled with tourists but interesting (and extremely pretty) by virtue of the fact that its medieval houses were built within the remains of a Roman amphitheatre, hence its oval form.
The next day was also free, since Heather had to help the women villagers prepare for that evening's feast. Anxious to see a bit more of Tuscany, we headed off to oooh and aaah at the Leaning Tower of Pisa (far more impressive than photos can do justice to) then drove up the coast to the elegant seaside resort of Viareggio, where we paid a moderate fee for a spot on one of the private beaches and splashed around in the heavenly blood-warm Mediterreanean for a couple of hours. The boys slept as we drove back to Casabasciana in time to take our places at one of the communal tables set up in the piazza and enjoy the village’s big festa, a multi-course, waist-expanding extravaganza of food and wine accompanied by music from a local duet.
Our last two days began with a short visit to a local trout farm and smokery, where we learnt how responsible farming can help prevent wild specimens from being fished to extinction. Though the kids didn’t find this fantastically fascinating, it was put into context by lunch at an old hermitage perched up on the cliffs overlooking the farm, where we were served a delicious set menu (free to kids) of cold-smoked trout on crostini, spaghetti with trout and tomato sauce, and roast trout with potatoes. This was followed by a trip to a treetop adventure park – a predictable hit with the kids, and one that ensured that they all managed a nap on the way to the next restaurant, a former working men’s club in another (surprise, surprise) tiny hilltop village. So basic that it didn’t even have written menus, the Buca di Baldabo in Vico Pancellorum nonetheless served the most amazing silky pasta dishes and tasty meats, including rabbit and wild boar.
Our last day was equally full. In the morning we went to watch a local cheesemaker make pecorino cheese and then, from the whey, ricotta, in her tiny one-room dairy. Then we headed for Il Vecchio Mulino, an extraordinary wine-cellar cum village store cum restaurant in Castelnuovo, set up by affable local Slow Food champion Andrea Bertucci. Andrea and his staff served us an incredible tasting menu of local produce, including farro and wild-boar salami, rounded off with tasting portions of all of Andrea’s wonderful tarts as well as some of the cheesemaker’s sublime ricotta that we had brought along, mixed with a local wild-strawberry jam that was so delicious we had to buy a couple of jars to bring home.
Afterwards it was off to watch beekeeper Francesca show us how she extracts honey from her hives and filters it (and also how, in season, she makes oil from local olives). When we’d been taken through the process, she set out some honey on a table and let us taste acacia and chestnut varieties on bread and cheese, while her rare-breed chickens – including a rooster who looked as if he was wearing a blond wig – darted around our feet.
Francesca’s property is also an agriturismo, Al Benefizio (albenefizio.it), with a triple room and a couple of self-catering units, plus a play area for kids, donkeys to pet, and a stunning pool with to-die-for views of the hilltop town of Barga, and we spent a couple of happy hours splashing around in the sunlight as our holiday drew to a close. Stopping on the way home for a pizza and a gelato at Bagni di Lucca was probably an indulgence – none of us were truly hungry – but Heather’s restaurant and gelateria recommendations were, as always, spot on.
What you're paying for, when you come on a Sapori e Saperi holiday, is Heather’s expertise and local contacts and knowledge (and Italian language skills, if you don’t speak it yourself). This is the kind of holiday you would never have independently, although obviously some elements of it, such as the adventure park, are activities that you could quite conceivably do by yourselves. Best, for us, were Heather’s unfailingly wonderful choices in terms of restaurants, most of which we would never had discovered for ourselves – and the fact that she was there to guide us through menus that we could never have decoded with our non-existent Italian.
Read more about Tuscany family holidays.