Slow food culture and a stroll in Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, northern Tuscany
Thursday is market day in the mountain town of Castelnuovo di Garfagnana so on stormy Autumn day this week we headed there for a wander and to have lunch in local slow food favourite Osteria Vecchio Mulino.
The small sleepy hill towns of the Garfagnana region come alive on market day as everyone heads in to stock up and meet friends for coffee and gossip. Castelnuovo is a hilltop town built around a 14th century fortress perched on a deep gorge crisscrossed with narrow bridges, its a pretty dramatic location I think you'll agree. The impressive heavily fortified towers of the Rocca now form part of apartments, shops and restaurants. Sometimes you'll see a line of laundry stretched between the fortified turrets!
After a wander around the stalls selling fruit and vegetables, household goods and clothes we had worked up an appetite for lunch so stopped in at Osteria Vecchio Mulino (the Old Mill). Despite the slightly unpromising entrance this is a little gem. At long communal tables (made from old wine boxes) they serve a selection of speciality cuts of cured meats and a special seasonal treat, porcini mushrooms. They also sell a selection of goods to take home; dried pastas made from chestnut or farro (a grain similar to barley) flour which have a lovely flavour and are great if you are on a gluten free diet, sauces and a huge selection of local wines and spirits infused with herbs and fruit. We shared hand cut prosciutto, fresh Pecorino (sheep's milk cheese), a warm schiacciata bread topped with confit tomatoes and olives and best of all, grilled polenta made from otto file (a local special variety of corn meal) topped with Porcini mushrooms. Lunch finished with a delicious tart made with ricotta cheese and chocolate and of course, coffee. All with water and wine for €22 for three of us. We wolfed it down so fast there was hardly time for photos...
Next stop was a local institution; L'Aia di Piero, another delicatessen which has been going for many years.
You can also eat a selection of their dishes at a few tables inside the shop, find it just outside the gates to the fortress. They specialise in ready prepared dishes you can simply heat up at home, wonderful mushrooms, stuffed, pickled, roasted and marinated vegetables, roast meats, meatballs, the list goes on. They even had griffone which is a type of massive mushroom the size of a basketball that looks almost like coral and grows up trees. One of our elderly neighbours is a master at finding these but keeps very quiet about her methods as she sells them to local restaurants. I have visions of this spry septuagenarian clambering up chestnut trees to reach this prize, but I digress. We picked up bread cooked on a wood fired oven, a savoury vegetable tart for that evening's dinner and some lardo, seasoned cured pork fat. It sounds terrible but is wonderful, perfumed with rosemary and unhealthy treat sliced thinly on hot toast. The shop is an Aladdin's cave of treats with whole cured hams and salamis hanging from the ceiling and shelves stacked with cheeses, pasta, sauces and jams made from local fruits. They also bake a range of breads, cakes and pastries which are definitely worth trying.
Castelnuovo di Garfagnana is in Northern Tuscany about 40km North of Lucca. You can get there from Lucca by bus or train or about 30 minutes driving. Its a great starting point if you are planning to do some hiking in the region.
Osteria Vecchio Mulino, Via Vittorio Emanuele, 12. Open all day and evening Tuesday to Sunday
L'Aia di Piero, www.aiadipiero.it Via Roma, 12