Exploring the Gastronomic Landscape of Barga & The Garfagnana, Italy
The typical image of Tuscany is always the same: the rolling hills, the sunflowers, the walled medieval towns and cities. By comparison, The Garfagnana, in far northern Tuscany, is another world. The rolling hills are replaced by the soft peaks of the Apuan Alps and the sunflowers by dense chestnut forest. The walled towns, though, remain true.
Barga sits perched in the middle of a valley, propped up on stone arches with the duomo, the Collegiate Church of San Cristoforo, at its peak; the white marble building’s bell tower standing iconic against the landscape of lush greenery and postcard mountains. It is this region, not the more glamorous south of Tuscany, that inspired Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers of The River Café to create simple, seasonal Italian cuisine.
It is Barga’s connection to Scotland, not its food, that is usually the first talking point. Owing to late 19th and early 20th century migration, the streets of Glasgow are punctuated by Italian gelaterias, trattorias and fish and chip shops. In the generations since the bond has never been broken—come the summer months, the bars and cafés of Barga are filled with Scots slipping into Italian over a Peroni or spritz.
Once you know, the signs are everywhere—the Celtic supporters bar Paologas, Irn Bru in the window of the alimentari (deli), the red telephone box at the foot of Via Di Borgo, and the tartan ‘waistcoat’ of Giovanni Togneri at Da Aristo. Often found wandering the Piazza Salvi in a flattened chef’s toque and apron (with aforementioned faux-waistcoat) Giovanni is most likely to be found smoking cigarettes or combing his immaculate white beard.
Giovanni is the face of old Barga and Da Aristo is the place to taste the prodotti tipici—the local produce—from salami and prosciutto through to pecorino, polenta, tarts and soups. The service is friendly, and even more so if you order Giovanni’s favourite dish: smoked and marinated herring. As Giovanni tells it, the bar has been in operation for 117 years. Originally opened by an American baker Da Aristo has been in Giovanni’s family since 1940.
In the height of summer, if you close your eyes tightly enough, you could be on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street. Open your ears in a café or bar like Da Aristo and you’ll catch the tourist’s accents. This cultural exchange has resulted in Barga hosting a fish and chip festival, Sagra del Pesce e Patate in late summer, now in its 38th year.
As we learned from Bertolli adverts, Italian rural life is lively and central to this is the sagra—a local festival centred around a particular food or drink. These sagre are held in locations as diverse as schools, churchyards, sports grounds and olive groves. In the Garfagnana, once the summer festivities start they seem endless. Various public and private spaces open up to hundreds of visitors at a time—tables are laid, bars and kitchens are assembled and the feasts begin.
The most famous sagra in Barga is the Cena in Vignola—two weeks of dinners in the vine garden under the duomo. With the finest pork from local legend and butcher Cesare and views of Monte Forato and Pania Della Croce this is quite a special place to dine. This was the place I attended my very first sagra, where I was introduced to the format and the forms used to order your food—you take a menu sheet, tick the items you want, pay at the cashier and wait. At some sagre there can be a lot of queuing, but it’s worth it for the spectacle.
In nearby Filecchio just down the valley from Barga, the Sagra della Polenta e Uccelli (polenta and birds) is reputed to be the longest-running in the Serchio Valley, now in its 51st year. The bird element refers to the old tradition of eating the local wildlife in tough times. Now the sparrows are replaced with pheasant, but I imagine there are still some little birds getting plucked, skewered and roasted over a fire somewhere.
The celebration centres on local speciality formenton otto file. Otto file, or ‘eight row’ corn is so called because of the eight lines of kernels around its cob. The kernels range in colour from sunshine yellow through various golden hues to deepest red, so when you see the red specks throughout the cornmeal you know you’ve got the good stuff. This heirloom corn variety makes the perfect polenta—when cooked with only salt and water, otto file packs enough flavour to forego the usual dairy-packing.
The celebration of local produce and constant socialising is all part of the identity of the area and a classically Mediterranean way of life—heritage is everything. The specialities of the Garfagnana reflect the area’s times of struggle when locals made the most of what thrived in the area. The food of the cucina povera, the kitchen of the poor, informs a lot of Italian dishes, like the famous bread and tomato salad, panzanella.
With the area’s woodland being so rich in chestnuts, these became an important ingredient in difficult times and now form a part of the array of local artisanal produce. Naturally, there’s a party (Festa della Castagna) in October/November to celebrate the harvest—chestnuts are roasted in the street and the various traditional dishes are cooked up.
The sweet chestnuts can be processed into a dense, smoky flour used to create biscuits, pancakes, pasta and breads. I was converted to using chestnut flour in my cantuccini (biscuits) by Rita Lucherini, a local cook who runs a thriving B&B and cookery school at La Mezza Luna in Mologno, at the foot of Barga.
Rita teaches her family’s rustic Tuscan dishes to people from around the world whilst also running a wine shop with her partner Alessandro (Alex) Gusti. Born in Glasgow, Rita’s story is typical of the area—her parents owned a fish and chip shop that was left to them by her grandfather. After spending her youth visiting the area, Rita finally moved to the Garfagnana in 1986 and opened a restaurant. Now closed, the same site hosts the B&B, cookery school and Alex’s wine shop, Per…Bacco!
The view from the terrace at Rita’s place is stunning—green covered mountains folding into valleys, exposed rock peaks and alpine meadows against clear blue sky, almost hazy in the heat, with the town of Gallicano in the foreground.
This woodland creates the perfect habitat for three key Garfagnana treasures—porcini, chestnuts and wild boar. Now, however, these abundant surrounds are being explored by a new generation of chefs for less likely ingredients.
I find Elisa Da Prato at the bar of her restaurant talking on the phone—the eponymously named Elisa has only been open for five weeks and now it’s Piazzette time. Le Piazzette (little squares)—a two-week celebration of food, music, art and culture—is the busiest period of the Barga summer when each piazza hosts live bands and a bit of carnival atmosphere breaks out. Elisa takes a break from the organisation to talk about how she came to leave New York, where she ran a series of supper clubs, to open a restaurant in Barga.
She explains that she’s been coming to Barga her whole life, spending her summers here as a child, living with her Italian grandparents. This area was, in stark contrast to her other home in El Paso, Texas “a magical place to disappear to,” she says. It was in recent years, after her grandmother passed away, that her love of cooking intensified. Elisa tells me that when the restaurant came on the market she was at the end of a relationship and her apartment was already packed so it made sense to make a “career pivot” into a restaurant, building on the success of the events she was organising in New York.
It’s the surrounds of the Garfagnana that excite Elisa and lend colour to her menu, giving it a strong identity, standing out from what is already on offer in Barga. Elisa tells me she wants to “activate the geography” of the area and that her dishes can be split into two camps, “forest” or “meadow”, working with everything from bark and pine needles, to flowers and grains. The menu is at once entirely at odds with the usual rustic dishes of the area, yet at the same time, the food fits with the tradition of celebrating the abundance of the landscape.
Cooking in Elisa’s eyes is about a connection to family, nourishment and caring for others. Elisa talks poetically about her food and the area it comes from, revealing her background in arts and philosophy working as a documentarian and experimental filmmaker. She shows me the paintings of grandfather, Carlo Da Prato, who was well known for his depiction of local flowers. It fits her ideals perfectly that his work adorns the place his granddaughter now sets out her floral artistic visions.
It’s this landscape and its natural abundance that gives the Garfagnana its gastronomic identity and the sheer raw beauty of the place that makes the Tuscan highlands so magnetic. Here, the pride and prescription associated with Italian cooking, melts into a celebration of all that’s good in the area: the community comes together to celebrate their produce and make the summer into a festival of fine local produce. Welcome to the Garfagnana, we eat our sausage raw here.