Long days (and nights) preparing for guests, hosting classes, prep, shopping and clean up means weekends are generally for resting and recharging. But on occasion, we revert to old habits and hit the countryside, literally taking the "road less traveled". It has led to spectacular discoveries, new friends, favourite restaurants and so much more. And so it was on Saturday, we headed towards Garfagnana with Bagni di Lucca in mind. The old thermal waters town has fallen into great disrepair, it's sad to see. The grand old buildings that once hosted celebrities and health seekers look like something out of an old movie set. They are crumbling and invoke feelings of nostalgia and a bit of sadness.
And so we take a small road leaving up and away from the spa town. An ever narrowing road. No shoulder. Wet leaves. Romantic canopy of ancient poplars and chestnuts coaxing us further and further up., now nearly 900 meters above the river bed.
The trees give way to vast grazing pastures, and one by one we encounter free roaming herds of goats with bells. Like a mountain symphony, in this otherwise quiet place. The keepers, the "shepards", with their herding dogs (also with bells), watch their charges from the road. It was here by chance that we had the opportunity to chat with a few of them. How are the blueberries this season? When are the porcini likely to appear given this years dry summer? The talk turns to wolves as one was recently seen near Giuseppe's mill in Nievole. Yes, yes, there are wolves. The goats (hundreds of them), only graze freely under a watchful eye. At night they are sheltered.
Inevitably with Giuseppe, the talk turns to food. Today, of course, the topic is goat cheese! Hmmmmm. Carefully considered, the reply comes back maybe, MAYBE further up the hill. Keep going. Further, much further.
Reaching the summit is like arriving on the doorstep to heaven and looking down. Today, there are clouds, and the mountains break through, the goat bells provide an ethereal soundtrack. This is Gods country. The region, known locally as Svizzera, because it does in so many ways look like the Swiss mountains. In a word, it is breathtaking. Not unlike the scary, off road track we must take if we are to to find CHEESE. Ok, we decide to brave it.
We pass newly born baby calves "Vittelini!", Mama cows, geese, courtyard animals, and finally dead end at the shepherds hut. Todays adventure is rewarded with beautiful, organic, raw milk goat cheese. And better yet ... a phone number, so we can find our way back for more one day, because truly we have NO IDEA where we are!
Flush with our day of successes, we are even happier to find that we are only a short hop from one of our favourite restaurants, and one I want to share with you now. Impossibly located in the tiniest of towns, without a menu, on the second floor it seems an unlikely gem. Oh, but you would be so very wrong to pass this by!
IL CAVALLINO BIANCO
We first discovered this hideaway last year. One dish in particular has haunted me ever since. Home made maccheroni (flat squares of pasta) with a white ragu. This small, family run restaurant prepares simple, mouth watering food of the region. No menu. It will be recounted what is on offer by the lovely owner. Wines? Order a carafe of the owners selection from Monte Carlo. Fruity, fresh, light and a perfect accompianment for the meal.
This evening, I of course started with the white ragu pasta (which I have never seen anywhere else), Giuseppe decided on pasta with wild boar.
For second courses, I chose an interesting arrista (roast pork) stuffed with ground meat dotted with prunes and almonds (!), G had stewed rabbit with olives.
Everything was as delicious as I remembered, so now it only seems fair to share our discovery.
Our experience reaffirms that the best days in Tuscany are the ones that unfold by measure, no map, no plans, only a hunger for the Tuscan countryside, nature, and of course ... cheese!
To see more, please visit our facebook page for the live video post that day. https://www.facebook.com/ExtraVirginLucca