An(other) Italian Adventure
After over a month in Italy, I was becoming apathetic. Yes the food was great, and the markets colourful – but I have food at home. And Internet. I realised that I would have to eliminate any chances of failure, by planning my weekends in advance so that I would almost be forced by default to get out and taste!
This morning I jumped into my rental car for the weekend, a very cute Fiat 500. Chin-kwe chen-toh. She sounds as sassy as she looks, although quintessentially Italian in that her design far exceeds her engineering capabilities. My route was only vaguely planned out, and the ultimate destination was entirely in the hands of the gods (Bacchus, I hoped, was hearing my prayers). My logic was that if I drive off into Tuscany, in some hillside village, on some piazza, somewhere out there in the distance there was a delicious meal to be had.
When I’m on familiar territory (that is, a fairly small patch of earth called Cape Town) I am content to head out on my own, unaccompanied and unchaperoned in the search of friends and food. However, recently I have been unsure on how to explore my recently rediscovered independence. And, in what has become somewhat of a theme, I thought I would take it to the extreme. Rent a car. Drive. Keep Driving. Find some town somewhere. Eat. Enjoy. Make some friends. Drive home. Blog about it.
So I did. I had a small snippet of information from a colleague: “go see Castelnuovo de Gafagnan, its’s gorgeous”. Ok, great, something to go on. Unfortunately, my freebie Italian-rental-car-map only featured the biggest of cities, and none of the little towns en route that may, in some tiny way indicate that I was on the right path to Lunch.
And so I jumped into my ridiculously small Italian car, complete with a sun roof that doesn’t open and a backseat that could comfortably accommodate a leg of Parma Ham or the equivalent (i.e a large handbag). I left the coast and being a true Cape Town girl, headed towards the mountains. Heading directly east from Massa, I was soon heading high into the Apuan Alps, famous for the Carrara Marble quarries and hopefully the only physical barrier between me and my lunch. It was a beautiful drive, deathly terrifying at times but Signora Fiat was not a big fans of the steep inclines. I made it to the top of the range, and I could see all the way down to the sea. Just beautiful and completely worth the 200+ gear changes to get here.
About this time I’m beginning to wonder if I’m heading in the right direction. Or any direction worth following for that matter. I’m beginning to get hungry, a bit grumpy and dizzy from these treacherous roads. My map is hopelessly vague, and I stubbornly refuse to consult the GPS. Heading down the mountains, and towards the valleys of Tuscany I have some hope when I start to see signs for Castelnuovo di Garfagnan. At last. Surely, there is something worth throwing some Euro’s at for my lunch. I park the car (illegally I’m sure) and finally, out of desperation consult Trip Advisor (cheating really, for a foodie like me). Number 1 Restaurant in Castelnuovo di Garfagnan is 5 minutes walk away. Excellent.
Osteria Vecchio Mulino doesn’t appear to be much from the outside, and if it wasn’t for the half-dozen people milling around the entrance, I probably would’ve passed it over. A group of fresh-faced tourists arrive a few minutes before me, speaking in fluent Italian and suddenly I’m feeling awkward, a single woman speaking in dreadful smatterings of Italian, all alone in a town I’ve never heard of in a restaurant that serves, well, I have no idea. The front dining room is filled by a large table, where almost 20 people are seated eating hams and cheeses from wooden boards. The proprietor (I learn later) is slicing slivers of ham off of a magnificent haunch, and serving the table from his small, round wooden board. As we wait, an older man passes me by carrying a wooden crate covered with a tea towel. He places it on the bar counter triumphantly and whips away the cloth to reveal a horde of beautiful fresh porcini mushrooms. I take a second look and see that this man is still in his overalls and boots, soil on his trousers and under his nails. This is the real deal. This is Slow Food.
The seating is along two long tables, with bench seats running parallel on either side, and because we’ve arrived at the same time, the party of four are seated next to me. They very generously invite me to join their lunch, and because I am feeling slightly vulnerable in a room full of hanging meat, I accept. Andrea and his wife, Katie live in Lucca and are entertaining Katie’s sister Sara and her husband, David from Atlanta, GA. Luckily for me, its easy to learn their names – Sarah is my sister’s second name, David is a lawyer, and Andrea is just the friendliest Italian man I’ve ever met. Its true, I don’t often mention my dining companions in the blog. But in this case, there wouldn’t have been a dining experience without the help of my new friends. Andrea helped me order the tasting selection, and before long we were all chatting and sharing travel stories over a glass of house wine.
Hams, cheeses, preserves, faro salad, breads, wine – an abundance of food. I would love to tell you all that I ate, if I could remember every morsel, and if it weren’t that every meal at Vecchio Mulino is unique, changing with the seasons. I had of course, read a lot about the Slow Food Movement in Italy and I had always admired the tenacity of the men and women trying to preserve their culture and heritage in an ever-changing world. I had never actually experienced ‘Slow Food’, and certainly not in the heart of Tuscany – and I’m surprised to say that it was, well, slow. A meal very simply consists of a platter of cheese and board of ham and a few chunks of bread. There are no menus, and I’m fairly sure dietary requirements are scoffed at (vegetarians beware!). The floors are stone, and the plates wooden boards scored by diners before you. The wine is House Wine, a bottle is placed on the table and as (a different) Andrea, the owner explained, “you drink what you want, then pay” which I think is a very sound philosophy. It is sophisticated in its simplicity, and very, very foreign.
Andrea (my new friend) runs a tour company, Tuscan Drivers, I learn over lunch, assisted by his multi-lingual wife Katie. I’ve often scoffed at the idea of using the services of a tour guide, determined to be an independent traveller. I certainly try to be independent, but what I am not is fearless. And often time and money is in short supply. Over the course of one meal, chatting with travelers and locals alike I had a more authentic experience of Italian cuisine and culture than all of my shopping excursions, lunches and dinners put together. My view of the ‘guided tour’ has changed dramatically, and while you won’t see Katy wearing a name badge following a lady holding an umbrella aloft, I will certainly be considering borrowing the priceless knowledge of a local on my next travel adventure. And I will certainly be contacting Andrea and Katie at Tuscan Drivers for my next trip into Tuscany. Thank you, friends.
Osteria Vecchio Mulino Website