Day5 – Petrognola and Barga

Tiny villages dot the mountains surrounding the valley. Today we visit Petrognola, a small town of about 90 inhabitants, 6 of which are under 10 years old.
We come to visit Paolo Magazzini, a farmer, baker, and entrepreneur, who grows and processes farro, an ancient grain that is coming back into wider use. Here Paolo stands in front of several faro plants. Farro grows tall as opposed to commercial wheat that has been bred for easy picking.
Farro must be threshed to release its grain kernels. Paolo has purchased large equipment to automate this process. Now he processes grains for many farmers in the area, and even some from across the Appennines in Emilia Romagna.
Paolo also purchased packaging equipment, and Erica shows the package of farro that results from Paolo’s work.
Paolo also took over the job of village baker when his mother, the former village baker, died. Here he shows us how to knead potato bread. He adds mashed potato to the dough to give it moisture and help it last longer.
We each shape a loaf and incise the top with our initials. After an hour, the dough has risen, and we’re ready to bake.
Paolo’s oven, which he built himself, holds fifty loaves. To ready the oven, he first clears out the coals.
He uses a juniper broom he has soaked in water to clean the oven.
We each load in our loaf, then ride out into the fields to visit Paolo’s cattle, the French Limousins. This breed is said to be 20,000 years old, depicted in the drawings on the cave walls in Lascaux, France. This big bull is very happy with his cows.
After about an hour, we return, and the loaves are nearly ready to remove from the oven.
Mine comes out a perfect loaf of goodness, as do all the others.
We have lunch cooked by Paolo’s wife and other family members. The family does not operate a restaurant, but they have a small grocery store and bar. The food is delicious, accompanied by a choice of five artisan beers made by a man named Roberto from farro in Petrognola. My favorite is called Marron, which is made from chestnuts in addition to farro.
After lunch we are introduced to Teresa Bertei, a spinner and weaver who shows us how she spins hemp. Canapa, the word for hemp in Italian, was once widely grown in this area. It is now illegal and is no longer used, but efforts to revitalize it are underway.
The artisans used to soak the plant in the river, then beat it to remove the tough outer layers.
While spinning, Teresa occasionally licks the fibers to bring them together. She shows us some fabric that she made as a girl. The pieces are beautiful and still in fine shape, one a hemp weft on linen warp, the other a hemp weft on cotton warp.

After lunch we stop in front of an automatic cow. Farmers supply these little stands with milk which can be purchased straight from the farmer’s cow.

In the late afternoon we visit Barga, a beautiful midieval town that once served as a commercial center for the area. A Della Robbia medallion decorates one of the town’s gates.
We climb the steep streets, passing beautiful buildings with unique architectural features. These door handles are just one example of the little touches that make the buildings special.
We head for the cathedral, which dominates the town at the crest of the hill.
The cathedral dates from the 9th century, and the Romanesque interior contains many beautiful old carvings.

On the way back down the hill, we pass a building on which this face has been carved. It’s a “sciacciaguai,” a figure that can wipe away your troubles and bring you good luck, some say especially if you insert your index and fourth finger into its eyes. A restaurant around the corner took on the name Sciacciaguia when this image was found during the restoration of the wall.

We head for the Agriturismo al Benefizio, where a friend of Erica, our tour guide, is putting on a birthday party for one of their mutual friends. On the way, we see Barga in the distance.
Francesca holds the party on a terrace next to the farmhouse and stables which she has turned into an agriturismo lodging. Among others, we meet guests from Denmark who have had a vacation home in the Garfagnana for decades.
Marta, an Italian friend who has lived in the area since birth, tells us that Barga was bombed during the Second World War. It was on the Goth Line, the war zone that separated the Germans from the Americans and Brits. The chestnut trees kept the populace alive during this time when no other food could be cultivated.
For the party, Francesca bakes thirty pizzas of several types in her wood-stoked oven which was built in 1856. Good food, good wine, good conversation in a beautiful setting. On this lovely evening, we head back to the monastery under the glow of a bright full moon.
Tomorrow we visit a cheesemaker.
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