Nuts About Chestnuts

In Italy school classes started on September 17th after their very long summer break of over three months. Of course, those students who have failed their exams will have spent much of their summer revising their subjects and for teachers there’s a lot of preparation time involved, so it’s not all sunshine, beaches and ice-cream for many.

The ‘feste’, however, continue and now that today is the autumn equinox the ‘sagre’ (or food festivals) concentrating on local produce are ready to launch.

‘Castagnate’, or chestnut festivals, abound in this Apennine part of Italy. Their main features are products made from the flour of the chestnut tree, or Castanea sativa (not to be confused with the somewhat inedible Horse chestnut prevalent in the UK, well-known to any schoolchild who has enjoyed playing ‘conkers’.

Actually, horse chestnut or Aesculus hippocastanum has its useful medicinal purposes in treating such ailments as varicose veins, haemorrhoids, enlarged prostate and diarrhoea. If eaten raw however it’s a useful way of doing someone in as it contains a poison called esculin. This was a particularly popular procedure in mediaeval times.

No such problems with the Castanea sativa, however. Some of its very edible products are:

  • Chestnut jam. (Crema di Marroni). Absolutely delicious. I like it spread on crumpets.
  • Chestnut flour pancakes, usually rolled up and filled with ricotta cheese, Nutella and , in some areas, pancetta (a type of bacon).
  • Chestnut honey.
  • Bomboneccio. A sort of chestnut cake made with chestnut flour, pine kernels, fennel and raisins.
  • download (2)
  • Pane casereccio. Chestnut flour bread.
  • Morning. Roast chestnuts

It’s fascinating to visit the Castagnate festivals just to watch these products being made. Every area has its own particular recipe and names. For example, our ‘Castanaccio’ is called ‘Migliaccio’ in Florence.

What is remarkable is that chestnut-derived products were scorned at by the immediate post-war generation since they were associated with poverty and famine – indeed were called ‘food for the poor’. Now, of course, these items have regained their full worth as wholesome and tasty items rather like polenta. I wonder which ‘poor man’s food’ have become fashionable again in the UK? Faggots, tripe, offal, chitterlings, oats? Do let me know please. It could be useful after March 29th next year.

The main Castagnate festivals in our area are the following:

Item Date Place Features
1 October 7, 12.30 Camporgiano Polenta festival
2 October 7, 15.00 Metello, Castelnuovo di Garfagnana Local products
3 October 8, 14.00 Cascio, Molazzana Local products, food trail
4 October 14, 14.30 Trassilico Local foods and products
5 October 14, 14.30 Castiglione Local foods and products
6 October 21, 12.00 Pieve Fosciana Local foods and products
7 October 28, 12.00 Pontecosi lakeside Local foods and products
8 November 9, 11.00 Lupinaia, Fosciandora Stalls, old trades, local products


Two useful web sites to explore are at


Here you can research into what kind of food festival you are looking for, where it is and when you want to visit it.

What about chestnutty things happening in Bagni di Lucca?

Last year there was a castagnata but to date I have found not indication of one for this year. Maybe later on?

The following events, not necessarily to do with chestnuts, are on the menu, however.

  • 22-3 September. All day. The fabulous paese dei balocchi or Toyland for children of all ages, inspired by Carlo Collodi’s immortal book about a famous puppet’s unpredictably elongating nose.


  • 28 September. 9 pm. Il Volo della farfalla, theatrical evening in memory of a young actor, Stefano Girolami.
  • 29 September. Patron saint feast with procession at Granaiola.
  • 30 September. Bagni di Lucca’s second-hand street market and attic sale.

Further afield there is the big castagnata at Marradi which takes place every Sunday in October.

There will be plenty more happening, of course. The main task, however, is to enjoy this extraordinarily warm autumn before the weather changes and we huddle around a wood fire.






Bridging a much-needed gap

In Italy bridges have assumed a tragic import since the collapse of part of Genoa’s Morandi Bridge in which over forty persons lost their lives. Italy, however, is the genesis of modern bridge building. The country abounds with some of the most ancient structures in the world. Roman bridges still stand after two thousand years and our mountains have timeless ancient packhorse bridges.

As for technological innovation I’ve already mentioned the amazing suspension bridge near Mammiano in my recent post at . An older suspension bridge is the stupendously elegant Ponte delle Catene bridging the Lima and two comuni, Bagni di Lucca at Fornoli and Borgo a Mozzano at Chiffenti.

Designed by Lorenzo Nottolini and inspired by his journey to England where he studied the structure of London’s Hammersmith Bridge (by William Tierney Clark, reconstructed by Joseph Bazalgette)


and Bristol’s Clifton suspension bridge (Isambard Kingdom Brunel)


the Ponte delle Catene was built in the 1840’s. Each side of the bridge is prefaced by imposing Roman-like triumphal arches and also has a terrace which serves as a centre for social gatherings.

On Saturday 15th of September two important events took place at this bridge.

First was the inauguration of a defibrillator on the Chiffenti side of the bridge. (It’s now becoming  increasingly difficult to perish of a cardiac arrest in our area. You may remember my post on the defibrillator inaugurated at San Cassiano thanks to the efforts of Paul Anthony Davies at

Second was the inauguration of explanatory signage describing the history and importance of the bridge. These are located on each side of the bridge: at Chiffenti:

And at Fornoli:

After the inauguration and the speeches of the mayors and all those concerned with the two new features of the bridge there was the customary spread.

It was a beautiful day weather-wise, for Nottolini’s masterpiece and for our health welfare. Well done all those concerned. Where there’s a will there certainly is a way and one across a bridge that will stand for at least another few hundred years!



The Best Sin of My Old Age

How on earth do they do it in Italy? Get together a cracking professional choir with four supreme soloists, hire two grands and a harmonium, have a truly on-the-ball conductor, find an idyllic setting in a Franciscan monastery, and play Giacomo Rossini’s eloquent, eclectic masterpiece, his ‘Petite Messe Solennelle’, on the occasion of the Pesaro composer’s 150th death anniversary.  Then, after a superlative musical banquet, provide another foody one in the Arcadian grounds of the monastery gardens with pasta, a multitude of finger dishes and a mouth-melting selection of sweets. And all for a voluntary donation to the local Misericordia or emergency and ambulance service…

This wouldn’t happen in London except if one pays for three-digit priced tickets (and then the drinks would be extra, unlike the free-flowing prosecco of Sunday evening).

The simple fact is that in Italy it’s often too much of a bureaucratic bother to set up ticket sales, what with all the government taxes and so forth. Furthermore, Italians are generous towards such organisations as the Misericordia and, of course, the Banks of Lucca are not mean-minded machines like they are in Europe’s former (after March 29th next year, that is) financial capital, but are true Maecenases of the arts.

Rossini packed everything into this greatest of his ‘sins of my old age’ as he termed his post-theatre productions. Giacomo had given up opera over thirty years previously, realising full well that his style was going out of favour (he’d anyway earned his dosh out of writing such masterpieces as the ‘Barber of Seville’ and ‘William Tell’).

It’s a ‘Petite’, (lasting well over an hour…), ‘Messe’ (perhaps that’s right as it’s a hotchpotch with everything from the strictest double fugue counterpoint in the ‘Quoniam’ and the ‘Vitam Venturi’ to heroic arias worthy of the finest operatic stage) ‘Solennelle’ (strictly speaking a Mass is solemn but there are plenty of witticisms in Rossini’s version which can bring a smile to the most dour-faced listener.

The gorgeous evening was also the concluding event in the greatest music festival this side of Lucca. Maestro Roni’s inspiration for the ‘Serchio delle Muse’ (translation unnecessary) was to bring music to the smallest village, to the highest mountain side to the most distant valley. This year was as varied as ever with a concert on the heights of the majestic Pania della Croce mountain, with three wonderful operettas (yes Italy has a great operettic tradition equal to anything that G n S, Offenbach and Lehar can conjure up) and lots more.

If you know nothing of the Serchio delle Muse festival then inscribe it in your brain ASAP. It’s the best thing going around here and more than makes up for the sad demise (temporary, I hope) of Barga Opera.

I should add that the evening was also a nice social event and I met up with truly valuable friends, some of whom had come from Pisa just on my Facebook announcements.

Don’t miss out for next year and the great maestro Roni’s festival if you’re in our lovely part of the world.



The Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

The somewhat uncertain Italian August and the incredibly sunny September have combined to produce a vintage harvest of our trinity – grapes, olives and mushrooms.


(Yesterday’s haul….the rain did help!)

I will keep the places where I find the much prized cheps mushrooms to myself but they are there, hiding under the foliage, shy to peep their heads towards our salivating palates.

The vendemmia, or grape harvest for wine, is already declared a success. Which leaves the olives. This morning I found my teenage olive trees already promising very rich harvests when the end of October and the start of November start.

Let’s hope the frosts don’t get at them before then.

Meanwhile the seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness is truly descending upon us. There was a distinctly autumnal tinge to the air today and the clouds never lifted to reveal any azure patches.


Happy, happy shall we be!

This year, thanks to an exceptionally dry spell, la Vendemmia, or grape-picking for wine-making, has been going swimmingly well. It’s an occasion for bringing friends and family together and returning to one’s rural roots.

Fortunately, many Italians have kept ancestral homes and lands in the country as Italy, unlike the UK, with its nineteenth century industrial revolution, has only become a predominantly urban centred society since the last war. In 1945 over half the population was engaged as agricultural workers. Now it’s just over 5%.

I joined in a vendemmia last week-end in the beautiful hills of the Compitese between Lucca and Pisa. Since they are rather gentler than the slopes we have around here it meant that the vineyards were much easier to work.


The grapes were transported to a press which cleverly separated the grapes from their stems and leaves and formed a must which was poured into a fermenting vat.

Here it will stay for some weeks and be stirred daily to encourage the fermentation process.

We had a beautifully extended lunch break with some excellent samples from that other harvest’, the spaghetti one (!)

The end product is, of course, Bacchus’ gift to mankind.

As the final lines of Handel’s ‘Bawdy’ (to use the eighteenth century’s description) oratorio ‘Semele’ puts it neatly:

From Semele’s ashes a phoenix shall rise,
The joy of this earth, and delight of the skies:
A God he shall prove
More mighty than Love,
And sighing and sorrow for ever prevent.

Happy, happy shall we be,
Free from care, from sorrow free.
Guiltless pleasures we’ll enjoy,
Virtuous love will never cloy;
All that’s good and just we’ll prove,
And Bacchus crown the joys of love.


It was as an eight-year old that I discovered the obvious difference between Italy and the United Kingdom. One was a wine country and the other wasn’t (although it’s fair to say it’s making rapid progress to catch up in that direction, thanks to climate change and cultural tastes).



Suspense in Val di Lima…

Recently I was asked by friends for suitable places and activities for their three year old grandchild’s forthcoming visit.

Of course, the big event in our area for children of all ages is the ‘paese dei balocchi’, running on the week-end from 22 to 23 of this month, in which Bagni di Lucca gets transformed into a giant toytown for children of all ages, with treasure hunts, the fairy’s parlour, face painting, street bands and theatre, the invisible man and so forth.

Unfortunately, the little one was unable to attend Toyland, and so I settled on the standard list of Collodi’s Pinocchio Park, Pistoia zoo, the playground at Villa and, generally, just enjoying the special natural ambience of our area.

One place was mentioned and the other day I checked out the suitability of taking a three year old across one of the world’s longest pedestrian suspension bridges. (The longest, incidentally, is the 494 metre Charles Kuonen bridge opened in Switzerland in 2017).

The ‘ponte sospeso delle ferriere’ (suspension bridge of the iron foundries) is a pedestrian walkway that connects the two sides of the Lima torrent between Mammiano Basso and Popiglio in the municipality of San Marcello Piteglio.

It rests on four steel cables and measures 227 metres in length, 36 meters maximum height above the river bed and and is 80 cm wide. In 1990 it was included in the Guinness Book of Records as “the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world”. That is, until the Swiss got in on the act…


Inaugurated in June 1923, the bridge was built following the design of ​​Vincenzo Douglas Scotti, Count of San Giorgio della Scala, and director of the Mammiano Basso steel mill. It allowed worker from Popiglio, on the other side of the Lima valley, to get the factories without having to walk a further five miles to reach the workplace.

Count Vincenzo Douglas Scotti (of Scottish ancestry) commissioned Filiberto Ducceschi, who was responsible for the construction of the cables, while the masonry and support work were entrusted to Cesare Vannucci.

Work began in 1920 with the help of some thirty workers, who anchored the cables. At this point it was possible to create a pedestrian walkway, consisting of planks and metal nets hinged to the supporting structure, which connected the two opposite banks of the Lima river without any intermediate support.


However, after the mills closed down the bridge took on a new function as a thrilling tourist attraction. It has undergone important maintenance and consolidation over the years, the latest being in 2004, which have made the bridge more stable and resistant through the complete replacement of cables, side bolts, walkways and protections, with stronger and lighter material.

Spectacular LED Bridge lighting was inaugurated in 2014.

My approach to the bridge was enhanced by an elegantly laid garden path:


The bridge did sway a bit but I think this was due more to a group of excited young children than any climatological condition!

As for the bridge’s suitability for three year olds: no problem. The youngest traverser of the bridge we met was just two and a half years old!



Santa Celestina: a load of hot air?

It was over ten years since I last witnessed the launch of Santa Celestina’s balloon. I wasn’t going to miss her this year!

The Balloon of Santa Celestina is made of paper and powered only by hot air. It’s launched every year around September 8 at San Marcello Pistoiese on the occasion of Santa Celestina, patron saint of the Pistoia Mountains.

Celestina was a third century martyr decapitated by the emperor Valerian, notorious for having dispatched more women than any other Roman emperor. Celestina’s remains found their last resting place in Gavinana and in the church of San Marcello Pistoiese, the busy little market town and holiday resort on the ‘high route’ between our Val di Lima and Pistoia.


In 1832 Tommaso and Bartolomeo Cini, during a trip to France and Switzerland, met Elias, son of Joseph Montgolfier, the inventor of the hot air balloon. Returning the visit in 1835, Elias Montgolfier gave Cini, owner of a paper mill of La Lima, a formula for the production of hot air balloon paper and a plan for their construction.

The launch date of the first balloon goes back to 1838 on the occasion of the solemn religious procession in honour of Santa Celestina. The colours chosen for the balloon were those of the Civic Guard flag of which Bartolomeo Cini was commander: green, white and red arranged horizontally (incidentally, the same colours of the Italian flag). These colours are used to this day.

Tradition says that if the balloon goes higher than the church’s bell tower it will be a lucky year for the whole mountain area, otherwise it certainly won’t….

And if the balloon catches fire through the brazier flames then it will be really doom and gloom!

We held our breath in the packed central square. The day was absolutely glorious. The balloon gradually inflated to its full, grand size.


I was allowed to take a peek inside the monster. It was terrifyingly hot in there!


Then the team held onto the balloon’s rim, crouched down, slowly lifted themselves up, held their hands high and…let go.


The moment the balloon left the earth to wend its way up into the bluest of skies felt quite emotional.


Luckily for us, the launch was very successful. The old-timers said it was the best they’d seen for years.


We are, therefore, ensured a prosperous year ahead…at least in our mountaineous part of the world!


Some facts about the balloon for the technically minded:

It’s made of 24 strips of paper glued together. It is 15 metres high with a circumference of 30 metres, a total volume of 450 cubic metres and a weight of about 100 kg.

Picture Post

Kevan Halson is a well-known and highly regarded fine arts photographer who resides in the purlieus of Bagni di Lucca. He first came to my attention with a ‘dilapidations’ project some years back. This is where Kevan concentrated on decay and decrepitude in buildings and their fitments. A kind of memento mori, the exhibition aroused great interest and demonstrated just how good Kevan is is in his field – the use of silver nitrate paper technique so little used today, for example, was quite virtuosistic.

Kevan’s current project involves photographing migrants to our area and who have resided here for several years.

The term ‘migrant’ covers all people from other countries who have gravitated to Bagni di Lucca and made it their principal home. Their reasons could be several: improved quality of life, work, life-style change, love affair….

Personally, I came here for a life-style change and have never regretted it. I also abhor people who call themselves ‘ex-pats’. Whether one comes here from the Old Kent Road or from the deserts of Sudan one still remains a migrant.

Kevan has set up a studio in what used to be Ponte a Serraglio’s parish hall, theatre and cinema.


It is a beautiful neo-classical building with an airy interior including a columned gallery.

I remember this hall last being used for the Ponte a Serraglio arts festival, an event which ran from 2013 to 2015 and has now achieved quasi-mythical status.

I shall always remember the amazing concert, which included the didgeridoo and gongs, given here with the participation of Pistoia’s Tronci foundation.

I became a subject in Kevan’s illuminating project a couple of days ago. I’d never been a photographic subject before and Kevan made me feel fully at ease while he shot away in a scenario filled with lighting effects, mirrors, reflectors and such-like.

At the same time, the photographer’s assistant asked me some simple questions, putting together a basic biography of myself and the reasons why I had decided to come and live at BDL.
The project ‘I am not from here’ is on-going and well-worth participation. Some of Kevan’s stunning photographs may already be viewed on Facebook.
Do get in touch with Kevan at
Or just meet up with him at the Old cinema at Ponte a Serraglio. There can be no-one described as un-photogenic in our part of the world!

In for a ‘Penny’, in for a Pound?

With the wonderful trade opportunities which will open out for the UK after the end of March next year I thought I’d investigate how deeply the British market had penetrated that most elusive of Italian retail sectors: the discount store.

I chose our local ‘Penny Market’ at Borgo and scoured its shelves yesterday. Heading for that other essential item when having a cuppa, the biscuit, I found the digestive biscuit. Penny has had an imitation, manufactured in Italy, for some time.


Now, however, it has the real McCoy!

I think I will start having ‘can you tell the difference between Mcvities and……’ tea parties. After all, a sensitive palate does often link up with a sensitive personality. A good way to distinguish true friends? OK, so you couldn’t tell the difference … don’t look around for another invite then!

Of course, one could always drown one’s sorrows. There’s a choice between two brands of mother’s ruin, one of which is manufactured in Italia under license and the other which, reputedly, is distilled in the Great Wen.

Of course, no gin is complete without its traditional complement:


I do know local friends who like to mix the stuff with pineapple or other fruit juice, however.

The water of life is distilled north of Hadrian’s wall and I await a really freezing winter’s evening to allow myself a tipple of this tincture.


Naturally, if you go to ‘higher class’ (but not necessarily higher quality) supermarkets you’ll find HP sauce (but only the barbecue variety) which has abandoned Brexitain and is now manufactured in the Netherlands (how low….), Heinz baked beans, Lea and Perrins (still matured in Worcestershire) and several other items.

However, unless one enters the few speciality English shops in our area (like the one in Viareggio), it’s going to be difficult to find items like Wensleydale, Cheddar Stilton or, indeed, any other fabulous English cheese. Scrumpy drinkers will just have to go dry …… to say nothing of tea-cake or ginger-nut devourers.

Now all this is happening while the UK is in one and the world’s largest market. So what are the prospects after the next April fool’s day I wonder?

There may be excellent markets for digestive biscuits in South Africa, perhaps, and a G n T will be essential at sundown but….

Just realized I missed out on that classic snack, the Kit-Kat (now owned by a Swiss company) which I also spotted in ‘Penny’.

Perhaps, dear feeder, you might be able to fill me in on other great British exports, at least as far as food is concerned, on Italian discount supermarket shelves?

Do let me know. Thanks!


PS Prices are in Euro but there’s not too much difference now with sterling thanks to the UK’s glorious chancellor of the exchequer.

Ibiza Comes to Fornoli

‘Es Vedrà’ is the name of a magical island off Ibiza. It is the reputed haunt of mermaids and naiads and also, in more recent times, the landing ground for UFOs.

‘Es Vedrà’ is now the name given to a new pizzeria at the end of Fornoli at the junction of the road leading to Calavorno.

Opened last week by a young couple, one the daughter of ‘La Ruota’, also in Fornoli, the location, in fact, had a previous incarnation as a pizzeria and one we frequently used to go to as a friendly rendezvous, That was quite some time back and for several years the place was closed.


(Photo courtesy of Emmanuela Ambrogi)

‘Es Vedrà’ is now a completely revamped place and the old-fashioned but dated cosiness of the former pizzeria has been transformed into something more up to date and almost minimalist.

I visited ‘Es Vedrà’ on the day of its evening opening but was unable to stay for the official opening ceremony. I am quite sure the pizzas will be up to the high standard of the former establishment and look forwards to tasting my first ‘quattro stagioni’ there soon.

Incidentally, why the name ‘Es Vedrà’? It’s because the owners, Stefania Rocchiccioli e Alessandro Fede, spent some time working in Ibiza in catering and fell in love with the place.

Bagni di Lucca may not quite have the night life of Ibiza but let’s hope that the enterprising young couple will liven things up in Fornoli with their new venture. I, for one, wish them the best of luck.


Address:  Viale Papa Giovanni XXIII, 94, 55022 Bagni di Lucca LU

Hours:  Opens at 6 pm
Telephone339 491 9880