October 29, 2011 Another stunningly beautiful day in Italy! We are off to some free time in Lucca, the completely walled city slightly north of Florence. Paola, our guide, said she thinks it is the best place to experience shopping because it is slightly out of the way for tourists. The drive was a couple hours from our villa. The freeway was thick with traffic and they all seemed to be going to Lucca.
Today is Saturday, the start to a long weekend for Italians to celebrate “All Saints Day.” So the traffic was noticeably more than last week the same time. Our guide was saying that cannot be the reason we see so many cars pouring into the city, though, and she called a friend who explained that there is a comic book convention in town. Seems attendees dress up in their favorite comic book characters. Some are recognizable but many just seem to be characters one might see back home for Halloween; renaissance characters and TV/movie personalities seem popular. So we, of course, picked one of the best days to see local color without knowing in advance. We took many pictures of the characters as they passed. All we needed to do is to raise our camera, poised to take their picture, and they would stop to pose!
As we sat drinking coffee watching the parade of sorts, I jumped out in front of a small child dressed like a knight of the round table; when he saw me his posture straightened proudly taking on the persona for the picture. After an espresso and gelato and a couple hours of people watching and shopping, our group gathered at the meeting place to board the bus for our lesson at a family owned bakery located in the outskirts of Lucca in a small neighborhood.
We assumed the family of bakers provides the bread for this small area.
But first there was a lovely buffet table set outside under one of those large umbrellas we have seen everywhere here in Italy. The centerpiece of ornamental corn and fresh roses for a Tuscan fall arrangement with platters of many of the “usual suspects” on our visits, included the mortadella ham, Tuscan salami, four kinds of breads, and even pizza and sort of a focaccia sandwich of “lardo,” which was soon declared a favorite. Of course there always seems to be wine, too, and after antipasti, the pasta comes to the table, this time called “macaroni” that looked like uneven pieces of thick flat pasta with a fresh tomato and garlic sauce, topped with parmesan regianno.
After lunch as each of us “aproned-up” and washed hands we headed into the small kitchen behind the even smaller retail store front. Italian store fronts, especially for food, seem to be only a garage door wide. The head baker had already prepped a batch of whole grain dough and shaped them into rounds, baguettes and some round loaves with sunflower imprints. All were placed onto a canvas conveyor belt that with one complete turn landed the 10-12 loaves on the deck of the large wide deck oven. They would bake about 30 minutes; just time enough to produce a second batch of Tuscan sour dough with his “biga” starter.
Divided into two groups, we each shaped bread and made some biscuits (also known as cookies). Lenore’s favorite cookie was the one coated in corn flakes before baking, with raisins and a dusting of powdered sugar when cool. For our guide, Paola, our baker hosts made her favorite dessert, a tart made with chestnut flour, rosemary, pine nuts and lemon zest. But for me, I was intrigued by the amaretto tart made with a wonderful shortbread crust rolled and cut in a way I had not seen before, and I will definitely be doing this one when I get home. We were rewarded for our work with a large pastry assortment of their specialties: almond paste crescent, cornflake cookies, chocolate pie, and amaretto tart. We finished production by bagging up all the baked goods to take with us!
We left with more than we came in with, that’s for sure. We each received a cookie bag tied in a bow along with a hand written recipe book, which we will need to translate after we get home. Obviously, this is not the type of activity they do regularly, but judging from the “polish” and enthusiasm of our second week, we think these artisans may like the opportunity to “teach” more often. The organization of the second lesson was noticeably improved and the shy demeanor of the bakers noticeably more relaxed and talkative.
That we are actually meeting the people who create the breads, cheeses, salami of the Tuscany region, is the core of this trip. Producers who welcomed us into their homes, in some cases, wouldn’t give us a lesson without feeding us too! The hospitality of the Italians continues to delight us.