Someone called it the “Green island of Tuscany” and in fact, this valley, although close to important historical centers such as Lucca, Pisa, Florence and the attractive and worldly Versilia, has remained self-contained, living out its own history and building a strong identity that still retains today.
The Apuan Alps, which divide it to the west from the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Apennines to the East, enclose the valley much like a treasure chest and not even the historic roads that crossed it, such as the Clodia or the eighteenth-century Via Vandelli, which led from Modena to Massa, by boldly crossing the Apuan Alps at the Passo della Tambura, have contributed to reducing this isolation.
Garfagnana: literally Great Forest, and most certainly represents the impression the first inhabitants of this valley had and still today we are amazed by the lush extension of its woods. Planted, cared for and cultivated by man, is the chestnut tree which thrives up to 1000 meters above sea level. The are also the wild, intricate, far-reaching beech forests that thrive up to 1700 meters and, year after year, try to reclaim the bare mountain peaks.
In this wide green expanse you’ll find numerous little hamlets unexpectedly perched on a hill or on a plateau that slopes down towards the river. Among the narrow carriage streets, inside medieval walls, time passes slowly; the rhythms are those of other times, the kids’ games are centuries old, and “old shops” have an ancient fragrance.
A valley and its people
For centuries people of Garfagnana were farmers, woodsmen and quarrymen. Nowadays, most of them are workers, artisans and traders; all of them safeguard their origins and old customs. The traditional Garfagnana cuisine is, like all those of rural origin, simple both in the ingredients and in the preparation.
For generations chestnuts, one of the most traditional ingredients of the valley, has assured sustenance even during leaner times. With its flour that has gained PDO identification (Protected Designation of Origin) it is possible to prepare the famous “polenta di neccio” often accompanied with pork bones preserved in brine or with “tullore” (dried chestnuts boiled in milk).
In Garfagnana pork and the meat of other farm animals is used to prepare recipes, but trout, famous since the Medici’s time, has also become an important ingredient.
Another important ingredient is spelt that has gained the European PGI identification (Protected Geographical Indication) and is used to prepare soups, salted pies and “farrotti” and moreover the ancient variety of “eight rows” called “formenton otto file”, “giallorini” beans, the simple cakes made of chestnut flour, the “castagnaccio e i necci“, the “pasimata” a typical Easter cake whose recipe is very elaborate and which housewives keep secret.
There are many tasty reasons to come to Garfagnana and, we are sure, once you have discovered this hidden corner of Tuscany, it will be difficult not to return often.