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This week we are taking another trip to Tuscany, to the little know area of Garfagnana in the North West of the region, often known as the natural park of Tuscany, where we talk mortadella the size of a car tire, drinking olive oil by the glass and buying wine by the liter! What’s not to love?
If you heard our recent episode about the Chianti region then you’ll know that Tuscany is a huge region and that talking about it as a whole really does it a bit of a disservice, so today we head to an area very different in both it’s rugged, hilly landscape, covered in chestnut trees, and in its vibe. It can be found north of the charming city of Lucca, which is a gem in itself. We learn about what first brought Buzz McCarthy who is a world traveler, author and has a PhD in psychoneurology, to Garfagnana over 30 years and what kept her coming back, till she eventually made both Italy and the Garfagnana her permanent home.
What you’ll learn in this episode
- The locals test olive oil, not by dipping in bread, but by drinking it in a glass
- Caprignana, Buzz’s home village has a sagra (food festival) celebrating Farro (the local ancient grain), involving 10 courses where you go to a different stand for each Farro dish, from savoury to dessert, which stretches all the way into the next village. You even get a little bag to go round your neck to hold your wine glass while you are eating
- During WW2, Garfagnana is where the gothic line was – separating the allies/non-allies. All the wildlife and produce eventually ran out so in the last year of the war the locals had to survive by eating chestnuts as was all that was left
- Not only can you buy olive oil in bulk, but you can buy also buy wine in bulk!
- Historically each region had its own pasta shape and while this is not quite the case though food is still very regional
- Nearby Carrara is famous for the white or blue-grey marble quarried there
- Barga, a medieval, hill-top town is home to the 17th century Church of St Christopher which is made entirely of marble and with windows of alabaster which create a beautiful glow
- After WW2, a lot of the residence of Barga went to Scotland, so it’s not uncommon to hear a Scottish accent when wandering the pretty, winding streets
- Puccini, the world-famous opera composer was born in Lucca and each year there are many festivals and smaller performances held in churches around the city
About our guest – Buzz McCarthy
Buzz moved to London at 21 and travelled to Italy for the first time at 22 as part of ‘the Grand Tour’ around Europe and fell in love with everything about Italy, declaring to her travelling companions ‘one day I will buy a villa in Tuscany’. True to her word…and her passion, she and her partner purchased a huge neglected, empty house on the edge of a tiny village in Garfagnana, 120 kms north of Florence, 33 years ago in 1988. Three years later they arrived at I Cinghiali with their 8-month old son and marvelled at the superb job that their team had done. The restoration had been done by fax, in Italian, apart from a 40-minute visit Buzz paid whilst 4.5 months pregnant where she etched out in dust on the kitchen floor how she wanted the room to look. Having used the house for vacationing and to host many events over the years, in 2001 her family spent a year in Italy as a prize to Buzz for getting through breast cancer and then in 2012 Buzz packed up her house in Melbourne and headed to London on a Gap Year. Arithmetic never being her strong point, that Gap Year is now a month or two off 9 years and she has decided that Europe is her permanent home, finally settling in Italy in 2020.
Having completed a stunning barn conversion at her property in Caprignana, Buzz’s heart has been stolen once more and she has now taken on a new renovation project – the Noble House in the Abruzzo region, east of Rome.
You can find Buzz on these channels:
- Website for her villa and barn – www.tuscanvillarental.com
- Instagram – www.instagram.com/tuscanvillagelife
- Facebook page to follow the Abbruzzo property renovation – www.fb.com/thenoblehouseabruzzo
Interlude with Wild Boars – on her purchase and restoration of I Cinghiali in Tuscany
Living the Dream, Australians in Italy – a collaboration with past guest Nikki Taylor
Buzz’s Barn – available for rent!
- Farro – an ancient grain local to Garfagnana – great in salads!
- Cinghiale – wild boar, local to the region and used in many products and dishes including sausage with fennel (and what Buzz’s the namesake of Buzz’s house)
- Pecorino cheese – local, delish cheese
- Honey – another product huge in the area. So varying that you can find restaurants serving different kinds of honey being paired with different cheeses
- Torte exquisita – literally exquisite cake, is a special dessert from the region
- Melanzana – eggplant/aubergine
- Polenta – a kind of cornmeal – boiled until thick and creamy and can then be served as is or chilled until it solidifies, at which point it can be fried or baked
- Porcetta – roast pork on the spit
Places mentioned in the show
- Caprignana – the village where Buzz’s villa can be found. Nestled between a 500 hectare national park offering wonderful opportunities for walking and the imposing marble mountains of Carrara
- Carrara – famous for the marble quarried there
- Castelnuovo di Garfagnana – a gorgeous little Tuscan town full of great food and produce shops
- Il Vecchio Mulino (the old mill) – a restaurant in Castelnuovo di Garfagnana with a mortadella, so huge that it took 7 people to lift it into place
- Bologna – where the huge mortadella at Il Vecchio Mulino (above) is sourced from. Bologna’s is known as La Grassa – the fat one, as it’s where all the delicious meats are produced
- Il Pozzo – restaurant in Garfagnana, with owner Maurizio a huge proponent for the slow food movement. The anti-pasto platter is bursting with delights.
- Lucca – a true gem of Tuscany – a medieval walled town, wonderful to explore and to base yourself or visit for the day in Tuscany
- San Frediano and San Michele – both churches in Lucca worth seeking out
- Ponte della Maddalena – a beautiful yet curious looking bridge with 5 archways of different sizes in the region, known as the devil’s bridge
- Barga – A very arty town with summer festivals and lots of art studios
- Versilia coast – on the Tuscan coast in the northwestern edge of the province of Lucca, and home to upmarket Forte dei Marmi
- Torre del Lago – this town, as you head towards pizza on the coast holds a large Puccini festival
- Abruzzo – this region, where Buzz has bought her latest property is east of Rome, on the Adriatic coast
- Ferrara – an industrial city in Northern Italy
- Lucca Summer Festival – a music festival of note, held in July each year with high profile performances
- The Grand Tour – the 17th and 18th-century custom of a traditional trip through Europe undertaken by upper-class young European men of sufficient means and rank. Adopted by many a tourist in later years – including Buzz as a young Aussie tourist.
Resources from Untold Italy
- Listen: to our previous episodes in Tuscany – Episode #057: Tuscany’s Chianti region with Arianna Cini and Episode #49: Exploring Florence with Corinna Cooke and to our episode with property expert Nikki Taylor (who has co-authored a book with Buzz) – Episode #056: Realizing the dream of buying property in Italy with Nikki Taylor
- In this and many episodes, we rave about the ancient walled city of Lucca. Learn more in our Lucca city guide and A perfect day exploring the Tuscan hills near Lucca
- How to plan a trip to Italy – our article that takes you step by step through trip planning so you can avoid our mistakes
- Italy Travel Planning – our FREE online community where you can ask questions and get inspiration for planning your trip
- Travel shop where you’ll find items mentioned in the show
Prefer to read along as you listen? You can download a PDF version of the full transcript of this episode.