‘Don’t get out of the car’, Roberto warned, ‘toot the horn, I’ll come and get you’.
‘Sure, I got it’ I replied, hurriedly scribbling directions. Carlo, who was standing next to me, was mumbling something in thick Piacentine dialect about being eaten by dogs and I couldn’t make out what Roberto was saying. Did he say turn left or right after the town?
‘Do you want to drive’? I asked Carlo, with a tone that said shut it old man. He didn’t take the hint.
‘Stay in the car’, Roberto repeated for the umpteenth time and put the phone down. I’m no stranger to the
Pass, a winding mountain road in the
Apennines that connects the provinces of Parma
in Emilia Romagna with Pontremoli, a town in the province
of Massa-Carrara in Tuscany. I take the pass every year on trips
to Pontremoli when I go mushroom picking. That said, the farm we were going to
supposedly was off the beaten path – well off!
It doesn’t take much to coax me to go on a road trip – especially when there’s cheese involved. Good goat’s cheese is much prized in
especially those made by small artisan producers and it’s generally better to
buy direct from source. Plus, when Carlo offered to throw in lunch at Da
Giovanni, a restaurant/ hotel just outside Pontremoli, I didn’t hesitate. The
pasta, always home made, is an absolute favourite of mine. When in season they
make a tagliatelle with fresh porcini mushrooms that is hard to beat. Local
specialties of the Lunigiana such as testaroli
(a type of pancake served with a pesto sauce) and herb pie are also excellent.
On this occasion I opted for lasagnette
(small ribbons of pasta) served with a meat ragù.
It didn’t disappoint. The food was everything I remembered it to be. Giovanni’s
food defies time.
By 2.30 we were on the road again and starting the winding 1,040 meter (3,414 feet) ascent to the top of the
Records of the road date back to 109BC. In medieval times, it was one of the
main thoroughfares for pilgrims on their way from northern Europe to Cisa Pass. Rome. You could say we
were pilgrims of a kind – the Holy Grail of cheese.
After 10 kilometres of constantly winding road I began to regret that third… I mean second… bowl of pasta! Roberto’s directions to the farm were good but we still managed to miss our turn off. We doubled back a few miles down the road, passed it again and eventually took a left hand turn that led to nowhere. I crumpled up the useless directions, scowled at Carlo and looked for signs of life. An old lady hanging her washing told us we should have turned right.
The Mulino della Vaccarezza farm is situated at the very bottom of a steep valley. As we crept slowly down the hill I opened the passenger side window. Carlo, who has a thing about dogs, almost had a fit! Porco mariana and a string of obscenities followed. As we pulled up outside the gate I was still laughing. Immediately, out of habit more than foolish bravado, I opened the door. I couldn’t see the dog but the growl was enough. I slammed the door shut, checked my window was closed and tooted the horn. By the time Roberto arrived five very large dogs were circling our wagon. We were surrounded.
Roberto and his partner Elena make goat and sheep’s milk cheese and salami. The bulk of what he makes he sells to a couple of nearby restaurants. What’s left he sells direct to the public from the farm – to anyone able to find the place and get past the dogs that is. But once you’ve tasted his cheese, the risk of being eaten seems a small price to pay. He beckons towards the small farmhouse and we follow quickly, the dogs on our tail. I’m forty years younger than Carlo but the 80-year-old still makes it through the door two steps ahead of me. Inside it’s dim and cool – the perfect conditions for cheese. We each buy three medium-sized rounds for ourselves and Carlo buys what’s left to fill the orders from his neighbours. A few would just have to wait until our next trip.
Back outside the dogs have been joined by a crowd of goats. Several are sniffing around my car – one has its nose in the boot and is eating through Carlo’s emergency supply of sandwiches. Roberto pays it no attention. Somewhat eccentric, he starts barking orders to one of the dogs, a border collie, in heavily-accented English. Apparently the dog was trained back in
England and to
this day only responds to instructions in English. Despite Roberto’s less than
fluent command of the language the dog understands and enthusiastically bounds
off up a steep slope to retrieve the rest of the herd. Within moments the
valley comes alive – not exactly with the sound of music – but goat’s bells.