In autumn the light becomes softer and as the days grow shorter and the nights colder most householders are thinking about getting ready for the winter. Hearty Tuscan fair returns to the table and mushrooms and truffles for those lucky enough to get their hands on them are eaten with reverence. The grapes have been harvested and the quality of the wine lamented or rejoiced. In the sweet chestnut woods on the hills around Lucca strange machines can be seen that bear a strong resemblance to “Naughty Noo Noo” of Tellytubby fame. This little tanker with protruding tubes sucks up the chestnuts removes the husks and gets them ready to be dried in little stone houses called ‘Metati’ with a fire beneath them so that they can then be turned into flour. Soon we will be able to enjoy ‘Neccis’ a sort of chestnut flour pancake, which can be served either as a savoury dish filled with ricotta and sausage or as a desert filled with Nutella or just plain ricotta. For sweet dishes ricotta made from cows milk should be used and for savoury dishes sheep’s ricotta. Neccis are a must to keep out the cold at any winter outdoor fest. castagnaccio is another delight. It is a cake made using chestnut flour with pine-kernels, olive oil and rosemary.
In the villages and countryside most people heat their houses with wood. The hills are covered in Acacia trees, which are sustainable timber. I can’t believe how quickly these trees grow. Wood heating seems to produces far more calories than the gas. I don’t know if this is a scientific fact or just a perception as people who heat with wood can have the heating on longer as it is so much cheaper! . I can however confirm that levels of comfort go up and bills go down when wood is used. Modern wood -burning stoves, boilers and back boilers in fireplaces are now very energy efficient re-burning and watching a flame is warming in its self. Sitting by the fire reading a book or watching a movie with a glass of something is pure heaven and makes winter in the Tuscan hills very appealing. On those evenings by the fire my mind meanders through what I have learnt during my time in Italy and though my Italian may still leave a lot to be desired I can do a beautiful woodpile and I have to admit it gives me great satisfaction. Piling up the wood not only warms you up but on a beautiful sunny morning one can almost believe that it is still summer. The sun has warmth in its rays all year round and the October sun can give the final boost to the olives so that they are ready for harvesting. The debate is when. Do you harvest earlier when you get less oil but it more ‘piccante’ stronger in flavour and I can only describe it as slightly peppery or you wait longer so the olives swell producing more oil. This is very much a personal choice. Tuscan oil is famous for its delicate flavour and low acidity. In some parts of Lucchesia the olives are grown at relatively high altitudes up to about 500meters due to micro- climates. This means that olives have to be stripped by hand rather than shaken.
Tuscany has got very good press from "Under The Tuscan Sun" and therefore it is often assumed that the sun is always shining but the truth is it can be very cold. Lucca city is only an hour away from a ski resort and so in the winter attention moves away from the sea and hills to the high mountains and to skiing and snowboarding. Here in Abetone we have produced Olympic champions but the snow hasn’t arrived yet and the autumn rains are just around the corner so I am happy to enjoy the last figs and just think about all those wonderful Tuscan soups and large Sunday lunches.