Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Tasting the New Year's Vintage

After La Vendemmia, the yearly grape harvest in October, the grapes are crushed and the wines stored in barrels and demijohns in the Cantina until ready for bottling the following year. In autumn, after the long cold winter, its time to test the latest vintage, and see if it is ready for drinking.

From the big smiles on the faces of Luisa and Sandrino in the picture above, it would seem that this years vintage has passed the test and the bottling can commence.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

The First Tourists - Pilgrims and the Via Francingena

Map of Lunigiana

At the beginning of the second millenium a wave of pilgrims flowed across Europe on their way to visit the most sacred sites of Christendom with the three major attractions Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela in Spain. 

One of the most important pilgrim roads leading to Rome was the Via Francigena, literally "the road from the Frankish lands'. The Via Francigena was not a single 'road' in the strict sense, but rather a number of possible routes which changed over the centuries as trade and pilgrimage developed.

Depending on the time of year, the political situation and the relative popularity of the shrines of saints along the route, travellers may have taken one of three or four crossings of the Alps and the Apennines.

The memory of the Francigena Way was first recorded by Sigerico the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury from 989AD to 994AD, on his return from Rome after receiving the pallium, the symbol of authority for Archbishops, from the Pope.

He records his pilgrimage in eighty stages from Rome back to England, including six stages passing through Lunigiana starting with the monastry of San Benedetto next to the step of the Cisa (Montelungo), Puntrembel (Pontremoli), Aguilla (Aulla), Santo Stefano, Sanctam Mariam de Sardena (Sarzana) and finally to Luni. 

Codiponte was also once an important stopping place on the Via Francigena for pilgrims crossing over the Garfagnana on their way from Lunigiana to Lucca and on to Rome.

Today the Via Francigena has been "rediscovered" and has become a popular tourist trail. A walk on the old pilgrim route through the chestnut woodlands and medieval stone villages of Lunigiana, with the stunning backdrop of the Apennine and Apuan Alps, gives you a real feel for the natural environment, history and traditions of the region, and the incredible variety of the local landscape.

Monday, 14 July 2008

La Vendemmia- it must be October

October is one of the busiest months of the year in the small rural village of Codiponte in northern Tuscany. It's time for La Vendemmia - the yearly grape harvest and all hands are put to work to pick the ripening fruit.
It's hard work and all eyes are on the weather - if it rains then this year's vintage may be ruined. The harvest is completed over two weeks, and with no rain the new year's vintage is pressed and safely stored away until next year.  
It won't be until autumn however, when the first of this year's vintage is bottled, that we will really know how good a year it has been. 
For now La Vendemmia e andata bene - Salute!

Hunting for Porcini

Some of the best Porcini (Boletus edulis) mushrooms in Tuscany are found in the steep hills surrounding the small village of Codiponte, in the rugged northern region of Lunigiana.

After the first autumn rains the porcini have sprouted and pickers are eagerly searching the underbrush under the chestnut trees. All that is needed are stout shoes, a vimini basket (that spores can drop out of), and a hooked knife to cut the mushrooms free. It's a wonderful way to spend a day in the woodlands.

For those who know the secret locations of these hard to find mushrooms the pickings can be very good indeed. The two bowls of porcini proudly displayed above were collected in the early hours of the morning, before any unwanted onlookers may site the secret spot.

What to do with your mushrooms? Porcini caps are wonderful grilled, while the stalks, diced and simmered in butter or oil with a sprig of nipitella, a clove of garlic, and seasoned to taste, are excellent as either a side dish or pasta sauce.They can also be dried and provide a wonderful aromatic flavour to sauces and stews.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Italian surnames

If, like me, you are of Italian descent and have often wondered about the origins of your family name - then the GENS website is for you.

Just type in your surname and you will see a map of Italy displaying the distribution across Italy of people with the same surname.

I hadn’t realised how popular, or should I say common, our family name of Martini was - with representation in 1,939 Comunes, or local authorities, right across Italy.

Just enter your surname, or cognome, and choose one of the three display formats available. You can also type in you first name and find out about the orgins of that as well.

Finding Codiponte

So where is Codiponte?

With Italy's four levels of government that's not as easy to describe as you would think.

First of all Codiponte is one of fifeteen Frazione or villages/hamlets which make up the Comune di Casola in Lunigiana. With a total population of 1,193, the Comune of Casola, is the second smallest of the seventeen Comuni, or shires, which make up the Provincia di Massa Carrara, the most northern of the ten provinces of Toscana, or Tuscany.

And finally, Toscana is one of the twenty Regione, or regions, which form the Republic of Italy.

Of course it is lot easier if you just search for Codiponte on Google - and you will also get a bird's eye view of the village via satellite.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Sticks and stones will break my bones - local nicknames

Up until the end of World War II many of the villages in the rugged region of Lunigiana in northern Tuscany were isolated from each other, with only a few gravel roads and mule tracks joining them. As a result each village developed its own unique character and, in many cases, dialect. They also coined colourful nicknames for each other.

People from my father's village of Codiponte, on the banks of the river Aulella, are not surprisingly called Ranocchi or frogs. The local specimen shown above is from the Natural History Museum of Lunigiana, which is located in the Fortezza Brunella in Aulla.

Less flattering is the name for the villagers from Casciana, just above Codiponte, who are called Lumaconi or large slugs. Other colourful nicknames include Assini or asses for Reusa; Pipistrelle or bats for Casola; Gati or cats for Vignetta and Ceri or oak trees for Vedriano.

Inexplicably the villagers from Luscignano are called Mauri (which is pronouced like the New Zealand Maori).

Codiponte - What's in a name?

The origin of the name Codiponte is not clear however it is most likely derived from the Latin Capite Pontis or Bridge-head (French tĂȘte-de-pont) which is a military fortification that protects the end of a bridge that is closest to the enemy.

A small Roman settlement, or fort, is believed to have been located on the northern approach to the bridge over the River Aulella, where the Pieve di Codiponte now stands.

The three arched stone bridge pictured above was built around 1100, repaired in 1703 and 1936, and was the only bridge across the river Aullela until a new bridge was built some 500 metres downstream in 1970.

Tuesday, 31 July 2007


My father’s village of Codiponte lies in the high valley of the Aulella, in the Comune of Casola in Lunigiana, in northern Tuscany.

Evidence of settlement by hunters and farmers on the ground adjacent to the Romanesque Pieve di Codiponte (parish church) dates back to the iron ages, with further settlements dating to Roman times and up to the middle ages. The Pieve itself, which is dedicated to the two saints, San Ciprianno and San Cornelio, dates back to 793 in the early middle ages, and is considered one of the most significant medieval monuments in Lunigiana.

The old stone bridge which crosses the River Aulella was built in 1100. It is this strategic crossing which gives the village its name -Codiponte.

The settlement expanded to the southern side of the river in the 1300's when the now dilipdated castle and surrounding village was built.

Today the village is home to about 300 people. After the second world war the rural way of life, based on the mezzadria or share-cropping sytem, collapsed and many villagers moved to the larger cities and towns.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

The Lunigiana

The remote and beautiful region of the Lunigiana in Northern Tuscany differs markedly from the gently rolling hills and plains of Florence and Siena to the south. It is a rugged area of high mountains and deep valleys bounded by the peaks of the Appenines and the Apuan Alps, and divided by the river Magra and its tributaries which flow down to the scenic Gulf of La Spezia.

The heavily forested hillsides are scattered with small villages with grey stone houses topped with red tiles. The area is also famous for its fortified castles which can be seen on the hilltops above many of the villages. These date back to medieval times and there are over one hundred in the region, many still in good condition.

The history of the region dates back much earlier to palaeolithic times, with the remains of now extinct cave-bears and neanderthal man found in the limestone caves of Equi Terme.

Many unique sculptures, called Statue-Stellae’s, dating from 1800 to 1000 BC have also been found across Lunigiana.

It is also where my father’s village of Codiponte is located, in the high valley of the river Aulella, in the Comune of Casola in Lunigiana.