Autumn walks in Tuscany, Italy, are to be savoured, the physical pleasures of the hike, as well as the wonderful flavours of this world famous region. In September and October we head south to the mountains of the Apuane, and the Apennine where we spend a week long hiking holiday exploring the limestone summits of this bountiful land. At a time in our world when 'isolation' is to be welcomed you will love our hillside haven of tranquility where your group will be the only guests in an ancient Tuscan farmhouse. To encourage you into the mountains we have dropped the cost of this trip by £100 for September and October 2020.
The leisurely drive winding up past the walled town of Castiglione, through silent shuttered villages, cannot prepare us for the early morning chill of Casone di Profecchia perching at 1314 metres. How we scoffed at Stefano's advice to pack an extra fleece. Yesterday's blistering heat overlooking the Versilian coast towards Corsica blinded us to the fact that autumn in the mountains of northern Tuscany can carry a little bite. It seems the guide really does know best.
A quick shot of treacly black espresso in the vast old coaching inn overlooking the tiny ski slope provides a welcome buzz. We set off to scale Tuscany's highest peak, Mt Prado 2054 metres (6737ft). Within moments of our departure the light changes: the beech trees have mellowed and the world is imbued with an ethereal umber hue. An early mist clings to this forest - the green lung of Tuscany - and our view blurs. Thankfully Stefano's keen eyes spot the way markers.
Strange murmurings, interspersed with the occasional holler indicate that we are not alone. Spectral figures emerge from the gloom only to melt away as we look at them. The hunched form appear to show a people bent by a lifetime of hard labour: in reality they are the baskets in which they gather their spoils and from which they spread the spores. For these are the funghi hunters of the Garfagnana.
I have been in Puglia, I have been in Bologna, in Rome and Milan and mention of the Garfagnana brings immediate recognition: this is the land famed for its wild produce. Boar, venison, chestnuts and spelt, all are lauded, but none more so than the porcini. Stefano's eyes glaze over at the mere mention and autumnal walks are often extended as he scrambles up mossy banks to inspect a "little bun". Of course, this is Italy and there is a restriction even on foraging endeavours. A licence from the municipality is necessary, a weight limit set on your yield, and an insistence on baskets - plastic bags be damned! For this land treasures its wild produce. Quick buck asset stripping speculators can go elsewhere.
Mushrooms are renowned for encouraging our palate to experience a particular flavour known as umami, which is also found in parmesan cheese, and porcini mushrooms are a favourite for their intense taste and their health benefits.
As we climb, Stefano is asked for his favourite porcini recipe. This perplexes him. They are all good! Pappardelle with porcini and parmeggiano. Ailsa's funghi risotto with a roasted cep atop and just a drizzle of truffle oil. Pizza with mascarpone and fresh porcini. In this moment he waxes about porcini fried in polenta: keep it simple, the Tuscan way.
Our steps quicken as we near Passo Bocca di Masso. The mists clear to reveal a vast wilderness, green and rolling in every direction. We drop into a hidden silvan wonderland, hopping streams and negotiating boulders before emerging into a very familiar landscape. Has someone transported us to a lost Scottish corrie complete with mountain lochan and heather clad slopes? This is Lago di Bargetana and heralds the start of a 300 metres (984ft) climb to the summit. Our lunch of spiced vegetable pasties and rich chocolate cake may not be particularly Tuscan but it is certainly welcome: every calorie has been well earned.
The temptation is too great to pile on a few more at our stop in a gelateria in Castelnuovo on our way home to Lavacchio. The pistacchio topped with hazelnut too good to miss. Oh, and just the small scoop of chestnut - the local speciality - on top. When in Rome and all that.
Our evening aperitivo on the terrace overlooking the valley is interrupted by Ailsa brandishing a large platter of golden deliciousness. How did she know? The fried porcini are the essence of mushroomy loveliness. Her lemon thyme and nipitella dusting takes away a little of the cloying oily richness. Like the gelato it's just too tempting. We'll have to walk that little bit faster, that little bit further tomorrow. For those of you who also enjoy porcini hunting we have a tip from Ailsa who will be your chef should you join our hiking weeks in Tuscany.
What to do with porcini?
If you have been lucky enough to find the treasured porcini you can clean them well with a soft brush to get rid of any grit and slice the cap and the stem 3-4 mm thick. If they seem very damp, dry them with some kitchen paper before sprinkling them with dry polenta flour. Fry in batches in some very hot vegetable oil in a wok or deep pan until golden, 2-3 minutes, drain on some more kitchen paper and sprinkle with salt and some chopped nipitella or lemon thyme. Bon apettito!
Tomorrow....now what was Stefano's advice again? A big climb...the Queen of the Apuane....and full waterproofs. I'll have another mushroom. Thank you!