The are two different ways to visit Lucca. The way of ordinary people, i.e. reading the tour guide (for example the red Touring Club guide) and then making a meditated comparison between TripAdvisor and Altissimo Ceto (a more food&wine-oriented website), calling a trustworthy friend who has already been there to have confirmation of some insights of yours, then downloading some local news articles of the last two years to check about some information gathered, printing a map of the longer or more scenic tours suggested by Via Michelin and, finally, parking miles away from the city centre because you have been told that parking within the city walls is impossible and haughty, and in any case finding a proper parking place to avoid a very expensive fine.
An alternative way is to meet Alice, chef for pleasure, personal shopper by vocation, manager of properties located around the town but above all factotum for selected clients visiting Tuscany by renting a villa, the most pleasant and luxuriant home-away-from-home alternative, for a weekend or an entire week.
Strolling the Fillungo, Lucca’s main street, with Alice is a bit like strolling the Film Festival’s red carpet with Sharon Stone: people coming out of the shops to say hallo to her – “How are you? Next time come again with these gentlemen/ladies.”
We slip in the award-winning All’Olivo restaurant where the owner lays a table for us although there are customers squeezed against the curtains waiting for a table, or whatever little space, to become available. Here is a hot seafood salad melting in our mouths, stuffed candied zucchini blossoms and a dish of pappardelle (wide strips of pasta) with fresh Porcini mushrooms from the Garfagnana region, a part of the province of Lucca near the Appennines which is the “Grand Canyon” of Tuscany, an area for the rigorous admirers of panoramic views (but also of mushrooms).
We continue towards Piazza Anfiteatro, to see whether or not it is true that all the photographs turn out to be masterpieces (confirmed) and to meet some of the sisters of the shop “The Sisters” (exactly!), a small handycraft atelier selling fashion articles and furnishings made of precious but natural materials, by now a worldwide sensational phenomenon. As a matter of fact there are no sisters but there is a charming man that I find out being their father, some kind of an even lighter-coloured Harrison Ford and his wife, a Patsy Kensit in disguise.
After a walk to the crucial points of the town, it’s time again to eat at a wine bar where we don’t need to prove to the sommelier that we know Livio Felluga to obtain the special service over which we, poor tourists who haven’t got what it takes to be extreme travelers, go crazy because, while we are still looking for the right table, fried zucchini and every kind of “crostini” (slices of toast spread with various ingredients) arrive together with a bottle of good wine, on the understanding that we could drink one glass as well as eight glasses: we will not manage to pay here at all anyway.
This is Alice: concierge with sensitive feelers for emotions, a celebrity in Lucca with friends around the world, all so renowned that you can’t inquire for any names, unless you want to be expelled from the cookery and re-education to aroma appreciation course which I am attending at Villa Alice. Born in Lucca, but genetically closer to Träskända (tall, slender, pale and blonde), she regularly takes me touring “her” town because I have asked her to organize something satisfactory after ten years during which I have been coming as a tourist and then always end up drinking medium-quality wine surrounded by other tourists all with hanging cameras like me, or to spend the evening looking for our car (where is it? which parking/gate/direction?).
She made me leave the iconic Lucca, i.e. the places that must be visited in any case. Because, she explains, trying to play the alternative guide at all costs when you know a place is sometimes not so smart: it is necessary to have a good general idea, a macro, slowly assimilated with patience and humbleness, and then one can try to illustrate one’s own Lucca, the one that mainly bears a resemblance to us. Therefore squares, churches (many), avenues, tiny streets: we see them all, including the walls at night.
I asked Alice to take care of my stay in Lucca with the intent to create a good memory box for when I am old and provisions of existential sensations to use from Monday to Friday, when I have left Lucca to return to the usual school-office-home and viceversa again. I have asked her to lend me her eyes and have walked for kilometers on routes I have now grown fond of.
I have also asked her to teach me to cook: a person like me dining out every day, that cannot tell basil from dill but has in any case developed more sensitive taste buds, that thinks that sitting at the table with loved ones is a privilege to be kept into great consideration, can reach peak happiness managing to produce something from something else: “gnocchi” from potatoes, bread from flour, sauce from tomatoes. So simple that, when you step into your house, through their smell they “sing” a song on the Italian family, and it is a fantastic melody, especially for those who spend much time abroad.
In her property, twenty minutes from Lucca in the direction of Pisa, she keeps her Tuscan cookery course, which is rather re-educating to aromas, a way to recover the flavours of the Tuscan cuisine – the rustic cuisine – and to avoid some seasonings, food colours, fads and prejudices. In the morning we go to market to learn about vegetables, fruit and also meat: how to choose them and when. In the afternoon we study the recipes and cook. Yes, we also chatter a lot and taste wines. The best part is knowing other people like us, caught between the embarrassement of having a career to take care of and their love for their relatives to whom we would like to dedicate something more than a dish of fried thawed tattlers.
We set the table together: the right forks, fresh flowers, straw place mats, so that pleasure spreads to all possible senses, and we listen to music of the seventies or to classical music. We have floured about ten iPhones and overloaded our Instagram accounts with pictures of eggs, dishes, everything. We are learning about herbs and I am now aware of the existence of the scallion, something between onion and garlic but much better than these.
I am undoubtedly the worst of this course, but considerable improvements have convinced my husband and daughters to give me an apron with my name embroidered on it as an encouragement to continue and as a thank you for trying to improve the ambience in our kitchen – and in my heart.
October, the flavours of Tuscan cuisine.
Tuscan cookery course at Villa Alice – arrival on Friday and departure on Sunday afternoon.
Foods and ingredients, beverages, cleaning and cookery course included.
85 Euros per person per night in double room.
Minimum 10 participants.
Valid all October and November.
Alice Dami – www.aliceselection.com