Periods in Italy for this second-generation Italian are always pleasure, but sometimes business too, as was the case this month, with a combined trip to see family members in north west Italy — including a visit with cousins to a bamboo maze, the largest of its kind in the world, near our home provincial town of Parma — with a tagged-on day to the Sana Fiera in Bologna, which is one of Italy’s largest natural health shows.
I came across unexpected ‘free from’ finds at both …
The bamboo maze in question is the Labirinto della Masone — essentially a square maze with a star-shaped outline, whose walkable length totals three kilometres of pathway entirely fringed by elegant lanky bamboo plants, which rise up to around ten or fifteen metres, and many of which lean in to form a collective loose canopy over the tracks, through which the sunlight can sometimes strongly, sometimes moderately and sometimes barely, if at all, shine through.
There are estimated to be 200,000 of them …
The Labirinto was the brainchild and long-held ambition of Franco Maria Ricci, a Parma-born art editor, publisher and collector, known for launching the highly regarded European art magazine FMR and publishing the fabulously quirky and fantastical ‘fauxcylopedia’, Codex Seraphinianus.
The complex with which the maze has been built — all essentially in the middle of green nomansland between Parma and the smaller neighbouring town of Fidenza — also includes a meditative pyramid, a library of his publications, and a gallery of collected art works, which offer welcome cultural stimulation after the gentle meandering and contemplative reflection of the walk through the maze itself.
It is not particularly challenging as a puzzle to solve, as there are occasional maps to help you (see left), and it’s reasonably intuitive; neither is it maddening or panic-inducing, in so much as its few dead ends are quickly identifiable as being so, and there appears little built-in to tempt you to stray the wrong way.
I like to think that this was deliberate. The maze contains just enough twists and loops to delay you for the time its visionary presumably wanted to delay you for — between one and two hours, which is a period during which you can absorb the variety of bamboo species showcased, and appreciate what a fast-growing, environmentally protective plant it really is.
The network of bamboo branches and leaves above is cocooning, the rustling deeply calming. You forget that you may or may not be a bit lost. My cousin-in-law Mario, a life-long admirer of Maria Ricci’s work, comes here to read.
It is the curse of being an allergy nerd that my ‘free from’ radar can never be entirely switched off, and so it proved when we took to the bar for refreshments, and it was both a surprise and not a surprise — this being Italy, after all — to find an original selection of gluten free dried pastas for sale in the store, made by local artisanal brand Amaranto, based just 15 or so kilometres away in the town of Salsomaggiore Terme.
Among their unusual offerings were rice and ginger, fonio (a variant of millet), rice and red lentil and turmeric, corn and beetroot, and yellow corn and hemp. You can browse some of their products here or on their Facebook page.
There was another notable pasta being showcased at the Sana show which I’d come across days earlier, by a brand called Felicia, whose representatives told me supply some of the UK supermarkets’ own-brand gluten free pastas.
A gluten-free oat pasta is long overdue in the UK, so I hope those same supermarkets can be convinced to import it or have a variety made with their own branded stamp of approval, because it is really very tasty, and oats are a nutritious food which many coeliacs can tolerate but not all find easy to incorporate into their diets if they find porridge unappealing. Felicia had other original pastas — lentil and beetroot, lentil and pumpkin, below — and I’m left with the strong feeling that the British GF pasta market still has room to develop in terms of shapes, flavours, nutrition and innovation.
The vegan movement appears strong in Italy. But I fell into an interesting conversation with Martina Olivieri, founder of two natural and flavoursome GF, DF and soya-free brands: Ambrosiae (various raw and superfoods) and PerfectBio (protein cereals, below, plus snack bars). She told me that while her products were suitable for vegans, she liked to avoid the word ‘vegan’ in her marketing as she found it exclusive of non-vegans. Her point I think was that it is almost encourages food tribalism, and that the term should only be applied to who we are, not what we eat, which may be ‘plant based’ (her preferred term). In a climate where vegan is becoming increasingly politicised and tied to the environment and climate change, I felt inclined to agree.
It’s hard to avoid mention of the ‘vegan turkey’ by Muscolo di Grano — which I Insta’d on the day I visited, and which ended up making the Italian national news the subsequent day, as I still haven’t quite worked out what I feel about this big gluten-y beast — but would rather draw your attention to two notable vegan dairy free ‘milks’: Terre e Tradizioni’s timilia drink — made from an ancient and I was told endangered heritage wheat grain, which was quite delicious, albeit quite obviously not gluten free — and The Bridge Bio’s chickpea-based milk-alternative, which has to be the DF drink most strongly tasting of its plant-based source that I have ever come across, and which would therefore be a super high-protein alternative for savoury cooking.
Sadly, neither yet available outside Italy yet … but as with the pastas, I sense there is plenty more room for innovation in plant-based milk alternatives, and we certainly need them, including fortified options, as my recent post outlined only a limited selection for those with multiple food allergies.
Food aside, I also paid a visit to Lucia of Casa Mencarelli skincare — a fairly new range of fragrance-free, Italian-influenced cosmetic products, based in Scotland, especially designed for those with extreme sensitivities, as founder Lucia herself has. The brand, on their debut, took two Golds in this year’s Free From Skincare Awards — which as I’m sure many readers will know I co-founded with Michelle Berriedale-Johnson in 2012 — and it was pleasing to find them drawing huge attention from visitors.
What else. I ate. Of course I ate. Lots of pizza. Also mushrooms. The home of my ancestors is well known in Italy for its cep mushrooms (porcini) and while the season was just upon us during my visit, I didn’t have the stamina nor the footwear for hours’ foraging in the woods, so instead took modestly to our surrounding fields in my trusty Adidases to look for some less celebrated (but frankly just as bloody delicious) field mushrooms.
This lot (right) were wolfed down in a few greedy mouthfuls, fried lightly in olive oil with a splash of soy sauce and a bunch of chopped parsley.
I also made a new pal in my cousin Rodolfo’s dog, or quite possibly wolf, who weighs a mere 5 kilograms less than me …. though after all the pizza which I’ve been consuming, I suspect that figure has now stretched well into double figures ….