Tag Archives: Matera

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Brainstorming at the Spa in Matera for Writers

Time to get out of Florence (or wherever you might be) and go to Matera in the south of Italy near the heel of the boot. Tuscan Traveler has written about Matera, its bread, and the Women’s Fiction Festival, one of the best conferences for writers worldwide.

Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (photo from suzyguese.com)
Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (photo from suzyguese.com)

One of the geniuses behind the WFF is Elizabeth Jennings. About five years ago she came up with another great idea: Brainstorming at the Spa. This is an intensive weekend for writers that focusses on their individual writing projects. We asked Elizabeth a few questions about what she had in mind when she came up with the inspiration. (Details about joining the group from April 4 to 7, 2014, can be found below.)

The idea for Brainstorming at the Spa in Matera, Italy, came from the highly successful Women’s Fiction Festival held in Matera every September. Please describe the background of Brainstorming at the Spa and how the process works.

In the United States, it is not unusual for writers to hole up in a retreat and brainstorm their current books. Writing is a lonely business and a professional writer, under deadline and working hard, often needs help. The nicer the retreat, the better the work that comes out. There is just something about meeting with your tribe (fellow writers) and talking through your book, in a nice place, that helps you progress. Particularly if there is excellent food and wine to hand.

The process: you might have a couple of books to brainstorm, the current one and future ones or you might have just one book to brainstorm. We all operate on the basis that you are writing professionally, whether published or not. Everyone is very serious about their projects.

The bulk of the work is in the morning from around nine thirty to lunch and a couple of hours after lunch. We divide up the time over the four days so everyone has an equal slot. You describe your book, taking care to establish the genre and the emotional overtones you wish the book to have so that the other Brainstormers understand what you are trying to achieve. You give what elements you have at the moment. Some people bring a fully thought-out synopsis and brainstorm specific plot points. Some people bring a general outline and we work on fleshing it out together.

The writers write across a full range of genres and it is an international group (though we work exclusively in English) and the suggestions and plot points and insights forthcoming are extraordinarily helpful.

The Underground Spa at the Locanda San Martino
The Underground Spa at the Locanda San Martino

We work hard and then in the late afternoon we go to the spa and relax. Where we meet, the Locanda di San Martino has an underground spa guaranteed to relax you after a full day’s work.

We are guided through the brainstorming process by talented agent Christine Witthohn, who has Plot and Story at her fingertips. This year she will be joined by another well known agent, Marlene Stringer. Christine and Marlene also know the book marketplace inside out and their advice is priceless.

Fellow writers help you flesh out and plot your book and our agent coaches help us think in terms of marketability and promotion.

The four days are incredibly helpful. You know how you calculate things in dog years? One year equals seven? Well the Brainstorming at the Spa program operates on Brainstorming time. One day equals several months of agonizing over your book in isolation.

Have any published books had their genesis at Brainstorming at the Spa?

Lisa Marie Rice brainstormed a trilogy published by Avon: HEART OF DANGER, I DREAM OF DANGER and the upcoming BREAKING DANGER. Shannon McKenna brainstormed FATAL STRIKE and IN FOR THE KILL, published by Kensington. Kim Golden solved her plot problems for SNOWBOUND, which she indie-published in November 2013, and MAYBE BABY, which is under consideration with Kensington. S.G. Redling did some world building for DAMOCLES, out now from 47North.  Ann Reavis puzzled out the details of ITALIAN FOOD RULES, MURDER AT MOUNTAIN VISTA and SHADOW OF THE TOWER. Elizabeth Edmondson brainstormed VOYAGE OF INNOCENCE and a forthcoming mystery/thriller set in the 1950s. Elizabeth Aston plotted VALENTINE’S DAY published by Amazon StoryFront. Rosemary Laurey brainstormed a dragon series for Samhain publishing. Nancy Barone brainstormed THE HUSBAND DIET, published by Bookouture. Beate Boeker worked out the details of her TEMPTATION IN FLORENCE mystery trilogy and a stand alone novel MISCHIEF IN ITALY. Claude Nougat added nuance to FOREVER YOUNG. Beatrix Kramlovsky put the final polish on her MEMOIRS OF A VAGABOND.

Brainstormers at Work in Matera (photo by Claude Nougat)
Brainstormers at Work in Matera (photo by Claude Nougat)

Why is the process so productive?

They say that productivity is the speed with which you eliminate wrong answers. The Brainstorming process just speeds up the creative process. Writers do not write in a straight line. We create our books in circles, looping around again and again, trying to make the book fit the images in our heads. The Brainstorming process helps this enormously. Articulating your problems and challenges with other writers, who get it, in a way that others cannot, helps you develop your book. A little like the old fashioned form of film development where the photograph slowly becomes clear.

Let us not forget that the pleasure principle is also at play here. Matera offers world-class food and wine. We work hard and well, we eat and drink well and we relax well in the spa. We meet in a beautiful venue. All these elements stimulate the senses and foment our creativity.

Is Brainstorming at the Spa only for creating ideas for an author’s future books? Are there sessions devoted to other subjects?

The Brainstorming at the Spa program is for professional writers and writers who are serious about their craft. So besides discussing our specific projects we also discuss markets, promotion, how to stay healthy while writing eight hours a day, how to brand ourselves, how to plan a career. All that good stuff.

Why is Matera the perfect place for Brainstorming at the Spa?

Matera is an extraordinarily beautiful city. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is, per Italian statistics (ISTAT) the safest city in Italy. The Sassi district, where we meet, is an ancient city carved out of the face of the rock. A stone garden. It is quiet, with no traffic, the only noise the kestrels gathering at dusk. It is an enchanted city, out of time.. The  perfect place to dream your way to a new book.

Come to Brainstorming at the Spa 2014

If you would like to join the group this year, the date s are set for April 4 to 7, at Locanda di San Martino in Matera, Italy. Information and an enrollment form can be found here. If you have any question, please leave a comment on this post or contact me at tuscantrav (at) gmail.com.

Mangia! Mangia! – Dante Would Have Loved the Prato Bread Festival

Tourist are frequently surprised when they first taste traditional Tuscan bread that is always made without salt. Tuscans, especially those from Florence and Prato, would not eat it any other way.

The best bread in Tuscany
The best bread in Tuscany

Dante agreed. “Tu proverai si come sa di sale Lo pane altrui, e comè duro calle Lo scendere e il salir per l’altrui scale.” In these lines from the Paradiso of ”The Divine Comedy,” Dante learns of his exile from Florence and is given some idea of the difficulties he will face. ”You shall learn how salty is the taste of another’s bread, and how hard a path the descending and the climbing another’s stairs,” he is told.

Some say the best Tuscan bread is made in Prato. Pane di Prato is justifiably famous throughout the region. There are Florentines who virtually refuse to eat any other bread than Pane di Prato, even if their regard for the rival Pratesi is of a somewhat lesser degree. The bread of Prato was already being sold in the Florentine markets of the 16th century as a prestigious brand. It is said that the Medici served only Pane di Prato at their villa at Poggio a Caiano.

Official Website

Last weekend was the first, and hopefully not the last, annual Festival del Pane di Prato. All of the bread bakeries were showing off their best breads, including the famous bozza, a small quickly rounded loaf with a rustic crunchy crust. The soft middle part of the loaf is honeycombed in appearance and somewhat elastic. When you squeeze a bozza, it springs back into shape. The taste is salt-free, yeasty and slightly acidic.

Hot schiacciata cut up and served to the festival crowds
Hot schiacciata cut up and served to the festival crowds

The Festival served up hot schiacciata for all attendees. Street performers celebrated the bakery theme. Despite the unseasonable rain nobody could be depressed when there is the unlimited supply of yeasty bread.

Making schiacciata with fresh Tuscan olive oil
Making schiacciata with extra virgin Tuscan olive oil

The bread is baked in the pre-dawn hours in a variety of forms that adapt themselves to every need: the cazzottino (‘a small fist”) is for breakfasts and snacks, perfect with a few slices of Pratese mortadella; the filone seems made to be sliced and slathered with flavorful marmalades, or drizzled in local olive oil and sprinkled with salt — the pan con l’olio used for snacks for kids and just about anyone else – or to make the traditional fettunta (toasted, rubbed with garlic and seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper) reserved for the dinner table. But the best is the bozza, which goes well with everything and when it is stale and hard as a rock, it becomes the prime ingredient for panzanella, ribollita, pappa al pomodoro and other tasty dishes.

Bread bakers take rolling pins to the streets of Prato
Bread bakers take rolling pins to the streets of Prato

The Pisans get all the blame from some pundits for the salt-less bread made in Prato. Supposedly, they attempted to force Florence to surrender in one of their endless battles against each other by blockading the salt that arrived at the Pisan port, preventing it from reaching Florence via the Arno River. Prato, as Florence’s nearest neighbor, was caught in the fight.

Bread of all kinds at the Festival of the Bread of Prato
Bread of all kinds at the Festival of the Bread of Prato

Others claim that the wide spread poverty in the Middle Ages is to blame – that salt was too costly for the Tuscans to use in bread-making. (It’s hard to credit this story because poor Italian peasants in other regions couldn’t afford salt, but didn’t give up making salted bread.)

I like to think it was the pope’s fault. During the 14th to 16th centuries, it is said, the popes, who controlled much of the Italian peninsula (known as the Vatican States), levied a tax on salt. Pope Paul III raised the tax in 1539 and the Perugians and the Tuscans refused to pay it. The government of Perugia even went to war over the issue – the Salt War of 1540. The Perugians lost the war, but some say the citizens then refused to buy the salt, thus forcing the fornai (bread bakeries) to produce salt-free bread. (Tuscan bread is one of the few that remains salt-free today, but there are many historical references to bread made without salt in other parts of Italy.)

The perfect Pane di Prato
The perfect Pane di Prato

During the 16th century in Tuscany, the Tuscan Medici dukes controlled all of the resources, including salt, for Tuscan towns such as Prato. When they needed cash (for a war or for building a new villa) they raised the price on salt and other commodities. Thus, pane toscano (Tuscan bread) became bread famous throughout Italy for being sciocco, from the word in the Tuscan dialect for “insipid” (to Tuscans “sciocco” also means “stupid”, but that doesn’t fit this situation because they think salt-less bread is anything, but stupid). Those who are not Tuscan make fun of the bread of the region, but Tuscans, like Dante, mourn it when it is not available.

Salt-less Tuscan bread is not intended for eating on its own. It’s usually served along with the main meal and is meant for sopping up thick, rich, spicy sauces. The bread doesn’t compete with the flavors in the dish, both are enhanced.


Prato bakers also produce a great wheat bread
Prato bakers also produce a great wheat bread

The Bread of Prato’s lack of salt helps keep it fresh for several days. Since it has no salt to hold in water, it does not form mold – it just becomes hard as a rock when it is stale – thus making it the basis of many of the tasty dishes that are renowned in Tuscan cuisine.

Bread baking and the arts celebrated in the streets of Prato
Bread baking and the arts celebrated in the streets of Prato

The following Italian dishes are made with stale salt-free Pane di Prato:

Ribollita – a twice-boiled thick vegetable soup (ribollita means ‘re-boiled’), made of black and white cabbage, white beans and other vegetables, made thick with crumbled stale Tuscan bread or poured over toasted Tuscan bread.

Pappa al pomodoro – a bread-based thick tomato soup in which stale Tuscan bread is rehydrated and crumbled; then cooked with the tomatoes, basil and garlic to make a tasty pappa.

Panzanella – a summer salad dish. Stale Tuscan bread is soaked in water, squeezed into a damp mass, crumbled into a big salad bowl and cucumber, raw onion, fresh diced tomato and fresh basil leaves are added. The ingredients are tossed thoroughly with some extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper.


Cacciucco – a fish chowder from Livorno made of fish, mollusks and crustaceans. The Livornese claim that the recipe should contain at least five types of fish to match the number of ‘c’s in the word cacciucco. Once cooked, the cacciucco is served on a bed of toasted Tuscan bread that has been rubbed with a clove of fresh garlic.

Fettunta – “garlic toast” made with slices of hot toasted Tuscan bread, rubbed with a clove of fresh garlic, splashed with fresh extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with salt. Don’t try to cut into a completely stale loaf of Tuscan bread to make this; it’s too hard to cut. Use slightly stale bread – too dry to eat untoasted, but perfect for fettunta.

(Tuscan Traveler will go anywhere for great bread. Matera bread is a a past and present favorite. While in Prato Tuscan Traveler, of course, stopped at Mattei for a kilo of brutti ma buoni cookies.)

Italian Food Rules: The BookItalian Life Rules (the book) is coming in Summer 2014. Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook