One of the highlights of my visit to Le Marche is an authentic Italian experience with the coalmen or carbonai in the Metauro River valley of Borgo Pace. These charcoal burners are the last of a generation to make charcoal by hand, the only community of coalmen left in Europe. I didn’t even know charcoal was made by hand anywhere.
At a quiet place in the countryside, where the only sounds I hear are the melodic chirping of the birds and the swishing movement of a river, there is a distinct smell of smoke in the air. This may sound strange, but the smell is different, almost clean, if that makes sense. Soon I see the origin of this nontoxic smoke, in the form of a mound of dirt with bluish white smoke being blown in one direction by the wind.
Photographer Tonino Mosconi, author of La Favola dei Carbonai, a story about the coalmen of Borgo Pace in Le Marche, introduces our group to Paolo Muscinelli, one of the carbonai, and an expert. Paolo explains the process, with Tonino translating, as I watch this lost art unfold in front of my eyes.
The process begins by building a rectangular tower by hand with sticks of wood, branches cut from the surrounding trees.
I am amazed at the resourcefulness of this skilled artisan. Paolo uses the knife/machete as a hammer to pound the long sticks of wood into the ground as he begins to construct the tower of tree branches. It is apparent that he takes great pride in the work he does, a skill passed on to him by his father.
Eventually this tower becomes the center of a giant pile which the coalmen create by adding may more branches, arranging them in a teepee-like configuration. When they finish, the result is a gigantic mound.
The branches are then covered with dried grass, and after that, a layer of dirt which has been mixed with previously burned charcoal. One or two carbonai work on this pile, but today Paolo works alone. He explains that it takes two to three days to compete the mound. Paolo uses a shovel to pack the dirt onto this mound, which stands quite a bit higher than the average person’s height. All the work is done with hand tools, shovels and a very large curved knife, perhaps a machete. Paolo conveniently hooks this tool into his belt behind him. I see no other tools except an axe, a hose, a wheelbarrow, and a ladder hand-made from tree branches.
After the mound is completely finished, the charcoal men light it. It burns for approximately three weeks, during which time, one of the men keep watch day and night. A small shed they have built next to the mound provides a place to sleep while they are close by.
Once the mound has been burning for a while, smoke emits from various holes created for ventilation. The holes close to the bottom of the mound emit white smoke, and the holes near the top allow a bluish shade of smoke to vent.
Tonino explains that the blue smoke is a sign that the charcoal is ready, while the white indicates it needs to burn longer.
Tonino demonstrates how they test the charcoal, listening for a metallic sound, “the more metallic the sound, the better quality of the charcoal,” according to Tonino.
I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to learn about these incredible men of Le Marche, while the tradition of charcoal making still exists. One has to wonder how much longer before it will no longer be available.
Thank you to Palazzo Donati, where I was their guest for three nights.
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Grazie and Ciao