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.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please leave a comment.
Grazie and Ciao
Great post. Can he charcoal be purchased?
Thank you Andrew. I don’t think the charcoal can be purchased directly from these men. My understanding is that they sell it to commercial companies who then distribute it.
Margie, Thank you for this very interesting blog post! I recently learned from my grandfather’s 1895 birth record that his parents were charcoal makers in the Ciociaria region of Italy…I’ve been looking for information about the the process and what their life may have been like when I came across your blog. Thanks again.
Thank you Mary for reading and commenting. So exciting to discover that your great-grandparents were charcoal makers 💕👍
Hi Margie, thank you for your wonderful blog about the charcoal men. In september 2017 we were in the environment of Borgo Pace and noticed two of these teepee-like constructions along the road and made some pictures, We didn’t know the meaning of these typical constructions. Now it is clear! Thank you.
I’m so happy you enjoyed learning about this list art on my blog. I appreciate your comments! Grazie
Thanks again for another unique blog on the artisans of Italy! I love reading about all the wonderful people and places you have discovered!
Grazie mille, Kathy. I appreciate all your kind comments.
PostcardZ from Victoria
I, too, love visiting local artisans and craftsmen. Always wonderful to see these traditions being honored. Grazie!
Thanks Victoria…I know how much you enjoy authentic artisans in Italia.
Thank you, great article.
Wonderful post, Margie, thank you. In modern societies we have too often forgotten how things were made when people were proud of what they had accomplished each day.
I love to discover that places exist where people still take pride in creating something by hand
I had no idea making charcoal was such an involved process or that there was such a thing as charcoalmen! I learned a ton from this!
Thanks Kate…Yes I am sure not too many of us were aware of this process or that this was done by hand today anywhere
Wow, what an interesting post Margie. Firstly I did not know how charcoal was made and secondly it’s great to see these local community members still keeping up with traditional methods. 🙂
Thank you…Yes I learned a lot too…Had no idea about this
Great to hear of things still being done the traditional way, I love how they have their shed right there so they can watch over the fire day and night! Hope all these old skills will not be lost!
Yes they are very serious about their work and committed for sure. Thank you for stopping by and commenting
Fascinating story Margie, had no idea how charcoal was made. There is a level of artistry in the design and process, likely learned over centuries from earliest Italians, probably passed down by Stone Bronze Age craftsmen. You’re a great teacher!
Thanks so much, Jack. I was intrigued, to say the least. an amazing art and I could feel the pride in these men as they demonstrated the process they’ve learned fro their ancestors.
It’s also still done in Calabria, Serra San Bruno. Here’s a link to a La Repubblica photo gallery: http://www.repubblica.it/cronaca/2017/03/28/foto/calabria_carbonai_serra_san_bruno-161585821/1/#1
I have herd that it is still done in Calabria, Karen. Fascinating. Thank you for the link…so interesting
We have a platform at Casa Debbio where charcoal was burned. The woodcutter who lives in the village pointed it out to us.
Wow, that is very special Debra…Thanks so much for sharing