A trip to the Valle delle Cartiere, where they're making handmade paper for fine dining restaurants

In Toscolano, on the Brescian bank of Lake Garda, they've recovered a local tradition established in the 14th Century, but then lost. Today, some craftsmen work with Camanini, Baiocco, the Cerea brothers, Dal Degan...

26-04-2021
Riccardo Camanini with the menu from Lido 84 ma

Riccardo Camanini with the menu from Lido 84 made with artisanal paper produced following the ancient process recovered by Toscolano Paper in Toscolano Maderno (Brescia). Photos from Nicolò Brunelli

Even Gualtiero Marchesi, the man who first connected the art of cooking with the world of culture tout court had understood this. The maestro had fallen in love with an ancient technique, made of gestures, attention and know how, as they would put it these days: a refined school, a sort of good magic, a charming and complex process that after being lost was recently recovered and polished thanks to the work of some young and brilliant minds, in Toscolano Maderno, on the Brescian banks of Lake Garda.

We're talking of handmade paper.

Today many fine dining restaurant menus are made with handmade paper produced  by Toscolano Paper, a small firm that has a centennial lost tradition live again [they were initially called "Toscolano 1381", and the number referred to the first document stating the existence of a paper factory in town. But there are traces that date back to 1354]. «We wanted to recover that broken thread, the last paper factory closed in 1962. For centuries, the main client for Toscolano's paper was the Serenissima Republic of Venice, until its demise in the late 18th Century. Now people no longer print with a press; Venice is no longer the European book capital; the Hapsburgs are long dead; and in Milan the Napoleonic registry offices have long been closed... So I asked myself: what could be the outlet for a unique – but pricey – product like this? The answer: "The markets of beauty", that's what I call them. Which include also fine dining restaurants». These are the words of Filippo Cantoni, the maker of the rebirth of the paper tradition in Brescia. After the project planning in 2014, he launched the business the next year. Today the new paper from Toscolano is an established excellence, which owes a lot to the relationship he has developed with fine dining. From the beginning. And a little by chance...

All the paper, until the early 20th Century, was made from old rags. Women took care for the selection and the cutting of the fabric, before the mushing phase. That of the "stracciaiolo" the ragman, was a real profession: at the end of the 18th century in Toscolano there were seven. In the photo above, women from the Valle delle Cartiere, in the rag department 

All the paper, until the early 20th Century, was made from old rags. Women took care for the selection and the cutting of the fabric, before the mushing phase. That of the "stracciaiolo" the ragman, was a real profession: at the end of the 18th century in Toscolano there were seven. In the photo above, women from the Valle delle Cartiere, in the rag department 

The 15th century paper factory in Maina Inferiore, in Toscolano, in the "Valle delle Cartiere": today it's also a museum, as well as the headquarters of Toscolano Paper. The latter not only produces paper following the old method, but it's also an artisanal printer with machines from the Twenties, Thirties and Forties 

The 15th century paper factory in Maina Inferiore, in Toscolano, in the "Valle delle Cartiere": today it's also a museum, as well as the headquarters of Toscolano Paper. The latter not only produces paper following the old method, but it's also an artisanal printer with machines from the Twenties, Thirties and Forties 

August 2014, the Toscolano Paper project was at the very beginning. The Brescian edition of Corriere della Sera, in its Sunday column featuring the people who have stood out for some reason in the province, dedicated a space to the new-born project from Cantoni, and to a chef that had just arrived in Gardone Riviera, Riccardo Camanini. After all, his restaurant Lido 84 is only a five minutes' drive from Toscolano Paper, in a 15th century building where the last, historic paper factory of  Maina Inferiore, in Toscolano Maderno was located. This was in the so-called "Valle delle Cartiere" the valley of paper factories, where at its peak there were as many as fifty paper factories. «In other words, Camanini and I ended up in the news, side by side. It was a Sunday. On the Monday I decided to call him, and so did he: so we talked on the phone and that's how our collaboration began. Riccardo was our first client». And he's a client to this day.

He's not the only one: Toscolano Paper works with some twenty restaurants, mostly in North Italy. «Nobody ever asked us some simple, though artisanal paper. They all want tailor-made menus, which can act as a showcase for their business. Projects that illustrate their concepts of cuisine and culinary experience, real objects of design». Camanini chose a menu with Toscolano paper with «a strong texture, made with three different processes of refining, it's basically a summary of the history of Italian paper: from ivory, to "little refined", to "very refined". For him we're experimenting a new process these days, made by macerating canes from the park on the river Mincio, an emissary of Lake Garda». (Surprised? It's an alternative to the original process of artisanal paper making, which starts from rags – of linen, flax and cotton – carefully minced, and then left to macerate in water and quicklime. The result is a mush from which the paper artisan makes sheets of paper that before being pressed are left to dry in the wind blowing in the Valle delle Cartiere, from the mountains to the lake – hence the importance of Toscolano as a location).

The menu at Lido 84

The menu at Lido 84

The menu at Da Vittorio

The menu at Da Vittorio

The menu at La Tana in Asiago

The menu at La Tana in Asiago

But Camanini isn't the only one: «We're starting to print for Stefano Baiocco, with the ecoprinting technique, a paper made with plants from Villa Feltrinelli, he wants to make some souvenirs to leave after the tasting. We've also started a big experiment with plantable paper, hence menus and bill-holders with the seeds of the plants surrounding the restaurant, which the client can then plant at home. With the Cereas from Da Vittorio we mostly work with events: they ask us not just the paper but the printed menu too. We also make paper only with hay: Alessandro Dal Degan was the first to use it already four years ago for his menu and now that he's using a QR Code because of Covid, he also wants to make some presents for clients». Of course, the pandemic has created some issues with menu management. Did it cause you damage? «At first, I thought we would have some issues, but it went well. The spreading of single-use menus in our target restaurants pushed them to create "beautiful" menus to leave to the guests. Hence in fact we've increased our clients in the industry and we're working on five new projects, in South Tyrol, Trentino, Garda, Switzerland and Emilia Romagna. They will be new iconic menus. Plus, there are clients who have found the equipment to sanitise printed products, and this is another way out».

The menu at Gaudio

The menu at Gaudio

Back to the "tailor-made" menus... «We also collaborate with Diego Papa from restaurant Gaudio in Barbariga. The work with him is very significant. His restaurant is in the so-called "low lands", where they make Parmigiano and Grana Padano. Cheese makers use linen fabric to shape the cheese; these are used twice and then discarded. We celebrate the territory and recover this waste making the menus for Gaudio with this linen. And we also add a sheet of gold as a tribute to Gualtiero Marchesi».

Filippo Cantoni with Gualtiero Marchesi in Toscolano

Filippo Cantoni with Gualtiero Marchesi in Toscolano

We mentioned Marchesi at the beginning. In 2016 the maestro went to Lake Garda because he was recording a series on culinary excellences for Regione Lombardia. He was staying at the nearby Grand Hotel Fasano, another client of Toscolano Paper: «He wanted to visit the paper factory and then returned three more times and we created a special paper which he wanted to use in his restaurant. He brought us some saffron to mix with the cellulose: we were considering two types of paper with a different intensity of scent and colour, he didn't want the pistils to be in the fabric of the paper...». Then Marchesi passed away, «that paper remained in our laboratory. A couple of years ago we met with Paolo Lopriore to go back to this project, but then Covid came and for now this project has stopped».

So the artisanal paper from Toscolano, which has historically always had a outcome in the publishing industry, now has fine dining as its crown jewel: «For us restaurants are an important industry, perhaps the most important together with weddings. In the last couple of years, we've had an increasing interest from factories too, for their packaging. And from the food industry as well: the paper used for the Easter eggs and the baked products from Andrea Tortora are from Toscolano Paper». The other reason of pride for Cantoni is an extraordinary order, «a very ambitious one, which arrived from the Ministry of Culture of the United Arab Emirates. They asked us to produce and print a map of the world, from 1500. This map was already printed in 1700, always in Toscolano, and again commissioned by the emirs of the time. So we're basically going back to a project with over three centuries of history». And Toscolano Paper should soon arrive in the bookshop of the Louvre, in Paris.

Making artisanal paper: it starts with a mush made with rags 

Making artisanal paper: it starts with a mush made with rags 

Young maestro cartaio Marco Castellini. To train him, the team at Toscolano Paper looked for the eldest paper craftsmen from all over Europe: «Fabriano, Germany, Netherlands... The idea came when observing some workers in the old paper factory in Toscolano, who were now retired but had created a group to try to pass on their craft»

Young maestro cartaio Marco Castellini. To train him, the team at Toscolano Paper looked for the eldest paper craftsmen from all over Europe: «Fabriano, Germany, Netherlands... The idea came when observing some workers in the old paper factory in Toscolano, who were now retired but had created a group to try to pass on their craft»

Cantoni recently started teaching the artisanal paper-making techniques at the Academy of Arts in Venice, «I like the idea that the art of paper-making in Toscolano is once again a topic of conversation». And this while remaining in the region where it was born: «Both myself and Marco Castellini [the mastro cartaio] and the other collaborators are local». Sometimes there's little work for young people outside large towns, this is a positive example of how to do business locally, by recovering an excellent craft that is part of tradition.

In the same building as Toscolano Paper, in Maina Inferiore, the Fondazione Valle delle Cartiere has also created a museum dedicated to paper-making, which goes through the history of paper and of the Valle delle Cartiere from its origins to the 20th century.

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso

Other menus signed by Toscolano Paper

Other menus signed by Toscolano Paper