Last week a couple of friends and I spent a great few days in Florence. We had rented an apartment in the San Frediano district of the Oltrano. The Oltrano is the side of the river in Florence where the locals hang out. There is very rarely a tourist in sight apart from ones visiting The Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens. However in San Frediano you are well away from most tourist sights except maybe the Brancacci Chapel with its wonderful fresco of Adam and Eve being kicked out of the Garden of Eden. We also discovered that on a Friday night the whole area is buzzing . We discovered a great bar with live music just down our street.
However all this is leading up to me telling you about a restaurant that we discovered -Culinaria Bistrot in Piazza Torquato Tasso. It was so good we returned a second time two days later. From the minute we sat down we were impressed. One of my friends was suffering from a chest infection. She had been dosing herself up with antibiotics before she came but was still not her usual lively self. When we told Andrea, one of the owners that she couldn’t have any wine because of this he offered to make her a special tisane. When it came it smelt wonderful and the next day she was a new woman! The food was absolutely beautiful and just a bit different from the usual Tuscan fare. We were fascinated to discover that the owners had started something called the De Gustibus network. They are an association of small farmers, tourism operators and consumers aiming to increase awareness about sustainable development, healthy diet and traditional agriculture as cultural heritage. As well as the restaurant where they also have product tastings, workshops and cultural events they also do De Gustibus Tours. These introduce their clients to the Tuscan region and to the farms that belong to the network and you can have personalized wine and food tours. They also offer other activities such as hot air balloon flights, bike tours, trekking and cookery lessons. They also offer a vintage sidecar riding experience which I am determined to have a go at next time I am in Florence.
To find out more go to http://www.de-gustibus.it
I recently visited Parma and was lucky enough to dine on food cooked from recipes that had belonged to the chef of Maria Luisa Duchess of Parma.
Maria Luisa was the second wife of Napoleon Bonaparte and after the fall of the French Empire The Congress of Vienna sent her to govern Parma. She was loved by the people there and a visit to the Museo Glauco Lombardi gives you a good insight into her life .
Back to the food…
All the food was delicious but the dish that interested me the most was a plate of Culatello. I had assumed it was Prosciutto di Parma one of Italy’s most iconic foods but no, I was told it was Culatello. I had never heard of it and wanted to find out more. Apparently it is more of a delicacy than Prosciutto and its name means small bum or bottom. Indeed the Oxford Companion to Italian Food says that “smooth as a babies bottom is an apt description of this silky soft delicacy”. I certainly enjoyed it and will look out for it on the menu again.
In May I am off to Bologna for a few days to try out all the foodie delights of the area. As many of you already know there is no such thing as Spaghetti Bolognaise. The locals will look at you pitifully if you try to order that when you are there. It is tagliatelle done with a Ragu sauce and it is nothing like the Spag Bol we cook here!! I shall be visiting Eataly the new Foodie theme park on the outskirts of Bologna and I shall be having a day out in Parma home of Parma ham and Parmesan cheese. I shall be reporting back with all my experiences. Watch this space
We have just booked a holiday in Piedmont in September. We shall be staying near Asti – as in Spumante and touring the vineyards around Barolo. Alba , home of the White Truffle Fair is nearby too and in Pollenzo there is the Banco del Vino which hold a bottle of all the different wines in Italy. Nearby Bra is home of the Slow Movement. A foodies paradise!!!
As well as being one of the most beautiful villages in Tuscany and certainly the one with the best views, Pienza is famous for its Pecorino cheese. It has been made in this area for centuries and Pienza has a good selection of cheese shops. You can’t walk through the streets without getting wonderful aroma’s wafting out from them. You can’t help but be tempted to go in!
Il Cacio di Ernello is a cheese shop located just a few minutes from the main street. It sells cheese produced by Ernello Armellini and his family at Podere San Polo, a farm about four km away. They have a great selection of pecorino cheeses and a lovely creamy yoghurt made with a mix of sheep and goats milk. If you are interested in learning more about the cheese making process tours of the farm can be organised.
Right next door is Pienza’s small agricultural supermarket (Consorzio Agricolo). One of the best cheeses is the Pecorino di Fossa from fattoria Buca Nuova. Aged in caves dug into rock this cheese develops a rich taste over time. The pecorino al mosto is another great option. Matured for 120 days, 40 of which are spent wrapped in marc- the redidue of pressed wine grapes- this strong flavoured cheese is a Tuscan classic.
Head to SOLP for some fresh full bodied Ricotta that will leave a delicate flavour of creamy sheeps milk lingering in your mouth. Also try their marzolino cheese. The best variety is the marzolino rosso. The red colouring comes from the tomato concentrate and oil wash used in the production, which leaves a very delicate tomato aftertaste in the cheese itself
Lastly for a selection of wonderful cheeses from the producers in the valley stop at the La Taverna del Pecorino -one of the best shops in town. The owners are friendly and offer tasting of the cheese before you buy. Don’t miss the pecorino stagionato allie foglie di pera which is aged wrapped in pear tree leaves and also the pecorino tartufato, a creamy truffled pecorino cheese.
Il Caccio di Ernello
Viale Mangiavacchi 37, Pienza
SOLP Caseificio Cheese Shop
Via Dogali 6 Pienza
La Taverna del Pecorino
Via Condotti1, Pienza
A few weeks ago I was at the World travel market in London and was lucky enough to get to taste the authentic Pasta all’Amatriciana. It originates from Amatrice, a small town in the Lazio region of Italy which unfortunately suffered a huge earthquake in 2016. But the residents are doing their utmost to get over it and rebuild their future. When the earthquake happened restaurant owners from all the over the world rallied round and contributed money from every sale of Pasta all’Amatriciana in their restaurants.
At the World Travel Market I was invited by the Lazio tourist board to watch a chef from Amatrice, Elia Grillotti cook Amatriciana sauce the PROPER way . There are two versions, one with tomatoes and one without. The original one called Gricia was the traditional dish of the shepherds from Amatrice. It was cooked with Guanciale (cured pork cheek) and Pecorino cheese and only after the end of the 18th century were tomatoes added. I got to try both versions and I preferred the original one but the one with tomatoes was very good too.. The tomato version spread to Rome thanks to the numerous resaurants there managed by people from Amatrice. This is how it became so well known both in Italy and other countries.
This was the recipe that was used.
125 g Guanciale cut into pieces
A tablespoon full of extra virgin olive oil
A drop of dry white wine
Six or seven San Marzano plum tomatoes
A piece of chilli pepper
100g grated Pecorino cheese
Fry the chilli and the Guanciale in an iron pan. Add olive oil. Brown the Guanciale and add the dry white wine. Then remove the bits of Guanciale from the frying pan, drain them and keep them warm.Poach, peel, remove the seeds and cut the tomatoes into slices, then add the salt, stir and cook for a few minutes. Then remove the chilli, add the Guanciale and stir the sauce once again. Cook the spaghetti al dente in plenty of salted water, drain well and pour the pasta into a bowl, then add the grated Pecorino cheese. Wait a few seconds and then pour in the sauce and season.
A few weeks ago I spent a magical week being immersed in the whole Palio experience in Siena hosted by Hedonistic Hiking. If you don’t know what the Palio is , it is a bare back horse race around the main square of Siena (which isn’t square at all -its the shape of a shell). This happens twice a year in July and August and to say the Sienese are passionate about it is an understatement. I shall be writing articles about my experience in the Daily Mail and Italia! magazine so if you want to learn more look out for those. On a trip with Hedonistic Hiking
you get wined and dined very well and taught a lot about the local cuisine. Indeed we had a pasta making lesson out in the Tuscan countryside which I will be writing about in a further post. But I am now going to tell you about the speciality of Siena – Panforte. It is a long lasting cake made with a recipe that originated in the honey cakes of the Middle Ages. Its made with flour , almonds, dried and candied fruits and spices. Although I like the original version it is rather hard and crunchy and I have to watch my teeth these days!! I tried one made with figs and dates and it was lovely and a lot softer. You can buy Panforte in most shops in Siena and because it is not crumbly it is easy to transport home in your suitcase. There are many different variations to try.
A few weeks ago I visited Pistoia the Italian City of Culture 2017. Situated in Tuscany about half way between Florence and Pisa it is not
well known as a tourist destination but there is lots to see and discover. The ladies in the Tourist Information office are the most friendly and helpful I have ever met and I did about a weeks worth of sightseeing in two days with them. I also finally met Michela who I had met on Instagram. She met me off the train from Pisa and very kindly whisked me off to her husbands restaurant Il Pollo d’oro and fed me with lots of lovely Pistoian specialities. Two days later I met Michela’s friend Tania who told me lots of intriguing stories about Pistoia.
While I was there I was supposed to be going to watch The famous “Joust of the Bear” the biggest event that happens in Pistoia. However after two months without rain there was a massive thunderstorm on the afternoon of the joust and it was postponed until the next evening when I would be on my way home. Never mind, it’s a good excuse to return next year!!
Another restaurant I visited was Locanda del Capitano del Popolo which is owned by a famous Italian TV chef called Checco. I had chicken in truffle sauce – it was so good!! Unfortunately he was on holiday and I didn’t get to meet him. Another reason to return.
One of the specialities of Pistoia is “hedgehog confetti”. The first historical evidence of “confetti di Pistoia” comes from 1372 when these sweets were used to celebrate the feast day of the Patron Saint on the 25th July. These days confetti is still produced to celebrate special occasions of all kinds. I visited the shop of Bruno Corsini where hedgehog confetti is made to this day. I was invited to watch their products being made in large copper bowls which rotate continuously until the manufacturing cycle is complete. Pistoia’s confetti is different to those of other regions not only because of its hedgehog form but also because of the great variety of flavours. Another Corsini speciality is the “Panforte di Pistoia Glace” created by Bruno Corsini the son of the founder Umberto. It is a mixture of hazelnuts, almonds, cherries and candied citron and orange peel. It is a secret recipe and is handed down through the generations. I thoroughly recommend a visit if you are ever in Pistoia . You will come away with bags of all sorts of sweet delights! I did.
My friend Michela does wonderful tours of Pistoia
I stayed in a lovely central hotel – Palazzo Puccini – http://www.lsmpistoia.it
Two years ago I met Laura Panico at the Destinations Travel Show in London and instantly wanted to go on one of her cookery trips to the Aeolian Islands. I am finally hoping to do so sometime soon -watch this space!!! Laura’s cookery course is not one of your normal conventional cookery trips. On it you get to fish for squid and cook it seconds later on board the fishing boat under the expert eyes of local fishermen and make your own Ricotta cheese with the milk from the goats grazing on the side of a volcano . You also visit local vineyards and pick up cooking tips from the locals .
Based on the island of Vulcano, famous for its therapeutic mud baths and sleeping volcano you get chance to visit Stromboli whose volcanic crater is definitely wide awake! There is also time to visit the centre of Vulcanology to learn more about these unpredictable fiery monsters.
To finish off the week of adventures both culinary and otherwise you can go on an afternoon boat trip to see the volcano on Stromboli erupting. After dark you get a natural firework display viewed from the sea.
The Aeolian Islands are an series of volcanic islands, which lie in the blue waters of the Tyrrenian Sea between Sicily and Italy’s mainland. The islands geography and climate are perfect for the cultivation of crops and vines – the ideal setting for a cooking and wine tasting holiday. Volcanic soils are the richest agricultural soils on earth and this combined with a sun drenched climate ensures that the islands’ slopes and plains are spilling over with olive groves, fruit orchards, capers and vineyards. Of course there is an abundance of sea life to be caught fresh daily too .
To find out more about these amazing trips go to http://www.aeolianadventures.co.uk and see why I am so looking forward to taking part in one.
A couple of years ago my husband and I spent a wonderful week in Triora deep in the heart of Liguria, High up in the mountains about half an hour from the Ligurian coast it is a small medieval village famous for being the last place in Italy to hold witch trials. The locals like to milk their gruesome history as much as they can and there are witches everywhere you look. Walking round the dark tunnelled streets at night can be quite scary. However in the day time Triora is like any other village apart from the fact that every way you look there are views to die for. We stopped in a property we found on Owners Direct and I don’t think we will ever find another view better than we had from our balcony. Being near the French border we were able to nip into France and visit Monte Carlo to see how the other half live. We also visited The Hanbury Botanical Gardens on the Italian side of the French border.
You may be wondering what all this has to do with food. Well on this holiday I finally got to try authentic pesto Genovese (pesto from Genoa). Pesto is a pasta sauce made with basil, pine kernels, garlic, Parmigiano and Pecorino Sardo, olive oil and salt. according to tradition all the ingredients should be pounded together in a mortar. Many versions exist, 60 or so in the province of Genoa alone. One such is pesto d’inverno, winter pesto made with walnuts, cheese curd, parsley and chard in the months in which fresh basil is not available.
I have read that the best basil to use for true Pesto Genovese is grown in the hills to the west of Genoa in an area called Pra. The basil that grows there is quite small,with oval light green leaves that bow slightly downward. The plants are harvested when they are still young which contributes to the mildness and light colour. Genovese basil has recently become a government protected variety and can only be sold as authentic Basilico Genovese. Continue reading “TRYING OUT PESTO IN LIGURIA”