I was wandering around Venice a few years ago and came across a fruttivendolo boat moored on the edge of a canal. Fruttivendolo means greengrocer in Italian and it is one of my favourite Italian words. It just seems to roll off the tongue nicely. I stopped to admire all the shiny aubergines, tomatoes courgettes and all the other vegetables that Italians use so much. To my surprise nestled there in the middle of them was a cauliflower in a bag which proclaimed its origins. Marshalls of Butterwick in deepest darkest Lincolnshire not far from where I live!! This tickled me and I now try to look out for Italian recipes that use cauliflower. I have not tried one yet but I am sure there are some.
Florence has three historic cafes that you must visit while you are there. Caffe Rivoire is the best situated café for people watching anywhere. Situated in the main square in Florence, the Piazza della Signoria it has been there since 1872 and if your thing is hot chocolate you have come to the right place. It is to die for!!! And you get served by black -jacketed barmen.
Gilli is situated on the Piazzia della Repubblica another large and important square in Florence. Gilli has been serving delicious cakes since 1733. It moved to the premises in the Piazza della Repubblica in 1910 and has a beautiful art- nouveau interior. Its specialities are millefoglie which are sheets of puff pastry filled with rich vanilla or chocolate Chantilly cream.
Caffe Giocosa in the Via della Spada opened in 1815 and it was here that the Negroni cocktail was invented and it was the favourite place of the Anglo-Florentine community between the wars. It is well known for its Caffe de Medici, a shaken espresso topped with whipped cream , chocolate and granola.
Piazzadella Signoria 4,
Piazza della Repubblica 39r
Via delle Spada 10r,
I had always wondered why Balsamic Vinegar from Modena in Emilia-Romagna was so expensive. Having visited Modena on a press trip I discovered why. Although classified as a vinegar, balsamic is actually produced in a very different process. The mosto or grape must is made from the seeds, pulp and juice of fresh local grapes., which is simmered for hours until reduced by half. Then begins the long journey through a series of five barrels , each made from a different variety of wood, imparting its own distinctive flavour.. With each passage the vinegar is reduced again by half. It can take anywhere from twelve to fifty years to make the finished product. I was lucky enough to try a selection of different Balsamic vinegars at the tasting session and then got the chance to buy some to bring home. I love Balsamic vinegar and now I now what the production of it involves I don’t mind paying a bit more for it. If you visit Modena it is well worth a visit to a Balsamic vinegar producer (And for non foodie partners there is also the Ferrari museum just down the road!!)
I love to read novels set in Italy especially if the are about food or drink. One of my favourites is The Madonna of the Almonds by Marina Fiorato -ISBN 9781905636433.It tells the story of the famous Italian liqueur Amaretto di Saronno and is a great read. A mixture of art history and romance and food and drink it certainly ticks all my boxes. Marina Fiorato has written several books set in Italy – The Glassblower of Murano, The Botticelli Secret, Daughter of Siena and the Venetim Contract. All well worth reading.
Having been a bookseller for most of my life. I have a great collection of books about or set in Italy. In fact my colleagues who unpacked the deliveries would look out for them and tell me when one came in. I intend to post a comprehensive list of novels set in Italy especially those with a foodie slant. Watch this space!
Whilst on a press trip to Turin I was taken to M**BUN. Basically it is a slow food version of McDonalds and they use fresh Piedmontese products. The Coke Molecola is a healthy version and is named after the famous tower in Turin the Mole Antonelliana. The menu is a bit more exciting than most fast food places and the food tastes good too. If you are in Turin, especially if you have children with you it is well worth a visit.
Tomatoes came from the New World in the early 16th century but it took a long time for them to be used for culinary purposes. Nowadays it is impossible to imagine Italian cookery without tomatoes. However when they first appeared on the scene Europeans were very suspicious of this new fruit and thought they were poisonous. However they slowly gained popularity and now the annual consumption of tomatoes in Italy averages 10 kilo’s per head.
The main tomato producing areas are Sicily, Calabria, Sardinia, Puglia and Emilia-Romagna. Over 300 varieties are grown today and there are two kinds. First there are the ones destined for industrial use: for paste -doppo concetrato, the strained and pasteurised juice- passata, the deseeded and chopped pulp -polpa and the whole peeled tomato – pelati and of course last but not least dried tomatoes. The rest are grown for domestic use in salads or in cooking. These days, especially in Italy, taste is prized over uniformity of shape and a long shelf life.
When I was on my press trip to Turin I was taken to Eataly in the Lingotto area of the city. Eataly is a huge food emporium full of the best food Italy has to offer. It was originally set up by one of the founders of the global Slow Food movement and the one in Turin that I visited was the very first one. Now there are branches in quite a few Italian cities and even in other countries.
This one in Turin as I said previously is situated in the Lingotto area of Turin which is now a popular area to visit. It was once the area where the Fiat factory was situated whose roof was famously featured in the original film of “The Italian Job”. The building is still there but is no longer a factory. It is now made up of art galleries, hotels and shops. Eataly is situated just down the road from this iconic building and is housed in an old vermouth factory. The shelves are heaving with every Italian delicacy imaginable including porcini mushrooms, huge parmesan cheeses(see above), wonderful Piedmont chocolate filled with the local hazelnuts and all sorts of different pasta. Once you have shopped till you drop and filled up your shopping bag you can try out one of the cafes or restaurants. When I visited we were wined and dined there and the food almost looked to good to eat. If you want to find out more the website is http://www.eataly .net
I have a good friend Rita who, with her husband Richard has retired to Italy. Living in Liguria, near to the Tuscan border they are not far from the Cinque Terre. Last April I was sick of the constant dreariness of the English winter and was in dire need of an Italy fix. Rita came to my rescue and off we went (my husband who is also not averse to an Italy fix came too).
Unfortunately the weather was pretty wild when we got there but we didn’t care. Richard and Rita plied us with Prosecco and lots of Aperol Spritz and took us off to see the Cinque Terre in the wind and the rain. The Cinque Terre are five villages that are perched on the cliffs of the Ligurian coast (Terra is an old word for village). In the summer they are heaving with tourists but the wild weather meant that there was not so many people about so we got to see the villages pretty much as they were before they became so popular.On the way back to Rita’s we called in at the local bakery and I was introduced to the local speciality Farinata which is a chickpea flour pancake.. A rustic, blistered pancake showered with black pepper it is served up and down the coast of Liguria and also in the south of France. As with crepe batter, this batter needs to sit before being used. One hour is the minimum, but you can make up the batter up to twelve hours in advance – the longer it sits the better. You must use Italian chickpea flour and not the Indian type. Farinata is delicious with a crisp white wine and a few chunks of strong cheese.
Another adventure we had while we were there was a visit to a large wine merchants. You could go and fill your large plastic containers full of wine from a petrol pump- like contraption.. It seemed a very good idea to me and when I tasted the wine that came out of them I was well impressed.
San Gimignano is one of my favourite places in Italy and I have spent many a happy hour sitting on the steps of the well in Piazza Cisterna enjoying an ice cream from the Gelateria Dondoli. I have eaten gelato all over Italy but Sergio’s boast that he makes the best ice cream in the world is not far wrong and I am working my way through his many unusual flavours every time I visit. Some of his famous flavours are Crema di Santa Fina (Santa Fina was a local saint) made of cream with saffron and pine nuts, Champelmo, made with pink grapefruit and sparkling wine and Dolceamaro, made with cream and aromatic herbs. Some of his exceedingly yummy and exotic flavoured sorbets include Raspberry and Rosemary, blackberries and lavender, gorgonzola cheese and walnuts, ricotta and bilberries and spicy chocolate and sour cherries.
Sergio only used top quality local products to make his ice cream and has been a member of the Italian team that has won the ice cream World championship on two occasions. He also runs ice cream making courses.
We always stop at the Hotel Leon Bianco just across the square from the gelateria and at night when all the tour buses have rolled away, the town has an entirely different air about it. If you decide to come to visit watch the film “Tea with Mussilini” beforehand and If you have room after your afternoon gelato do go and try out the Chiribirri and the Vecchia Mura , a couple of our favourite restaurants.
Last September I spent one of the most relaxing weeks of my life at the beautiful Watermill in Posara in Northern Tuscany. Lois and Bill who own it run an assortment of courses . They are mainly painting courses but there have been ones on learning Italian and knitting and more recently the one I enjoyed in September which was a yoga retreat run by the wonderful Claire Murphy.
The watermill is a complex of elegant and historic Tuscan buildings, surrounding a sunny courtyard with an adjoining vine veranda, a rose pergola and a sun filled walled garden. More gardens lead to walks along the river. The buildings are listed by the Italian government as of historic importance and the Watermill is in the protected area of the National Park of the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines and the Regional park of the Apuan Alps, home of the marble mountains of Carrara
.I was there as I had been commissioned to write an article about it for Italia! magazine. This should be in the next issue due out in mid February. My yoga loving friend Helen came along with me and we loved it from start to finish.
You may think this all sound lovely but what has it got to do with food. Well, the best part of the retreat (apart from Claire’s yoga sessions of course) were the wonderful meals . We all started looking forward to the sound of the bell summoning us to come and eat in the dining room just off the courtyard where we ate the most amazing food cooked for us by Lois and her band of local staff. You can see Helen, myself and one of the other participants Gay helping ourselves to some Panzanella salad in the photograph.
After may years of masterminding the menu’s for the courses Lois came to the conclusion that sharing her skills by organising a cookery course would be a great idea.
So a unique cookery course has been organised . On it you will gain hands-on experience of cooking delicious , healthy Italian meals with the freshest ingredients ( many of which you will harvest yourself as well as buying fresh produce in local markets).. You will learn from and work with Italians themselves, both members of the Watermill team along with local producers.
It will be led by Lois and her friend and colleague Ingrid Fabbian, an expert on nutrition as well as the preparation of home made pasta and bread. The hands on cooking sessions will cover many aspects of Italian and Tuscan Cucina from appetisers (antipasti), to after dinner biscuits (biscottini and much else in between from pane and pasta, through main courses, to homemade puddings and ice cream.
It is to be called L’arte di Mangiar bene. – the art of eating well. This is the name of a classic Italian cookbook which was published more than 100 years ago and is still in print (Science in the kitchen and the art of eating well- by Pellegrino Artusi -ISBN 0802086578).
Bill has said I can share a recipe of one of the dishes that I was given and that will be featured on the course.
PANZANELLA: a classical Florentine salad
Panzanella is a famous Florentine salad which is also popular in other parts of Tuscany. Its basic ingredients are bread and tomatoes, dressed in oil and vinegar but you can add all sorts of other tasty things.
Stale bread torn up into small squares. Preferably crusty baguette type bread
1 red onion thinly sliced
6 juicy tomatoes, roughly chopped
A large handful each of capers, black olives and sun dried tomatoes roughly chopped really small
Drizzle of Balsamic vinegar
Glug of extra virgin olive oil
Fresh basil leaves torn – the more the merrier
Squirt of lemon juice
Salt and pepper
Chop everything up (except for the basil and throw it in a nice big dish. Drizzle and squirt seasonings.
Some of the other dishes that I had when I was there and which are going to feature on the course are, Baked Fennel and Parmesan, Twice-baked Gorgonzola souffles and chocolate torta from Capri.
If I have whetted your appetite (literally!) find out more about the Watermill and what sounds to be a wonderful experience on http://www.watermill.net