Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Eating Tuscany

Trip to Tuscany
22nd to 29th December

Thousands of years of history means Tuscany has plenty to offer the visitor. We had an absolute cracker of a time wandering the ancient streets of Florence, Siena, San Gimignano, Monteriggioni and Volterra; climbing the dome of Florence's Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral, walking in the woods around the house and exploring the coast. Tuscany also has a culinary tradition stretching back thousands of years and, as good culture tourists, we made a point of giving it due importance in our itinerary.Coffee and cake
Italy, coffee, coffee, Italy; well it's a given and that's the thing I like most about drinking coffee in Italy - it's essential necessity is assumed. We enjoyed caffè lattes (probably officially later then is allowed) and delightful little cakes at Volterra's great patisserie. Another top spot in Volterra was Web and Wine where the internet was juxtaposed next to ancient Roman ruins. Naomi was very enthusiastic about the thick, gluggy, ultra rich Italian hot chocolate; her favourite example was from a tiny cafe hidden in the back streets of Florence.

The quality of the patisserie merchandise was top notch and most Italians aren't afraid to indulge. My favourite sweet treat was a custard tart with ultra crisp pastry and an airy, subtle filling. Purchased from an unknown bakery in Florence it was all the sweeter because I had to buy it to get change for a parking metre; of course it was great telling the others all about how good it was afterwards. Restaurants
Italy's contribution to world food is undisputed; you can buy a pizza in any isolated backwater and even the most inept home cook can somehow manage to throw together a decent bowl of pasta. Being in Tuscany I was keen to see how the professionals did things on their home turf. We usually ate a restaurant lunch while we were out and about, with dinner tending to be a more subdued affair at the house. Regional produce was everywhere and we sampled some excellent salami, cheese and of course the local vino.

I've already written about Osteria Castelvecchio and Ghostbuster Ristorante Pizzeria, but another culinary highlight was Ristorante Il Sacco Fiorentino in Volterra. We visited this spacious restaurant on our final night for a thoroughly enjoyable meal. I had a delicious serve of fresh pappardelle pasta and venison ragu, followed by wild boar steaks topped with cheese and sage. Chocked with seasonal dishes and reflecting the local love of hunting the menu included an interesting selection of game and winter vegetables.

We stumbled across Il Gambero in Pontedera; an industrial town we passed on our return to Pisa airport. The pizza oven was devastatingly turned off so my brother missed his calzone, but we were more than happy with hearty pasta and plates of fresh seafood. My calamari was flavoursome and tender and everything was again awesome value at under €40 for the four of us. It was interesting to note that most restaurants had very similar menus, but when it's so good who really cares. Everywhere there was an emphasis on quality ingredients and I just love the fact that people in Italian aren't afraid to eat. and a sly slice of Pizza
Italy's famous for lots of things: fashion, art, cathedrals, bad drivers, shonky towers and of course pizza. There are a couple possibilities if you're keen to chow on a slice of Italian pizza; the first option is to order at a restaurant and devour. The second is to buy a slice to takeaway from a bakery; where it's usually cut from a gigantic slab, weighed and heated.

In 2000 my brother and I were backpacking through Italy and got really got into the pizza by the slice scene - so much so we had to ration ourselves to two slices a day to try and maintain some kind of dignity about the waist. Our all time favourite spot was the 'bakery on the corner' a couple of shops down from our guesthouse in Florence. I was off to rediscover the 'bakery on the corner'. While the others stood patiently shacking with cold amongst the treasures of San Lorenzo leather market, I triumphantly stumbled through memories to find the pizza at the end of the rainbow. The place was called Forno di Stefano Galli, the cake display wasn't quite as big and shinny as I remembered but the pizza was just as good. Now if only I had a chance to try to find that tiny little bar in Venice...

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