A Sunday morning in Tuscany. It’s May, church bells are ringing, washing is dangling out of small windows in wonky stone farm houses, wildflowers are brushing against my knees and I’m lost in an overgrown, terraced olive grove. Well not quite lost, but I’ve wandered too far off the track to retrace my steps so it’s upwards and onwards to find a road that will lead me back home. And for a little moment, I stop, listen and register the temporary normalcy of this morning stroll while lunch of rabbit, white wine and herbs come together slowly in the oven. Washing hangs out of my own window and there are preparations for dinner to think about. It’s time go get back to the kitchen. My pretend kitchen.
For now at least.
Some months ago I spent three weeks in the village of Lecchi in Chianti, cooking for two consequtive groups of students organised by my Mum, art teacher Annie Herron and it was all kinds of awesome.
Having lived in Italy (Piedmont, in the north-west of the country) for some three years in my twenties, I was grateful for the chance to slip back, albeit temporarily, into some kind of daily Italian rhythm. To use my stilted language skills and see them slip, gradually back into a semblance of fluency. To walk to the village shop every day, have a coffee, collect the bread and pastry order and pretend that the locals were waving me off as they would each other. To remember and relive how well many Italians do this whole life thing – taking time to drink their coffee and chat every morning, not darting off with a disposable cup and a nod. To walk off a long convivial Sunday lunch in style, and stop to talk and sit on a bench for a little while without staring at a phone. And hey – I know I’m romanticising things but it’s hard not to when thinking back to that glorious Sunday in one of the prettiest villages in the world.
And while the work was constant and had its minor challenges…and while I missed my own family back on the farm like crazy – it was pretty incredible to have this opportunity cook, live and explore one of the most historically, scenically and deliciously rich places in the world.
There’s a reason Tuscany is a blockbuster destination – that year after year, century after century it pulls the crowds. Because it’s breathtaking. Because in one day you can gape at Piero Della Francesco’s frescos in Arezzo, eat the best salami of your life, drink mind-blowing wine, climb the tower of a medieval battlement and wander through a cool, green forest of contemporary sculpture with only the birds as your companions. Yep Tuscany – you will always do it for me.
And if you feel the same – maybe come along with Mum in 2017? She and Dad are currently putting together another group of students to spend a week or so painting, sketching, feasting and exploring Tuscany and I highly recommend you come. Click here to visit Mum’s website and download the itinerary. Andiamo!
In the meantime, here are some photos, recipes and my address book of favourite places from this incredible trip.
Zucchini, lemon and mint orecchiette
This was the first meal I served at the villa we rented for our students. It was a perfect Spring day and we were sore from constantly pinching ourselves at the crazy beauty of the surroundings.
Serve this salad with a bottle of chilled rose, a view and some happy chatty friends. It’s really easy to make and just as good served at room temperature so you can take it on picnics and/or have it all done before your buddies arrive for lunch then concentrate on hanging out with them and having fun.
1 cup mint leaves
125 ml extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3/4 cup parmesan, finely grated
Zest and juice of two lemons
500g orecchiette pasta
4 small green zucchini with zucchini flowers, the zucchini thinly shaved with a potato peeler, and the flowers gently shredded
8 x spears of asparagus, chopped into three or four pieces, lengthways and blanched
Combine all but a few mint leaves (leave them for garnishing) with the olive oil, garlic, 1/2 cup of the parmesan and lemon juice and zest in a food processor or blender and whizz to combine. Season to taste and set aside.
Meanwhile, cook pasta according to packet instructions, drain (reserving about 1/4 cup of the cooking liquid) and then toss straight away with the mint/lemon dressing. Add some of the reserved cooking liquid if you think it’s looking a little dry.
Toss through the asparagus, zucchini, zucchini flowers, extra mint and remaining parmesan and drizzle with a little extra olive oil then serve!
Lemon ricotta pine nut cake
This is a completely delicious, very indulgent pudding-ish cake and a great one for the ‘dinner party repertoire’. Serve from the fridge with a heap of fresh, seasonal fruit – winning! Adapted from the River Cottage Easy 1 Book.
200g caster sugar
2 egg yolks
200g creme fraiche
50g pine nuts.
Preheat oven to 150c. Butter sides and base of cake tin.
Great zest and juice into a bowl and leave for 10 minutes to infuse. Whisk the ricotta and sugar together until smooth. Add the eggs and egg yolks one at a time. Add the creme fraiche then fold in the lemon mixture and mascarpone. Shake tin with the breadcrumbs to evenly coat all sides and pour in the cake mixture. Shake ove rthe pine nuts and bake for 45 minutes or until just set. Serves 8-10.
One of the day trips we took our group on was a 45 minute drive to Sienna (above) and on the way home we stopped for a picnic featuring the above crostata and below salad, at the Chianti Sculpture Park (loads of pics below), which I think is one of the loveliest places I’ve ever been. If you ever find yourself in that part of the world – please go.
Ricotta and jam crostata
Another absolute favourite of mine – the classic crostata is perfect for picnics, morning/afternoon teas or even pudding. And once you’ve got the hang of the pastry, the filling is a cinch. Feel free to leave out the ricotta step, pure jam is also pure gold. But I prefer my jam crostata’s with a soft pillow of vanilla-spiked ricotta. Just you know, to gild the lily.
420g plain flour
100g icing sugar
1 tsp lemon zest
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
180g cold butter, cubed
1 egg yolk
1 cup jam of your choice (apricot or blackberry are my favourites. Oh, and quince is amazing too)
For the ricotta filling
1 cup fresh ricotta
1/4 cup icing sugar
1 vanilla bean
Combine flour, sugar, lemon rind, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Tip out onto a work surface and add the butter, rubbing it into the flour mixture with your fingers until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the egg and yolk and using a light hand, bring mixture together until you have a smooth dough. Form into a disc shape, wrap in plastic and place in the fridge to rest for 30 minutes.
For the filling; whisk together all ingredients until well combined. Place the jam in a small saucepan and gently heat.
To roll out the crostata, first cut away about 1/3 of the pastry and roll out the remaining 2/3 until a large disc about 4mm thick. Gently transfer the pastry to line a 22cm fluted, loose-bottomed tart tin (or a springform cake tin will be fine too, in which case you will want to trim the edges of your pastry first so they are relatively even). Trim excess, leaving a 1cm border and fold this down into the edge of the tin to ‘reinforce’ the crostata’s sides.
Spoon the ricotta mixture across the crostata’s base and top with the jam. Roll out the remaining pastry and cut into about 10 strips, arrange five of these across the top of the tart and then spin it around and criss-cross the remaining five strips in a lattice pattern on the other side. Trim any excess, sprinkle with the caster sugar and place in the oven to cook for 35 minutes or until the pastry is golden brown.
Bean and tuna salad
Ridiculously good and easy – this salad is on regular repeat in our house. It does though, like all good simple recipes, rely on good ingredients. So go for the best tuna, olive oil and beans you can get your hands on.
Tuna, bean and onion salad
1 red onion, finely sliced
1 cup boiling water 250g tinned tuna
350g drained cooked cannellini beans
1/4 cup olive oil
red wine vinegar
Combine all ingredients in a large bowl, mix well and season to taste. Serves about 4-6.
Arezzo. Where life really is molto beautiful.
Almond, orange and honey biscuits
2 egg whites
2 cups almond meal
1 cup caster sugar
Zest of one orange
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
2 tbsp strongly flavoured honey (I used chestnut honey which was insane – smokey and very strong)
Blanched almonds, to decorate
Preheat oven to 180C and line a couple of baking trays with paper. Whisk the egg whites until soft peaks form, fold in the remaining ingredients until just combined.
Take a tablespoon-full of the mixture, gently roll into a ball and place on the baking tray. Press an almond into the centre and repeat with remaining mixture.
Bake for 10 minutes or until the biscuits are golden brown. Turn oven off and prop the door ajar with a wooden spoon and leave the biscuits to cool in the oven. This will make them lovely and chewy. Let cool completely and store in an airtight container for up to a week.
Melt and mix apricot cake
Really good. Really easy. You are welcome x
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup caster sugar
1 1/2 cups self-raising flour
60g butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla paste
1 tsp lemon zest, finely grated
4 apricots, halved and quartered
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp ground ginger
3 tbsp caster sugar
Preheat oven to 180C and grease and line a loaf tin or 20cm springform cake tin. Mix the buttermilk, egg, sugar, flour, cooled melted butter, vanilla and lemon rind together in a large bowl and stir until well combined. Spoon mixture into the prepared loaf or cake tin and smooth over the top. Arrange fruit to your liking then combine the caster sugar and mixed spice and dust this over the top. Bake for 30 minutes or until the edges are golden brown and the top firm. Let cool in the tin for a few minutes before turning out onto a wire rack. Serve with thick natural yogurt or some ice cream.
Oh my god – what’s the go with the selfie sticks everywhere?
And here, for good measure – are some of the places I loved most in Florence. This list is heavily influenced by tips given to me by lovely Emiko Davies – expat food writer, photographer cook and all round excellent person, who kindly spent half a day showing me around her adopted home. Thank you Emiko!
Cafes and wine bars
Piazza Lorenzo Ghiberti
Mum and I found this place after doing a huge shop for day one of our art class at the Sant’Ambrogio. We loved the gorgeous spread of pastries, the excellent coffees and the bar stocked full of mis-matched wine and cocktail glasses. The hand-written lunch menu looked pretty great too.
Possibly not the cheapest place in Florence but I LOVE this cafe. It feels a bit glam (probably because it’s attached to the Roberto Cavalli boutique next door), the pastries are amazing and it’s excellent for people watching. An espresso at the bar is still only one euro too, so definitely within budget if you are happy to stand like the flow of gorgeous men and women who do the same. Via della Spada 10
Gelateria della Passera
The best gelato we found in Florence (and trust me – coming to this conclusion was a difficult task). The flavours are real (for example, the pistachio isn’t fluro green, it’s a subtle sage tone with pure flavour straight from the famous nuts from Bronte in Sicily).
Le Volpe e L’uva
Thank you so much to Emiko Davies who introduced me to this fantastic wine bar. Just over the Ponte Vecchio (on the Palazzo Pitti side) it’s metres away from a busy touristy street but feels instantly like a locals hang the second you walk inside. The selection of Tuscan wines and aperitifs is impressive as is their cheese and cured meats line up. Have the sausage and truffled cheese melted on crusty bread with a glass of chilled prosecco and you’ll be one happy camper. Piazza dei Rossi, 1
A very cool little hole-in-the-wall bar that was heaving everytime we walked past. I had a beautiful panini for lunch there one day and was blown away by the wine list too.
Trattoria Sergio Gozzi
I shared a memorable meal here, again with Emiko and absolutely loved everything about this place – the tight, Tuscan menu, the buzz, the noise and the price. An old school gem right in the middle of Florence.
Il Santo Forno
Fantastic bakery selling traditional Tuscan breads, flat breads and biscuits. It’s also a great option for light lunches with a daily selection of tarts and quiches to choose from. By far the best bakery I came across in the city. Via Santa Monaca, 3r,
Piazza Santo Spirito
Don’t miss a wander around this beautiful piazza, most mornings there is a small market up near the church selling fresh produce, honey, wine and some bric-a-brac. Of course the Santo Spirito church is incredible, huge and home to many notable masterpieces, most famously the wooden crucifix carved by a 17-year-old Michelangelo.