Florence is hot in the summer, in fact on one day during a recent visit it was the hottest place in the whole of Europe, 39 degrees centigrade. That sort of temperature renders most of us unable to function. Sight seeing becomes hard labour, even shopping seems too much of an effort. Nothing for it but to follow the Florentine tradition and indulge in a long lunch followed by a siesta.
Many tourist spots especially places like Florence and Venice which have so many breath-taking artworks and masterpieces of architectural brilliance are sitting on an absolute goldmine, with an estimated 7 million tourists a year it is a sellers market, consequently, restaurant standards are not always what they should be. If like me, food is an important part of your holiday experience it pays to do a bit of research and I am happy to pass on the results of mine.
Overall, Florentines themselves are still very traditional in their eating habits so the gastronomic scene is dominated by homely osterie and trattorie offering hearty cucina casalinga (home style cooking), prices are reasonable and food authentic. If you have any interest in food, avoid menu tourismo like the plague and remember Florentines only eat pizza in the evening. It only tends to be tourist joints that serve them at lunch time, always choose a Pizzeria with a wood-fired oven and ask for a Florentine pizza with a thin crisp crust as oppose to the puffier Neopolitan style pizza. Good options are Vico del Carmine, Via Pisana , Santa Lucia or La Poule Alle Mosse.
A full blown Italian meal will start with an Antipasto – a selection of hors d’oeuvre followed by Primo – a pasta, soup or risotto, Seconda is the main course, meat or fish with or without contorno, vegetables, formaggio (cheese) and dolce (dessert) will round off the meal.
Dolce tend to be fairly simple, the ubiquitous tiramisu, a chocolate cake or torta di nona or of course gelata. Ice cream lovers will be in heaven in Florence. There are old favourite haunts to choose from, but there are now some exciting new kids on the block threatening to knock local institutions like Vivoli and Perché No! off their perch. You must not miss Grom (via Del Campanile), Vesti, Albizi and Granita.
People watching on warm balmy evenings is of the greatest pleasures of a trip to Tuscany. Choose one of the many cafes with tables outside to sip an aperitivo, Gilli with its belle époque interior, and Rivoire must not be missed. Florian of San Marco Square, Venice fame, has just opened in Florence also.
My best new find on this trip was a classy contemporary sandwich bar calle ‘Ino’. Superb quality produce and just around the corner from the must see Uffizi and Palazzo Vecchio. Great place to buy a picnic for the plane if you can’t make it to the San Lorenzo market (open daily).
We also made a pilgrimage to two of my favourite Florentine haunts, Osteria di Benci which does the best Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a pan grilled but still bloody T-bone steak cut from the famous Chianina beef. Follow it with a Rucola salad dressed with a few drops of local extra virgin olive oi and Tuscan white beans anointed with the same. There will also be tripe and ribollita. My second favourite Ils Zibbibo is owned by a woman chef Benedetta Vitali, this simple neighbourhood restaurant with its fresh unfussy food is in Via di Tersollena about 10 minutes from the centre. Benedetta was co-founder of Cibreo another Florentine institution. If your budget cannot quite stretch to its steep prices, Ciberino around the corner in Via de Macci also serves great food with many tasty morsels of offal, certainly not for the faint hearted. There’s lots more, Nerbone in Greve for cows udder and spleen sandwiches and the best pot au feu you’ll find in many a long day.
For lovers of Tuscan salami famous Falori butchers are just across the Piazza. I could go on, but you’ll need some time for sight-seeing and sampling the local wines – lots of more information in local guides. Here are some simple recipes I enjoyed.
Chickpea Purée with Shrimp
From Adventures of an Italian Food Lover by Faith Heller Willinger
Published by Clarkson Potter Publishers, New York
1 cup dried chickpeas
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 garlic clove
1 sprig fresh rosemary
16-20ozs (450g-600g) fresh shrimp, in shells
3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Put the chickpeas in a large pot, cover with about an inch of water, mix in 3 tablespoons sea salt, and soak for at least 12 hours.
Drain the chickpeas, rinse them, and put them in a 3-quart pot. Cover with water by about 3 inches, then add the garlic and rosemary. Over low heat, bring the water to a boil and simmer at least 1 hour, until the chickpeas are tender. Add ½ cup boiling water if the liquid gets too low.
Purée the chickpeas with your method of choice. You can rub through a sieve, but the fine disk of a food mill works well, too. Puréeing with a processor or an immersion mixer grinds up all the skins and produces a less refined soup). Thin the soup to desired consistency (a little thicker than heavy cream is ideal) with some of the chickpea broth; add boiling water if there’s no enough broth. Season with salt and pepper , and serve warm.
Remove the shells and black veins from the shrimp. Put them in a streamer basket over ½ cup of boiling water in a pot, cover, and steam for 2-3 minutes, until they turn pink.
Put one-fourth of the chickpea purée in each soup bowl, top each with 4 or 5 shrimp, then add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and freshly ground black pepper. Serve
Ricotta-Stuffed Zucchini Flowers – Faith Heller Willinger
1cup ricotta, fresh, if possible, or sheep’s milk ricotta
12-16 fresh zucchini flowers
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Fine sea salt
1 tablespoon minced fresh basil
If your ricotta is watery, drain it in a sieve to remove excess whey. Soak the zucchini flowers in cool water, then spin-dry in a salad spinner. Removing the stamens is unnecessary.
Pack the ricotta into a pastry bag – I use a disposable one and simply cut the tip off the end. Insert the end of the pastry bag into the zucchini flowers and pipe one or two spoonfuls of ricotta into each.
Drizzle 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil in a large non-stick skillet. Place the stuffed flowers in the skillet in a single layer and place pan over the highest heat. When the pan heats and the oil begins to sizzle, cover and cook for 4 to 6 minutes or until the flowers are hot, steamed by the moisture of the ricotta. Transfer to a serving dish and top with pepper and salt, minced basil, and the remaining extra virgin olive oil.
Eat as part of Antipasto
One ripe and juicy melon
Peel, deseed and slice the ripe melon
Arrange on a plate, Sprinkle with sea salt and cracked pepper.
Delicious, refreshing and so easy.
Smoked Gubbeen Crostata
Faith Willinger made these crostata for us in Florence with smoked mozzarella, but they are also delish with smoked Gubbeen.
Extra virgin olive oil
4ozs (110g) of coarse white bread crumbs
4ozs (110g) grated smoked Gubbeen
1 non stick pan
Chopped zucchini blossom
Chopped parsley or marjoram
A little chilli pepper
Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and toss in the bread crumbs and cook for 3-4 minutes or until starting to crisp. Grate the cheese into a bowl add the cooled breadcrumbs. This is delicious on its own but, if you want to add extra seasoning this is the moment.
Spread in a thin layer not more than ¾” (2cm) thick on the base of a non stick pan. Cook until pale golden on one side and flip over and continue to cook on the other side.
Cut into small wedges and serve as a nibbles with a drink or with a salad of mixed leaves and summer tomatoes.
Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli
Makes about 36, serve 6 as a starter, 4 as a main course
Ravioli, those tiny stuffed pockets of pasta, may be made ahead and kept covered for up to 3 days in the refrigerator, depending on the filling, or may be frozen. Make sure you defrost it thoroughly before cooking.
225g (8oz) fresh pasta dough – home made or good quality bought fresh pasta
Spinach and ricotta filling
225g (8oz) fresh spinach, without stems
110g (4oz) fresh ricotta
3 teasp. freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
110g (4oz) grated parmesan cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano (for serving)
First make the filling.
Wash the spinach and cook in a covered saucepan on a low heat until the leaves wilt. Drain the spinach thoroughly and squeeze it dry. Allow it to cool, then chop it and mix with ricotta cheese, freshly grated nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste.
Roll out the dough until paper thin and divide in half. Brush one piece of dough lightly with water and put out teaspoons of filling at 4cm (1½inch) intervals. Cover with the remaining sheet of dough, press the top piece down gently to seal each mound of filling, making sure the all the air is released.
Cut into squares with a fluted pastry wheel or stamp out squares with a ravioli cutter. Cook immediately, or if they are not being cooked the same day, transfer to floured greaseproof paper and leave for 5-6 hours to dry, depending on the filling.
Poach the ravioli in a large saucepan of gently boiling salted water for 8-10 minutes, or ‘al dente’ and drain. Serve the grated Parmesan separately.
We have adapted Faith Willinger’s recipe slightly
Makes 16 squares
110g (4 oz) finest quality (70 percent) bittersweet chocolate
2fl oz (50ml/ ⅓ cup) extra virgin olive oil, plus more for preparing the pan
55g (good 2oz) plain flour, plus more for dusting the parchment
⅛ teaspoon of salt
2 eggs, at room temperature
175g (6oz/¾ cup) of castor sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
50g (2oz/½ cup) chopped walnuts (optional)
1 cup unsweetened whipped cream (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350ºF/180ºC/Gas4. Line an 8-inch (20.5cm) square baking pan with a lightly oiled and floured piece of parchment paper that’s larger than the pan by 2 inches (5cm).
Melt the chocolate over hot water or in a microwave and whisk in the extra virgin olive oil. Cool the mixture.
Mix the flour with the salt. Beat the eggs and sugar until pale and thickened, around 5 minutes. Add the vanilla and chocolate mixture, and combine well. Fold in the flour and optional walnuts, then, pour into the prepared pan.
Bake for 22 to 26 minutes. The top will be dry, though a toothpick inserted in the centre will be wet. Cool completely, then, cut into squares, using a knife with a serrated blade. Serve with whipped cream.
Youghal Medieval Weekend Family Festival– this Saturday and Sunday in the grounds of St Mary’s College Gardens 4-8pm Saturday and 12-6 Sunday
Includes live music, family entertainment and a market – 024-20745
Congratulations to West Cork Producers Gubbeen and Ummera for winning awards in the prestigious Great Taste Awards in London –
Ummera Smoked Products from Timoleague won a much coveted Gold Great Taste Award in London for its Smoked Chicken and Organic Gravdlax.
Gubbeen Farmhouse Products were presented with four awards for their Gubbeen Cheese Oat Cakes, Smoked Streaky Bacon, Wild Venison Ham and their Unsmoked Ham which won a very prized 3 star which is through to the finals for Supreme Champion
Special packages available
Soil Association Organic Food Festival, Bristol 6-7 September 2008