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Toasting the Tuscan Kitchen

by Jan DeGrass

Winner, Food and Drink category in

WanderTales writing competition

- www.WanderlustAndLipstick.com

I was growing restless. I sat alone in the lobby of the Hotel

Annalena in Florence, Italy, watching the evening light filtering

through high casement windows and splashing over what had once

been a ballroom.

"Napoleon's sister lived here, you know," the hotel manager told me

as she settled into an armchair opposite, bearing two cups of

espresso. 

The hotel booking was part of my culinary vacation with an

American company operating in Italy that had arranged a guide and

chef to teach me rustic Tuscan cuisine. My first meeting with the

guide, Lucca Santiccioli, was supposed to start that evening when I

would be taken, along with other participants, for an aperitivo and

chef's dinner. But no other participants had appeared in the lobby at

the appointed hour and the kindly manager had drained her

espresso and was now looking at her watch.

Finally, a well-groomed young man entered and announced grandly,

"I am Lucca."

"Oh, good," I responded, "and where are the others?" 

He gazed around the empty lobby, shrugged and said, "There are

no others. But I am here!"

This tour was exclusively for me. Sadly, there would be no

camaraderie with other cooks in the kitchen, no late nights chatting

over a bottle of vino. I was disappointed for all of 20 seconds, then

reason prevailed—here was a handsome Italian man prepared to

take me out to dinner. What was the problem?

"Let's go," I said cheerfully.

Aperitivo in the Italian tradition is a social time, Lucca

explained, before the traditionally late dinner. We walked across

Florence's Ponte Vecchio, the old bridge, to a gelato shop with

outdoor tables on a busy street corner. Over a light sparkling wine,

prosecco, we tasted tart lemon sorbet and Lucca described the

history of the city's ruling family, the Medicis, whose guiding hand

built the ugly fortress called the Pitti Palace, and whose patronage

of the arts sponsored the Uffizi Gallery. Rich money lenders, the

Medicis could afford to gather snow in the mountains and store it in

underground caves. On feast days the stored snow was mixed with

milk and eggs, and gelato was born.

"Want to know how to tell good gelato?" Lucca asked. "Look for the

pistachio. If it's too green they're not using natural ingredients." This

pistachio was the colour of new buds unfolding, delicate and light.

At Florence's Four Lions restaurant the chef's special began with a

typical meaty antipasto that included a coarse liver pate. The

presentation was lacking—it's difficult to make pate look like

anything but chopped liver—but the taste was superb. It was served

with an ordinary house white Rosso o Bianco Toscano.  Several

varieties of pasta were served with a local specialty, porcini

mushroom sauce. The secundo or main dish was baccala alla

Fiorentina, cod with a layer of thinly sliced potato and fresh tomato

with olive.

After this feast there was no room for the proffered dessert course:

torta di ricotta or gelato, and I staggered back to the hotel, full to

bursting, ready for the following day's cooking lesson with chef

Monica Fabianelli.

The lively, engaging Monica ensured we work up an appetite by

starting with a stroll through the 13th century Santo Spirito Square,

where an antique market was in progress. On other days of the

week the market sold farm fresh and organic produce, the basis of

good Tuscan cooking, and my tour would later include a tasting trip

to city markets where I sampled locally-made pecorino cheese and

Florentine salt-free bread. 

Monica revealed her background as a guide and teacher of Italian

culture as we walked through the extensive, formal Boboli Gardens

and out of the walled city through the Porta Romana gate to a busy

road on which heritage stone buildings had been carved into

smaller apartments. The doorway to her tiny apartment opened onto

a narrow, dark staircase. Up one level, the apartment was dollhouse

size and the kitchen less than one meter square. There, rejecting

aprons as garments for cissies, Monica stripped down to leggings

and blouse, I rolled up my sleeves, and we prepared Sunday

dinner—me prepping dishes on the dining room table, she shuffling

the half metre between the stove and sink, snatching up and

washing dirty utensils immediately. We were a smooth team, oiled

by a jug of red wine and joined by a love of food.

Tuscan cooking is farmhouse style; it uses fresh ingredients and

doesn't worry about elegance on the plate. We rolled up thinly sliced

beef kept moist in the oven by zucchini and tomato filling. We

cooked rigatoni with spicy sausage meat and leeks, carefully

trimming the green away and slicing the flavourful white leek thinly.

This vegetable (often referred to as onion in translation) is beloved

of the Tuscans.

For dessert we prepared panna cotta, a gelatine and fresh cream

pudding.  The region's Chianti paired nicely with everything. After

our three-course meal Monica poured glasses of the country's

signature sickly sweet limoncello liqueur.

"They say it aids digestion," she told me. "Pooh, I think it's an

excuse to drink more!" (Later, when two friends arrived from London

to join me in exploring Italy, we tasted the fiery grappa, made from

grape skins, seeds and stalks, and liked that better.)

When I described the porcini mushroom sauce that I had sampled

at the restaurant, Monica added it to the next day's menu to be

served with tagliatelle. The star of the show was the humble

spinach gnocchi.

"Press the spinaches," she urged me, supervising until every last

drop of green liquid was squeezed into a bowl. After pressing,

mixing in egg, parmesan and ricotta, rolling in flour, boiling and

baking, I hoped they would not be the bland, pasty balls found in

grocery stores at home. They were not. They oozed flavour and

complemented the simple baked veal and lemon juice dish.

For dessert, tira misu was my choice and I whipped the

mascarpone with enthusiasm, while Monica dutifully prepared fresh

espresso to drown the flaky lady finger biscuits. But her heart was

back in the farmhouse. We would make apple cake as well, she

announced, a simple, apple-topped golden cake, served fresh and

warm. It was delicious…but so was the tira misu. Salute! 

 

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