Feasting in Florence

Home of Machiavelli, Bruneschelli, Guiccardini, the Medici, and Zeffirelli’s ‘Tea with Mussolini’, Florence can beat any city in Europe hands down for its history and culture. But for the gourmet, Florence (and the Tuscan countryside that surrounds it) also offers a great deal in terms of food and drink.

If you’re posh enough to have a mummy and daddy who own a holiday villa in Italy, chances are it will be in ‘Chiantishire’. This area of countryside, is named for its famed wine. Chianti is traditionally bottled in squat bottles with a straw basket- a fiasco (flask), and incorporates a blend of Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Malvasia Bianca grapes. With most of my meals during my stay I enjoyed a glass red Chianti Ruffino. You can really get a sense of why this wine is so popular- it’s very well balanced, neither too dry or too sweet and you get a fruity offering ( with hints of strawberry), that can still go well with a savoury dish.

Another basic element in the cuisine of the areas is Tuscan bread. For Tuscans, and indeed all Italians, meals served without bread are considered criminal, so naturally slices of bread, slathered in olive oil and vinegar, were another feature that appeared at every meal. In Tuscany the bread is unusually not salted, which makes it an ideal accompaniment with slices of ham, or pecorino cheese ( a nutty cheese, produced from ewe’s milk, and manufactured in the nearby province of Grosseto).

For breakfast, there is not much to be said. Breakfast in Tuscany, is traditionally short, rushed and to the point, as elsewhere in southern europe. No full english, or German zweites fruhstuck here. I noticed a restaurant offered a ‘lawyer breakfast’- toast, juice, coffee… and a cigarette. The coffee that accompanies it however, on a de rigeur basis, is absolutely fantastic. Flavoursome, thick, and slightly creamy, the cheapest Italian espresso (cheaper if you drink it at the bar, not at the table) is still better than any of the over-priced offerings you might find in the UK.

For Lunch in Florence, head to ‘Gustapanino’ in the tranquil settings of Piazza Santo Spirito. Here you can buy a sandwich in a very laid-back, somewhat rustic establishment (complete with a boar’s head on the wall), but the appearances are deceptive. I opted for a foccacia pannini with turkey and truffle sauce- and it blew my tastebuds away. 

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The flavour here comes from the truffle sauce. Truffles, in case you didn’t know, are an ugly-looking fungi which grow underground, yet once harvested are a much- sought after (and very expensive) culinary ingredient, known as “the diamonds of cooking”. Just outside  Florence, you’ll find the unassuming village of San Miniato, which in October and November is transformed into a bustling site of a truffle festival, as specially trained pigs burrow underground to search for this centrepiece of Haute cuisine.

If that doesn’t excite you, perhaps you may wish to opt for a tripo pannini- or a tripe sandwich, much the thing in Florence. In essence it is a cow’s stomach in a sandwich. Naturally I turned this one down. Regrettably I also turned down a bistecca fiorentina– steaks from chiana cattle raised in the fertile Tuscan countryside. Servings are absolutely vast, and are served on huge wooden boards, as opposed to normal plates. Contrary to British tastes, the steaks are cooked very rare and are practically blue in colour.

Not stopping for gelato in Florence is unheard of. Ice cream here is far less creamy than its British counterpart, but you can enjoy far fuller flavours. You can really taste the hazelnut and pistachio in the ice cream. Strawberry actually tastes of the fruit, and not just the processed flavouring we’re used to. Chocolate is ludicrously rich, thick and sweet. You may need to lie down in a darkened room after eating it… Carabe, just next to the ‘David’ exhibition offers good quality ice cream and Sicilian-style sorbet in an unpretenious and low- key location.

No visit to Florence would be complete without visiting the Uffizi gallery- and after your visit you can come to the roof-top cafe here for some delicious freshly-squeezed orange juice.

Before you head for dinner, go for roof-top cocktails in the Hotel Continentale (a hotel so posh, it has an ipad built into its lift…). You can enjoy views of the covered ponte vecchio bridge as the sun sets over the Arno river. Here I slurped a Cosmopolitan, accompanied by complementary olives, pecorino cheese and bread- surprisingly for under €20.

Head to Piazza Repubblica for an evening meal, where glamourous restaurant hosts and hostesses will compete for your attention. I enjoyed a plate of wild boar pappardelle- ominous sounding, but delicious, and best accompanied by a glass of chianti on the side.

If you fancy sampling some Italian cuisine from outside the North (with its emphasis on red meat, cheese and wheat) try some of Apulia’s finest from Moye on Via del Parione. It’s tucked a little out of the way, but well worth a visit. Unpretentious, yet hip and modern, and relatively cheap, you can sample some fantastic southern italian cooking here. I had a most delicious starter here- bruschetta, artichoke, pork shoulder and mozzarella- a combination that really worked.  For my main I enjoyed some cavatelli (potato- based, shell-shaped pasta), with blue fish, fresh fennel and tomato- again a surprisingly good combo. To top it off I had some of “grandma’s almond biscotti”- which when washed down with sherry, literally tasted of Christmas.

Before heading off to Pisa for my flight (and the gaudy tourist-tat spectacular that is the tower) I stopped off at Lari- a small village with a castle, and a world famous pasta shop- Martelli– where you can see pasta being hand made before it gets sold to Harrods and other prestigious suppliers. I managed to bag some, and hopefully there’ll be some left for me to take back to Oxford in October, hopefully eaten with a decent sauce, and not Tesco’s pesto.