My travels around Tuscany marked the beginning of my journey in Italy. I worked for a total of 7 weeks as an English tutor at summer camps, and I had the pleasure of living with the families of children who attended these camps. I have always been a notoriously fussy eater, and the prospect of eating food that would be prepared for me by host families who would probably speak no or very little English was, in all honest, quite terrifying. In actual fact, my first host dad was fluent in English, and asked me on my very first evening if there were any foods I didn’t like. Decision time. Would I be that girl, who listed off every single green vegetable in existence, turned her nose up at homemade dishes I’d never even heard of, refused to try anything new? Hell, no. Instead, I took a deep breath, looked into his eyes, and answered ‘Only shellfish’. (My aversion to shell-fish comes not from a dislike, but more of a deep-seated unnerving that comes from never ever having eaten something that looks so slimy.)
And so it was that it was in Tuscany, surrounded by vineyards and pastel shaded apartments, I learned to love food. I am convinced that the families who were kind enough to host me during my stay in Tuscany were among the best chefs in Italy, heck even the whole world, so enjoyable were my daily dinner time feasts. And not only were my taste buds delighted at dinner, but at breakfast, perhaps even more significantly. For those who have never been to Italy, rest assured that those of you with a sweet tooth need look no further than a breakfast table in a common Italian household for a place to satisfy your cravings. The best of my breakfasts in Tuscany included delicious farm made jams spread of cinnamon French toast, sweet biscuits with chocolate hazelnut fillings, yoghurt, fresh fruit, all washed down with fresh juice and cappuccino.
Of the many meals that I ate in Tuscany, there are three which I would like to
describe in detail here. For they are the three meals which changed my entire attitude to food. For the first of these three meals, I was whisked away to a typical Tuscan restaurant and told to expect typical Tuscan cuisine. Rabbit. Okay so it doesn’t sound so dramatic. People eat rabbit in England and Wales on a fairly regular basis, yeah yeah. But for me, this was a big deal. I mean I owned a rabbit as a little girl. And now-well, now I was expected to eat one? As it happened, eating rabbit turned out to be a hundred times easier than I thought it would be-though not a whole lot tastier, I have to admit. After a starter of meats and canapés, down was plonked a silver serving dish of what looked like chicken nuggets. Not quite what I was expecting. I looked to my companions questioningly. ‘The rabbit is on it’s way-this is chicken’. Ah. So it was chicken nuggets. Down was plonked a second silver serving dish of what looked suspiciously like chicken nuggets. Wait, what? ‘The rabbit’, said my one of my Italian companions. And, do you know, if I hadn’t known the difference, I would have sworn both platters were chicken. It was dessert, however, which makes this meal particularly memorable. For here I was presented with the most delicious Italian biscuit-a twice baked cookie called cantuccini. Traditionally served at special occasions, cantuccini is served alongside vin santo, an intoxicatingly sweet dessert wine. Pour, dip, devour. It is safe to say that I became unhealthily obsessed with cantuccini, and can only say I am relieved that it is slightly more difficult to get hold of in Britain (though not impossible-hello, Costco).
The second meal came to me in the (perfect and untouched) form of a fish. Grilled branzino, to be precise. Scanning the menu of the hideaway seafood restaurant directly overlooking the waters from which it gathers its produce, branzino immediately caught my eye, being the meal over which Gwen Stacy awkwardly introduces the laid back Spiderman to her (rather more uptown) family. I know, I’m so cultured, right? So, when a whole fish, head, tail, fins and all was placed in front of me, I waited with bated breath. I was waiting (praying is more like it) for some instruction as to how to eat the damn thing, which looked all at once absolutely delicious and yet all too close to swimming off my plate to eat. My wonderful hosts, smiling with encouragement, gave me all the instruction I needed. Buon appetite. And so, bravely, knife in one hand and fork in the other, I grappled with my fishy opponent until, at last, all that was left was a pile of bones, a head and a tail. And do you know, I have never eaten a fish so fine as that one.
The third and final Tuscan meal to be described was by far less exotic to me than the previous two. But let me assure you, the fact it was a simple, homely Bolognese should not be sniffed at. The restaurant where I sampled this unearthly Bolognese
is situated ideally in the heart of Florence, and boasts that rare quality of being both a favourite of locals and the lucky tourists who have been introduced to it by locals (as I was). Fresh tagliatelle swirled into a rich sauce made a luxurious mound upon my plate, and teemed with an amount of delectable mincemeat that would make a grown man quiver. No, it was nothing especially new to me, but the flavours were so rich, so fresh, and so superior to any Bolognese I have ever eaten in Britain, that I couldn’t not write about it. The menu afforded a whole range of typical dishes from all over Italy, and I cannot wait to return to stuff myself with another heart, homely, delicious dish.
Florence was the perfect city in which to eat this delicious meal, and nothing quite compares to the atmosphere of excitement that pervades Tuscany as tourists stumble upon hidden marvels and locals offer wide arms and warm welcome. My experience in Tuscany offered me far more than food, however its cuisine stands out in my mind as some of the most delicious I have had the pleasure to eat anywhere. And what should follow food, of course, but drink? Let me tell you of a small town near Padua in which I first became acquainted with the Spritz, and more importantly, with the Spritz Hugo…