We left Donegal in a cloud of dust, eating up the road to Dublin airport, with one thing on our minds – Italy. Two weeks of bliss, dropping out, zoning in, and forgetting about the world for a while. We were going R’n’R, foodie style – one week in Tuscany, followed by one week in Sicily. Buongiorno!
We arrived into Pisa late on the Monday evening so it was straight to sleep, but it sure was nice to step off the plane into balmy warm night-time air. We were up early on Tuesday morning to get the hire car and after a rather fraught hairy drive out of Pisa, which involved lots of horn beeping and hand gesticulating, doing my best to avoid psychotic Vespa riders with a death wish, negotiating driving on the wrong side of the road and trying to get my head round the gear stick being at my right hand, we finally made it onto the motorway FI-PI-LI. We were somewhere on the outskirts of Florence when the smell of frying garlic began to take hold!
After about an hour we had arrived into the Tuscan countryside, we got a bit lost but we finally found our accommodation for the week. Il Corno is an Agriturismo high up in the rolling Tuscan hills, near a little village called San Casciano. There are Agriturismos all over Italy and essentially they are usually old farm or wine estates that provide accommodation and a restaurant on site. They provide a local authentic experience of Italy and allow the traveller to get closer to what Italy is all about – good food and good wine, and they will usually sell their produce on site as well, so you can taste the wine or olive oil that is produced in the place you are staying – hows that for zero air miles?
Il Corno is an old family run wine and olive estate where they produce their own Chianti and olive oil. Now if you have an image in your head of what Tuscany looks like then this was it – olive groves and vineyards as far as the eye could see, dotted with red tile stucco roofs and pointy cypress trees breaking the blue horizon. We were right in the heart of Tuscany and the plan was not to venture very far – to sleep, eat good food, drink good wine and lie by the pool.
For our first lunch we found a beautiful local restaurant five minutes down the twisty narrow mountain road from our accommodation. It was a sticky hot afternoon so we took a table on the terrace with great views over the countryside and ordered two Moretti beers. Ahh yes, these beers were cold and the bottles were beaded with condensation, and they cut the dryness from out tongues, the first drink of the trip, it tasted like more. To start we shared a carpaccio of coppa, which is a cured shoulder of pork prepared with herbs and spices, on a bed of rocket, topped with shavings of parmesan and drizzled with white truffle oil. This was the perfect introduction to our Tuscan gourmet adventure, a handful of ingredients, big flavours, simply put together, allowing the ingredients to speak for themselves.
Then we each had a plate of pasta. Aine had a plate of spaghetti vongole, it was delicious, sweet clams, teamed with lots of butter, olive oil, garlic and parsley – this was possibly one of the best vongole we had ever tasted and it set the standard for the rest of the trip. I had a plate of pici pasta, short fat strands of pasta, coated in a rich wild boar ragu – a Tuscan speciality. This was deep with flavour, heavy on the garlic, flavoured with juniper berries and black peppercorns, and a rich gamey flavour from the wild boar. We finished with two espressos, they were dark, rich, and were the essence of what good coffee is all about. We had arrived in Tuscany and drove back to our Tuscan retreat with full bellies and smiles on our faces.
We arrived back to our accommodation, dropped our bags off then went straight back out to the nearest supermarket to stock up on supplies – only the bare essentials of course: two bottles of Prosecco for €2.97each, water, beer, coke, a big bag of crisps and some fruit. Italy is an amazing country for many reasons but their love of coffee really astounded me, small coffee bars are everywhere, there was even one at the supermarket, populated by the local Italian mamas, after they’d got the shopping in, all sitting at the bar, sipping espressos, putting the world to rights, or just having a break from the husband having a few turns on the fruit machine!
Then it was back to Il Corno for a swim and an afternoon doze until 7:30pm. That evening we decided to try the restaurant in the Agriturismo. We were not disappointed, the interior was warm, cosy and the staff were very friendly, doing their best with a little bit of English, it was certainly better than out Italian!
To start Aine had pappa pomodoro, which is essentially a thick soup made from stale bread and tomatoes, and I had handmade fresh egg ravioli, filled with ricotta and spinach cooked in a rich buttery courgette sauce. Of course we also ordered a bottle of the estate’s Chianti, made from the very vineyards that I could see from the back door of the restaurant. During our time at Il Corno we walked through these vineyards, over the rich dark soil from which the vines grew and touched the grapes that made this beautiful ballsy wine. It’s quite an experience to be able to get close to the raw product from which such an ancient drink comes from, you can almost feel the alchemy in the air, the romance, the magic of this place is everywhere…it’s in the ancient vines, the old bricks of the house, the worn grooves of the stable door…
As we both dived into our starters, taking our first mouthful, a look of sheer unexpected pleasure came across both our faces. I had never tasted pasta quite like this, it was incredibly rich, with a plump feeling full in the mouth, satisfying, with so much flavour, melting in my mouth, with a light dusting of freshly grated parmesan around the edge of the plate, which I could dab each piece of ravioli parcel into. This was the best pasta dish I had ever tasted. I could have eaten this pasta all night, it was sheer bliss. Aine looked up at me and wondered how the chef could make tomatoes and stale bread taste so good. She let me try a spoonful of her pappa pomodoro, the flavour of the tomatoes was deep and aromatic, whilst the consistency was rich and buttery.
For mains Aine had pork fillet with a Vin Santo sauce and I had steak cooked medium topped with porcini mushrooms. The pork fillet was tender, succulent, with a good pork flavour that so lacks in lots of the pork you find at home. The Vin Santo sauce was rich and sweet, complimenting the beautiful pork fillet. My steak was cooked to perfection, pink and juicy, topped with a mountain of fresh porcini mushrooms, the beef had been hung well and was deep with beefiness, this steak combined with the beautiful Chianti I was drinking was about as good as it gets. We took our time and savoured each mouthful, washed down with a sip of Chianti – I think that is one of the many smells that will remind me of our time in Tuscany, the smell of a good Chianti, rich in tannins, from a large Bordeaux wine glass – its almost smoky aromas go so well with the simple hearty flavours of Tuscany.
That was the order of our week in Tuscany, I’d like to tell you that we saw so much of the countryside and we got around all the wonderful historic towns and buildings, but I doubt anything that we might have seen would have topped what was on our door step. We had found Tuscany, it was right here in front of us, we were in the middle of it, no need to go looking for Tuscany – here we where! We both forgot about the world for a while, which only seems possible when you are on holiday, making that psychological break, feeling the tension drip away from your fingertips. For a week out itinerary was thus – wake up, have breakfast, read for an hour or two, then go to the pool, which was deserted apart from the pet cat, sunbathe for a while, read, then visit the supermarket for supplies, more sunbathing, more reading, all interspersed with excellent food and beautiful wines.
The supermarkets on the continent are so full of great produce, even going to buy some groceries was a culinary treat, with all the beautiful salamis, cheese, bread and fruit and vegetables. We made some great sandwiches and salads for lunch, which we ate under the vine covered gazebo. One day we made a massive sandwich using a cibatta cut in half, then filled with Coppa, Pecorino Sardo and rocket, drizzled with olive oil – less is more in Italy. Or one day we made a beautiful salad of mixed peppery leaves, roasted peppers, local fennel salami, goats cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. All served with a bunch of grapes on the side, a cold beer or a glass of Chianti. Eating al fresco is the way forward.
Half way through the Tuscan leg of our trip we decided we would cook our own dinner which consisted of a beautiful antipasti plate of Coppa, olives and roasted peppers along side a Caprese salad with some of the best mozzarella I’ve ever tasted, it was so creamy and milky, we just tore it up and laid it over the ripe tomatoes and finished it with some ripped up basil leaves, of course with the obligatory drizzle of olive oil! We must have thought that we were making dinner for friends because just in case a plate of antipasti and a Caprese salad weren’t enough, we cooked up a six egg omelette, cooked in olive oil and filled it with parmesan and pickled mushrooms, washed down with more Chianti.
During the week we decided to have dinner in the restaurant where we had our first lunch. We got a table on the terrace and this time we were joined by plenty of locals enjoying the late summer evening. The only drawback with eating outside is that we weren’t the only ones enjoying a meal, judging by the state of my legs the next morning, the midgies made a meal out of me, those little buggers are vicious, and we also had to contend with what can only be described as a behemoth wasp, this thing was huge, and when it buzzed over our heads it sounded like an Apache helicopter was coming over the horizon! Of course it seemed to be attracted to the light right above our table. Even the locals eating beside us were eyeing this monster with dread!
However after a swift glass of Chianti the nerves were calmed, Aine ordered a plate of penne with courgettes and prawns while I went for handmade ravioli filled with porcini and ricotta, with lots of fresh porcini served on top, topped with shavings of black truffle. Needless to say both these dishes were unbelievable, I was starting to get Italian food, I understood the simplicity and the restraint, a modest handful of ingredients, perfectly combined, well seasoned, allowing the quality of the ingredients to shine through. When the local produce is this good, you want to taste the ingredients, and the Italians make it OK to be in love with olive oil, butter and garlic – it all made sense. At this stage if you’d have cut into either one of us I swear a steady stream of garlic butter and oil would have poured out from our arteries!
To be honest it felt like sometimes we were voyeurs looking into the lives of the owners of the wine estate, one morning after breakfast I sat under the gazebo, reading, listening to a group of Polish wine buyers, bargaining on what wines they wanted to sample, listening to all of this enterprise and dealing going on around me, whilst surveying the clear, blue hazy early morning sunshine, looking out over the Tuscan countryside. We had the pool to ourselves most days, with the temperature in the high 20s, pigeons cooing in the distance…it was perfection.
Other meals of note were a delicious meal we had in the restaurant in our accommodation, Il Corno. To start we shared a big plate of antipasti, which included crostini spread with pate, local fennel salami, local cheese, and local cured ham. For mains it was more pasta, Aine had beautiful fresh ravioli filled with potato and sage, covered in a glossy buttery sauce and I had parpadelle with a wild boar sauce. This was slightly different to the earlier wild boar pasta dish I had eaten as the wild boar was kept in meaty chunks and the tomato sauce was slightly drier, but it was none the less delicious. All washed down with the estate’s Chianti, a bottle of sparkling water and two espressos for dessert.
The meals we had out were some of the best food I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat, but one of my favourite evening meals was our last evening meal in Tuscany, which we cooked ourselves. I had been drooling all week long over the seafood on offer in the local supermarket and on our last night we decided that we would buy up a lot of different fish, whatever looked good. So we bought a big net of clams, lots of langoustine tails and red mullet fillets. That night we cooked it all up in lots of butter, olive oil and garlic, washed down with a beautiful white wine. It was a great meal to end with in Tuscany.
Pisa was next, where we willingly played the part of the tourist, getting our photos taken at the leaning tower, whilst devouring some pizza.
We had one day in Pisa, after leaving the car back we headed straight for the leaning tower, but it was so hot that we opted for the inside of a local restaurant, with lots of English-speaking waiters where we had really good pizza. Excellent crispy base, bubbled and a little burnt, an irregular shape, topped with a beautiful sweet tomato sauce, melted mozzarella and a simple topping of salami and black olives, oh yeah and a couple of cold beers – pizza and beer must be one of the best combinations ever!
Tuscany was everything we had hoped it would be and more, the real Tuscany is out there, you can touch it, taste it, smell it, it’s all out here, get amongst it – We will back to Tuscany. Anytime I smell frying garlic, taste a deep rich peppery olive oil, or sip a ballsy Chianti I;m immediately transported back to Tuscany!
Next stop Sicily!