I Tatti Kitchen

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I Tatti chefs tour

It’s about this time of year when Villa I Tatti opens up their kitchen to the professors and their wives/husbands/partners (covering all bases) and lets them come into the bowels of the building to see what the chefs get up to every day. I of course put my name down for such a tour and yesterday was my turn to take a look into the I Tatti underworld (a.k.a main kitchen). We were a group of four and managed to get right to the crux of lunch time, snack time and afternoon teatime preparations.

The lovely Anna met us at the heavily secured biblioteca and escorted us through to the main kitchen where our chefs were waiting. Like all chefs I have known they were busy getting on with the daily prep. However, you couldn’t help notice the calm of the kitchen and the relaxed nature of the chefs, especially considering they had about 70 people to feed in a few hours time.

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Making semi dried tomato bread rolls

All the bread is made on the premises and we came in just as Chef was stuffing some semi dried tomatoes into dough and cutting them into rolls. I was feeling very much at home with a feverish urge to push in and have a go myself, alas, I restrained myself and stuck to taking photos. The schiacciata is always wonderful to see drizzled in olive oil and salt, because you know how good it will taste when it comes out of the oven!

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Proving for the oven

I know, from long experience, that people who aren’t chefs love to get a peek into professional kitchens and to learn a few tricks of the trade, so here are a few things that I picked up. The more I read, ask questions and watch Italian chefs in action the biggest difference I can see between my cooking and Italian cooks is the amount of time they take to cook and develop flavours. I have been taking more time and keeping the burners lower than I normally would to reproduce the deliciously rich flavours I am eating here, and I am loving the difference in flavour.  I noticed the guys cooking a simple porcini and prosciutto cotto pasta sauce, backing up my ‘slow it right down’ theory and seeing it in practice. We were also told a way to increase the flavour of the sauce with your pasta: just before the past is almost ready (cooked in salted water, of course), strain the pasta and finish cooking it in your sauce. That way the pasta has time to absorb the beautiful flavours you have created.

A very simple step but one I am sure many of us miss because we are so used to doing everything quickly. You never stop learning in the kitchen, I think this is one of my favourite aspects about being a chef, cooking doesn’t get boring, you just have to keep learning.

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The ‘bible’

I did manage to sneak a peek at the kitchens ‘bible’, it is a book stacked with recipes they have been using for the past 12 years, the tried and true ones. So, I thought I would take my time and translate this recipe and give it a go! I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Once the bread was made and the pasta sauce was simmering away it was time to whip up a batch of cookies for afternoon tea- the fellows are so spoilt! Chef made the cookie mix in a matter of seconds (I’m thinking he could do it with his eyes closed!) and then we got a lesson on piping the dough around the edges of the baking paper first so it holds down the paper while you pipe the remaining and the paper doesn’t ride up- nice!

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Cookie time

I didn’t catch all that was spoken but it didn’t seem to matter, I was still learning and enjoying myself as were the other guests, and while chef was popping on the red cherries you know I was gunning to do that job too. I can’t tell you how hard it is to stand in a professional kitchen and not do anything!!

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Thankfully the cookies didn’t take very long to bake, and so I joined in and ate as many as I dare…come on, fresh out of the oven how do you resist that?

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They were like eating clouds

After eating a few too many pieces of schiacciata and cookies we then went around to the stores to see the workings of the kitchen and I was surprised to see such a small storeroom for their dry goods, along with the fridge space. We were told that the fruit and vegetables get delivered daily, as does the fresh meat. On average they feed about 70 people a day and serve two to three different menus. The I Tatti fellows get morning tea and schiacciata, a two-course lunch and then afternoon tea in the drawing room, so all in all that is a lot of food to be prepared, not to mention feeding the staff of I Tatti, including gardeners, librarians, office workers, farmers and a few others who I have forgotten.

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The dry stores and fridges, they were spotless!

I really enjoyed the guided tour and seeing how the kitchen operates but if I ever get the chance to go back again I don’t know if I’ll be able to hold back on doing some cooking! It makes me want to cook for large groups again. So Sydneysiders, Melbournians and Launcestonians, after July pop on over to camillabaker.com and book a class or dinner with friends and I will come to your place and cook up your very own Tuscan fare.

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Mum and dad in Florence

We were lucky enough to have mum and dad drop in on us while they were holidaying in Bella Italia last week. It is no surprise really, since we are holding the majority of their grand children hostage on the other side of the world. The boys were pretty excited to see them again and to tell them all about life in Italy…whilst eating gelato of course!

Nanny and her oldest grand sons

Nanny and her oldest grand sons

Being February the rain did try to set in for the beginning of their stay, however, with a stroke of luck it didn’t seem to last very long and we were able to stroll through the neighbourhoods and see parts of Florence they did get to last time they were here.

A sunny February afternoon 2014

A sunny February afternoon 2014

You don’t really realise how much your own kids have grown until you see them up against someone you haven’t seen in a while. Max was hoping like mad he had grown (he has) and now he is even more excited to go home and see his auntie because he believes he may be taller than her now (I think he might be).

Streeter's in Tuscany

Streeter’s in Tuscany

Walking with mum and dad through the beautiful hills of Settignano was a real treat, something I never thought possible and yet here we were. Mum and dad instilled the idea of travel into my sister and I at a very young age and here we are standing on the cusp of the Tuscan hills over looking the city of Florence together. An adventure that started for them over 45-years ago was alive and strong, while Nic and I still have so much to see 14-years into our travelling life wondering where the next destination will be (I’m thinking a holiday in Vietnam might be on the cards for 2015).

One thing I know for sure is, no matter where we choose to live, be it Sydney, Chicago, Italy… one thing will never change and that is the pleasure of sharing our home with our friends and family and celebrating the adventures of life…one Spritz at a time.

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Spritz on the patio

Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici parade, Firenze

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Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici in 1743. She was the last direct descendant of the ruling branch of the Medici family, whose will bequeathed the art collection now housed in the Uffizi to the city and stipulated that it could never be removed from Florence. Having found out this information from my lovely husband, I thought it quite fitting that there was a parade in her honour.

Max did ask me yesterday if he could take the day off school to see it, which I blew off as his attempt at skiving off. However, when I met up with mum and dad in the centre of Florence yesterday and stood amongst the beautifully bright costumes of the paraders I had a pang of guilt. Here I was enjoying the festivities, costumes and atmosphere while my kids were at school ‘learning’. I had to ask myself, wouldn’t this be a learning experience for them as well? After all it isn’t everyday you get to enjoy a Renaissance pageant re-enactment in a city that draws your eye and heart back to the days that had been. I was sorry for my abrupt answer and will actually think about the question next time before being so dismissive.

Thanks to dad’s handy work, I have these beautiful photos to share. Something that stung a little when showing Max.

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Drummers

The streets of tourists and locals alike paused in their pursuits to take in the beautiful colours and arrangement of this 40-strong parade slowly marching down the streets of Florence. It was a sight to behold and even better when you had no idea what was on the horizon, all you could here was the beat of the drums and the slow roll of the march.

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Guys with very cool guns in leather…my boys are drooling

It was my guess the participants costumes were handed down among the families for generations and showing enormous pride in the occasion. I also had the feeling that my dad would have loved to be a part of the procession too! (In fact the guy with the moustache in the photo below looks a bit like dad.)

I loved this guy with the moustache

I loved this guy with the moustache

Peggy Guggenheim Museum – Venice

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Days have run away from me since my last post. I brought the wonderful gift of a head cold back with me from Venice and it has slowed me down somewhat. Mix that with mum and dad’s arrival in Florence and more washing than you can poke a stick at and voilà, this was my week! I am happy to report the sun is actually shining and warmish (words cannot describe how happy this makes me), the head cold is almost gone and I spent a wonderful day with my mum and dad cruising downtown Florence, which is something I haven’t done in quite a while. However, I need to put my Venice weekend to bed but I just had to mention our last stop in Venice because I would have to say it was one of the highlights of our trip.

Firstly, the art work Peggy Guggenheim acquired over her lifetime is jaw dropping and viewing it in what was once her private home; in rooms she frenquented daily, looking at old black and white photographs of her ‘living’ in the house with Picasso, Pollock and Miro surrounding her is just staggering. It’s like peeking into a life you could only dream of (if you dreamt really big!).

The house itself is perched right on the edge of the Grand Canal with breathtaking views, while on the other side there is a magnificent garden to roam and wander through at your leisure, full of sculptures and some you could interact with.

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Peggy Guggenheim Museum gardens

We all loved playing around with the above sculpture. You will have to take a visit for yourself and tantalise your senses with this staggering collection of art.

I have a photo of my younger self standing in front of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain about twenty or so years ago, so I am quite chuffed I have another Guggenheim I can add to the collection. Here’s hoping I’ll get to the one in New York next month too!

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Peggy Guggenheim Museum 2014, Venice

And just to show you what a wonderful area our Airbnb apartment was situated in, this was our street/canal. We were a few more steps down on the right while the Peggy Guggenheim museum was directly across the canal- Perfetto!

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Weekend trip to Venice

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Grand Canal, Venice

Despite the constant talk of rain, buying of the gumboots for aqua alta and initial fears that our weekend in Venice was going to be a wash out, I am extremely happy to say it only rained in the evenings and the days were left open to beautiful blue skies (ok, maybe a bit of fog too) and sunshine! Again we used Airbnb and again we were really impressed with our accommodation, the fact that we had a whole apartment instead of a hotel room with two boys who love to throw themselves around…I’m telling you Airbnb is the way to go. We had a garden apartment (not a common thing in Venice) and I believe the family who owns the building also owns Fiat, so a pretty fabulous location without a massive price tag. Our train pulled in around lunchtime so we dropped off our bags and started looking for a place to eat.

Nic has a colleague at I Tatti who was a student in Venice a few years ago and she kindly gave us a list of places to try; this, just for the record is an excellent idea, always trust a uni student who loves food! We had lunch at Ostaria Al 4 Feri in the Dorsoduro district. It is a great place to eat really fresh seafood at a very reasonable price, I will also note that you might have to share a table as it isn’t a large space. Alex and I shared the scampi and carcocifi spaghetti which I absolutely loved, however, the flavour was very rich so Alex wasn’t as keen. Nic stuck with the classic spaghetti al vongole which was so, so good (Alex helped him polish it off), while Max ate a large plate of grilled calamari in a matter of minutes. It was an excellent start to our mini holiday and with our tummies full we started to wander around the canals of Venice.

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Daily life, Venice 2014

Everywhere you looked there was something you wanted to take a picture of, however, I seemed to get photo bombed…a lot!

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Photo bombers!

As a bit of good luck for us, our best friends from Florence had decided to also take a weekend break in Venice at the last minute. So with their new name of ‘stalker family‘ firmly attached, we were pretty excited to hang out with them that evening and get plenty of tongue-in-cheek comments flying. Actually we have never traveled with friends before so it was something new for us and I have to say I want to do it again. Not only do you get to hang out and relax with people you get on really well with but the kids also kept themselves busy with games of tag in empty fish markets while parents look on sipping Spritz at a fab bar across the way…what’s there not to love about that?

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A bar near Campo Beccarie serving great Spritz with blood orange

After a couple of yummy spritz and chili olives we then went to dine at a place called Cantina Do Spade, which I have to say was our favourite of all the places we dined at. The food was really, really tasty and fresh; I indulged in a plate of fritta mista and it was huge!!! For 16 euro I fed myself and then Max knocked quite a bit of calamari off, followed by Isabel who tried her first piece of calimari (brava bella) and the sardines were so fresh…you certainly didn’t leave hungry.

Day two was kind of planned, we had booked in to see the Secret Itinerary of the Palazzo Ducale where you get to go inside the old gaol cells on a guided tour, learning what it was like for prisoners when life wasn’t so comfortable. Tickets are 20 euro adults/14 euro for kids and I think well and truly worth the tour (especially if you get our guide, she was a bit fabulous on so many levels), after the tour you also get to wander around the Palazzo at your leisure, alas time was ticking on for us and our tummies were rumbling so we literally leaped across the Bridge of Sighs (sighed of course!) and then hightailed ourselves over to a great-looking sandwich place I had seen on our travels. It was such a beautiful day we decided to take a break on a canal and soak up the atmosphere…this is one of my favourite moments of the weekend, with all the gang.

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Lunch with friends

No one fell in (thank god) and we were all in a good mood so Ross and E decided it might be a good idea to take the kids on a gondola ride, this is where the boys are really lucky because they offered to take our boys them with them! Wow! Of course the boys were ecstatic and it also meant they could hang out with the girls a little more, so it was decided Nic and I would go and meet my parents who just so happened to be coming into town that afternoon while they all hopped on a gondola and paddled off into the canals of Venice. A memory the kids will cherish for many years to come I am sure.

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The kids on a gondola

Nic and I may have had a cheeky Spritz with Ross and E before they left (I mean that was the least we could do was buy them a apertivo before they go off on a gondola with four kids!) and we may have had another one…or was that after we met mum and dad? Not sure, however, I do have wonderful memories of lots of laughter, beautiful food and wonderful unexpected company for our weekend in Venice. We all had dinner that night, at first trying our luck in a very tiny restaurant in a part of town we didn’t really know, only to find out there was no chance in hell it would fit all ten of us, so with a bit of navigating from Nic and Ross and a few words from E and I we finally found a lovely restaurant that served nice food (though pricier than it needed to be). It was great to see mum and dad again and for them to meet our new friends in the beautiful city of Venice. I might save the rest for another blog as I can’t race through the Penny Guggenheim collection as there was far too much going on there to briefly mention.

Here I leave you with my memories of a wonderful family trip to a place that will never grow old to me and I hope the boys will one day come back with their friends and families to continue on the memory of Venice.

Gumboots

Yesterday was a day full of fun jobs to do and I was in two minds about going out to do them, then realised I didn’t have a choice. The rain has been keeping everything damp, wet and muddy in this neck of the woods and I wouldn’t be seen dead without my trusty duck umbrella heading out the door.

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I would like to say the sun has shone through but let’s face it, Italy is either heaving with rain or snow this week. We have had a trip to Venice planned for about a month now and as I read the weather repots I get more and more nervous it will be in flood when we head off tomorrow morning. I even had our Airbnb host email me and suggest gumboots for our arrival. On that note, I caved in and went shopping for gumboots. This was not something I ever thought I would buy in Italy, however, I could have done with a pair about a month ago walking along our river dirt track.

It took me all morning to track down 4 pairs of boots (it seems Alex is in no-man’s land when it comes to shoes, too small to go into adults and too big for kids!). With the help of my good friend Liz and her adorable 2 year-old daughter (seriously, shopping with a cute kid really does get you places here) we eventually found a pair for Alex. Hence, we are ready for any weather conditions Venice can throw at us.

The boys got home from school yesterday and were pretty excited about their gumboots, I mean let’s face it after two weeks of wearing partly damp shoes anything dry looks good! They asked if they could go out and play in their new gumboots and I said of course, see you in a few hours. It was dark when I stepped outside to call the boys in,

“Come on mum, another 5minutes…pleeaasssssee!?”.

Nic was due home any minute so I said fine and proceeded with dinner not thinking anything of it, after all it was only a light rain and they seemed to be having fun playing with the neighbours’ kids. Nic came home and made us a delicious Campari on ice as we discussed our days activities; it was round about now, after my second sip when the boys came giggling up the path and opened the front door.

Not only was there mud all over them, they had left a mud trail all the way up to the house, on the patio and exterior walls. To say I was annoyed would be an understatement!  The floor was caked in mud as they made a b-line to the bathroom…I was not impressed. Not only am I trying to get clothes dry for a weekend away but it was explained to them that the clothes they were wearing HAD to be worn to school the following day as I was still waiting for others to dry for the weekend (Italy in winter is full of fun bits no one tells you about, like washing can take up to three days to dry). I couldn’t even recognise what clothes they had on under all the mud, I was exasperated and after they were bathed they told me they had ‘cleaned’ the bathroom, it looked like this…

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Needless to say I marched them straight back in with cleaning detergents and let them know they were not eating dinner until it was spotless! It took a little while for them to agree on what was ‘clean’ for them and clean for mum, however, they did do a good job in the end. Lucky for them today is clear blue skies and the washing has an actual chance of drying before tomorrow. As for the boys, well when they come home from school this afternoon they have a bit of a job ahead of them cleaning off their new boots, how long do you think that will take them?

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I think a quick dip in the river might do the trick. Will I look back on this post and have a chuckle sometime next year? I think not, it will only make me think of all the washing I had hanging all over the house!

 

Carciofi e pecorino risotto

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Carciofi risotto prep

Living in Italy over the winter months is a wonderful eye opener for people who like to cook seasonally. I love being in a country where seasonal produce is abundant, in-your-face and cheap. Don’t get me wrong Australia has all the same foods, however, you also have a regular stock of summer, spring and autumn produce that can at times be cheaper than the in season fruit and veg and that can be really annoying. 

The vegetable I am thinking of when living in Italy in the winter months is carciofi (artichokes). They are everywhere you look bundled up in bunches of 4-5 for 2 euro a bunch…I cannot remember buying them that cheap in Sydney in winter or am I wrong Sydneysiders? Have I forgotten?

I love eating artichokes and this month I have loved experimenting with them in the kitchen (when they are this cheap you don’t mind making the odd mistake, it’s when they’re 2 euro each that you start to treat them like gold!). I had a couple of carciofi left over from a previous meal and they had been in the fridge for longer than I thought was a good idea. Fortunately, they were super fresh when I bought them so the extra few days in my fridge (instead of on the back of a truck being transported from one end of the country to another) didn’t seem to matter. 

I was in the mood for a risotto and I’d had a craving for anchovies too, however, when I suggested to the boys we have an artichoke, anchovy and pecorino risotto for dinner I got more than a few curled lips and ‘Oh come on mum, that doesn’t sound good at all!’. To be fair, if I told Alex I was making a chicken risotto with beans and candied bacon he would of asked for all the toppings without the rice because he hates the texture! I don’t get it. Anyway I wanted to try it out, Nic was excited so I pulled a couple pieces of lasagne from the freezer that I’d made the week before and decided I’d reheat a meal for them and cook a delicious one for us. Everyone was happy.

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Once the carciofi are stripped down to the tender leaves and the stem is lightly peeled leave them in cold water with half a lemon squeezed into the water to stop the carciofi turning a dirty brown colour. After the onion is chopped finely and the garlic thinly sliced, saute the onion with butter (not very Tuscan but very yummy and risotto isn’t Tuscan anyway) on a low heat until transparent.

Whack the temp up to medium and then add chopped carciofi, garlic, a good pinch of salt and two roughly chopped white anchovies for added richness (of course not necessary if you hate anchovies!). The smells are wonderfully sweet and savoury you could just eat it as is.

After the carciofi has been coated in the buttery onion, garlic and anchovy flavours add risotto rice and stir to heat up the rice while the vegetable stock is simmering on the stove top (approx 2 min).

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Adding of the rice

It is important to warm the rice before you add the stock because once the addition of liquid happens the rice activates immediately and the cooking process begins- warm rice, hot stock equals a perfect start to cooking a great risotto. Now there are a million different opinions on how to cook risotto and I am not here to tell you this is the only way to do it. I am not one to stand over the risotto pan and stir and stir until my arm is about to fall off. The approach I take is more for the cook who has to do more than three things at once: add a generous amount of stock to the rice, stir to stop the rice sticking on the bottom of the pan, make sure it is on a steady boil (though not going crazy) and then walk away to do something else. Stir occasionally in the beginning yet keep an eye on it so it doesn’t run low on stock. Taste the rice grain for ‘bite’ and then top up the liquid as needed. Once your happy with the bite of the rice (meaning it is cooked to your liking), stir a few times then take it off the heat and add very generous amounts of grated cheese, in this case I used a local pecorino (An aged pecorino has a much sharper taste which pairs beautifully with the fresh flavour of carciofi, parmesan is also lovely, however, it has more of a creamy flavour).

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Risotto almost finished, just folding in the cheese

A lot of tasting gets done at this point; fold in the cheese, add some fresh thyme, check the seasoning, maybe add a little more cheese (can never have to much) and then serve.

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Carciofi e pecorino risotto with white anchovies

I loved the flavours in this dish and the texture of fresh carciofi is a million times better than anything you get in a can, so if you see a bunch of carciofi at your fruit and veggie shop this winter and you have never bought it before, take the plunge. Buy it and make a delicious, heart-warming risotto, it’s really not as hard as you think.

Note: I hate that the photos are not bright and full of colour, however, I photograph at the time I need the dish and evening light really isn’t the best for food photography, I apologise.