Caffé Desiderio

Italy take two is a blog I started writing just over a year ago, highlighting my families trials and triumphs of moving to Florence, Italy for a year. I am conflicted on many levels, as our year has come to an end. On one hand I am happy to go back to Australia and re-start my life of cooking, seeing friends, walking on sandy beaches and enjoying the Sydney lifestyle, while on the other hand I am sorry to see life as I have known it for the past year being wound up and put away as a memory of the past.

The boys and I flew back to Australia a week ago and I find myself sitting at my parents’ home in Tasmania by the heater on this cold winters day, looking out over the hills of Launceston and thinking to myself…I have so much more to say about our life in Florence, places to tell future travellers about and photos I want to share. So while I am now back in the land of Oz, I want to dedicate the next few posts to the favourite places and spaces I have grown to love about my year living in the Tuscan hills in a small village called Ponte a Mensola.

A beautiful summers evening

A beautiful summers evening

Food as many regular readers will know, is one of my favourite topics to photograph and talk about. It doesn’t have to be the latest gourmet meal I’ve eaten or a restaurant that’s in all the travel magazines, it just has to be good, honest food that tantalizes taste buds and makes you want to get in the kitchen and cook, or at the very least be cooked for.

Caffé Desiderio is situated in the small town of Settignano (take the number 10 bus all the way to the last stop) and was the place we chose to have our last family meal together. The owners, Michele and his lovely wife, are wonderful hosts, who are extremely welcoming and have a wealth of knowledge when it comes to Tuscan food and wine. Not only can they cook delicious, traditional Tuscan food, but they also source the highest quality ingredients that make even the simplest of dishes taste divine. I have eaten at Caffé Desiderio a few times throughout the year and have always looked forward to a return visit. It is here that I must mention Michele’s unique understanding of Italian wines. His wine list is big and bold; and for anyone who thinks they know about Italian wine he is the man you need to meet. Michele speaks beautiful English and can stand by your table for hours talking about how each bottle was crafted. For our last night we lashed out on a beautiful 2010 Barolo that Michele paired with our meal and with each sip it kept opening to new levels as the night went on.

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We started our meal with a selection of antipasti to wet any carnivore’s palette: cured meats, pickled vegetables, delicious marinated prunes to accompany the fennel-studded salami (so, so good!), just to name a few. It’s about now that you wish your kids didn’t have a developing palette and empty bellies, alas we did share and they loved every last bite, especially the cured meats.

Antipasti

Antipasti

Now I could talk about every dish with glee, however, I think you should just go and experience it for yourself and enjoy the wonderful selection they have on offer. The menu changes regularly and there are often wine and food nights for a set price. You can checkout Caffé Desiderio’s Facebook page for up and coming events and you might even be lucky enough to try the donkey ragu pasta Max spotted on the menu the night we dined.

I  have to admit I was a little stunned that he was so intrigued to eat donkey; however, I was also wondering what the flavour was going to be like…

Donkey pasta

Donkey pasta

It was delicious, morish and reminded me of wild boar a little. Max devoured it before I could take a second bite and then tried to eat my delicious, robustly flavoured tomato pasta! It was here that I pulled out the promise of dessert!

I’d like to tell you I have photos of the créme caramel and cassata cake, however, I was too busy polishing off a plate of eggs served with chorizo and lardon that tasted as if there was a party in my mouth. It is here I leave you with a photo of the lovely Michele himself and (hopefully) an eager desire to pop Cafe Desiderio on your list of ‘places to eat’ when you arrive in Florence, I can promise you, you won’t be disappointed…oh and FYI they make the best coffee too!

Michele

Michele

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Italian BBQ

The Spring weather has been an absolute delight these past few weeks and with this comes one of my favourite food activities – barbecuing!!

I was put onto a very good local charcoal maker from a friend of mine whose Persian husband highly recommends it; and I have to say it has a delicious smoky flavour we are enjoying. I am not an expert on Italian BBQing but what I do know is when I BBQ in Italy, there is always plenty of food with fantastic flavour and I really don’t have to do anything to the food except enhance the flavour that is already there.

Last night was a beautiful evening for a spot of grilling so I am going to show you my ideal Italian BBQ when the weather is deliciously warm and begging for us to sit outside again while stoking the Weber.

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We first started with peperini dolci, these wonderful small peppers have a sweetness to them that intensifies when lightly grilled. We then marinated them with thin slices of garlic, a pinch of chilli flakes, extra virgin olive oil and a good splash of vinegar. Left to marinate while the other food’s cooking, they are a treat worth waiting for.

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Once the peppers are marinating it’s time to put the sausage on which usually takes about 5 minutes longer than the beef steak and if you have never tasted grilled Italian salsiccia then you really need to book a flight to Italy and find someone with a BBQ!

The sausage is delicious, extremely flavoursome and very, very morish. As for the bifstecca, I pay a little more and by the ‘Naturara’ beef which is hormone free, bursting with flavour and on the more expensive end of beef (the one in the photo cost me 15 euro), BUT an absolute bargain for any Australian buying quality beef. For example, if  I bought the same cut and size in Sydney from my butcher (excellent quality also) I would be looking at paying about $30-$40 for the same piece.

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While the meats were resting it was time for Alex’s favourite: grilled cheese.

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It is called tomino and it is like a mini brie with an extra tough outer rind that allows the heat to warm and melt the middle while keeping the outside intact and offering a lovely BBQ-ed flavour to the cheese. And because this is Tuscany, you can also buy tomino with a layer of speck for added flavour (no vegetarians for dinner tonight). I have to admit this is one of my new favourite foods too and I really have to limit us to one per four people, because if it were up to Alex and me, we would have a whole one each… I mean just check out that center:

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That is pure heaven!

With all the foods resting and the cheese cooked to perfection it was time to eat. Nic had whipped up a delicious pesto potato salad and a rocket and parmesan green salad to accompany all our wonderful barbecuing. To say this was a feast is a bit of an understatement and the fact that my only job was to sit down, sip wine and wait for this all to appear on the table…well that was a true delight for me.

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What is your favourite food to grill? I can only answer this question if I’m allowed at least 5 different  things because I haven’t even talked about pork yet!

Some of Vienna’s food and wine

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Firstly, I would like to say thank you all so much for your concern and I’m sorry to cause concern… we’re all good but reminded that life takes us around unexpected corners! I am looking ahead to our last 9 weeks in Italy and right now I must complete the Vienna experience as I have been informed Vienna is an up-and-coming holiday destination for a few bloggers out there.

As I said before, the cafe scene is big and bursting with avid food lovers, I have also never seen so many signs in cafe windows stating they are vegan friendly- this is something new to me. Of course, you are always going to have average food shops in the city centre where tourism is at its peak, however, if you just take a walk to a neighbouring suburb you won’t pay half as much and no doubt get something home made and delicious. Take for example our neighbourhood of Neubau: plenty of cafes to choose from at very reasonable prices. We settled on this one called Ulrich which was situated in the St. Ulrich Piatz just off Burggasse and just happens to be the new ‘hip’ place.

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Hip new cafe/bar

We loved the outdoor seating and the relaxed atmosphere of the place. What we did find was they tend to ask you if you have a booking. We never did. However, most of the tables outside were pre-booked but we were told if we were gone before the booked time then they were happy to accommodate us. We figured an afternoon beer won’t take all evening to finish so we sat down and enjoyed the atmosphere. Our server here was a lovely guy who use to study in Bologna last year…and how did we find this out? We kept answering in Italian! 

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Flat nuts – the perfect beer snack

We ordered beers (I had a Weissbier and Nic had the local Zwickel beer) and a bar snack, then sat back and enjoyed the afternoon along with everyone else. I have to say Nic and I both enjoyed Austrian beer much more than the wine. We are big red drinkers and favour a full bodied Shiraz which is very different to the Austrian reds we tried. They were very sweet, light and fruity. I think next time we will try more rieslings and definitely more beer. Our bar snack was delicious, the bread was crisp and house-made from whole wheat flour served with extra virgin olive oil and a dukka mix of crushed nuts, sesame seeds, salt, cumin seeds and a hint of chilli: absolutely delicious and very morish.

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Fruit and veg vendor

Another of my favourite places to walk around in Vienna was the Naschmarkt, this is a wonderfully massive food market. You will find anything from food stalls, produce stands, restaurants, cheese vendors, old guys selling pickles and sauerkraut right out of the big barrels…and pretty much anything else you can think of that is food related. The first shop we came across was an Asian grocer so we stocked up on supplies to bring back to Italy (and sadly left them on the train!!) and then we found white asparagus. Big, fat, beautiful white asparagus, I love the stuff and can’t get enough of it at home as the supply is very small and very expensive. Another reason I love to stay in apartments is the fact that I can cook with local products, so I purchased a big bunch of white asparagus and served it for dinner and breakfast the following day. I would of been in heaven if I had brought my truffle salt too… But I managed to buy some mini brats wrapped in bacon that tasted pretty yummy, so breakfast the morning after the markets was pretty delish and gave us plenty of energy for a day of sightseeing.

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Poached egg with sauteed asparagus and bacon wrapped mini brats

 

Another one of my favourites in Vienna was frittaten; pancakes seasoned with herbs, cut into thin strips and served in a rich beef stock. I can understand why this is popular with the locals, it is full of flavour and the texture of the pancake works beautifully with the  rich flavours in the broth.

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Frittaten

 

I’m not sure I want to post this next picture but Max absolutely LOVED his cordon bleu. The kid has not stopped eating since his 12th birthday and Vienna was his mecca for large plates of meat! I have to say I did try a piece of his lunch this day and it was very yummy, however, my tuna salad was made beautifully and the right choice for me. What I am trying to say is if you have hungry pre-teens then Vienna is your town.

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Giant cordon bleu

Right that’s it, I cannot possibly end this with that picture so here is one more delight you can have in Vienna- pastries 

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Mango and pineapple pastry, apple and sultana and jam filled pastries

By the way, the mango and pineapple pastry on the left was my favourite and if you need a few cake recommendations I hear the esterhazytorte and the dobostorte are delicious…and how could I forget the classic apfelstrudel!

Sant’ Ambrogio Market

For a while now I have been wanting to walk into town for a bit of exercise and to re-visit my old stomping ground (I remember there were a lot of fabulous shops along the strip of road that took me to my old supermarket) and to hit the food markets. For the summer months it was way too hot to even think of going on a 40-minute walk into town. However, now the boys are in school, I have mornings free and my friend Shelly is also up for morning market visits, and so we finally wandered into town last week.

It seemed like a very quick walk, we hit Sant’ Ambrogio in about 40 minutes which also included the obligatory coffee and pastry stop off (when living in Firenze!). Shelly is very passionate about the organic movement and she had found a farmer a few weeks back who grows organic produce and wanted to go back to him. We have talked about the organic movement quite a bit and if I am honest, I don’t think a lot of the farmers in Italy use chemicals quite as much as Australian and American farmers and I am more than happy to shop around picking up produce that looks good and smells like it is the real deal, I haven’t been disappointed yet.

The farmer was very nice and his produce didn’t look like other organic farmers I have seen, where the bugs have got to veggies first and you get the second best parts but pay a premium. No, this was good looking produce, I’m sorry to say I didn’t get any photos of the produce…….. I was too busy buying! How about a market shot instead?

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The other surprising fact with this organic farmer was it didn’t cost an arm and a leg. I bought some polenta, carrots, potatoes, peppers, cavolo nero, eggplant and something else for the glorious price of 12 euro! I have since cooked all my veggies and made some polenta and can happily report they were all delicious, flavoursome and have me thinking I need to go back for more.

I went a little crazy in the outside section, it was pretty hard not to considering there was a man selling gorgonzola & olives and an Asian lady with all her Asian produce; by the time we went into the covered section I had already blown a hole in my purse. However, this did leave me time to window shop and take photos.

As soon as we walked in through the doors I was drooling over this pasta store. Vibrant colours of pesto and homemade pasta were staring at me…what had I done, how could I not remember the inside section!!???

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Shelly highly recommended the lemon ravioli which I was already eying off along with the fungi porcini parcels and ragù di carne….heaven without the coin is somewhat of a wet blanket; however, I won’t be so narrow minded with my next shopping trip!

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Shelly pleased as punch with her purchase…..and I love that they write the cooking time on the packet, so you don’t ruin all the hard work that has been put into making the pasta.

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Cheese was our next destination, you could just follow your nose to this store as it was pungent and mouthwatering. I’d just bought a lovely piece of pecorino the day before so I wasn’t so miffed I didn’t purchase some of the offerings this time round.

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While Shelly was asking the lady about the organic cheeses on offer I was poking my head around looking at the meat counter which always catches my attention. I looked a little further and this is what I found….

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It was concealed in it’s own compartment and looking like something from a Doctor Who episode! I know it looks VERY unappetising but I couldn’t stop looking at it and wondering what all the bits were (it’s the chef in me). It did help me figure out what I was eating in a restaurant a few weeks ago, though part of me wishes I still didn’t know but the texture of tripe is kinda hard to disguise. I know, I know, I can’t finish the blog with this as my last offering to you so here is another rose from my blooming garden to wipe the eyes clean….

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Festa della Rificolona and the Bakers

Posters went up in our local area about a week ago for Festa della Rificolona (which translates loosely as the festival of paper lanterns), which happens on 7 September to honour the Virgin’s birthday. Nic had had previous thoughts of us heading into the heart of Florence to see the lantern parade and enjoy the festivities; however, when we found out our own little community was putting on a weekend of festivities we decided to stay and try to meet a few locals.

Basically it is a festival where kids make lanterns, sing and dance and then, on the night of the lantern parade, use something like a pea-shooter (loaded with bits of clay) to shoot each others’ lanterns to put out the candle (alas candles are not used widely anymore, but that doesn’t stop the kids from shooting!). As you can imagine this was a highlight for the boys and there were many a time I was shot in the buttocks and head (by what seemed like ghosts as they are very fast at hiding these devices!).

By about 5pm on Saturday the smells of barbecued meats were wafting through the hills and beckoning our attention as to where it was coming from. We were unaware there was a big feast on for everyone to enjoy until our neighbours came over to let us know of the up-and-coming dinner. I had just finished making a chicken curry (we had previously made it down to the local Asian store for much-needed supplies), but it wasn’t a hard decision to pop that in the fridge and head on over to the community feast. We arrived to a long line of locals at around 7.30 pm and started introducing ourselves; questions of where we were from and how long we were staying were asked and there were smiles all round..we were starting to think we definitely made the right decision.

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The picture above was taken just after we got in line and the picture below was taken just after we paid and entered the dining area!! To say the queue was long isn’t quite true; being in Italy it is perfectly justified to invite your friends who have come in late for the festivities to join you which instantly puts them further in front and you further back without really moving! Thankfully we were very relaxed and met a few other I Tatti people there so we did as the locals and invited them to join us too!

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The kids were starving, grumpy and sick of standing by the time we finally sat down next to a lovely guy with his three strapping lads all around the same age as ours. Max was freaking out he hadn’t eaten yet while Alex was quietly wanting to go to sleep. The service, however, was spot on and we were eating our BBQ-ed meats within 5 minutes of sitting. The boys demolished the ribs they ate while Nic and I shared the grilled chicken and Tuscan sausage, all of it delicious! Now I also have to make a confession; we ordered patate fritte and despite my previous blog post of potatoes in Europe, these were hot crisp and fresh…..I think I need to apologise!

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After dinner was eaten and wine was consumed ( a 1/4 litre carafe of vino rosso for 1 euro!!!) we were ready to check out the festivities under the blanket of night. I may also point out that it was also past our bedtime so Nic and I high-fived at the fact we were still up and on Italian time along with the kids.

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So much effort had been put into a lot of the lanterns and it was a pleasure to see all the happy faces of kids, mums and dads alike taking pride in their works of art. The guys with the bug below were the family we sat next to at dinner, so we felt like we really were immersing ourselves in the local community and they were also impressed that we came from Australia to their neighbourhood!!

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The evening went on with lots of singing, tears from babies who were in need of their beds and lots and lots of bubbles. There was this guy Mago Federico, who had these wonderful bubble rods that filled the sky with hundreds of bubbles for all to pop. It had been a while since I last popped a bubble and I forgot how good it felt to be a kid again….believe me I wasn’t the lone adult in this scenario!

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As the evening went on I was starting to fade, I was told the finale, being a bon fire of the lanterns was happening at 10pm so I thought I could hold out until then. With a march of lanterns over our tiny bridge I thought we were getting somewhere……

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However, I soon found out that was for the judging. The kids were outlasting a lot of the adults yet no one was budging! By about 10.30pm Nic had an espresso to stay awake and I went back over to bubble man for another bubble popping session.

It was about 10.45pm when the scarecrow led the parade of lanterns to the dried up river bed where the bonfire was to be lit. We all gathered around, people threw their lanterns down to the guys who were attaching them to the scarecrow  and we all waited to see the end result

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Alex couldn’t believe anyone would burn something they had spent so much time making and just couldn’t belive they were going to ‘blow it all up’ (I did tell him a bonfire wasn’t quite blowing it up but it didn’t register).

The lanterns went up in a roaring fire; at first we were all clapping and cheering,

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and then it went up in a ball of fire where we all took a leap back……just to be on the safe side.

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The lanterns were burnt for another year and we were tired but delighted we got to enjoy this experience with our new neighbours. Just when we thought it was all over, firework started sprouting from across the road and it was the first time in many years I have got a bit of something in my eye from debris of falling explosives, at which point Nic commented that only in Italy do they still let off fireworks right on top of the crowd! And with that we walked home in a sleepy daze, pleased with our efforts at becoming more Italian.

 

Pesto parmesan bread

Nic and I were sitting back having our afternoon knock off beer the other night, watching the sun go over the hills and enjoying the cool evening breeze when our tummies started calling. We decided after Rome that we in fact are NOT on a 12 month holiday and we really shouldn’t keep on eating ‘chips and dips’ before dinner on a nightly basis!

We have been good, beer/wine only but it doesn’t stop as talking about what would be really yummy to eat at this moment in time; you know lemon/rosemary marinated olives; spicy eggplant, garlic and parsley dip; cheese platters of any description……. It sounds like torture I know but I figure if you’ve eaten the food before then you can recall the flavour in your memory and wash it down with a sip of cold beer.

We kind of fell off the band wagon last weekend (it was the weekend after all!) with a beer snack I swore and declared a decade ago I would NEVER make again as long as I live. Chef Anthony Green of Fabulous Fine Food in Melbourne will laugh at me for making pesto parmesan bread again after all these years, in fact I am sure when we both left our old stomping ground we both swore we’d never make it again……..It’s amazing what a decade of absence will do and what a walk down memory lane brings forth; maybe it was because we are in Italy and had all the ingredients in the kitchen?? Who knows, but one thing I do know is it tasted sooooo good!

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The reason I swore I’d never make pesto parmesan bread again wasn’t because it was bad, it was because we use to make so much of it every day/night at the restaurant, I’m talking in the thousands. It was the ‘go to’ snack before dinner, waiting for friends, sorting out a hangover on Sunday mornings/afternoons, basically a really yummy snack that was too moorish to ignore and prefect with pretty much any beverage.

Ridiculously easy to make; first get some day old thick bread (fresh is fine but day old stands up better), toast one side, flip over and spread liberally with a good quality pesto then sprinkle with grated parmesan cheese (and I don’t mean the pre grated/shaved type).

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Pop the pieces on a tray then back under the grill until the parmesan melts and gets a slight colouring. Remove, cut into bite size pieces and sever straight away for best results.

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As I’m sitting here wishing I had some pesto left I am thinking this would be prefect served as a side with roast chicken and salad for a quick, easy summer dinner……

Blackberry foraging

ImageMost afternoons I am hankering to get out of the house, especially on the weekends.  Nic understands this as I have never been one to sit around on the couch relaxing; I seem to have an inability to rest, relax and chill out on a regular basis which can be good and bad depending on who you’re talking too. The boys think it is outrageous that I suggest afternoon strolls in the countryside, what a horrible mother I am!

Every time I go for a run I pass bushes and bushes of blackberries, and the boys are quite fascinated with all the wild berries growing along the side of the road. Nic tells them not to pick them off the bushes and just eat them (they could be sprayed or a dog could of sprayed wee on them- this I would actually like to see as the dog would have to be in a pretty precarious position to even attempt getting close to the blackberries that are at least a meter off the ground…..but hey, thats just me!)

I, on the other hand say pick away, I have always thought that if any fruit is hanging over on public ground then it is free to all who walk past. Our Greek neighbour when I was growing up in the NT did not agree with this train of thought and was always shouting at us kids for picking his guava when plump and bursting with ripeness (I guess that was one of the downfalls of living next to a park where all the local kids used to play). Personally I think he loved us picking them just so he could have something to carry on about….it still makes me smile.

There was a lovely breeze yesterday afternoon and we’d played at least 10 games of Uno so I suggested we go foraging for blackberries to stretch our legs and get outside for a while. NO was the first reaction from the boys, followed closely by slumping the shoulders forward, dropping the bottom lip and commencing to carry on a treat about leaving the house. Blah,blah,blah. I knew they would actually enjoy it once we started picking so I told them to put a cork in it, get their shoes on and get out the door! I don’t think Alex really minds getting out and about, but when his brother puts on such a performance I think he feels a little compelled to join in!

With Max storming ahead we started looking at potential pickings. We haven’t had much rain and the sun has been intense so a lot of the blackberries were dried out and shrivelled, which is sad. We walked on a little more to the spot I had in mind and we were in luck. Max even started to pick a few and I’d even go as far as seeing a smile creep onto his face when he came across a good branch.

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Alex on the other hand was super-excited and wanted to pick every one he saw, I like the enthusiasm; however, after explaining the difference in taste between the red ones and black ones he soon started looking for the big fat black ones. I get a little excited when I start picking and can’t stand it when I see a bunch of juicy blackberries just a few inches out of reach. I’ll get on the tips of my toes to go that extra mile and usually ending up with nothing but thorns in my legs and hands.

Blackberrys   I was hoping for 6 cups of blackberries as I could make a blackberry pie, just like the one I was reading about in my Saveur magazine, however, we only ended up with a cup and a half. Not to worry, I got the boys out of the house, managed to get Max to spend some family time with us and lose the scowl. Plus we had yummy, fresh blackberries to eat with our gelato — what’s there to hate about that?

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Potato/Patata….no-one can resist!

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The other night I was thinking of what to have for dinner that didn’t consist of pasta. Nic and I tend to eat A LOT of pasta when living in Italy, it just feels right. Anyway, we must of over indulged in the early weeks because the comment was voiced rather loudly from the boys that perhaps we could have something OTHER than pasta? This is quite an amazing request seeing as it is on the boys ‘go to list’ when asked what their favourite food is.

And just on a side note, I hate it when people ask my kids that question because their instant reaction without even thinking is to blurt out- ‘pizza, pasta, burgers and hot dogs!’….that’s right, just because I’m a chef doesn’t mean my kids aren’t like millions of other kids who love the above list and will eat it at the drop of a hat if required on a day to day basis……they forget about the beef satays with peanut sauce that they can’t help but lick the plate or the roast veggie and lentil soup I make every winter that has them running to the table.

OK I’ll move on now.

Whenever I order potatoes in a European country (actually I have to exclude Amsterdam, I’ve always had great potatoes there!), they always are diced (big, medium or small), have been fried; be it shallow fried or deep fried and always, always pre-cooked a few hours before the restaurant doors are open and served reheated, lukewarm from the oven. Just once I would like to have the potatoes when they have been fried and served HOT from the kitchen within 5 minutes of them being cooked. 

It was this thought that came to mind as I was peering into my potato/onion and garlic drawer deciding how to start dinner.

Everyone seems to love potatoes cooked one way or another and the more I cook of this variety, the less I seem to eat (thanks to the little boys that fill their tummies first!) If your kitchen is limited like mine then these are the perfect accompaniment to just about any dish, I even cooked some up at the olive grove last visit and they were gone before the adults sat down for dinner.

Basically, you skin 4-5 potatoes, dice each potato into the size you like (just remember the larger you leave them, the longer they will take to cook), wipe the excess starch off the potato with paper towel then grab your largest frying pan, add a generous glug of good olive oil (NOT extra virgin) and place on a medium burner on medium to high heat. Once the oil starts to warm add your diced potatoes and begin shallow frying. I  also add a generous pinch of sea salt and cracked pepper at this point and give the potatoes a good toss.

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After about 5 minutes I then add 2-3 garlic cloves, sliced (sometimes a thinly sliced shallot for flavour) and two sticks of rosemary. Keep on tossing your potatoes occasionally so they cook evenly and watch the temperature isn’t on full pelt otherwise you will have dark potatoes before they are soft and delicious on the inside, the whole process usually takes about 15- 20 minutes if your dice is small/medium.

I must warn you, smell travels fast and neighbours may pop in unexpectedly so it’s always best to make extra. These are great for a snack, or served with steak, chicken, veggies, pork…the list goes on.

I served ours with a zucchini and Tuscan sausage dish I came up with that could be cooked in one pot (again I have a very limited kitchen in the pots department and even more limits on bench space but more about that another time. 

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The olive grove

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It’s not everyday you re-connect with a person you met 8 years ago when life was throwing you a few curve balls; for example……living in a foreign country with a new-born baby and a toddler; your husband going off each morning to bury himself in the archives of 16th-century Europe, or trying to work out when you should leave the apartment so it fits in with feeding schedules for the baby, toilet stops for the potty-training toddler and last but not least, trying to figure out how to make friends.

I met Melanie at a local English speaking church (St. James) where a bunch of mums started a mother’s group for English-speaking mums living in Florence. It was something I really needed and a chance to speak to someone other than my 3-year-old son.

Melanie also had a boy the same age as Max and a new born a few weeks older than Alex so I’m sure we had lots to talk about….Oh did I also mention she is a chef and one of the best cake designers I have seen; her website should explain her work better than I can write about it. Anyway, I say ‘I’m sure’ because to be quite honest I don’t remember a whole lot of the early days when Alex was only weeks old, however, I did remember Melanie and I did remember talking to her about food, cooking classes and a few other bits and pieces even though we never had a strong connection as I left about three months after meeting her. Thanks to Facebook we reconnected a few years ago and have been following each others career ever since.

When we found out we would be heading over to Florence this year I was so excited to reconnect with Melanie in person and basically pick her brains about all she had been doing in the 8 years we have been living in separate countries. I was also happy to learn she felt the same.

Once we settled in to our place in Florence I gave Melanie a call and she invited us all out to the family olive grove for a much needed swim in the pool, a relaxed, delicious meal, vino and lots and lots of talking. This was an offer I was not going to refuse!

It was a really hot day when Paolo her husband came to pick us up at 4 in the afternoon. Foolishly I thought it wouldn’t be so bad re. the heat, and when I stepped out of the house into what felt like an oven on full range, all I could think about was a pool and a cool breeze.

I had never met Paolo, and we laughed at the fact that we really were complete strangers getting together on a chance meeting that happened 8 years ago when our lives were very different. This is stepping out of your comfort zone; if I’d never of connected with Melanie over the internet once back in the comforts of the world I knew, we would never of arrived at the olive grove and we would of never been able to talk for 4 hours straight about our lives both in and out of the kitchen- it was fantastic!

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Melanie has since had a third son and all 5 boys got on like a house on fire; swimming until their fingers were shrivelling like dried prunes; gathering sticks for bows and arrows, making swords, daggers and anything else you can whittle out of a piece of wood. Running through the olive grove trying to catch the fat bunny that feeds on all the vegetables will be forever in their memory, this I can guarantee!

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As the air cooled Paolo stoked the BBQ while Melanie took me around to the outdoor kitchen and we played with produce that was grown a stone’s throw away (seriously, a dream come true for me). We used olive oil that was pressed from the trees around us and I had a hard decision wondering which tomatoes I would use for the salad.

ImageWe decided to keep the food simple and stress free. I made one of my all time favourite faro salads before we left home. I can’t seem to get enough of it at the moment, though I’m sure this will pass when I eat it one too many times…….well maybe?

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We were in for an absolute treat. As Melanie was cutting off slabs of pecorino cheese onto a plate she was telling me of their family’s butcher who goes and hand picks the animal he slaughters and then lovingly butchers the beast, then sells it from his shop in the back hills of Southern Florence (I have been promised a visit to his shop as it is quite difficult to get to if you don’t know the area……..YES, I am excited!!)

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So a quick reverse, the pecorino Melanie was cutting (pic below)  and also the prosciutto we ate with the melon were from their wonderful butcher, honestly the man can do no wrong in my book!

The other treat Melanie had in stall was the 35-year-old balsamic vinegar she drizzled over the pecorino: a brilliant flavour combination and the texture of the balsamic was syrupy, sticky, rich and divine to put it simply.

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Melon, prosciutto and homemade salami..I could of eaten this all afternoon..

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I don’t have to tell you the olive grove holds a special place in my heart and being asked back for a second week was heavenly for all four of us. We will have many more fun days/nights with Melanie and her family this I am sure of but for me this will be a memory I will hold onto when I’m wondering what an earth I have done with my life……I feel very lucky indeed.

 

 

Summer lunches

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We have been in our place for two weeks now and I have noticed we are eating like royalty. Obviously we all have our own opinions on what we think is a specialty item, however, when I use to buy the tight, tough little balls of mozzarella back home for $8 a piece and think that was well worth the $$$, you can only imagine the delight when I go shopping here an buy a packet of three buffalo mozzarella balls for a third of the price I pay for one back home. I have to add prosciutto, tomatoes and faro to this list, not to mention the flavour bursting melons, nectarines, peaches and strawberries.

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I did think I needed to watch what I ate before arriving in Italy as I didn’t want to turn into a mozzarella ball myself. However, now that I’m here I’ve discovered I have to walk a round trip of 2km to the nearest grocery shop, and I’ve decided that is a perfect amount of walking for me to eat whatever I want when the need arises without any guilt trip.

Lunches seem to be our favoured meal of the day so far. I am trying all the different types of bread offered in our local bakery from schiacciata to Toscana bread (made with no salt) to pane con sale (made with salt). I’m even more pleased with myself that I have actually put my language skills to the test at our local bakery and ordered our daily bread in Italian from start to finish AND she understood! This is a highlight for me thus far as I usually walk into a shop, freeze, smile and then do some kind of mime to get what I came for. Usually by the end of the transaction I always walk out with something, just not what I always intended to buy. Despite my Italian teacher’s despair of me talking here in Italy, the tiny bits of Italian I did learn in Sydney are actually paying off and working for me!!

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As you can see from the photos I have uploaded there is a pattern with our lunches. Tomatoes feature most frequently, along with bread and mozzarella and prosciutto. Alex has turned into a massive fan, if he had his way he’d be quite happy sitting down to a whole tomato and mozzarella ball and taking alternative bites until they were devoured! This is amazing coming from a boy who didn’t really like tomatoes back home and only wanted mozzarella on his pizza, melted.

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While the sun sits high in the sky and keeps my basil plant flourishing, we will keep devouring as much cheese (OMG, I haven’t even mentioned how fabulous the pecorino cheeses are…..I’m slowly working my way around the deli!), prosciutto, tomato and anything else that looks delicious until the weather starts to cool and I venture into the kitchen and turn on the oven.

I can’t see that happening for quite a while, funnily enough I am absolutely OK with that. The only thing I have neglected to eat more of is gelato and thankfully we just discovered a great looking gelateria down the hill this morning as we meandered down for coffee and a pastry at the most fantastic pasticceria we walked past the other day, so that will be next on the list of shops to visit.