Learning to cook the Italian way at Tasty Tuscany

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Al fresco dinners at Tasty Tuscany

 

As I mentioned on Tuesday, MGG and I have just enjoyed 8 days. in Tuscany, 6 of which we spent immersed in the world of Italian cooking with Manul and Paolo at Tasty Tuscany.

Perched on a hillside (count the hairpin bends getting up there, all five of them!) it’s idyllic, peaceful (if you ignore the cicadas) and surrounded by olive trees. And it has a kitchen that I could happily live in, and a huge marble table that any would be chocolatier in particular would have huge envy of.

 

The marble kitchen table at Tasty Tuscany ready for lessons to begin

 

The 6 nights there give you a good combination of cooking lessons, and trips out around the local area. Let’s face it, it was nearly 30°C most days at midday, and not many of us amateurs would choose to be cooking in that heat, so lessons were at 5pm, ready for that evening’s meal.

The three lessons focused on a northern dinner, a southern vegetarian dinner and a Tuscan dinner, so reflecting three diverse styles out of the many that actually make up “Italian” cooking. As Manul says, these are family dishes, not restaurant dishes and actually, for me, that makes them much more useful. We’ve already cooked some of them again since our return home.

The style is very relaxed, there were three of us staying, with a maximum of six, which the kitchen can comfortably accomodate. It doesn’t need any particular level of skill, just enthusiasm, the ability to follow instructions, and to just enjoy. The wine usually came out at some point in the process and there was lots of laughter.

And then there were the dishes. We can’t really decide which we liked the most, but we’ve already cooked the pork loin in vin santo again along with the white cabbage and dried fruit salad.

 

Pork loin with vin santo at Tasty Tuscany

 

Tomorrow will see us revisit the cannelloni with aubergine rolls (and I didn’t think I liked aubergine before this trip), and probably the chocolate chip cantuccini as well.

 

Cannelloni with aubergine rolls at Tasty Tuscany

 

We enjoyed all the meals, particularly when it was cool enough to eat outside (though take industrial strength mosquito repellent, they’re real biters up there) and I loved how many different salads we did.

 

View of the main house at Tasty Tuscany

 

The rooms are comfortable, though don’t come expecting 5 star facilities (this is not the trip for you if that’s what you need). Plenty of space, beautiful views, though we were so busy that we didn’t see much of the rooms. There’s also a gorgeous saltwater pool, perfect around 6pm if you’re not cooking for a pre-dinner dip.

 

Pool with a view at Tasty Tuscany

 

I’ll write separately about some of the trips we did from here, as we loved many of those adventures too. I would highly recommend this trip if you are looking for a holiday that’s a good mix of activities and sightseeing, busy times and some down time, great food and meeting new people. I’d love to go in October/November when you can get involved in the olive harvest and all the steps involved with the oil extraction.

If you’re a last minute kind of person, I believe they do have some availability in August and September, so get in touch with them now. Your tastebuds will thank you!

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The 12 things I learnt in Tuscany (and want to learn again)

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MGG and I have just been in Tuscany for just over a week, and whilst there are many things that I’ll write about in more detail, I thought you might like a taster of 12 things we learnt (and would happily learn again, given most of them are food and drink related). Here goes:

 

Cappucinos only come in one size in Italy

  1. Cappucinos only come in one size: perfectly sized. No buckets here. And don’t order it after about 11am. Yes, it really is not the thing.

 

Italian pastries are delicious

2. Italian pastries are delicious. From freshly filled cannoli to mini sfogliatella, we loved them. We couldn’t pronounce some of them properly, but we got there.

 

The way to start every good Italian meal

 

3. Antipasto was our favourite way to start a meal. Meats, cheeses drizzled with honey and a selection of bruschetta were almost a meal in themselves, and truly delicious way to start a good evening.

 

Our first cooking lesson at Tasty Tuscany

4. Learning to cook food from a variety of Italian regions at Tasty Tuscany was an excellent way to spend 6 nights of anyone’s holiday. So many wonderful dishes and techniques, definitely highly recommended by us.

 

There's more to Italian wine than Chianti

 

5. There’s more to Italian wine than Chianti. The one on the left was my favourite, but as it’s about £30 a bottle here then I’ll be saving it for great days.

 

You should always follow the queue

6. Sometimes, it’s worth following the queue. This is Pizza Da Felice in Lucca. Always queues out the door, but darn tasty pizza by the slice.

 

Because pizza isn't always round

7. We discovered pizza isn’t always round, harking back to its starting point and buying what you could afford by the slice.

 

Salad can be the most colourful thing on the menu

8. Salad can be the most colourful thing on the menu. And regularly was, with a whole load of different flavours. This one was carrot, beetroot and apple.

 

Coffee art taken up a notch

9. The Italians like their coffee art colourful and full on. Not just swirls in the milk for them. Or maybe just this one place in Certaldo.

 

Florence Central Market Food Court

 

10. Florence Central Food Market was probably our favourite sight in the city. Let’s face it, it was 30° outside, and crowded. And the food was better in their food court than most other places around. We had 3 meals here.

 

A breakfast table with a difference

11. Our favourite hotel of the trip had the most incredible breakfast spread. Given this was just one of the tables, and there are only five (wonderful) rooms, then Relais San Lorenzo in Lucca gets a huge thumbs up from us.

 

A Spritz and a snack, perfect

 

12. The Spritz is my favourite apertif. Keeping this one going, Aperol on its way to the house shortly (Ocado have a third off currently).

So, lots of great stuff to follow. If you’re tempted, there’s space at Tasty Tuscany in August.

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What do food lovers get for wedding presents?

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What do you get food lovers for a wedding present?

 

Hopefully not some of the things that we get as food lovers as Christmas! Maybe it’s just indicative that I’m at that age where there aren’t so many weddings, but I haven’t written about wedding gifts in six years.

Given that I’ve been through a few life experiences since the last wedding I went to (and it’s usually best not to mention that at a wedding) I wondered if I’d feel differently about advice I’d given. Well, here goes!

 

Surely there's a wedding gift more interesting than towels?

 

Buy off the list. Unless the list is dull.

Now, generally I still think if the couple have gone to the trouble of putting together a wedding list, then generally it’s better to stick to their list. Unless you’ve not been organised and got to it too late to find anything either in your budget, or interesting to give. And therefore I would stick with the original plan.

I found myself in this situation once, and it’s why I ended up breaking that rule, and went off list, and adopted an olive tree for them with Nudo. Was still a better bet than the two flannels that fell in my budget.

 

Add an extra food loving something to their honeymoon

 

Do something for their honeymoon

Yes, this could still be a great idea, if the destination is not secret, as it’s easier than ever to find foodie tours or cooking classes most places in the world with a click of the mouse. Just maybe check in that it’s not the kind of honeymoon with an hour by hour itinerary.

 

Fortnum & Mason Beemaster's Hamper

 

A hamper for their return

Let’s face it, coming back from any holiday is depressing, so a honeymoon must be doubly so. A hamper of gorgeous goodies, preferably things that would make a good carpet picnic, is still an idea that I think could go down well.

 

Add to their cookbook collection

 

Checking other wishlists

If the first bit of advice is holding true, and the official wedding list is not inspiring you, then checking whether they have things like an Amazon wishlist for some alternatives, particularly in the cookbook or kit area, might be a great idea for something more interesting than towels. It might be more things they really want, than things they think they ought to have, which I do think sometimes happens with wedding lists.

 

Date night!

 

Book a date night for the future

Originally my advice was about trying to book them a table at their must do restaurant for post honeymoon. But perhaps on reflection it could also be about buying something they can go off and do together? A wine tasting or a cookery class perhaps? You could try local to the bride and groom businesses, or try somewhere like Red Letter Days for a great selection nationwide.

 

To be fair, none of this has held up for the weddings I’m attending. One asked for travel vouchers, another for donations to a hot tub fund. Let’s face it, most of us have all the china we need, so why not? Or maybe even we need nothing at all, and donations to good causes seems to be on the rise as well.

Still, all more interesting than towels!

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A recipe box for true Japanese food lovers

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Japan Centre for all things Japanese food

 

I love the Japan Centre, it’s always been a fascinating place to stop into on a trip to London, and it’s been brilliant to watch their web presence expand.

 

Japan Centre Fresh Recipe Boxes

 

I see they’ve now got into the recipe box business, and just thought how great this would be as a treat for a real Japanese food, or culture, lover. It could be for a night in for two of you, or there’s a family box for bigger gatherings, and there’s a vegetarian option.

 

Vegetable Katsu Curry

 

The classic box is described as a perfect mix of modern and traditional Japanese cooking, with ingredients for one meal, and they all seem to do that really well. There are recipes for Yaki Udon Stir Fried Noodles, Oyako Donburi Chicken & Egg on Rice and one of our favourites, Vegetable Katsu Curry and Rice.

Whilst this is a subscription service, you can cancel at any time up until the next payment is due, so really can be used in an one off way. Orders have to be in by 11.59pm on a Thursday for delivery the following week.

I think we’re going to give this a go, I know MGG would love this given her love of cooking and all things Japanese at the moment, and it wouldn’t mean committing to a whole load of new ingredients upfront.

I’ll keep you posted on how we get on.

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On the passing of a unique hostess: Imogen Skirving of Langar Hall

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Langar Hall

 

I was really sorry to hear of the passing of Imogen Skirving last Friday, in an accident whilst she was away in Menorca.

Imogen was one of life’s one offs, unique and wonderful. A night at Langar Hall always left you with a store of stories, and not just about the food and drink. If Imogen was about, and she usually was, then she would walk around the tables and have a good chat.

Or explain there was nothing to worry about, that women cartwheeling down the hallway was quite normal. As she put it, it was fine, they were doctors.

Langar Hall is a wonderful, beautiful, eccentric place and full of happy memories for so many of us in the local area, and beyond. You were as likely to find locals like us there, as people like Paul Smith (I sometimes think he actually lives there, we see him often enough) through to Jools Holland and Sarah Lancashire.

And everyone got the same greeting, the same treatment.

I suppose change is inevitable when someone such as Imogen passes away, when they have been such an integral part of the atmosphere of a very special place. I’d like to remember her for the many funny occasions there have been there, and thank her for those. My thoughts go out to her family, and the staff at Langar Hall.

 

Imogen Skirving a true hostess with the mostess

 

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My favourite things from the USA, for 4 July and beyond

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Happy 4th July to my dear friends in the US, I hope you have a fabulous day. I always fancied 4th July celebrations, from a clam bake to a peach cobbler.

Whilst there are many things (well, honestly, one thing) coming out of the US that are most definitely not on my favourites list (not even my mild dislike list) then there are a great many things in food and drink that I do love. So in tribute, these are the things I’d be celebrating:

 

Pancakes at Clinton St Baking Co

 

Proper fluffy American pancakes at breakfast

Love these, favourite breakfast ever. I would be hard pressed to pick between those at the Clinton St Baking Co and Kitchenette as my absolute favourites, but many places do a reasonable pass at this classic breakfast dish.

 

Martha's American Food - great cookbook gift for a food lover of all things US of A

 

Martha Stewart

Because if I could go to anyone’s clam bake, I’d love it to be Martha’s. I think all I know about American traditions I had my first lessons in from Martha.

 

Time for a Tom Collins?

 

The Tom Collins

I do like my gin, and I like a cocktail. Or two. And I do love a Tom Collins, particularly in the summer. Which was invented in NYC in 1874 apparently. I knew I loved New York.

 

Amazing burgers at Annie's Burger Shack

 

The burger

I don’t mean a McD’s, but I do love a really good burger. But it has to be a good one. If I was heading out locally, then I love Annie’s Burger Shack in Nottingham, and for the full on US aluminium clad diner, then the OK Diner just outside of Stamford is brilliant.

 

Heston's Pulled Pork with Asian Slaw

 

Pulled pork

Sorry to keep with a meat theme, but I love pulled pork, or slow cooked brisket…really any of those really long, slow cooked Texan BBQ style dishes. That said, my favourite recipe is by Heston, and comes with an Asian style slaw, so a bit off the original, but delicious.

 

Alice Waters Art of Simple Food

 

Alice Waters

Because I love her food economy manifesto of “good, clean, fair”. When I’m not eating burgers and pulled pork, I want to cook from Alice’s books. And maybe one day eat at Chez Panisse.

 

I think I might opt for a cheeky Monday night burger, or possibly even pancakes and bacon at dinner time. Still works with a Tom Collins for me.

Are you celebrating 4 July? I’d love to know if so, and what you’re doing.

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Ready to celebrate Canada Day

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Tomorrow is Canada Day, so it would be a great day to celebrate some of the good stuff from Canada.

 

Pure Maple Maple Syrup

 

Which for me is mainly about the maple syrup. I love great maple syrup, preferably with pancakes and bacon, my favourite indulgent breakfast ever. I really like Pure Maple maple syrup, who are serious about the stuff, offering it in a number of grades, from delicate to robust in terms of taste. If you want some ideas on what to do with it other than pour it on pancakes, then there’s some great ideas here. I mean, maple cream puffs anyone?

 

8 Seconds Blended Canadian Whisky

 

I guess you could toast the day with a drop of the hard stuff, though possibly not at breakfast. Canadian whisky really took off during Prohibition, and has continued since that time to grow as an industry. The Whisky Exchange have a great selection, from more traditional long standing brands to newcomers, like this one.

 

Nanaimo Bars

 

I went to a Canada Day BBQ last year, and made the ex-pat host happy by making Nanaimo bars for him. Apparently this is a real thing in Canada, I am not sure what the British equivalent is. Possibly millionaire’s shortbread, but then the custard powder in the middle layer was a bit of a surprise. But they were pretty good for a one off.

So, it might not be as well known as 4 July celebrations, but why not adopt another one, just for fun? When there’s food and drink like this on offer then why wouldn’t you?

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The perfect mug for the morning brew

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It’s been a long few weeks on the day job front, and I’m definitely counting down the days to my holiday. In the meantime, I’m relying on good cups of tea and coffee to keep me going. So I think this might be my new mug.

 

Life Begins After Coffee

 

Of course I don’t need a new mug, but sometimes there are some mornings where an added smile is going to be just a great extra bonus. From Old English Company, one of my favourites.

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Nourishing Noodles for Super Suppers

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Nourishing Noodles by Chris Anca - great cookbook gift for a food lover

 

Now, I know I was late to the spiraliser party, but I do now love mine, and use it on a fairly regular basis for a variety of dishes. So I was really happy to get a copy of Nourishing Noodles by Chris Anca, which covers everything from breakfast to desserts.

MGG is renowned for dipping in and out of non meat eating, so she was well up for a trial of recipes from this book, as it’s a vegan based cookbook. We made the carrot and soba noodles with peanut butter tahini dressing, which was truly delicious.

Lots of big flavours as it involves tahini, peanut butter, sesame oil, lime…lots of flavours that we really love. I would say that maybe large carrots are larger in the US though, as this was supposed to serve two of us as a main course but was a bit mean (to the point that I had to find a second course for MGG).

 

Nourishing Noodles creating super suppers

 

It was a simple recipe to cook, just quite a lot of prep to spiralise all the veg, but once you’re underway it’s really quick, so a good after work recipe if you have everything to hand.

I’m going to make the ginger-lime coconut soup, for which you make noodles of sweet potato and courgette that you pour the soup over to cook them. Sounds delicious, but nourishing, and a great way of getting more vegetables into regular dishes. She also spiralises some fruit, which I’ve not tried before. I can imagine a pear being a little tricky to get at just the right time.

So I think this is a great book for vegan food or for spiraliser lovers, and I’m looking forward to doing more from this one. I can also highly recommend Inspiralized by Ali Maffucci, we really love the Blueberry Sweet Potato Waffle from this one.

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Getting the kitchen ready for the Chelsea Flower Show

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Where else do you find a Tardis in a garden?

 

I love the Chelsea Flower Show, and not just because I’m over 40. I first went in my mid 20s, and worked there for the week. Best. Fun. Ever.

I mean, where else would the Tardis turn up in the gardens?

Well, until I got to go for the day, which was even more fun. Which is nothing to do with how much Pimms was consumed on the way round. But as I’m not lucky enough to be going this year, then I thought I’d celebrate what I hope will be a glorious and inspirational week with some wonderful, colourful blooms for the kitchen and beyond.

 

Flowers of Libery Betsy Print Jug

 

British and florals? Well, only right that Liberty appeared in this list. This is Betsy, one of the Flowers of Liberty prints, and every kitchen and table needs a great jug. What you put in it is up to you.

 

Morning Bouquet Tray - bright and beautiful gift for a food lover

 

If you are heading to the Flower Show, then you’ll need a good morning cuppa delivered to you, preferably on a beautiful tray. This Morning Bouquet tray from Anthropologie is abstract, but definitely says gorgeous, vibrant flowers to me.

 

Purple Bouquet Apron from White Stuff - great gift for a food lover

 

Whatever you’re cooking up in the kitchen, bring the flowers with you. This Purple Bouquet apron from White Stuff is bright and bold, proving practical things don’t have to be boring.

 

Hedgerow Mug and Jug from Hannah Turner

 

There has to be time to stop for a coffee, and I rather like this Hedgerow Mug from Hannah Turner Ceramics. Floral but modern, and perhaps for those who don’t like it quite so bright. Especially first thing in the morning.

 

Pink Floral Napkins from Lula and Nat

 

But if you do like it bright, then these pink floral napkins are definitely going to do that. From Lulu and Nat, there are six in the set, perfect for summer dining, inside or out.

 

Amrapali Peony Tea Cosy from Designers Guild

 

And once you’ve walked round the show, carried home your new plants and kicked off your shoes, then you’ll be needing a strong cup of tea. And best make a pot. And then keep it warm with this beautiful Amrapali Peony tea cosy from Designers Guild. Can also be used if you’re just going to be sitting at home and watching the coverage with Alan Titchmarsh.

Enjoy this year’s gardens, I’m sure there’ll be drama and disaster as well as just glorious blooms and incredible design. Hoping for all involved that the weather plays nicely, makes a huge difference.

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