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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Get the kids into Italian food this half term

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Let's Cook Italian: A Family Cookbook

 

Hard to believe that half term is fast approaching. I mean, I haven’t even got the Christmas decorations back into the loft and the kids are about to be off again.

In case the weather if foul, the bank account is still a little light, or you just have kids who’d love to get into the kitchen, then Let’s Cook Italian could give you a happy few hours in the kitchen. Not only will you turn out some delicious dishes, but it’s a bilingual book so you could give them Italian lessons at the same time.

Talk about multi-tasking!

Following a very similar route to Kids Cook French that I reviewed last year, you can get them started on simple things like cheese focaccia or bruschetta, and progress up to making pasta and things like Saltimbocca alla Romana. I would think it’s a book that would suit cooking with a variety of ages given the variety of complexities.

It does lack photos or illustrations of the dishes, or the steps, so does need a certain amount of knowledge. But if it’s chucking it down with rain outside, putting together your own pizza and then eating it has to be great way to pass a few hours.

Written by Anna Prandoni, this is currently £12.08 on Amazon with free delivery.

Interested to know if you have any favourite cookbooks to cook from when the kids want to be in the kitchen? Let me know, always fascinating to find new books.

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Time for tea and Simnel cake

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Simnel: too good just for Easter!

 

I was all set today to make a Simnel cake, ready for the arrival of the marzipan loving, house-sitting aunt and uncle. Well, when I say I was all set, I mean that I had it in mind that I would. Requests across the twitterverse brought forth an unusual twist with @Domestic_Jules’ recipe for Simnel loaf and cupcakes. Perfect

Requests of the cake baking cupboard brought forth only very dried up, dog end of marzipan.

Request of the village shop brought back a negative response.

So, I am facing either late night baking, or buying one in. If you don’t have a bakers on hand, here’s a few good looking ones that I’ve found:

* I would trust Bettys of Harrogate to turn out a rather splendid Simnel cake, and they have three very attractive looking options. There is the traditional route with 11 balls of marzipan, the appropriately named Apostle Simnel cake, then a large round one, and two sizes of oval. Without apostles but still with plenty of marzipan. Lovely looking to send as a gift. Or just eat yourself with a nice cup of tea.

* If you want to go posh, then Fortnum & Mason will send you a very attractive looking cake. There is a dinky 2 inch Baby Simnel, through to a full on 700g version. My friend from LA was most impressed with Fortnum’s, declared it the height of Englishness in her view, and baby Simnel would be hand luggage friendly. Although whether that’s allowed I’m not sure! If you need royal approval, then the Highgrove Shop do one too.

* If you want a very pretty version to send as a gift, then have a look at The Original Hat Box Cake Co. If the cake is as tasty as the packaging is beautiful, then it should be a cake to remember. If you have someone to buy for who (shock horror) doesn’t like chocolate, then this is a great seasonal foodie gift. And no wrapping required!

* Finally, if there is a marzipan loather in the family, then Simnel cake will be their idea of hell! Perhaps try an Italian tradition, with La Torinese Colomba with chocolate from Luigi’s. Mind you, if they don’t like candied peel, then this is out too. Otherwise imagine this would go down very well with an espresso.

I’m hoping that I can still fit in the baking, but I think, to be on the safe side, the Bettys version may just be winging its way down from Yorkshire to us!

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Spring bargains on the foodie front

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Just a quick post on online retailers of good foodie stuff with good offers, in case you need a gift but with some cash left for day to day eating! Here goes:

Kissing Birds Free Gift from Thorntons

1. Thorntons have a free gift on offer for orders over £15  between now and the 14th, so a great one for the one for them, one for you principle. The free gift is the Kissing Birds, which is cute looking, and possibly tasty. I really like the chocolate blocks they have done, colourful and tasty. Enter code THKS at checkout to qualify.

2. I love how Majestic announce their offers: 25% off South Africa. Apparently it does just mean the wines! Great saving though when you buy two bottles. Possibly champagne discounts will follow next week if Valentine’s Day sales aren’t as good as they were hoping!

3. I do like my coffee, but good coffee. If you’ve got a caffeine freak, then how about joining them up to the Coffee Tasting Club from Coffee Cavern. It’s now available for £22.50 for 3 months, rather than £30, for which they will send 4 different coffees every month from single estates and co-operatives, along with tasting notes. A perfect pick you up gift.

4. Natoora is a great source for continental goodies from Italy and France amongst others. If you need to plan a big shop, then right now they are offering £20 off when you spend £80. The offer runs until 28 February, and you just need code HT785KE at checkout. Not sure I know where to start, but I would certainly be looking at their interesting wine and beer selection, and some San Daniele ham for sure.

5. There can never be enough fabulous chocolate in a home, and Chocolate Trading Co is a great source for finding great stuff. Just to ease some of the guilt, there is 10% off everything at the moment with code love, and it’s valid through till the end of this month. Deep joy!

6. If it’s too cold, or there’s still snow, then stay warm and safe and shop at the Virtual Farmers Market. Great selection of all kinds of producers from around the UK, and for all of February delivery is completely free, so got to be worth a go. And worth staying in for! Check out goodies from Gower Cottage Brownies, South Devon Chilli Farm and Upton Smokery amongst many other tasty choices!

Six great choices of places to shop, six great discounts. Happy shopping/cooking/eating!

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What’s new for Spring?

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Just having a quick virtual browse round to see what’s new for Spring for the foodies, and here’s just a few of the things that have caught my eye:

 

Gluten Free Fishcakes. Only free from gluten, not great taste

 

* From The Fish Society, a tasty treat for those needing a gluten free diet. Norcakes are fishcakes from Norway that have seen neither potato (so you get more fish) or a breadcrumb (so you get no gluten). Great sounding flavours, either Pollock & Lemongrass or Salmon & Dill. Perfect standby comfort food for me.

* I love TheDrinkShop.com, it’s such a great source of such a huge variety of different drinks, the stuff you don’t necessarily see in the supermarket. They’ve just listed SW4 Dry Gin, which I have yet to see on sale round here, or make it into my glass, but it sounds great. And I’m intrigued by the Bitter Truth Pimento Dram, which is pimento and rum. Could make for an interesting evening!

Light my Fire, with chocolate, from Jamie Oliver

* Always a sucker for chocolate, I like the cheeky bars that Jamie Oliver is doing, which include Light My Fire (dark chocolate with mandarin and ginger) and Get Fresh (dark chocolate with a hint of mint). The flavours are nothing new, but the chocolate is 72% cocoa solids, as well as organic and fairtrade, so on top of that to have great looking packaging is a real positive. Cheer someone’s day up, any day, with one of these.

* I know this won’t tick the local box, but it is seasonal. Natoora have Wild Pink Radicchio in from Verona, which they say is very nice grilled, and I would be tempted to try it in risotto, having made one before with “normal” radicchio. I am expecting this to be slightly less bitter than the red version.

* The Eden Project is one of my favourite places, but it’s a bit of a drive from here in the East Midlands. Pleased to see their online shop suddenly looking really snazzy and interesting with some great things on it. For the foodies, then there is the Olive Lovers Gift, which has an olive sapling, and a jar of their own marinated olives. This is going to be one of those taste good, do good gifts, going to support the ongoing work at the Project. They’ve got some great chicken houses too, if keeping your own is on your to do list this year.

So just a few new things that have caught my eye, that I’ll be storing away as ideas for great gift ideas for someone, at some stage, this Spring. What’s caught your eye? I’d love to know.

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The Friday Five – Getting set for the Six Nations

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I love this time of year, love the thrill of a great rugby game, so I am making an exception to the Friday Five alliteration this week to make it six, for the sake of harmony in the kitchen celebrating the cuisines of 5 great rugby nations. And Italy.

Only joking. Though some still believe they are only there for the Welsh to have someone to beat.

 

 

1. First Catch Your Peacock: The Classic Guide to Welsh Food – I would buy this one for the title alone, and have been tempted to do so on more than one occasion! If you thought Welsh cooking only went from Welsh cakes to Bara Brith, then this will make you think again. Goose blood tart, cinnamon potato cakes and violet pudding were just a few of the recipes to catch my eye. This is rooted in traditional Welsh cooking but if you wanted to see the contemporary stuff, get yourself to Cardiff (not on match day) and get a table at the Armless Dragon. Fabulous!

2. Fresh, Simple, Tasty by Matt Dawson – so here we have a former England rugby player, who turns out to not be half bad in the kitchen either. These recipes are just as the title describes, so probably not a great book for an advanced foodie, but for a book for turning to when you just want a quick supper or something different for a weekend breakfast. Is there anything he can’t turn his hand to? Lets face it, he could even pull off pink and sequins!

 

3. The Scottish Farmer’s Market Cookbook – I couldn’t find any of the Scottish team with a cookbook to their name, so I am going for this one as a showcase for some of the great food coming out of Scotland. Perfect for a bit of seasonal inspiration, regardless of where the farmer’s market is!

4. The Irish Pub Cookbook – sadly, I couldn’t find anywhere selling Eating to Win, a cookbook by the Irish Rugby team from 2005, which would have topped Matt Dawson. So I’ve gone for this one, which no doubt will make a lot of use of Guinness. This is hearty, almost home cooking, the sort of thing that is what you might want before a match to sustain you, and put down a layer before all the Guinness starts!

 

5. Rôtis– I really thought that the French team would have at least one cookbook between them over the years, but I can’t find one. So I’ve gone for this fabulous book by Stéphane Reynaud, as surely there would be a few rugby players, French or otherwise, that would want to sit down to any of these  gorgeous roasts after a match. One for every day of the week, including a leftovers night!

6. The Silver Spoon – the mama of Italian cookbooks, this covers a bit of everything that you need to know about Italian cooking, and from every region. I imagine you could train rugby teams with this as well, as it is one hefty read! I got this for Christmas and haven’t cooked much from it yet, so this tournament might provide the push I need to get going.

So, whichever colours you’ll be wearing, or cheering on, eat well during the tournament, and save the rough stuff for the pitch!

 

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Snowed in? Plan your veg garden!

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Getting planning your home grown goodies!

 

 

Lets face it, it appears we are in the worse winter since God was a boy and sent us the last Ice Age. Which means we don’t have to feel remotely guilty about not setting foot out of doors. Personally, this is the time of year I like to spend curled up with the seed and plant catalogues, full of good intentions of all the things I am going to grow.

Regardless of how much space you have, you can grow something, and it will taste better than lots of stuff you can buy. There’s nothing like leaning out the conservatory window to pick some rosemary that goes straight into the kitchen. I can think of no shorter supply chain!

You can either buy seeds, plants and kits for the foodie in your life, or just order in the catalogues and let them make some choices. Here’s where I’m looking for some inspiration this season:

1. Seeds of Italy is new to me, and I want to grow loads of stuff from here. Given that we have 3 raised beds and a patio, I shall have to be strict! There is an amazing choice of varieties of tomato though, and I really do like the look of the Costoluto Fiorentino and the Yellow Pear Shaped. Something to keep even the most experience vegetable grower interested and trying something new!

2. Sarah Raven has lovely things, although not necessarily the cheapest. If your foodie is new to growing their own, then the Beginner’s Garden Veg Collectionis a great gift for a beginner, as it says on the tin. Looks very pretty, and useful seeds like french beans, lettuce and parsley. For the more advance, there are things like Beetroot “Burpees Golden” and Courgette Trombomcino (yes, it does look like a trombone, kind of) not to mention edible flowers. If you’ve got mini gourmets to buy for, then also worth taking a look at the Easy Veg for Children kit.

3. If you want to grow unusual, heritage varieties, then the Heritage Seed Library is a perfect choice. You have to become a member, and you get to grow up to 6 varieties a year. It’ll certainly give you something different to show at the horticultural show, not to mention benefit from tastes that have all but disappeared. Membership is just £20 for the year, definitely an unusual but useful foodie present.

4. Lets not dismiss Thompson & Morgan just because you can get them in every garden centre. They are big on research, and are big on seeds and plants for small spaces. Check out the vegetable pouch collection, which allows you to grow things like salad leaves and runner beans in a pouch hanging on a wall. Only got patio space? They have varieties for you to be able to grow everything from blueberries to cucumber, not to mention some patio veg planters.

5. I’m not brilliant with growing from seed, with last summer being my most successful. If you really want the lazy route, or a brilliant gift, then check out Rocket Gardens, who will send you little plants all ready to go in the ground. They offer everything from patio container and window box versions, through to a full Mediterranean vegetable garden. You can order and give the vouchers any time of the year, and the plants will be sent when the time is right for planting. You do have to plant them yourself and tend for them, but this is lazy gardening that should lead to great and tasty results!

So, get snuggled up in front of the fire, get your graph paper and coloured pens out and all the seed catalogues, virtual or otherwise, and put these cold nights to good foodie use!

Shot of great looking raised beds by greengardenvienna on Flickr.

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The Annual Pickled Onion Hunt

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It's the pickled onion time of year

 

I know some look forward to this time of year. Nothing to do with the exchange of gifts, the bon homie, the endless turkey. No, it’s all to do with pickled onions. Just the one jar that might arrive in a house each year, just in time for cold cuts and chips on Boxing Day.

The choice here was always the same: Garners Pickled Onions. I don’t know why, definitely a traditional choice, and widely available. If you want something a little more artisanal, then try Mrs Darlington’s.

If you wanted something a little more gourmand, then I would say you have to go for the Italian version. Generally, they come preserved in either red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar. I am a bit defeated by finding a source for them in the UK, certainly online. And I guess it would be a little extravagant to fly to Italy just for pickled onions…! But if you know anyone going, then ask them to look out for some and bring a jar back for you.

Personally, I will be adding sweet olive, fig and almond relish to my plate of cold turkey. I’ve also got a jar of Adnams Beer Chutney to start at Christmas too, which sounds very tasty. A mix of spices, chunky fruit and Broadside beer, I’d take this over Garner’s any day!

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The Friday Five – the cookbooks to let someone deliver

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Worth having someone else carry to your house!

There seems to be an obesity problem, and I’m not just talking about our waistlines! Browsing the food section of the bookshop it seems that cookbooks are just growing and growing in size! Which means you probably don’t want to lug them home. Well, not unless you buy two and are equally balanced, so getting a workout as you walk back! But if you’re not keen on that idea, then maybe request these from Santa and let the sleigh take the strain!

Here’s my five heavyweights for your consideration:

1. The Big Fat Duck Cookbook by Heston Blumenthal – this seems to be one of the weightiest around, weighing in at over 11 and a half pounds! That’s some serious book going on. Not the kind of book you’re going to whip out to cook up a last minute Wednesday night supper in half an hour, but a book to savour and enjoy in wonder and astonishment. Those of you whose molecular gastronomy is more up to speed than mine may well cook from it, the rest of us will just enjoy it! If you want a lighter weight Duck, then try The Fat Duck Cookbook.

2. A Day at ElBulli by Ferran Adria – must be something about those molecular gastronomy blokes, they add extra weight to the paper by some magical means. But compared to the Fat Duck tome, this is lightweight, as it tips the scales at a little under 7 pounds. Pah, nothing! Not so much a recipe book as an insight into everything that goes into making these eating experiences memorable. Great photographs take you through a day in the life of the restaurant, from sunrise to the end of service.

3. The Silver Spoon – this is definitely on my Christmas list, as I adore Italian food, and have had to eat my way around Milan and Bologna on various work trips. Tough, I know. In fact I don’t know how I don’t own this one already, it’s an absolute classic, the equivalent of Delia’s Complete Cookery Course in Italy. Looking forward to getting food stains and flour throughout its 6lbs worth of pages. I love the fact that recipes come with recommended wines, all Italian I would guess, and there are menu suggestions too. I can see the pasta machine getting a good work out if Santa lugs this down our chimney!

4. Vefa’s Kitchen by Vefa Alexiadou – possibly doing for Greek food what The Silver Spoon has done for Italian, this is just over 5.5 pounds of Greek delights. You just know this is going to take you way beyond dolmades and kleftico, and get into some fantastic regional dishes. I think this is a book to prop open on a cold night when it feels like the sunshine and warmth has gone for ever, and dream of a little taverna by the sea, a cold beer and amazingly well cooked simple food that tastes divine. No sign of molecular anything here, just a deep exploration into an underrated cuisine.

5. Happy in the Kitchen by Michel Richard – I know nothing about Michel Richard, although love that he calls himself Captain Crunch. Five pounds of technique meets whimsy, I like the fact that its recipes are playful and fun to cook. It also says they’re unique, often wildly simple and always genius. If you’re in Washington DC, you can visit his restaurant, Citronelle, and the food looks amazingly beautiful.

So, 34 pounds of cookbook delight that would definitely be worth getting your bookshelves reinforced for!

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