A Ligurian Wedding Feast

It was a beautiful early September day in Genoa, I think it was nudging 30°. The suited gents were struggling but from the moment we arrived at ‘La Manuelina’ in Recco, for the wedding reception the anticipation of the feast to come seemed to calm the sweaty men. That along with the shedding of some jackets and a few ladies heels.

The terrace drinks bar, where the Prosecco flowed.

Local Recco speciality, Foccacia di Recco. Unlike the idea commonly associated with focaccia this is thin and crisp topped with alot of melted crescenza.The restaurant lays claim to have invented the dish over a century ago, although others say it dates back to the times of the Saracen raiders when people would hide in the mountains for safety.

At the BBQ in a suit, love it.

Little tomatoes filled with ricotta, herbs and topped with parmesean grilled to for a crispy crunchy topping.

Lightly battered and deep fried courgettes.

Crumbed and fried aubergine

Deep fried cheesy herb balls

The meal.

In Italy the entrance to the restaurant doesn’t contain art work or flowers but fruit of the season, figs and mushrooms.

Lobster and monkfish salad

The house white from the Ligurian region.

Strasse with scallops and leeks

Second pasta course. Pesto trofiette and pansotti in a walnut sauce.

One of the senior members of the family run restaurant serves up the fish course in the dining room.

The fish from the bay with potatoes, tomatoes and taggiasca olives.

The intense, dry and apple scented white

Liquid dessert, fluffy peach and citrus soft sorbet.

Back out on the terrace for sweets, speeches, wedding cake and more Prosecco.

After a long day, and a long lunch, I had to face the stairs home…. still in heels.

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A Cooking Course in Tuscany

There was no way I was going to Tuscany for a week without making time for a cooking course. I must admit I didn’t do any research but my travelling companion, Ms L, had picked up a flyer at Books For Cooks, for a Tuscan cooking school at Villa Pandolfini and we went with it.

Courgette Flowers

As avid amateur cooks we decided to go for the advanced cooking course. We had cooked alot of Italian before and were keen to get some top tips how to improve and learn some new techniques. We were seemingly slightly early to arrive. The was no one to greet us so we sat in the sun. The chef for the day then arrived with bags of food he had just bought from the market for our lessons. The day course started leisurely at 10am, it was Italy after all, and finished promptly at 3pm. We did make alot of dishes in that time.

Courgette Risotto (including the flowers)

All the dishes were made as a combined group effort with alot of input from the chef. There were 7 of us in the class on this occasion. I got excited when I saw the courgette flowers come out. I thought we might be stuffing them with a some great cheeses and frying them in a light crispy batter. They were chopped up and added to the risotto, lost in the pot of rice. I think we all got a courgette or onion to chop for this and a few of us did some stove top risotto stirring. Oh yeah, one of the girls grated the parmesan and I helped plate up before sitting down to eat.

Fettunta

One of the best dishes of the day was the simplest. It was one we recreated back at the Tuscan Farmhouse too.  You may have found when you visited Tuscany that the local bread is a little flavourless and becomes hard very quickly. This is typical Tuscan bread made without salt. It is a style that dates back to the 12th Century when the Pisans were a strong maritime power and controlled the import and sale of salt. In order to show power over the Florentines and increase revenue they increased salt prices. Tuscans of the time decided not to pay their high prices for it, so they made their bread without it.

This is the perfect thing to do with it, it’s called Fettunta. Toast it, rub it with the cut side of a clove of garlic, drizzle with good extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with salt, add a glass of red and your set.

Parmesan with Balsamic Reduction

The next dish I was not so keen on. It seemed wrong to me to put that sticky balsamic all over such beautiful Parmesan but the flavours did balance. The sweet balsamic against the salty Parmesan, not something I will be repeating though.

Veal Involtini

So after that little interlude we were back to it. Veal involtini was the next dish we prepared. We all had one veal to pound out thinly and roll with proscutto, sage, spinach, and ricotta. They were then cooked stove top and set aside.

Leek Flan

The chef then demonstrated a leek flan with Ms L assisting in the egg cracking process. At times she looked like she could have been running the class! The flan did look appetising with that golden top, when brought out of the oven.

Making Pasta

Ms L kneading her pasta dough

Making pasta was something we had hoped we would do. Both of us had made pasta before but we were hoping to learn some new shapes or techniques to perfect the pasta. We all made our base egg pasta dough and then waited in turn to machine roll it our ready to fill with our spinach and ricotta mix the chef had just prepared. There wasn’t much supervision at this stage as the chef was assembling and finishing off other dishes so we could sit down and eat.

Ms L making her spinach and ricotta ravioli.

As a result some of out pastry was rolled out thick and some too thin making it unpleasant to eat once cooked. I guess that’s all part of a cooking course.

Veal Involtini, Rosemary Potatoes and Leek Flan

We also made some rosemary baked potatoes to go with the finishing meal. It does all look a bit pale but it tasted lovely, except the veal which was very over cooked and tough to chew. The cheese that exudes from the involtini also had that curdled look.

Ricotta Cake

Our dessert was a simple ricotta cake with pine nuts and mixed peel. It was made mostly by the chef.

The course included the apron we wore for the day and a small paperback book of Tuscan recipes used at the school. I did enjoy the day but it was not what I expected at all, keeping in mind that this was advertised as an advanced Tuscan cooking course (it has since been renamed an Italian Immersion). It is definitely geared toward the tourist wanting to do an Italian cooking course to round off the Italian holiday experience.

The 5 hour course cost €190.

Food from a Tuscan Farmhouse

It was dark and we were lost. Driving down a tiny bump dirt track travelling further into what seemed like a forest from The Deliverance, I was wishing we had hired a 4wd. With the help of the owners we finally found the farmhouse we had decided to rent for a week in Tuscany.

The following morning, as the room filled with light and I opened my window, I caught a sense of what it is like to live in a Tuscan farmhouse. The house is in a valley, you can’t see any other houses other than the owners of the property who live in a smaller house a few hundred metres away. I had escaped, I was on holidays!

The old stone farmhouse is very simple. If your holidays don’t invole roughing it a bit then this place is not for you. I mean it is very clean and tidy, linen is supplied and there is a well equiped kitchen (although no oven). It was the end of summer and getting cool in the valley, the house would be great in middle of summer but it was very cold once the sun disappeared. There are two double rooms and a bunk bed room, all with their own bathrooms. My room upstairs was accessed by steep wooden stairs which had seen better days and required careful negotiation after sampling any local wine.

Behind the house was a small running stream deep in the gully, so we couldn’t venture down. The house is owned by an Italian man and his lovely Hungarian wife. They live a seemingly simple life, the husband working very hard to keep their small farm while also travelling to work as a gardener. His lovely wife tending the farm also. They make their own wine, a very interesting Claret and make their own olive oil. The farm didn’t look that big to me so I was surprised how little land is needed to provide a semi-self sustaining life.

There was a hunting shack on the dirt road leading to the farmhouse, apparently there are cinghiale (wild boar) and deer that live in the surrounding forrest. We saw the men gather there one day and heard the dogs as they hunted. We didn’t see any cinghiale as we drove the bumpy track but a deer leaped onto the road late one night.

Their olive oil was amazing. We were invited to their house one afternoon for strong coffee, claret and an olive oil tasting. After bottling their olive oil they put some into the freezer. I didn’t realise that this was common practice for long term storage of olive oil to keep it away from light, air and high temperatures. They had some which they had thawed. It came out cloudy and with a strong peppery taste which I inhailed in the back of my throat, making my eyes water.

We were lucky enough to be given some of the vegetables which were grown on the farm. Nothing can beat home grown fruit and vegetables. They gave us swiss chard, large tomatoes, capsicum, courgettes, and baby aubergines. We had a bit of a forage around the house to find a fig tree (unfortunately with alot of unripe fruit), plums, lovage, sage, lemon thyme, and a grape vine over the entire terrace. The owner caught me standing on a stool picking the grapes one day, thankfully she didn’t mind. They tasted like grapes, do you remember that?? I couldn’t stop eating them.

On our second day we passed through the village, Reggello, to find a lone cheese, bread and meat stand. Our Italian is dreadful but you know we managed to get some food even if it wasn’t quite what we wanted, it all looked great.

We met a nice local man who took a fancy to my travelling companion, he told the guys behind the stall to make us some ‘sandwiches’ made with salame finocchiona and the foccacia at the stall. Salame finocchiona is an Italian salami made with pork and fennel seeds. It’s then air dried for a few months.

I really had no idea what the cheese was but it tasted good. It had a slightly creamy texture, salty, with medium bite. Maybe an aged Pecorino Toscano? If I had my ‘Cheese’ book by Patricia Michelson and it wasn’t in a crate somewhere in the Sydney docks I might have more of a chance to guess what it might be.

We kind of gathered he thought this was the best way to eat it and we had to try it. He then took us to the bakery across the road and pointed to some cannoli, schiacciata (a grape bread) and a few local treats he thought we should also try. How sweet, they’re the sort of encounters that make holidays memorable.

I love to stay in out of the way places away from tourists but with access to surrounding villages and historical places. Reggello is close to the main freeway from Florence to Rome and therefore it was easy to zip on and off the freeway taking us to the small towns and villages around Tuscany.

Lucca Antique Market

Lucca antique market is one of those places you should go out of your way to go to. Many of us have been to Pisa to do the tourist trail, the leaning tower etc etc, and then as a stop off point to fly into/out of Italy on your way to a great holiday. I hope you all realised that Lucca was not far away.

So very very close you should stay with in it’s walled city to escape the tourist buses rolling into Pisa. Not to say that Lucca has not escaped the tourists but it is certainly less crowded than Pisa. Every third weekend in the month Lucca holds an antique market. If you love a good antique market this is the place for you.

It wasn’t hard to find after we had parked within the walls we just followed the general flow of people and stumbled upon the markets in no time at all.

It can be difficult to find a bargain at big antique markets in Italy and France now if you don’t do your research and know your stuff. There are still some good finds here depending what you are looking for and what is in demand. You still need to take a big wallet and a big bus to take it all home in though. If you were looking for pieces to renovate or restyle your home, you may find some beautiful feature items here.

I didn’t find much in the way of good antique or vintage jewellery but there is alot of furniture, crockery, gilded picture frames and finishing items. There are a couple of stalls selling African made goods, masks and tribal figure but most of the stalls are vintage or antique European goods. Of course you can still haggle here too, as is the market rule.

The market winds it way around the streets and piazzas of the walled city. Luckily there are cafes and restaurants along the way to stop for a gelato, or two. Shopping is hot and hungry work and as we found our way to the end of the market, close to the cathedral, we found a cool beer and pizza calling us.

I hope to find myself back at Lucca antique market one day but this time with a small van to bring home my haul.