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Friday, 29 July 2011

Umami from the land of Michelangelo

Sorry for the prolonged absence. I hope you've missed me. There’s a good reason though – I’ve been on Holiday. Technically speaking of course, I am always on holiday. But this was an actual Holiday. With a capital H. A Holiday away from London - i.e. from Gymboree, Songsters with Neal, Amanda's Action Club, Aquatots et al.

Phew.

All thanks to our friends Ryan and the beautiful Harriet for choosing to have their wedding in splendid Tuscany. And for inviting us of course.

The wedding was just outside Monteriggioni, (a tiny - 38 sq meter - walled city that looks like something out of the imagination of our good friend Walt) and had a backdrop more visually stunning than anything I have ever seen in any movie. But more about the wedding – and Tuscan food (swoon) in my next post.

For now, it’s Florence.

The heart of the Italian Renaissance, the birthplace of Chianti, the land of beautiful people and home to what has to be some of the tastiest food I have ever had the pleasure of sampling, Florence is an open-air exhibition of art and culture, food and wine. A true treat for the senses.

Which after much back and forth with dates and schedules and such, we were able to squeeze in on either side of the wedding. And wow, was it worth it!

We stayed at the very charming Hotel Davanzati, run by a trio of very charming men: Tommaso, his father Fabrizio, and his grandfather Marcello. All in ascending order of charm. I’m madly in love with Marcello by the way, but don’t tell anyone.

Now, here’s a fact: Sid and I travel around the world like people possessed.
I’ve always been sort of nomadic (genetic malfunction), and since we’ve been married, I’ve dragged Sid (willingly or unwillingly) along. And now of course, we drag Ranbir (willingly or unwillingly - but usually willingly) along as well.

Wanderlust. A beautiful and addictive thing.

So yes, we've travelled a lot. And arrived at the following considered opinion:

India gets you over-the-top luxury; Thailand and much of the rest of Asia gets you discreet, waited-on-hand-and-foot pampering; the Caribbean gets you relaxed, happy-go-lucky joviality; South and Central America get you that genuinely friendly, highly personal touch; and (not counting all the Ritz Carlton’s and Four Seasons of the world) most of North America and Europe, gets you – if you’re lucky – a “functional” experience.

So usually, when we travel within Europe, we travel with no expectations. Most people agree I think, that one doesn’t go to Europe for the hotel; the hotel is merely a place to rest your weary body after a day of seeing what one is there to see. So, for us, if the hotel is centrally located, the room is big enough for 2 people to walk in without heads colliding, the breakfast is somewhat edible and everything else is generally not hazardous to one’s health, we feel we have done well. Functional being the operative word.

Davanzati was a revelation.

Family run and managed, this was more than a hotel. It was a hotel that felt like home. It made Europe look good.

I don’t exaggerate.

Honestly, nothing was ever too much for these guys. Right from the initial enquiry (and I think I would have tested the patience of most normal people with the number of date changes I made) to the final check out, they were polite, friendly and helpful beyond all expectation.  We travelled with a 9 month old and so we did have special requests – extra towel, banana at breakfast, kettle in the room (which they let us borrow – without us having to ask – for our days in the countryside). Without requesting for it (Ranbir has a travel cot) we were provided a proper baby cot in the room, complete with matching bedspread and blanket and pillow all so cute that had I almost fought my baby for it.

Located in the heart of the pedestrian district, the glories of Florence are all within walking distance. Step out just a few blocks and they all burst into view – Giotto’s Campanile, Brunelleschi’s dome, Piazza della Signoria (with fake David) the Basilica of Santa Croce, the Uffizi, the Academia (with real David)...what more can you ask for than finishing your (excellently made) latte and wandering off to meet Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and a whole host of others, a mere few minutes later.

There’s more: Clean, well-presented rooms, thorough housekeeping, plentiful and varied breakfasts, laptop in every room, free wi-fi (huge for Europe) and  free movies (300 of them - in case you’d like to divert focus from David’s wonderful form to that of Daniel Craig).

And the icing on this surprisingly good cake – the remarkable friendliness of ALL the hotel staff. Everyone without exception – from the porters and the house keeping ladies, to Sofia and Patrizia (Tommaso’s mama) at breakfast, to smiley-face barman Pierluigi - was just genuinely friendly, greeting us with smiles, stopping to chat. No matter what you asked for, the answer was always “Si!” Even in our short stay, Ranbir made many good friends. And so whatever else we forget - this, we will always remember. We have christened it the friendliest hotel in Europe.

Of course, in the spirit of honesty, you should know that I am coloured (but only slightly) by the fact that this particular trio of men are all not too hard on the eyes either. Fabrizio’s taken obviously, Marcello is mine, but if you want any more info on Tommaso, you’ll have to go yourself and find out (http://hoteldavanzati.it)

And while we’re on the topic of good looking people, by the way: What is the secret behind the Florentine gene pool??
I mean, there were more beautiful people per square foot in Florence than I have ever seen in all my life. Sid and I were speaking in half-sentences throughout our trip. For instance, Sid would start a sentence, then suddenly we’d see this stunner walk by right in front of us (and I mean stunner. Face, Body, Hair, Skin. 10 on 10). And poor Sid, mesmerized by the vision before him, would forget the rest of what he was saying.
Rightly so.

No dearth of beautiful men in this city either. Kept me on my toes the whole time, I tell you, looking out for these lookers so I could point them out to my husband in the unlikely event (haha) that I saw something he might have missed.

(Funny how men will never point out other good looking men. But us women, we get all gaga and starry eyed when a beauty walks by. Man or woman, it’s all equally exciting. We don’t discriminate. What’s gender in the face of beauty, huh?)

Sorry for all my rambling, by the way. I mean, after all, this is a food blog. But it’s all totally related you know (read on and you’ll get why). And go to Florence, please - and you’ll see how easy it is to get distracted.

Anyway, as we discovered, Florence is Food Heaven and eating in Florence is serious business. The city is full of trattorias, osterias, enotecas, pizzerias and ristoranti, and thanks (again) to the Hotel Davanzati family’s excellent restaurant recommendations, we didn’t eat a single meal that I can objectively call, less than outstanding. We tried places ranging from gourmet (wine pairings, reservations required, waitstaff with immaculate English etc) to absolutely local (rough wooden tables, tattered Italian menus, no one who understood the word “English” let alone spoke it, etc) and while they were very different experiences, the food was equally phenomenal.

Florentine food is simple, straightforward, and delicious: Given how basic the ingredients and how simple the cooking style (mostly grilled or sautéed), it has to be the ingenuity of the preparation that creates such a variety of flavour. Everything we ate was excellent, but just to name a few stand-out dishes – Crostini, toasted unsalted bread spread with various pâtés, Ribollita, a thick Tuscan soup made with beans and black cabbage, bistecca alla fiorentina, great slabs of local Chianin beef, pizza with fresh mozzarella and home-made tomato sauce (and any toppings you wish for), Pappardelle with hare, Mushroom risotto, a basic Pollo Arrosto (roast chicken), whole grilled Orata, eggplant parmesan, zucchini with olive oil and garlic... I’m still tasting the food in my head and its driving me a bit crazy.

Unforgettable culinary experiences – all.

But the one dish that swept me off my feet (and carried me away into the rolling Tuscan hills on a white steed), was that ubiquitous and utterly luscious Italian Red Sauce. I had it in several forms over our holiday in Florence – over my pasta, as part of a chickpea stew, cooked with chicken breasts, served over grilled codfish...

Interestingly (and no, they haven’t paid me to write this, I promise) no one did it better than our very own Hotel Davanzati. In fact I only like them because of this. And the good looking trio. But mostly because of this.

So, every evening at 6:30pm, we had Happy Hour at the hotel when the ever-smiling Pierluigi (Lord and Master of the bar) would offer guests glasses of Prosecco (or Chianti for lovers of red). This was no ordinary Happy Hour by the way – it was the full deal: Lights dimmed, candles lit, haunting instrumental music playing – a calm oasis offering respite after a full day of facing the frenetic, passionate pulse of the city.

We looked forward to this every evening. Honestly it was such an incredible way for Sid and me to unwind. And hold hands. And talk. And it was right here, at Happy Hour at the Hotel Davanzati, that I had my most memorable “taste” in all of Florence. Served as an accompaniment to a basket of typical Tuscan bread (plain unsalted, crusty), here it is: A red sauce so unspeakably delicious, it makes my heart skip a beat. This is Davanzati Sauce.

Here’s what you need:

- 1lb ripe, red tomatoes, peeled and diced
- 4 cloves of garlic, peeled
- 1 peperoncino (dried chilli pepper)
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
-  Pinch of salt

Here’s how you do it:

Chop the garlic finely and heat it in the olive oil with the chilli pepper. Add the diced tomatoes and the parsley. Cook on high heat for about 15 minutes until the sauce is blended to the consistency you desire. Add salt to taste.

Try it. It’s fantastic. It’s Umami.

4 comments:

  1. I love Italy, have been there several times. Nice blog, perfect with an Italian flavor!!! Will try the sauce,sounds delicious. Do you have a recipe for the famous Puttanesca sauce that you have tried and tested? Yum

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  2. haha, you read my mind...Puttanesca was on my list for my next post along with a bunch of other yum stuff we had in Tuscany. There were so many wonderful flavours that I couldnt fit them all in and I thought this particular sauce deserved a space of its own (its that good, I promise!). Stay tuned (and thanks for reading and for the comment)

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  3. Hi,
    Just wanted to tell you that I really like your blog. You have a great writing style - a way of making everything come alive....your experiences,the colours and taste of the food you write about..And all this without posting pics...amazing work!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thank you Purva, that is really sweet! I love writing it, so I am SO glad you enjoy reading it. I actually made a conscious decision to try a test period without pics because I wanted to see if it would hold on the strength of the writing alone...lets see! But thank you once again, I can't tell you how happy it makes me to hear comments like yours, thanks for taking the time to write to me :) And please keep reading!

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