01 February 2011
Florence for Food Lovers
Explore the city's tastiest haunts, and learn to cook the Tuscan way.
The best way to explore Florence is to intersperse its great sights with regular stops at restaurants, markets, delis and tiny bars.
You cannot walk round a corner without seeing another unbelievable Renaissance masterpiece, whether church, bell tower or bridge. But fabulous though the city is, it can be exhausting, so this is when the food and drink should kick in. Even better, when art and culture goes into overdrive, head for the hills and recuperate at the idyllic Villa San Michele where the Tuscan fare is not only authentic but supremely sophisticated too.
Perched high above Florence in Fiesole, this former monastery is surrounded by fabulous gardens full of lemon trees, rosemary and lavender. As you approach its imposing façade, attributed to Michelangelo, and enter the Renaissance chapel that has now become Reception, you immediately feel city cares disappear. Redolent with history (there is also a fresco of The Last Supper by Nicodemo Ferrucci dating from 1642), the Villa has stunning panoramic views of the city and beyond.
Dinner at the al fresco terrace restaurant, La Loggia, is unforgettable. You might try Chef Attillio di Fabrizio's exquisite baby squids with Tuscan bean purée or pici, the local handmade pasta with artichokes and goat's milk butter. You could follow this with a perfect dish of cacciucco flavoured with wild fennel, or turbot with porcini mushrooms. The cheese board is outstanding: seasonal cheeses (smoked
Florentine Food - Fast!Learn the key secrets of Tuscan cooking in just a few hours at Villa San Michele's half-day classes: a concentrated session on pastas, risottos and soups is followed by lunch with the chef.
juniper ricotta, aged pecorino) served with chestnut purée, and desserts are to die for (wild herb pannacotta or crunchy cappuccino meringue).
Secrets From The Chef
To discover even more about Tuscan cuisine, join a class at the Villa San Michele's very own cookery school. Here you might take an immersion course with Chef Attillio or join a singles class; there are even sessions for children. Unlike too many passive cookery schools elsewhere, teaching at Villa San Michele is very much "hands-on". In this charming conservatory-style kitchen you cook alongside Chef as he reveals new techniques and possibly hitherto unknown ingredients while learning fabulous new recipes. There are also wine courses, with trips exploring the surrounding Chianti hills and tastings of fine Tuscan wines with the hotel's sommelier.
If you opt for a cookery course with Chef Attillio, the lessons usually take place in the morning and after introductions - and the all-important knife sharpening! - you will cook all morning, perhaps strolling out the door to the hotel's fabulous herb garden (pictured above) for some parsley to pop into your stewed artichokes or basil for your tomatoes.
And then, just when you are flagging slightly, there will be a welcome pop of Prosecco corks and the students all gather round the table where Chef has a wonderful starter prepared for everyone to share. Once the welcome bubbles have been sipped, you climb the cobbled stairs up to lunch on the Loggia to enjoy views over the olive groves to the Renaissance city below. Up here in the cool of the hills, you will also enjoy the fruits of your labour that morning: truly Tuscany a plate.
By Sue Lawrence, award-winning author of many books on food, and presenter for television and radio.