A Tuscan Table

So, what to do when you don’t want to go out for dinner, but you don’t want to cook? The answer is simple – Emily! Emily is a lovely lass from Leicester, who set up a catering business called ‘A Tuscan Table’ after visiting the region from the UK some years ago, where she fell in love with the rolling hills (and probably the weather) and never left.

We discovered Emily one afternoon, cooking for the family in the villa adjoining ours, and immediately registered our interest in her delicious services, which meant we could plan a day trip (or indeed a day doing nothing) and dinner would be taken care of, including kind consideration of any dietary requirements, likes and dislikes.

You choose what you’d like to eat from her extensive seasonal menu which centers around fresh local produce, she then comes to your villa, brings all the food and wine, sets the table, fills your kitchen with magnificent cooking aromas, serves, clears up, puts the dishwasher on and leaves you feeling ridiculously pampered and well fed, at very reasonable rates. And she caters very nicely for kids!


We booked Emily on 2 separate occasions, including our last night at the Villa, so that we could pack, get the kids organized, and still have plenty of pool time and enjoy our last balmy day in Toscana. It also meant we didn’t have to buy groceries for our last meal at the house which was one less thing to worry about!

Emily was a dream to deal with, cheerful, accommodating and friendly, and nothing was too much trouble. There were lovely decorating touches on the table, and fresh bread and Prosecco waiting for us as we sat down, and when she left, the kitchen was cleaner than when she arrived!

Our first meal included:
Spelt with homemade almond and basil pesto
Ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta with butter and sage
Roast Loin of pork with fennel seeds
Lamb cutlets with mint pesto

Our second meal included:
Stuffed zucchini flowers
Gnocchi with pancetta and zucchini
Veal saltimbocca
Fried fish skewers
Baked pears with marscapone

If you’re ever in Tuscany make sure to give Emily a call to work her magic in your holiday kitchen, and tell her we said hi!

Ristorante recommendo!

There are countless restaurants to cater to the visitor in Chianti, and we did our best to try a good number of them simply by following our noses. However, when booking our wine tour to Castello Verrazzano with the very hospitable Roberta, who offered a glass of Vin Santo with biscotti whilst she checked the reservations, it occurred to us that she probably knew a thing or two about local cuisine, so we asked her to recommend a couple of restaurants that were ‘non-touristo’, and she gave us two cards, with directions, and told us to ask for Vincenzo and Stefano, respectively.

After a hot, but delightful day in Firenze, visiting Palazzo Pitti for some beautiful Renaissance art, a saunter across the Ponte Vecchio to gaze at the bling, a horse and carriage ride with the bambini, and an excellent lunch at Ristorante Paoli, a converted monastery with frescoed interior, and an excellent spaghetti alle vongole with enough garlic to kill the entire cast of Twilight, we headed home, and after a dip in the pool, to the first of Roberta’s recommendations, La Cantinetta.

Set high on a bend in the road, overlooking sloping hills covered in grape vines, with a huge terrace facing the view, we arrived just as the sun was starting to slide downwards. A glass of Prosecco to welcome us, and menus and a waitress with no English, and our evening began.

Given that wild boar is the local specialty of the Chianti region, the crostini with a rustic chunky paste made of the same was a must, as was the wild boar pasta. Also magnifico was the homemade gnocchi, one served with fresh pomodoro and basil, the other with gorgonzola, a personal favorite.

Vincenzo had arrived whilst we were trying to order and was told someone was asking for him (as we had mentioned his name on arrival) and so he swooped on us like an old friend, making sure we had food in abundance, and constantly checking we were enjoying ourselves and our meals.

Grazie, Vincenzo, and si!

Recommendation number two was one of the top 2 dining experiences for us in Tuscany (the first for me being the degustation and wine matching at Castello Verrazzano). Set in the tiny but gorgeous village of Passignano, which is dominated by a huge, ancient bell tower and surrounded by rows of vines, Ristoro L’antica Scuderia was simple, elegant, outdoor dining at its best.
The man to know was Stefano, and his daughter was our waitress for the evening. Having eaten plenty of excellent pasta during our stay, we unanimously opted for steak, as it seemed to feature heavily on the menu. Our sides included some zucchini, and roasted potatoes, as well as insalata verde, but the star of the meal was the steak alle balsamico.

With delight we realized that the structure a little way in front of us in the garden perched above a vineyard, was a huge BBQ grill and that Stefano was in fact, the meat-master and was going to cook our steaks as we watched, plucking fresh herbs from a basket next to the grill, and driving us crazy with the sound and aroma as he worked at it.

The steaks were out of this world, cooked to perfection with a strong balsamic tang. From where we sat, with the BBQ lit up in the dusk, Stefano looked more like a DJ than a chef, and certainly after each ‘performance’ he walked amongst the diners like a rock star, shaking hands, and checking on his fans.

The desserts were no less than fabulous, with tiramisu, chocolate pizza, and a lemon sorbet that will stay with me as the best I have ever had.

And now for the wine!

No doubt you have been wondering when we would seriously broach the subject of Tuscan wine. Rest assured that a great deal of research in the way of consumption has been undertaken as a service to you, dear reader.

Greve in Chianti is home to a wine store called Le Cantine www.lecantine.it which houses over 1200 wines, at least a hundred of which are available for tasting. Where to start?

Given that the Chianti Classico is the local drop, and its method of production is regulated, and has to include a minimum of 80% Sangiovese of which we are already huge fans, we have found it incredibly easy to find many good and eminently drinkable versions, from the local trattorias and even at the local supermarket.

So just when we think it can’t get any better, we discover the Chianti Classico Reserva, which hits straight out of the ball park with a richer, deeper flavor. Now we know what to look for, and having gleaned some recommendations of local wineries to visit, we plan our assault accordingly.

First stop, Castella D’Albola, just outside Radda in Chianti, itself a charming hill town of sun-warmed stone walls and steep laneways to explore. Our guide gives us a technical tour, a lecture on cork production, and a tasting of a selection of Chardonnay, Chianti Classico, Reserve, Vin Santo, as well as their olive oil which was lemony delicious.

Next stop, Castello Vicchio Maggio, a smallish winery but ridiculously picturesque, complete with turrets and breathtaking views, where the Chianti Classico was delightful, full of berries and sweetness. We bought a bottle to enjoy later by the pool.

Lastly, a 3 hour visit including a tour, and lunch with wine tasting, at Castello Verrazzano.
This is for me one of the highlights of our time in Tuscany.
An 850 year old winery, with a castle perched atop a wooded hill full of wild boar, with views across a valley covered in grape vines and olive groves.

Our host for the day is Gino, charismatic, enthusiastic and immaculately presented, with a passion for wine and life that is both entertaining and infectious. He seeks not to instruct his guests on the technique of wine making, but rather to give us a tour of the cellars, the suits of armour, the gardens, and the wild boar prosciutto curing alongside the aged Balsamic barrels. All the while he espouses the Italian art of enjoying the moment, savouring the company of good friends and good food, and in such surrounds, how can the wine be anything less than wonderful?

With a delightful Bianco Di Toscana to accompany the wild boar salami and proscuitto, we then moved onto a Chianti Classico for the penne with tomatoes and spices, and a Riserva with our pork, cannelini beans and insalata verde. Then came a plate of pecorino with pepper sauce, and then the piece de resistance, a bowl of aged Parmesan served with a teaspoon of the most incredible, aged, syrupy Balsamic vinegar which was pure nectar, and which will set you back 48 Euros a bottle. We moved onto a glass of Vin Santo with biscotti, and finally the grappa, which sent a blaze of fire into the belly and left a smile on the dial. We reluctantly bid Gino a fond farewell and toddled off home, richer for the experience.

As a side note, Limoncello, whilst typically from the Amalfi Coast, is available in abundance in Chianti, and we have also partaken in many icy-cold glasses of lemony goodness whilst solving the problems of the universe after dinner of an evening.

Notes from a Tuscan kitchen

Market day transforms the Piazza Matteotto in Greve into a sea of umbrellas, sheltering trestle tables laden with wicker baskets overflowing with locally grown fruit and vegetables, plus the freshest eggs, goat’s cheese, rye bread, and most importantly, ridiculously inexpensive truffles!

Faced with such an abundance of riches, we boycotted the local trattorias for a few days to instead take turns pottering in our rustic kitchen, and serving up on the terrace, in no particular order;

Baby green beens with garlic and toasted pine nuts

Proscuitto tortellini with fresh parsley and truffle sauce

Bruschetta with garlic, tomato, red onion and basil

Spinach and ricotta ravioli with burnt butter, sage and lemon

Insalata caprese with buffalo mozzarella, basil, tomato and aged balsamic

Scrambled eggs with truffles and parsley

Angel hair pasta with truffle cream sauce

A particularly lovely find too were the fresh figs we discovered growing in the garden by the pool, huge, juicy, dark purple fruit, warmed by the afternoon sun. We wasted no time getting them onto a plate with some proscuitto, a perfect partner for a glass of Prosecco whilst we watched the men lovingly tend their new favorite passion, the charcoal BBQ, this time for a mixed grill.

We may never leave!

Under a Tuscan Steak

Before we left for Italy, a trusted friend told us when in Chianti, to try the local steaks. Travelling with a man who takes barbecuing very seriously, locating said meat was a priority, and Paolo wasted no time in tracking down the very famous butcher in Greve in Chianti, Antica Malleceria Falorni. http://www.falorni.it/

With the ladies on salad and potato duty, the menfolk set about creating a charcoal barbecue, including gathering sticks and twigs, their primal duty assisted by glorious early evening sunshine and Italian beer.

The steaks which weighed a kilo each and were the size of a baseball glove, were cooked to perfection and then laid to rest on a chopping board prepared with extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, basil, rosemary, mint, garlic, salt and pepper.

We served up with a green salad, filled with fresh local tomatoes , cucumber and balsamic, and the potatoes were chopped up into small chunks and roasted with garlic and fresh rosemary which grows right outside our front door. Magnifico!

Buon giorno Tuscany

A quick zip down the Autostrade, an exit at Incisa and a good stretch of winding road past rolling hills of cypress pines and hay-bales later, and we arrived in Greve in Chianti, making our way to the local piazza in search of our holiday posse rendezvous point.

A joyous reunion, and an espresso or two, and it was off up the dusty track which led us to Villa Arancio, our home for the next 2 weeks.

A quick tour of the villa, including the all-important kitchen, and it was into the pool for a refreshing splash around, followed by some Prosecco in the late afternoon sunshine.

Having procured some fresh local produce, dinner on our first evening in Tuscany included some olives and antipasto, fresh bread with olive oil and balsamic, a green salad and a huge bowl of fusilli with Italian sausages, crushed fennel seeds and lemon juice, and of course, a nice bottle of Chianti Classico.

Good friends, good food and wine – bellissimo!

The next day was Il Palio in Siena, and without wanting to stand in the hot sun for hours, and especially not with the little dudes, we were keen to soak up the atmosphere and hopefully catch a glimpse of a horsey or two.

We were not disappointed – there were people everywhere, mostly tanned and impossibly stylish and all wearing scarves supporting the various contradas racing later that evening, the clip clop of hooves could be heard down various lane ways, and the thump-thump of marching drums as a medieval procession made its way down cobbled streets.

In the Piazza Il Campo, wooden seating had been erected all the way around the outside and the centre was thronging with tourists and locals alike, a riot of colour and movement.

We went in search of the nearest pizzeria and sampled the lightest crispiest pizza base ever, with a simple margherita topping which knocked the socks off everyone, including the bambinos.

Back to base for an afternoon siesta and it was off to one of the local trattorias for an early dinner, the eggplant parmigiana, and the torte cioccolata playing starring roles.

I could get used to this.

Roman holiday

Day Two dawned, with some cloud and rain, giving me the perfect opportunity to buy a super-cheesy souvenir umbrella with pictures of all the Roman monuments plastered across it. The weather was perfect for sightseeing, no chance of sunburn!

We strolled along the River Tiber towards Il Vaticano, to enter the hallowed ground of Piazza San Pietro, and then ventured inside the Basilica, dark and cool, with an air of hushed reverence.
Our religious duty done for the day, we collectively crossed ourselves and went in search of lunch.
A simple looking plate of gnocchi with tomato, basil and mozzarella was just magnifico, and we followed it up with a visit to Fontana di Trevi and Piazza Spagna where we sat on the Spanish steps for a bit and just watched the world go by.

A boat ride along the river provided a welcome and most pleasant respite from walking and gave us time to reflect on where we would go for dinner.

Disembarking at Isole Tiberina, we strolled back into Trastavere, to a tiny cobbled laneway with a trattoria beckoning with the waft of garlic.
There we hit the meal trifecta – fried zucchini flowers that melted in the mouth, a spaghetti alle vongole loaded with parsley, garlic and olive oil, and a tiramisu to make the heart sing. A fine bottle of Chianti Classico to wash it all down and we were content.

Ciao Roma

We arrived early at Hotel Donna Camilla Savelli in Trastevere and headed straight to the beautiful garden for breakfast in the sunshine, surrounded by olive trees and rosemary bushes against salmon rendered walls and white shuttered windows, church bells tolling softly in the background. A special mention to our lovely travel agent Caren Cassidy in Melbourne, www.travelsense.com.au for finding this gorgeous hotel, which we would recommend without hesitation!

Our first espressos tasted like liquid gold to these weary travellers! A quick refresh and we were in amongst it, and headed straight to the Colosseum, after which we made for Piazza Navona, for pizza margarita and some people watching.

We then made a coffee pilgrimage to Sant Eustachio il Caffe, where we sampled possibly the best short black the world has ever known. The crema was like aerated froth and it hit the bloodstream faster than you could say ‘all hail the barista’!

By now despite the caffeine intake, the jet-lag was making its presence felt so it was back to the hotel for a recharge, then we headed to the roof terrazze for a view of Roma that took the breath away, with the late afternoon sun playing off the terra-cotta walls.

A pleasant meander through ivy clad cobbled laneways and we found the Piazza Santa Maria, full of outdoor trattorias with red and white checked tableclothes, complete with accordion-playing locals. Cliched perhaps but perfect nonetheless.

A decent veal saltimbocca, some outstanding polpetti and an affogato finished off our first day and we traipsed back to the Hotel Donna Camilla Savelli humming ‘O Sole Mio’, well and truly ready for bed.

Hello world!

Welcome to the first blog of GastronoMel ! Tomorrow we head off for Italy, where we’ll start our 3 week journey.

On our itinerary is Rome, Chianti, Florence, Volterra, Siena, San Gimignano, and the canals of Venice. Stay tuned for more photos and reviews, and look out for a very special blog from Gary Rhodes’ in London later in the month.

Thanks for stopping by, hope you enjoy the journey, as we say arriverderci Melbourne, and buon giorno Italia!