Friday, 27 August 2010

Lou Loves Travel: Italy

I never got into Italian food until recently. A few friends of mine have sung its praises and I've slowly become more aware of it. The other night, a post dinner walk led me to the doors of River Cafe. I recently bought a beautiful hardback copy of the River Cafe cookbook from a charity shop, and after experiencing my first taste of Polenta (yeah, I know!) I have embarked on a passionate love affair with the versatile cornflour meal.

Considering this blossoming curiosity, it was only a matter of time before I found myself in Italy. This time ended up being sooner rather than later. Last week Lou Loves Food embarked on a brief Epicurean tour of Tuscany, picking up tastes in Florence, Pisa and Lucca. (It was a trip my thighs will never forgive me for.)

We hid from the rain in Lucca, taking comfort in Chianti and brushetta with plates of fresh chopped tomatoes, and we drank Spritz (Prosecco and Campari with soda) under the beating sun in the courtyard bars overshadowed by the Duomo in Florence.

I drank more Prosecco than I care to admit to, already having a weakness for it thanks to London's penchant for the more elegant and creative cocktail menus. I discovered a new favourite ice cream flavour from their innumerable Gellatoria's- where the ice creams are whipped into towering peaks, studded with hazelnuts, strawberries or crumbled biscotti.
My new flavour du jour is pine nut- a creamy, nutty ice cream laced with whole pine nuts.

And pine nuts seem to wriggle their way into all dishes- from the pasta and antipasti to their extensive and inescapable selection of cakes that line the glass counters of every bar. I was seduced, more than once, by the Tuscan speciality- Torta con i Bisheri- shapeless biscuits with raisins and chocolates and Prisaria, crumbling and stuffed with almond paste, dusted with mounds of icing.

In Pisa, I experienced my first ever edible gnocchi. I had only eaten it once or twice before, and in fairness, it had come out of a packet and been prepared by me. I had been disappointed; the results were lumpy, stodgy and tastes more of starch and carbs than anything else. The gnocchi I ordered in a pasta place down a Pisan side road was soft and melting and coated in melting Gorgonzola.

I ate an Italian pizza in a local backstreet trattoria, where the chef totted up the bill in front of a huge pizza oven (Two bottles of water, a bottle of Prosecco and three large pizzas for around £24) whilst still covered up to the elbows in flour. It sparked a dangerous hunger in me for pizza that I suspect will haunt my dreams and my kitchen for months to come.

I tried as much pasta as was possible in such a limited time; tagliatelle with courgette and salmon, sea food spaghetti and a simple Farfalline dish with black olives and oil. And I kept my energy up, of course, with countless tiny cups of strong espresso. Yet another weakness of mine, despite my crippling caffiene intolerance.

I can now admit that I am a convert to the world of Italian cuisine. A world I have little experience in. But you just give me time...


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