Leaving the majesty, waterways and grand palaces of Venice behind we travelled both south and across Italy, towards the rolling hills of Tuscany which tumble into the azure blue waters of the Mediterranean, and made our way to Pisa.
From the 15th to the 18th century Tuscany was ruled by the Medici family, a powerful, rich and influential Italian dynasty whose bank was one of the most prosperous institutions of Europe. The Medicis exerted a huge political influence, in the 16th and early 17th century; four popes and two regent queens of French were of the Medici, a far cry from the democratic and accountable doges of Venice.
Away from the splendour and open space of the Cathedral, the streets were narrow, the shops located on shaded arcades, the pinks of Venice replaced with the ochre, terracotta and shades of Sienna from the Tuscan soil.
Dinner at the Osteria La Toscana, Pisa
The La Toscana is a back street Osteria, away from the tourist path,offering simple authentic real Italian fare. Like in Venice the menu is pasta based, but the immediately noticeable difference is that whilst still made with tomatoes, they are flavoured with meat, rather than the Venetian fish, and that the pasta is considerably more al dente and harder than the pasta from the North.
I was also struck by the change in colour of the food – an earthy terracotta reflecting the colours of the city. We ate handmade pappardelle al cinghiale and alla lepre – thick ribbons of pasta with a rich, deep and sticky tomato and wild boar or hare. Ravioli al ragù toscano (ripieni di vitello al timo e rosmarino) con bacche di ginepro, fat parcels of homemade ravoli filled with veal flavoured with woody rosemary and thyme and topped with more of that delightful rich, sticky and deep ragu. Thick stands of pici cacio e pepe, a fat spaghetti was served coated with with cacio cheese and black pepper.
To finish we were served a glass of golden sweet dessert wine and simply flavoured cantucci to dip into it.
Lunch Pizzeria Il Montino, Pisa
The crowded and popular Pizzeria Il Montino is well hidden in a quiet back courtyard, gain far away from the feet of the tourists. Thick slices of pizza Margherita are cooked in a wood burning oven, and served without ceremony on sheets of paper on a metal tray.
As well as the pizza there was cecina, a type of chickpea pancake, served on its own, as well as a filling for fresh, salty oily focaccia. A simple, but deeply satisfying lunch, washed down with local home brewed birra artigianale, or local shandy or radler made with Moretti beer.
Leaving the streets of Pisa behind we headed to the fields and open countryside of Tuscany.
Working farm holidays seem popular in this area of Tuscany, it seemed that at every turn there was a sign to another farm offering Agriturismo. We stayed at the quiet farm of il Gelsomino, close to Cirio’s tomato fields.
Our meal that might was a traditional authentic Italian Farmhouse meal – cooked by the family’s grandmother.
Our starter was a frugal and simple tomato soup – pappa al pomodoro – made to use up old bread. The recipe we were given was approximate, and I suspect had been handed down over the generations and learn by watching rather than reading.
Prepare a vegetable broth (for 4 people you will need 1 litre – boiled 2 large carrots, 1 onion and some celery for 30 minutes). In a other pan make a soffritto – fry half an onion, half a carrot and slices of celery, when the vegetables are soft then add some basil, salt and 1 or 2 slices of garlic, and a can of tomato sauce and some slices of 2 day old bread. Once the bread has absorbed the sauce add the broth and heat for 30 minutes. Take the sauce off the heat and allow it to “rest” for 30 minutes. Then start to cook it again for 30 minutes. Repeat it 3 times.
Serve the soup with a generous glug of olive oil and a basil leaf.
Following the soup we ate pasta con salsiccia ricotta rucola pomodorini – thick strands ofpasta with sausage, ricotta cheese, cherry tomatoes and rocket, a classic tomato pasta al pomodoro then roasted small pig served with potatoes and salad – maialino con patate e insalata.
Lunch Ristorante Al Moletto Porto Santo Stefano
The hills surrounding Porto Santo Stefano are packed with pretty pastel coloured houses which seem about to tumble into the blue waters of the Mediterranean. A large luxury super yacht sits in the harbour, looking slightly at odds with the scene, and we ponder how many litres to the mile it takes to run it.
We ate a simple bruschetta with fresh tomato, lightly battered mixed seafood, pici pasta with a tomato sauce and roasted cherry tomatoes, seared tuna stakes garnished with tomato, Panzanella alle acciughe e tonno fresco – wet bread with anchovies and fresh tuna, baccalá con pomodoro e ceci, richly flavoured salted codfish with chickpeas and tomatoes, acciughe con olio pomodoro fresco e prezzemolo – slippery silver anchovy fillets with oil, fresh tomatoes and parsley, polipo patate e pomodorini – marinated octopus with potatoes and cherry tomatoes.
Dinner at Agriturismo Poggio al tufo, Pitigliano
From the tomato fields we moved to the rolling hills and vineyards of Tuscany and stayed at the supremely well converted Poggio al tufo, Pitigliano, in the midst of the Tommasi family wine estates.
As before, the home cooking was simple, elegant and bursting with flavour, accompanied by the estate’s organic wines.
A starter of 4 bruschetta, ravioli ricotta e spinaci al ragù e burro e salvia – homemade ravioli filled with ricotta cheese and spinach) with and again topped with a rich sticky ragu. Pici all’agliata – hand made stands of pici with spicy tomatoes and garlic sauce. Agnello con patate al forno – melt in the mouth tender oven cooked lamb with potatoes. Slices of salty Pecorino cheese served with a mixture of wine jelly, pear jam and ginger jam were a revelation, and something to be repeated.
We watched the most amazing Tuscan sunset (I’ve brightened the foreground, but otherwise there is no photoshop magic here), before heading to bed and taking the road to Rome the next day.