I smiled ruefully when I tore the end of week page from my calendar last night. It read “What great thing would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?”. Hands up those of you who can answer that question without a moment’s hesitation? I know I can – we all have our dreams – but yesterday I would have settled for more modest achievements – a perfect lemon tart, a creamy panna cotta with a topping of summer fruits and shards of honeycomb, a rare bistecca alla fiorentina served straight from the Big Green Egg.
Yes yesterday was one of those days where my careful plans to try out some of my favourite Italian recipes came unstuck, reminding me what a long way I have to go to become a cook who can produce good results, consistently every time. I mean I even managed to burn a batch of my foolproof chilli jam!
You see I’m still suffering withdrawal symptoms from Italy and I thought I would work it out of my system by trying out some Italian recipes in Duncannon but my pretty dismal efforts just made me want to hop on a plane back to Italy to savour the real thing.
Ah Italy! Is it really only two Sundays ago that we were at Fredi and Oli’s first birthday party at Borgo di Colleoli, a renovated medieval manor and holiday complex in the hills above Pontadera.
Solange has been my friend for over 4 years now since she first began to teach me Italian and I’ve been with her through the lead up to the birth of the twins and early motherhood. My Italian vocabulary is not extensive yet but, thanks to her, I can hold down a conversation about pregnancy, babies, cultural differences in child-rearing across continents and what it is like to be a long-distance Nai Nai!
I feel a strong thread of connection with her mother Elena who lives in Romania and her mother-in-law Susana in Argentina which I wrote about here. I love the way rituals of family and friendship bind all our families together across many cultures and continents – that and the power of Skype to help us build relationships with our grandchildren despite the distance.
And so it was a real privilege to join Solange’s immediate family for birthday lunch at i Secoli restaurant in the Borgo, to get a chance to reconnect with her Mum who I met in Dublin last year and to meet her Dad for the first time. Afterwards we were were joined by a wider group of their family and friends for what the Italians call una merenda – a snack – but to us was an expansive buffet served in the shade of trees near the swimming pool overlooking the olive groves, an Italian summer celebration of family and life at its best.
While in China, Dermot’s major milestone so far has been the celebration of his first 100 days, there were special rituals associated with the twins’ first birthday too, some of them rooted in Romanian traditions. Locks were cut from their hair to symbolise their transition from babyhood to boyhood.
Then Fredi and Oli were given the opportunity to choose between three items to indicate their likely choice of careers. The options were a book signifying a life of academic learning and writing, money indicating a role in finance and commerce and a scissors for a vocation in trades and crafts.
While one chose a book the other pounced on the book and the money simultaneously.
These two adorable little boys have been part of our lives from the day they were born. I’ve watched as their separate personalities emerge and I look forward to seeing them grow. If we long-distance Nai Nais can’t spend as much time with our own grandchildren as we would like at least we can share wholeheartedly in the joy of others.
But back to Tuscany for a moment. Near the end of the holiday, I was feeling a bit regretful that I hadn’t done enough sight-seeing in the area south of Livorno. Our few forays to the coast near our agriturismo had been disappointing . Nearby Cecina with its beach Cecina Mare is a typical, pleasant Italian seaside resort, popular with Italian tourists who line up in serried rows on the narrow beach all day, every day but it’s not very visually appealing.
A random twitter conversation with my friends Sinead Fox @bumblesorrice and Marie McKenna @MaudMonaghan drew my attention to the little resort of San Vincenzo a bit further down the Tuscan coast. I remembered Sinead writing about her holiday there with her boys here on her blog last year and Marie had also stayed there.
So on our second last day we travelled a half an hour down the road and were immediately smitten by this pretty seaside resort with its attractive marina. It has a different feel to other resorts in the area, a gentler pace and a pleasant main street lined with speciality shops and with a back bone of covered restaurants straggling down its length. The town was sleepy in the mid-day sun but leaps into action at night when the shops and restaurants open.
We had a light lunch at il Bucaniere which is beautifully positioned on the seafront at the northern edge of the town. We shared a portion of calamari fritti which was perfection on a plate. I would have loved to return for dinner and to watch the sun setting over the sea but we couldn’t get a booking. Based on that simple dish with a glass of verdicchio, it would be well worth another visit.
Buoyed up by the success of our day trip to San Vincenzo, I set about finding a restaurant in the vicinity for the final meal of our holiday and that’s how I stumbled on Ristorante il Sale, perched on a hilltop a few kilometres outside the town. This was the find of the holiday.
il Sale is part of the agriturismo Poggio ai Santi. The setting is stunning with views out towards the islands of Elba and Corsica. The restaurant itself is a warren of interconnecting rooms and outdoor terraces so that you feel that you are guests of the house lingering in the library or with a bird’s eye view of the kitchen. The food is cooked with passion and flair by Chef Denny using locally sourced, seasonal ingredients, fruit and vegetables grown in the estate and their own wines and organic olive oils.
The appetiser – a spoonful of strawberry dressed in balsamic and parmesan – bursting with flavour was a portent of what was to follow.
My antipasto was described as a cestino – a nest of parmesan filled with salads dell’ orto, fried quail egg, crunchy organic pork cheeks and garnished with baby tomatoes and sunflower seeds.
The primo I chose was spaghetti of grain kamut with blue fish, anchovies, capers, oregano, lemon peel and tomatoes. All the ingredients were organic.
My secondo of turbot with chard and shallot sauce left me purring with pleasure. Meat dishes were equally as good – the best cinghiale ragu of the holiday served with wheat germ tacconi pasta and a fillet of organic chianina beef in filo pastry with shallots and Salina capers.
To round it all off, a creme brulee with fresh vanilla and crunchy orange and some perfect espressos.
This is a restaurant that deserves its Michelin mention. It was in a different league to any other meal we had on this trip and yet the full price for two, including a bottle of their very acceptable house white, still came in at around €130. Poggio ai Santi would make a lovely base for a holiday in the area.
So there you go. That completes the snapshot of my most recent culinary ramble around Tuscany. A few nights after we returned to Dublin we joined friends at a tiny little Italian restaurant in Monkstown, Co. Dublin called That’s Amore – simple, honest and authentic Italian cooking delivered by a warm and friendly husband and wife team. They have attracted a following of Italians living in Dublin and that, combined with a perfect buffalo mozzarella flown in from Italy that morning and excellent tagliata, made me feel that I had stepped off a plane onto Italian soil once more. It was very reasonably priced too compared to eating out in Italy, a welcome reminder too of how far we have come in Ireland in offering good value for money in top quality food. Pay them a visit but book well ahead as it is very popular.
Now I’m off to try again with my lemon tart, panna cotta and honeycomb, not to mention some slow roasted onions and tomatoes. If you’re not afraid you can achieve most things eventually, even learning to cook and to speak Italian! In the meantime if any of you have a recipe for the perfect panna cotta, please let me know…
PS: More CHINESE recipes coming up soon.