x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Make a holiday of table-hopping in Tuscany

From the simple, sublime cuisine to the beautifully presented bills, savour the pleasures of eating in this beloved region.

Caprese salad. Photo credit: istockphoto.com
Caprese salad. Photo credit: istockphoto.com

Tuscan restaurants have a very formal approach to compiling the bill. Each cheque in the waiter's pad is a many-layered thing, with counterfoils for the kitchen, accounts, the bar and who knows what else. The final page is a large pink rectangular slip that is returned to your table with the change or credit card once the undoubtedly heavenly repast is complete.

They are not common counterfoils one would find in any restaurant, mind you. These Tuscan gems come adorned with intricate artwork depicting the restaurant, the surrounding countryside and often some sort of heraldic crest. They are gourmandist artefacts that belong to an age before mobile phones, laptops, email and Twitter - the essence of Tuscany itself. A record of an event so important that it should be preserved in every tiny detail to peruse and savour at some moment of wistful hunger in the distant future.

Street vendors in the tourist traps of Florence, Sienna and Volterra do a brisk trade in T-shirts, postcards, fridge magnets and hilariously disfigured statuettes of Michelangelo's David. But I think my restaurant bills are a far more evocative memento. When I get home I lay them all out on the table before me, like holiday snaps, and reminisce: there is the Hotel Ristorante Molina D'Era and the Del Duca in Volterra, the Ristorante Buca Poldo and the Pizzeria Sancho Panza in Florence, the Ristorante La Speranza, hidden on an almost impossible to find back road near Colle Val D'Elsa, and many more. Each one has its own tale to tell, and together they recount a mouthwatering travelogue.

Tuscany is all about food, and any trip to the central Italian region should be almost entirely spent eating, drinking and, occasionally, shopping in as many of the innumerable and abundant food markets as you can find.

There are serious types who will tell you that you simply must go to the Uffizi in Florence to see the Rembrandts, or to Siena to gaze at the spires. And they do have a point. Walled Renaissance cities and centuries of priceless art history are indeed an attraction.

But in my mind they are but a side show when compared to a glistening bowl of fresh spaghetti in squid ink or a lovingly prepared ragu of hare with tagliatelli.

My wife, Alida, and I recently discovered as much when we escaped the sandstorms and rising temperatures of early summer in Abu Dhabi for a fortnight in Volterra, a tiny and typically Tuscan walled city on a hill surrounded by an endless, fertile, green rolling landscape.

As with so many beautiful little towns in the area, Volterra has existed as a settlement since prehistory. It was a Neolithic enclave and became an important centre for Etruscan civilisation. Indeed, there is an extensive Etruscan Museum in Volterra with floor upon floor of almost identical headstones from the graves of what seems to be the final resting place of every Etruscan who ever lived.

Volterra's central position and extreme natural beauty led every powerful Italian clan of the last couple of millennia to seek ownership of the town. The Romans declared it an important municipium, the Florentines conquered it until they were toppled by the Medici in 1530, who took possession until the Grand Duchy of Tuscany stepped in. These days, however, a slightly less erudite bunch are seeking control of Volterra's cobbled streets and duomo.

Fans of the popular Twilight series of vampire-themed novels are flocking there in droves. In Stephenie Meyer's books, the town is home to the Volturi, a group of powerful and ancient vampires. The even more popular movie, however, was shot in nearby Montepulciano, causing confusion and disappointment for the coach loads of teens arriving in Volterra. Because of this new-found popularity, it is probably best to avoid Volterra in the school holidays, as it gets fairly crowded with said disappointed teens who at least have a newly opened museum of torture to keep them occupied.

If you do encounter such hordes, however, it is easy to escape up a couple of steep cobbled alleys to one of the finest restaurants in town.

The Ristorante Inoteca Del Duca (www.enoteca-delduca-ristorante.it; 00 39 0588 81510) on the Via di Castello, has not been around as long as the Volturi or the Medici. The restaurant opened in 2001 and is easy to find - just take the first right once you pass the square where the buses full of Twilight fans arrive. The owner and his wife are both excellent chefs and there is a fine cellar. In summer you can dine outside in a beautiful garden carved out of the ancient city walls. It is a little pricey, though; a good meal will cost about €50 (Dh260) per head.

The restaurant cheque from Del Duca is perhaps the most evocative of all in my most recent collection. Enclosed in its own parchment booklet, it depicts a tiny map of Tuscany, marked with important locations such as the vineyards, olive groves and farms that provide its delicious ingredients. The front is adorned with a depiction of the city's walls.

My wife ate a simple Caprese salad (€4; Dh20) of the ripest tomatoes, the freshest garden basil and Mozzarella di buffala with a silken texture and delicate flavour the likes of which I have never encountered before. The olive oil drizzled on top was organic and pressed less than half a mile away from the restaurant. I ate a traditional Tuscan soup of bread, tomatoes and olive oil called pappa Toscana (€4; Dh20).

The waiter's cursive and immaculate handwriting on the bill reminds me that we followed this up with conchiglie with oxtail ragu (€6; Dh31). The pasta shells were almost uniform, the grooves on each differing only very slightly - the first evidence that they were handmade and fresh, not machine stamped and dried.

Their golden colour betrayed the extra egg yolks in the dough that no pasta factory would ever consider using as it would make the humble noodles far too expensive to sell at a profit. Pasta with such a golden hue is called "millionaire's pasta" by Italian cooks, and the flavour is certainly priceless.

From here we wandered around town before heading back to the Casa San Mario, a beautiful farmhouse located a few kilometres down a dirt track from the main road to Pisa that we rented. Its terracotta roof tiles, creeping vines, acres of undulating grounds, rickety garden furniture and outdoor brick pizza oven were straight out of a Rossellini movie. In the evening we ventured out to the Hotel Ristorante Molino D'Era (www.molinodera.com; 00 39 0588 33220), just a couple of kilometres down the Pisa road.

As is often the case in Tuscany, one long and winding road looks much like another and at night, the lack of street lights or illuminated signs can turn a 10-minute, 3km journey into several hours of frustration. By the time we arrived at Molino D'Era the apologetic owner informed us that the pasta boiler had been turned off and that dinner was over. A dozen or so well-fed local families looked upon us with pity as their chairs sagged beneath the weight of recently consumed antipasti, primi and secondi. Not to mention the contorni and dolci.

Our obvious dejection was too much for the diminutive Italian Mama in charge. "I can light the grill for you," she said. "I could make you bistec alla Fiorentina."

Looking at Molino D'Era's restaurant cheque today, I can still smell the smokiness of the char on the meat. I can hear the waitress sharpening her knife at the table in preparation for carving the giant porterhouse T-bone of beef (€50; Dh260).

But perhaps the greatest memory evoked by this particular souvenir was the garnish that accompanied this monument to butchery: rock salt and wedges of fresh lemon were all that was served with our incredibly rare meat. Never before have I squeezed fresh lemon juice on a steak, but now I will every time.

There are so many more places near Volterra you could choose on a quest for the perfect Tuscan meal. There's Bado, just in front of the city's ancient gates, a cheap local joint that served perhaps the best game ragu I have ever eaten. The Caffé L'Incontro on the Via Matteotti makes its own gelato, tremendous cappuccinos and simple, home-made lunches.

There is a three Michelin-star restaurant one hour away at San Vincenzo called Il Ganbero Rosso, while half an hour away from Volterra in the other direction is a two Michelin-star joint in Colle Val D' Elsa called Arnolfo's.

But hidden not far from this flashy pair is a far simpler - certainly far cheaper - place that my wife and I decided is perhaps one of the finest restaurants on Earth. Ristorante La Speranza (00 39 0577 929696), which roughly translates as the restaurant of hope, gave us what is my favourite cheque. It is far simpler than the grand affair presented at Del Duca, just a simple pink slip with no fancy pictures and engravings. Anything more would belie the restaurant's true personality.

We had happened upon La Speranza by accident when driving the three-hour trek to Volterra from Rome a few days earlier. We were lost, no surprise there, and stopped at a bar-cum-grocery store-cum-bakers at about 10pm. We were tired and hungry. We bought some provisions, had a coffee and were instructed by the shopkeeper to return and visit the restaurant next door. "La Speranza is the best restaurant," he told us proudly.

He was not wrong.

We tried in vain to find it several times over the next week. We failed time and again after many hours of driving up and down pitch black country roads. We almost gave up on the night we finally found it, and I am still not entirely sure how we succeeded. The door was almost barred by a small hand truck piled high with branches and other recently gathered bits of wood, all to fuel a giant oven and grill being tended by a single old man with a soot-blackened face.

Inside, Italian families sat at long tables sharing plates of pasta, a group of workmen devoured a steaming heap of charred meat that appeared to be the best part of an entire cow, and a sports team arrived with a large collection bucket full of coins from which they intended to pay for their meal.

According to my pink slip, Alida and I ate antipasti of cured meats (€4; Dh20), homemade tagliatelli with game ragu (€6; Dh31), chargrilled ribs, a steak (both €10; Dh52) and we shared a tiramisu (€2; Dh10).

So perfectly cooked and simply presented was each dish that I desperately wanted to ask the owner a stream of questions about her ingredients, her cooking methods, her suppliers - everything. I raised a hand to signal my desire to talk and took out a pen, ready to transcribe.

"Can I get you the bill?" she asked, and I closed my notebook. I would soon have all I would need.

jdoran@thenational.ae

 

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The flight

Return flights from Dubai to Rome via Amsterdam with KLM (www.klm.com) cost from Dh2,465, including taxes.