Thursday, December 29, 2011


The little wine bar section of the Frescobaldi restaurant, entrance from via della Condotta. 
The other day I dined for the first time at the Frescobaldi restaurant in central Florence, a stone’s throw from the town hall square. It was delicious and it has now been placed on my list of fave choices for places to eat in the city. A fabulous menu, my first course was spaghetti al burro cacio pepe e rigatino (spaghetti with pecorino grated cheese, cracked pepper with unsmoked bacon bits), 

followed by a main course of baccala con crema di cavolfiore e pancetta croccanti (salt cod with leek puree and crunchy bacon)

and rounded off with apple crumble and ice cream.

Another exquisite combo was the terrina di fegatini di pollo con gelatina al vinsanto e scorze di arancia caramellata (chicken liver terrine with vin santo gelatine and caramellised orange)

followed by stinco di agnello con carciofi al tegame (lamb shank with panfried artichokes). 

The wine list is exclusively their own production, as Frescobaldi is one of the largest producers of wine in the region, with wineries also outside Tuscany. I washed down the meal with a great bottle of IGT Toscana and the vin santo to accompany the crumble. At about 55 euros a head, the place rates in my special category for a splurge, or a treat, and worth every penny. The Frescobaldi family also have a wine bar inside the department store Harrods in London, and inside Rome Fiumicino airport. The family is one of the longstanding historical families of Florence, prominent in politics and business (banking and cloth, the backbone of the Florentine economy), from the twelfth century. They opened a banking branch in England in the 1270's, and after two decades they had risen to the position of the royal bankers, taking the place of the Riccardi company from Lucca. The family still currently own and live in their palazzo where they have been since the sixteenth century in via Santo Spirito, on the south side of the river. At the beginning of the seventeenth century they joined several properties in a row that they had bought to construct the current facade seen today form the street. 
Palazzo Frescobaldi in via Santo Spirito
Since their arrival in the city in the twelfth century, they have been located in this area of the city, called the Oltrarno. Their first home, a medieval tower house in the thirteenth century, was located at the foot of the Santa Trinita bridge (one bridge down river from the Ponte Vecchio bridge) where the current Palazzo della Missione is located, built in the seventeenth century. They built the fourteenth century building next to the Palazzo della Missione which still stands today, before moving down the road to via Santo Spirito. 

Palazzo Frescobaldi in Piazza Frescobaldi at the intersection of via Santo Spirito and via  Maggio, situated next to the palazzo della Missione.
In 1444 Stoldo di Lamberto Frescobaldi donated money, along with the other wealthy merchant families in the area, to the construction of the new Augustinian church, Santo Spirito, (dedicated to the Holy Spirit) designed by the Filippo Brunelleschi, the first Renaissance architect. The family bought two side chapels in the presbytery area next to one another, a sure sign of the family's wealth. Moreoever, the position of the family chapels has crucial significance to the location of their palace, located practically next door. They paid for a private access from their domestic space to their religious space, so that they wouldn’t need to be physically inside their chapel to technically ‘attend’ mass which would be said for the family inside the chapel by an Augustinian. They could be behind the wall of the chapel and hear, as well as see, without being seen through a grill, called a coretto, which can be seen today in the top right corner. You can hunt out their side chapel recognising their coat of arms, a shield divided horizontally red and gold with three gold rooks. 

Frescobaldi family coat of arms on the wall inside their restaurant.
The family have been making wine since 1308. In 1995 they began a joint venture with the Robert Mondavi family of Nappa valley. In Tuscany they have nine vineyard areas: Castello di Pomino, Castello di Nipozzano and Tenuta di Castiglioni are located very close to Florence.  
Buon appetito e salute!

Castello di Nipozzano, circa 40 minute drive from the centre of Florence.
 INFO:  Restaurant - tel: +39 055 284 724,  address: via dei Magazzini 2/4r,

Saturday, December 17, 2011


Pandoro being warmed by the fire.
What will be on the table in Tuscany on the 25th December, Christmas day?  
Here is a pretty typical menu for this region: to start with a big plate of mixed crostini (little slices of bread with differing spreads). The most common of the crostini is the ‘crostini toscani’. So standard is the chicken liver and rabbit spleen pate on a Tuscan table, anytime of the year, that it is called the tuscan crostini. There may also be, to accompany it, tomato bruschetta, a tuna pate spread crostini, or maybe a mushroom crostini. 

Crostini Misti: toscani, tomato, mushroom, white fava beans. 
This can also be accompanied with a plate of mixed salumi (prosciutto, salami) and /or some sliced chicken galantine. 

Chicken galantine
Following this comes the primo (first course).  The most loved on this festive day is the tortellini in brodo, meat filled pockets of pasta bobbing in a meat broth.
Tortellini in brodo
Then comes the secondo (main dish), which is traditionally a bollito misto (mixed boiled meats) and / or zampone. In the mixed boiled meats there could be tongue, capon (castrated rooster) or chicken, turkey, lean beef and cotechino (a rich sausage typically from Mantua).

Bollito misto + cotecchino bottom left
The salsa verde is a must with the bollito misto. This is a tasty sauce made from bread soaked in vinegar until it becomes almost like breadcrumbs, mixed with finely chopped parsley, garlic and lots of good Tuscan olive oil. Finely chopped anchovies and the yolk of a hard boiled egg are also often added. 

Salsa verde
The zampone is scenographic - I always love seeing the whole pig’s trotter stuffed with meat on the table. Like the cotecchino, the zampone is typical of Mantova, but is a favourite in all Italy around Christmas time and is also eaten on New Year’s Eve with lentils. It too is a rich sausage, however the mixed pork meat (cheek, head, throat, shoulder) combined with spices and herbs is stuffed into the skin of a pig’s trotter. The zampone is thought to date to the beginning of the 1500’s in a town called Mirandola (in the Romagna area, north of Tuscany). The town, under siege by the troops of Pope Julius II, killed all the pigs so that the troops wouldn’t be able to have them, and so they minced the meat and stored it inside the trotters in the hope that it would conserve better.
For desert, the panettone is a must. Originally from Milan, the panettone dates to the renaissance period, although there are differing stories as to its creation and the origin of its name.  

One story is that this traditional Christmas cake dates to 1495 when the head cook of Ludovico il Moro, Duke of Milan, having to many things to organise for the sumptuous Christmas dinner for the duke and his guests, burnt the cake that was for desert. A kitchen hand, called Toni, had made a cake that morning with the remains of the ingredients used for all the other meal’s dishes (flour, butter, egg, lime peel and some raisins. Toni presented his creation to the cook, who in desperation took the strange cake, in the shape of a large bread loaf,  to the duke’s table. Proving to be a huge success, all the guests wanted to know the name, to which the chef replied that it was ‘Toni’s bread’ or Pan di Toni, which morphed, over time,  into panettone
Another explanation for the origin of panettone is documented by Count Pietri Verri who described the ceremony of the breaking of bread that both rich and poor families would perform at Christmas time. The ‘ceremonia del Ceppo’ would be when the whole family would gather together and the head of the family would break a loaf of bread into pieces, enough for each member, so that all would share from the same loaf, symbolic of the strong family ties which bind all together. The poor man’s bread was made from millet (pane di miglio, called ‘pan de mej'), and the bread of the wealthy and nobility was white bread (called micca). It was decided however that on Christmas day everybody should use the same bread as in the Ceremonia del Ceppo, as a symbol of equality and togetherness. This bread, made from butter, pure flour and sugar was called the pan de’ sciori or pan de ton meaning the luxury bread. In 1919, Motta, the Milanese company, produced the first industrial panettone.

The rival to the panettone on the Italian Christmas table is the pandoro (see first photo). Originally from Verona, similar to its Milanese cousin, the pandoro doesn’t have candied fruit and it too has now taken on a national status. It is tall and cone shaped with, rather than a point at the top,  a narrower flat form in the shape of a star, typically eight sided. There is often a packet of icing sugar that comes with both the pandoro and the pantettone which is emptied into the plastic covering of the cake just before eating, and, with the cake still inside, is shaken up so that the icing sugar covers the entire exterior surface.

Another national must in this period is the torrone, which is a nougat, made from honey, sugar, egg whites and toasted almonds.  The name could be from the Latin torrere (to toast) refering to the almonds, hazelnuts and pasticcios. It comes in two forms, soft and chewy, and hard and brittle, a speciality of Cremona (Lombardy region), it is eaten all over Italy. A possible origin is also from the fifteenth century, served on the occasion of the marriage between Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti in 1441. 
Two types of biscuits typically from Siena are eaten all over the region at Christmas time - ricciarelli (soft almond paste biscuits typically shaped like a leaf -  the ingredients being peeled almonds, sugar, icing sugar, egg yolks) and cavallucci (flour, sugar, walnuts, aniseed, honey, cinnamon, and sometimes with candied orange ). The latter’s original name is berriguocoli and they were documented already by 1515 as being the sweet distributed by the consistory to his members during the festive season. The biscuits take on their current name due to the cavallai, the grooms at staging posts along the route, who would keep these as sweets due to their easily transportable nature and long life, were able to be conserved for reasonably long periods of time. 


Typically, Italians celebrate Christmas lunch rather than dinner. The meal is accompanied with red wine  and rounded off with some sweet dessert wine. Many Italians are back in business for a feast the following day, known as 'Santo Stefano'. There is no rest for the wicked. Buon Appetito and happy holidays to all! 

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Spoleto's medieval aquaduct / crossing
After an intensive cultural and shopping experience in Florence, it is a perfect combo to then have a bit of rest and recuperation in the region of Umbria. Hire a car from Florence and then drive the two hours to first stop, Assisi. This is the birth place of one of the patron saints of Italy, Saint Francis (1181/1182-1226), the founder of the Franciscan order in the thirteenth century. The magnificent basilica of St Francis in Assisi, the mother ship for the order and where the saint is buried, is divided into two levels, the upper and lower church, and it is a feast for the fresco lover’s eyes.

Basilica of St Francis showing upper and lower levels
Beautifully decorated, the scenes in the upper church relay the story of Saint Francis, who was called the alter christus.
Frescoes in the upper church
It is worth a stop at the church Santa Maria degli Angeli just a few minutes drive outside Assisi on the lower flat plane. Like the russian babushka dolls, this large late sixteenth century basilica was built to house and protect, like a reliquary, the small ninth century church, called Porziuncola, on the inside.

La Porziuncola
In Francis' time this was woodland and he and his first followers came to pray and camp at the beginning of the 1200's. 
Saint Francis dressed in his brown habit held by a rope knotted three times, symbolically representing poverty, obediance and chastity. Often he is represented with the five wounds of Christ, he was the first Christian to receive the miracle of the stigmata, in 1224.
An extremely sacred site for all Catholics here, as in Assisi, one can feel the weight of faith from the visitors. Further back in the church there is the site where Francis died in 1226, another a site for pilgrimage.
Thirty minutes drive further south is the hill top town of Spello, which is very pretty, and the church boasts a frescoed side chapel by Pinturicchio from late 1490’s, paid for by the Baglioni family.

Pinturicchio, Adoration of the Magi, fresco, 1501, Baglioni side chapel, Santa Maria Maggiore church, Spello.

Other lovely hill top towns in the vicinity are Bevagna and Montefalco. I decided to drive onto and stay overnight in the hill top town of Norcia in south-eastern Umbria.

The hill top town of Norcia
Norcia is the birth place of Saint Benedict (c.480-547), the father of European monasticism, but is also renowned for its salumi (pork products), and thus my reason for staying here, as I assumed by default, one could only eat divinely in this particular area, and I was not proven wrong. Norcia is perched on a hill, cuddled by entirely intact medieval walls, and just perfect for the holiday get away experience. 

Spoleto Cathedral
The following day I visited Spoleto. The Romanesque cathedral's apse is beautifully frescoed in the 1460's by the adventurous Florentine Carmelite friar, Filippo Lippi, who ran away with the hot young nun, Lucrezia Buti. The frescoed scenes show in the top apse area the Madonna being crowned by God the Father, surrounded by angels and Old and New Testament figures an below the Annunciation and the Dormition of the Virgin. The colours are spectacular.

Filippo Lippi, apse of Spoleto cathedral, fresco, late 1460's.

Spoleto also boasts a Roman theatre where they do spectacles in the summer, and a fab walk up to the fourteenth century fortress and the medieval aqueduct / bridge linking the two parts of the chasm, is a must. I munched on the local pasta ‘strangozzi’ (similar to spaghetti but square in shape rather than tube-like) at the Trattoria della Lanterna in the historical centre of the upper city, near the ancient Roman theatre.

Spoleto's ancient Roman theatre
On day three, I took a road trip to the high plains and hill top town of Castelluccio, close to the border of Le Marche region, only about thirty minutes from Norcia. The scenery is unexpected and fabulous.  Barren, immense, open spaces, wide chasms, and in the base of the valleys there are the lentil fields providing the ingredients for the Umbrian cuisine, sausage and lentils, a staple in this area.

In the hills of Castelluccio - a spectacular sight

Lentil fields of Castelluccio

I stayed at the Hotel Palazzo Seneca, a renovated fifteenth century palazzo in the historical centre of Norcia, which was sensational. Luxurious, comfy, and elegant with a scrumptious breakfast, it is worth every four stars it has earnt. Dinner at the agriturismo, La Casale degli Amici, two kilometres outside of Norcia, is a must. We all had a mixed antipasto della casa (all the cold cuts from the farm itself) and to follow capretta (goat) with rape (the leafy part of turnips) as a side, and to finish, a goats cheese tiramisu, again all ingredients zero kilometers, from the farm.

Hotel Palazzo Seneca
.................Ahh Italy, how I love you!

Saturday, December 3, 2011


Detail of The Gathering of Manna. 1540 by Francesco Bacchiacca in the National Gallery of Art, Washington
I think that everybody agrees, the giraffes in the zoos always draw a crowd - tall, leaf eating, polka dotted, weird bodied animals that they are. In the fifteenth century, Lorenzo the Magnificent was given as a gift one of these magnificent exotic creatures by a Mamluk ruler in, what is now, Egypt. It was paraded around the city on feast days and for important events. No one had seen anything like it before, or at least very few people had seen one since Julius Caesar had brought one to Rome in the 1st century B.C. After this, the first giraffe in Europe was in 1261 when Frederick II (another fave man of mine) received a giraffe in exchange for a white bear. The Medici giraffe pops up in various masterpiece works around the city, but as Ferris Bueller said in the 1980’s cult movie (with slight alterations), ‘if you don’t pause for a second you’ll miss it’. The next time that you go to the Chiostro dei Voti (the Votive cloister) in front of the Santissima Annunziata church, check out the ‘Adoration of the Magi’ fresco by Andrea del Sarto in 1511, and you’ll see the giraffe bobbing in the background.

Adoration of the Magi (1511), Votive cloister, Santissima Annunziata church, Andrea del Sarto, fresco.
In fact, this was a favourite subject to insert the giraffe into, as the three kings came from far distant lands and it was staged in a far distant land, where giraffes reign. Domenico Ghirladaio inserted the Medici giraffe in the same subject scene in the Tornabuoni family chapel / high altar of the Santa Maria Novella church. This in fact is interesting as it was painted in 1488 not long after Lorenzo had received the animal as a gift, so it stands as an up to date window to contemporary happenings in the city.
Adoration of the Magi (1488), Tornabuoni family chapel / high altar in the Santa Maria Novella church, Domenico Ghirlandaio, fresco, 1485-90
So why is a giraffe so cool, other than the random image that one conjures up immediately of the animal cruising around the medieval streets, bobbing up and down, along with the flamboyantly dressed Florentines of the Quattrocento? Anologies were important back then.  The walnut was considered to increase intelligence as it was the shape of the brain, and diamonds evoked stars as they both shone so brightly and so were associated with almost god-like qualities.  Thus, exotic and rare animals reflected the aristocratic and specialness of the owner’s character. The Medici had an outstanding menagerie which they kept at their villa in Fano. The city of Florence also boasted a wondrous collection of animals and, aside from the ubiquitous lion (they had circa twenty-five kept behind the town hall until second half of the 1500’s), they had tigers, bears, bulls and greyhounds.

The Medici organized events with these animals, often when important visitors came to town. Inspired directly and deliberately from Roman sources, they staged combats between animals such as lions and bears. For the visit of Pope Pius II in 1459, the roads leading to the town hall square were blocked off and animal combats were staged. A giant giraffe mannequin, moveable due to the twenty men inside the animal, was created to excite the lions. The show proved to be a failure as it seems the lions weren’t hungry and didn’t perform so the spectators went home unsatisfied.

The town mayor, Matteo Renzi, has just opened up two more rooms in the town hall for vistors to view - the room dedicated to Cosimo the Elder and Lorenzo the Magnificent on the lower floor of the granducal apartments. The central ceiling panel of the room dedicated to Lorenzo the Magnificent depicts Lorenzo, primo inter pares, encircled by artists and diplomats, and directly behind him is his fabulous giraffe. 

Ambassadors pay homage to Lorenzo the Magnificent, 1556-58, Giorgio Vasari and Marco da Faenza, fresco, central ceiling scene in the Lorenzo the Magnificent room, Palazzo Vecchio.
The poor famed giraffe however left the world with a whimper and not a bang when he died, as the legend has it, having hit his head on a low hanging beam.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


A visit to Mantua (Mantova in Italian), located in the south east of the region of Lombardy, is ideal for a weekend getaway or an overnight stop in an Italian trip. Whilst the city is studied by every student of renaissance art history, it is a destination that is largely overlooked by foreign travellers, as it often becomes overshadowed by its much larger, and more magnificent, competitors on the Italian peninsula. Mantova is a small city (circa 50,000 inhabitants) and so it doesn’t take very long to feel at home and have visited the major sites, but with artistic wonders and a scrumptious cuisine, it is worth the visit. It was entered in the list of Unesco world heritage sites in 2008.

Geographically it is unusual, surrounded by lakes, and was unattractive swampy marsh land until the Corradi family took over the area in the fourteenth century and created their Marquisate in the early fifteenth century. The ruling family became best known by their adopted name of Gonzaga, hailing from their eponymous town of origin close by. The Gonzaga family (dukes from 1530), ruled until 1707 when the duchy passed to the Hapsburgs.

During the renaissance period, in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, the Gonzaga family were some of the most important patrons of Renaissance art, and they long cultivated a court which included some of the most illustrious artists and intellectuals of the time. Andrea Mantegna, the court painter from 1460-1506 (he was the brother-in-law to  Giovanni and Gentile Bellini – the most important painters of the Venetian Republic in the second half of the fifteenth century), succeeding from much acclaimed Pisanello, and Leon Battista Alberti (the great Renaissance theorist and architect from Florence), constructed the Basilica Sant’Andrea, a triumphant display of the new Renaissance humanist style. In the 1500’s, Giulio Romano, the most gifted of artists in Raphael’s workshop in Rome, who continued the workshop commissions after the great master’s death in 1520, was the court architect and painter in Mantua from the 1520’s. His most significant and most famous work was the architecture and decoration of Palazzo Te, the Gonzaga villa residence, once located outside the city, now a short walk from the Ducal palace.

The medieval castle that became the ducal palace of the Gonzaga family
The palazzo ducale in the centre of the city, where the Gonzaga family lived, is huge. The magnificent medieval castle was continuously enlarged throughout the centuries, as can be seen from the changes in the artistic building styles. The most exquisite room is the ‘camera picta’ (the painted room) later dubbed the ‘camera degli sposi’ (the wedding chamber), painted by Andrea Mantegna in 1467-1473. The ceiling is the first example of the trompe l’oeil technique in painting and appears to extend up into the outside with a wonderful balcony where figures and putti peer down onto the viewer below.

Ceiling from the 'camera picta' called 'camera degli sposi' by Andrea Mantegna finished in 1474

The two decorated walls depict the ruling family, Ludovico and Barbara Gonzaga; on the east wall the family together with courtiers and dwarf...

East wall of the camera picta
and on the north wall, Ludovico and his children, most importantly his son, Francesco, recently elected as cardinal.

North wall of the camera picta
Another ‘must see’ in the ducale palace is the studiolo (study) of one of the most cultured, famous and politically active women of her era, Isabella d’Este, the wife of Marquis Francesco II Gonzaga.

Portrait of Isabella d'Este by Titian
Daughter of the duke of Ferrara (another beautiful and important Renaissance centre not too distant from Mantua), Isabella was intelligent and extremely well educated (she was fluent in Latin and Greek), and friend of humanist scholars and artists. She was regent until her son became of age. Isabella commissioned two small private rooms for contemplation and meditation on the ground floor of the palace, along with an intimate garden space, for her envious collection of ancient and modern works of art. Her ‘studiolo’ (study) rivaled those of her male counterparts in the other Italian centres. The walls were lined with paintings by some of the most important artists of the day; Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini, Correggio, and Perugino. The cabinets held an impressive collection of ancient and modern gems, cameos and artifacts. Today, there is only the architectural shell to be seen.  However, a little imagination and one can almost hear Isabella somewhere around the corner.

The Gonzaga country structure and stables, located outside the old city’s walls, was renovated by Giulio Romano and transformed into what it is today by the Marquis Federico II (son of Isabella d’Este and Francesco II Gonzaga) who was also to become the first Duke of Mantua.

Palazzo Te
The residence, called ‘Palazzo Te’ after the name of the island on which it was built, ‘Tejeto’ abbreviated to Te (the water canals were subsequently filled in), was made as a place for fun and frolicking for himself and his mistress the Marquise Isabella Boschetti. This explains the subject choice for the exquisite decoration of one of the rooms dedicated to Cupid (Amor) and Psyche.

Cupid and Psyche Bacchanalian feast by Giulio Romano in one of the rooms of the Palazzo Te 
Hand in hand with the magnificent art discoveries comes the food culture of Mantua, well worth some studious attention. It is the home of pork and the quality of the cold cuts and meats from here is known all over Italy.
A good starter is a plate of mixed salames. A must for the first course is the tortelli di zucca which is delightfully sweet, and/or the maccheroni con stracotto (meat cooked over a long period of time - often donkey or horse meat is used).

tortelli di zucca and maccheroni con stracotto 
Well known favourites for the second course is cotecchino (an oversize rich, fresh sausage about 3 inches wide and 9 inches long) which is boiled and served hot, most often with polenta.

cotecchino and stinco di maiale 
The stracotto di cavallo (horse steak) and the stinco di maiale (lamb shanks) are popular main dishes also, washed down with local lambrusco wine (red fizzy wine). Bollito is another great favourite served with mostarda, and is various pork and beef cuts boiled and served with candied fruit such as apples, pears, pumpkin and melon, and a mustard syrup (mostarda is also fabulous with cheese).  The typical deserts from here are sbrisolona (a buttery almond biscuit served in broken pieces).

 Sbisolona - the almond butter biscuit
or the torta di tagliatelle (a pastry base with a filling made from butter, almonds and sugar and topped with tagliatelle).

Torta di tagliatelle 
I stayed at the ‘B & B Casa del Teatro’, conveniently located a few minutes' walk from both the train station and the ducal palace. Cosy and comfy, completely renovated and elegant, it was perfect.

The slow food restaurant where I ate is called Due Cavallini (Via Sainitro 5, Tel: +39 0376 322084)