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Joe Allen: Going But Not Gone

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This weekend, one of my favourite restaurants closes its doors in Exeter Street, Covent Garden after 40 years. But happily all is not lost, for the iconic Joe Allen is moving only 25m down the road to 2 Burleigh Street.

Since hearing the restaurant was under threat a few months ago, due to actor Robert De Niro buying a large corner site at the Exeter Street/Wellington Street junction in WC2 to open a boutique hotel, I’ve been feeling very sad. I’ve been regularly going to Joe’s for at least 20 years (mainly with my good friend Annie), and first ate there well before then in my full-time publishing days. When I started the blog back in 2011 and wrote a review, I got a lot of support from their lovely general manager Cathy Winn, interviewed their then head chef and when the restaurant was sold a couple of years later to two restaurateurs I already knew from my local area, Lawrence Hartley and Tim Healy, I got an early interview with them about their plans, which was very exciting for me. I came to know their two restaurant managers, Deborah Fellows and Stewart Moss, who are always so friendly and welcoming, and would chat on the phone when booking and they’d bring a glass of complimentary fizz when they saw me in the restaurant. It’s no wonder I feel at home in the place. How was I going to manage without it!

Joe’s is very much a theatre land and media love and some famous people like Graham Norton and Monty Don worked there early in their careers. It’s always been a favourite haunt of actors, from Sir John Gielgud to Dames Judi Dench and Harriet Walter. Even the Observer‘s restaurant critic Jay Rayner, who’s definitely not soft touch when it comes to writing about restaurants, talks about it having ‘a special place in my congested heart’.

If I’ve been sad, then I’m pleased to say that the Joe Allen team have embraced the enforced change with enthusiasm. Their sister restaurant Orso has had to close completely but they’ve found another location for Joe Allen and it’s moving just a short distance down the road. The intention is to take everything with them, and I mean everything, even their splendid bar.

The show business posters that adorn its walls will go too. We’re told that there will be some new things but in essence, Joe Allen will be reincarnated a few metres away from its old home in Exeter Street. As a love of my restaurant life, it’s hard to imagine it will be quite the same yet I know really I shouldn’t worry. There was lots of worry from regulars when Lawrence and Tim took over about things changing, but the changes weren’t obvious, they were subtle ones and all for the better. Many things improved at Joe’s, most notably the food went up a notch or three. So, in the spirit of embracing change, I’m looking forward to a new era of Joe’s in Burleigh Street.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t let them go from Exeter Street without a final meal and so I suggested it as a place to meet to my friend Chris last week; a friend from my publishing days she also knows it well and was a bit shocked to hear of the move. We met early – 6.30pm – and had the early evening set menu as I usually do, which is great value at £14.95 for 2 courses, and offers a 125ml glass of house wine for just £3.00.

I had ‘Pea, Broad Bean, Fennel & Mint Salad, Pecorino, Lemon Dressing’.

Everything was so fresh and delicious with a lovely but not overpowering dressing. For my main course I unusually took a vegetarian route and chose ‘Chestnut and Mushroom Arancini with Tomato Sauce and Parmesan’.

This was really delicious too and the sauce had a rich, full flavour. It was so nice to end my Exeter Street experience on a high note with a great meal.

The ‘new’ Joe Allen opens on 1 September. To find out more and keep up to date, visit their website: www.joeallen.co.uk

 

High Tea & Tennis

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This post is for my lovely daughter Nicola who made us the most magnificent high tea yesterday to enjoy while watching the Men’s Singles Final at Wimbledon. She arranged for me to visit over this last weekend back in April with a view to us all watching the tennis together and for the tea we were joined by Rachael’s parents. So five us gathered around the TV to watch – it has to be said – a rather disappointing men’s final but with such a wonderful tea we were still a happy bunch of people.

As you’ll gather from such advance preparations, as a family we’re pretty big tennis fans. It’s the only sport I get seriously excited about (occasionally rugby, but then I do live in Twickenham!), and the only one I’ve played seriously.

Wimbledon and tennis of course means strawberries and champagne, which was going to feature in our tea, but lots of other delights too. Nicola sent me the menu last week:

Cucumber sandwiches

Ham & mustard sandwiches

Feta, spinach, pea & mint puff pastry tarts

Blinis with smoked salmon, soured cream & caviar

Blinis with buffalo mozzarella, tomato & basil

Croustades with crab, avocado, lime, chilli & coriander

Sourdough crostini with ricotta, pear, walnut & truffle honey

Gazpacho shots

To drink with it, we were to enjoy some Californian rainbow sparkling wine and Californian rosé that Nicola & Rachael brought back from a trip to California in May.

   

Preparations began early in the day after breakfast. The plan was to begin the ‘tea’ at around 1.00pm when the TV coverage began for the tennis; the match would start at 2.00pm. Nicola was very well organised. She did all the cooking and I offered to be sous chef when any kind of help was needed. First of all she made the little feta and spinach tarts.

   

When they came out of the oven they smelled delicious and later when we tasted them, they were fantastic.

All the baking and cooking was done in Nicola & Rachael’s Aga, fitted with their new kitchen only a few weeks ago. Nicola has been learning to adjust her cooking to the Aga but seems to have already mastered the technique. It’s a wonderful thing to have in an old farmhouse kitchen and not surprisingly their dog Willow, and the cats, like to take up residence nearby.

Next the gazpacho was made. There was a lot of chopping of ripe tomatoes, cucumber and peppers and the soup needed to go into the fridge for a few hours to be nicely cold for serving.

   

For extra velvety smoothness the mixture was put through a fine sieve – this was sous chef’s job.

Then the crab mixture was prepared but would only go into the croustades at the last minute so they didn’t get too soggy.

  

I’d brought a sourdough loaf from Your Bakery Whitton on Saturday morning and this was sliced and cut into crostini-sized pieces to toast on the top of the Aga.

   

Once the crostini had cooled, Nicola added the topping.

Nicola sometimes makes blinis but this time she’d bought them and they were warmed in the oven before toppings were added.

The sandwiches were made fairly last minute so they didn’t go stale; the crusts cut off in true English tea style.

And of course because this was a Wimbledon tea there had to be strawberries, scones, clotted cream and jam.

   

The food was laid out on the table.

The TV was turned on, the tennis coverage began, and the champagne (well Californian sparkling wine!) cork was popped, and served in the vintage champagne saucers that Rachael bought Nicola.

Our chef was toasted!

Roger Federer and Marin Cilic came on to the centre court at Wimbledon and we sipped our fizz and started eating; everything easy finger food to go on plates; the gazpacho in little glass bowls. Everything was so good; really delicious and it was such a glorious spread of food to eat while sitting watching a tennis match on TV. Later a pot of tea was made and we ate the scones.

  

My daughter has certainly mastered baking these in the Aga. They were so light and delicious and quite definitely some of the best scones I’ve ever eaten.

It was a really lovely occasion. The food was gorgeous, the wine special (the rainbow sparkling wine from California was very special indeed) and we enjoyed seeing Roger Federer make Wimbledon history as he collected his 8th men’s title, even if the match itself wasn’t as exciting as expected. I have to say I’m rather hoping high tea for Wimbledon finals at my daughter’s will become a regular event!

 

Restaurant Review: The Manor Arms, Abberley, Worcestershire

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Visiting my daughter Nicola is an ‘escape to the country’ weekend. She and Rachael fairly recently moved to an old farmhouse on the edge of the village of Shrawley in Worcestershire with magnificent views across the surrounding countryside.

I drove up from London in the morning in time for lunch and they’d booked a table at The Manor Arms in Abberley for our evening meal; a short drive away. They’d not be there before but had heard good things about it.

The Manor Arms is a 17th century country inn with restaurant and six bedrooms. It received a 5 Star AA and Rosette Award in 2015. They like to source their ingredients for food in the restaurant from local suppliers and change the menu frequently to match the seasons. Although the menu offers some Pub Classics like ‘Fish & Chips’ and ‘Bangers & Mash’, the main menu is quite sophisticated and eating at The Manor Arms is very much a restaurant dining experience. Inside it still feels like a pub though and because of the building’s age the restaurant is spread out through various smallish areas giving a cosy and intimate feel.

The menu is quite short but for us appealing and I could happily have eaten most of the choices. We chose different starters and when they came they looked really great. My carpaccio of sea bass with orange and fennel was delicious and fresh tasting to begin the meal.

Nicola’s pan-seared scallop with pea purée and smoked bacon cream was wonderful. Happily she gave me a taste!

Rachael also gave me a taste of her basil panna cotta with heritage tomatoes, feta, olives and aged balsamic.

The basil panna cotta was so good I immediately vowed to try making some myself.

Nicola and I chose the same main course of roasted breast of duck with fondant potato, Swiss chard, crispy leg croquette and cherry sauce.

The duck was cooked a bit more than I would ideally choose but was still tender and tasty and we thought it a good dish. Rachael, a vegetarian, chose a fine tart of grilled summer vegetables, chargrilled halloumi, quinoa and orange.

It looked really good and apparently tasted it too.

Although we’d already eaten well we couldn’t resist desserts. I chose a chocolate delice with raspberries and mascarpone cream; Nicola had lavender and honey poached peach with granola and thyme ice cream; and Rachael had creme brûlée with tonka bean, local strawberries and honeycomb.

We had a bottle of Gavi wine with the meal, coffee at the end. It had been a great meal; a really good find near their home. Throughout the service had been good and friendly and we had a really lovely evening.

Hampton Court Flower Show 2017

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I’ve always thought the Hampton Court Flower Show makes a great day out, in a wonderful setting, for gardening enthusiasts but that the Chelsea Flower Show is the one to go to for cutting edge garden design and inspiration. However, I found Chelsea disappointing this year while my visit to the Hampton show yesterday was fantastic.

Of course it helped that the sun was shining brilliantly, the temperature had soared into the 30s, and my daughter was with me – a mother and daughter outing. Nicola had driven down from Worcestershire the evening before and then it was a simple bus ride to Hampton Court the next day on the R68 from Twickenham.

The weather was so hot I’d received  a warning email from the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in the morning – bring water, suncream and sensible shoes for walking on the uneven ground. I dug a sunhat out of the back of my wardrobe – I rarely wear hats but was forced to buy this one at the Hampton show 2 years ago because of the hot sun; it was going to get a 2nd outing.

It was a Members only day – it opens to the public on Thursday – but don’t be fooled into thinking that means quiet. There were a lot of people. But Hampton Court copes with crowds better than Chelsea; there’s so much more space and it’s possible to wander off piste a bit into quiet, shaded areas when you fancy a rest.

As soon as we entered the show we were immediately met by the sight of glorious colour; wonderful stalls where you can buy plants.

   

   

We wanted to buy a couple of things but decided to do it on the way out as we were so near the entrance/exit still. Lots of people bring plastic trolleys – which you can also buy there – but neither of us fancied dragging a trolley round all day and they can only hold a limited number of plants anyway.

We moved further into the show. Nicola had wanted to look for Rhino Greenhouses and we came across them almost straight away. She and Rachael had seen them at another show recently and had decided if there was a good show offer at Hampton then Nicola would order one. There was – and she did!

   

We crossed a bridge to the main side where the show Gardens were, the rose marquee, the cook & grow theatre with free talks by well-known gardening and cooking personalities.

We loved the rose marquee full of gorgeous perfume and the most glorious roses, many quite spectacularly special. Nicola had a long chat with one stall holder about how to deal with the roses she’d inherited in her new garden. He was so helpful and friendly, it was great.

   

   

Then we grabbed a coffee and cake to take into the Cook & Grow theatre to listen to the brilliant Alys Fowler talk about growing salads all year round, in decent sized garden to window boxes. Nicola took lots of notes and we were inspired enough to buy some seeds.

Afterwards we sought out the show gardens and found we really did like the winning show garden – Viking Cruises Garden – best. The planting was beautiful.

There were other lovely gardens too.

Then it was time for lunch and we bought a delicious pitta wrap full of falafel, hummus and salad from one of the many food stalls dotted about the show.

We found a shady spot near the bandstand where live jazz plays all day, which was wonderfully relaxing and entertaining.

We took a quick look in the floral marquee, ordered the greenhouse, bought some plants and made a move home. The show was open for a few more hours, and there was so much to see we did miss things, but we’d been there for about 4 hours and walked enough in the hot sun and it seemed a good time to call it a day. We’d had a brilliant time and it had been a perfect and lovely outing.

Five Days in Florence

Why go?

If you have any serious interest in good food and art, then Florence is somewhere you just have to go. This is the seat of the Renaissance and home to some of the world’s best art; the area of Italy that Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo came from. You’ll also find some of Italy’s best food and famous Tuscan wines like Chianti. But Florence isn’t just about food and art, it is a beautiful city that is quite compact and easy to explore on foot so a perfect destination for a short break.

 

Getting there and where to stay

Florence has a small airport but few airlines go there so usually people fly to Pisa and get a train from there. I flew with British Airways but Ryanair and easyJet fly to Pisa too. From Pisa airport take the shuttle train Pisamover to the central Pisa station – Pisa Centrale – which takes only about 5 minutes. A ticket from the ticket office just outside Arrivals at the airport includes this and there are clear signs to take you to the shuttle. At Pisa Centrale I managed to get a fast train into Florence’s main station – Santa Maria Novella – which took just 48 minutes but some trains are slower (fare is €13).

I booked my hotel through British Airways. Hotel Cellai is very central, just 10 minutes walk from the railway station and easy walking distance to all the main sights. It was a lovely, friendly hotel. To read more about it click here.

 

For the art lover

There’s so much for the art lover to do it would be hard to fit it all in in five days. Perhaps the most important place to go though is the Uffizi Gallery, a Medici palazzo built in the 16th century, which is situated by the Arno river. It is home to some of the world’s greatest masterpieces by artists such as Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Raphael and Caravaggio. Right by the Uffizi in Piazza della Signoria you’ll see a copy of Michelangelo’s famous ‘David’. To see the original you need to go to Galleria dell’Accademia. To visit both these galleries it’s essential to book in advance (for more click here). A smaller place to go for more of Michelangelo’s work is Casa Buonarroti. This 17th century palazzo was built by the artist’s great nephew to house the family’s collection of Michelangelo’s work; mainly early works but wonderful to see. For more click here.

 

The Duomo

The city’s cathedral, Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, known as the Duomo, is a magnificent sight, its dome and campanile reaching up to the sky and a frequent guide when wandering round and you need to orientate yourself. Admission is free. I didn’t actually go inside during my recent visit as it was so crowded and I’ve seen it before. But just seeing the outside is wonderful.

 

Central Market

Any food lover likes to visit the local market and a trip to Mercato Centrale, a covered market in the centre of the city, is well worth a visit. Even if you’re staying in a hotel and don’t want to buy food to cook, just seeing the wonderful choice and displays of food is fantastic. Upstairs you’ll find lots of bars and cafes where you can eat too. (Click here for more.)

 

Cafes

There are cafes everywhere, of course, from old grand cafes like Caffè Gilli in Piazza della Republicca (photo above) and Caffè Rivoire in Piazza della Signoria with its famous view over towards the Uffizi and ‘David’ copy. But you’ll find plenty of small cafes from the older traditional kind to more modern ones. Wherever you stop for a coffee the chances are it will be a good one. Your cappuccino will come in a small cup, without chocolate, though as an obvious tourist you may be asked if you want some. Italians drink small coffees, often frequently during the day. A coffee is a fast thing. You stop at the bar and order a cappuccino (not after 11am or a meal!) or espresso, drink it and move on. They drink it at the bar, standing up, and quite cheaply. You have to pay and get a ticket at a cash desk before going to the bar. But if you want to sit down and be served you’ll pay a premium, perhaps twice as much or more.

 

Places to eat

I prefer most of the time to eat in modest trattorias and cafes rather than smart restaurants. It’s not just a question of cost but because I like to enjoy the simple, straightforward local food. The places I enjoyed eating in on my last trip were Osteria Santo Spirito, Trattoria Cibrèo, Cibrèo Caffè and Simbiosi, an organic pizzeria.

 

What to eat and drink

Tuscan cuisine is so great with so many famous dishes, I can only give you an overview of what I sampled on my recent visit and hopefully offer just a small guide to what to look for. A typical Florentine breakfast is a coffee – usually macchiato, though I ordered cappuccino – and a little pastry called budino di riso, which is like a creamy rice pudding in a pastry case. It’s really delicious. I discovered it on a food tour and ordered one with my coffee a couple of mornings at Caffè Gilli.

Bread is a big thing in Tuscany, more so than pasta and rice, so a lot of dishes have a bread base. Most famous are panzanella – a salad based on bread with tomatoes and other vegetables, a soup called ribollita made with lots of seasonal vegetables, usually including cavolo nero, which is then ladled over some bread. Tomatoes are used a lot too, especially at their tastiest in the summer months, and I loved pappa al pomodoro, a warm bread soup with lots of tomatoes,  garlic, olive oil and basil. I had a great one on my last evening in Osteria Santo Spirito.

The bread itself is unsalted, which can taste a bit strange, but then when put with the full, rich flavours of Tuscan cooking makes sense. It is anyway delicious and Osteria Santo Spirito served theirs with some lovely tapenade.

Those delicious little biscuits called cantuccini that are often served with coffee in Italian cafes even in London, come from Florence. I saw some being made on the food tour but they were everywhere in bakers, cafes and the market.

The Florentines like meat a lot, especially beef and their most famous dish is perhaps bistecca alla Fiorentina – a T-bone steak served in most restaurants. Usually it’s a dish for two so I didn’t order it, but had instead another famous Tuscan dish – Tagliata di Manzo. The steak is served rare, cut into slices, with rocket and thin slivers of Parmesan cheese. I had a fabulous one on my last night at Osteria Santo Spirito.

You’ll find delicious Tuscan prosciutto, a bit drier than from Parma with a deeper flavour, and wonderful salami spiced with fennel. Cheeses include Pecorino and Tuscany’s olive oil is thought by some to be the best in the world; it can be quite green with a peppery flavour.

You’ll find the most amazing wine in Florence for this is Chianti country. A good restaurant or trattoria will guide you when choosing what to go with your food.

 

Gelato

Ice cream has to have its own section here! Italy may be famous for its ice cream but there’s nowhere like Florence for eating it for Florence is where it was born, back in the time of the Medicis in the 16th century. Florence is where I had my first real Italian gelato experience and  I had to go back to where it all happened – at Vivoli, Florence’s oldest gelateria, which was once said to be the best in the world. Perhaps it can’t claim that now, but it’s certainly one of the best you’ll find and I think on my recent trip my favourite (click here). Also serving fabulous gelato is Gelateria della Passera, which again I was introduced to on my food tour. I discovered another good gelateria which won a prize at Florence’s gelato festival last year – My Sugar in Via de’Ginori. Two chains which are good are Grom and Venchi. But you’ll find gelaterias everywhere you go and I’m sure there are many more good ones to discover.

 

What to buy to take home

There are obvious things to buy to take home like the wine and olive oil from the region, but if you’re travelling with just hand luggage as I did, that’s not possible. It doesn’t bother me much as nowadays I can buy excellent Italian food and wine back home. I considered buying some cantuccini for gifts but then considered how they might get crushed in my small case. What I hadn’t intended to buy but did is some artwork and leather. You see artists setting up stalls all over Florence, especially near the Uffizi, but also in the piazzas. One evening in the Piazza della Republicca there were a few stalls and I took a look as I wandered round. I was attracted to the work of Sandra Bencistà (photo above) who was making beautiful watercolours as I watched. I talked to her and ended up buying a couple of small paintings which I thought a really lovely thing to bring home.

It was while walking to Trattoria Cibrèo on Wednesday evening that I passed a leather shop – Cuor di Pelle, in Via dei Pilastri. This is in the Santa Croce area of Florence, which is a bit away from the tourist area and more obviously a place where locals live. Leather is one of the most famous things to buy in Florence and you’ll see leather shops everywhere; indeed, sometimes just walking down streets you smell the leather and around Mercato Centrale there are lots of leather stalls. I have to confess to being a bit suspicious. It’s a bit like buying glass in Venice – much of it isn’t really from Murano, just as I suspect much of the leather sold in Florence isn’t really from Tuscany. However, I could see a man working at a table inside and it looked to have some nice things, so I went in.

 

I got talking to the owner who told me he designed the goods and some were really creative. He said local people made them up; two women living just outside Florence made the purses. He showed me how to find out if your leather was genuine too. I ended up buying some little gifts and loved that this was clearly an authentic place.

 

Escaping the crowds and finding some peace

Much as I love cities and as much as I was really happy to be in Florence again, having not been there for many years, I did crave a little peace and tranquillity away from the crowds for a bit of the time. There are two wonderful places to go: Fiesole and the Boboli Gardens. I went to both. Fiesole is up in the hills outside Florence and just a 20-minute bus ride from the centre (click here for more info). I’ve been before and it has to be said that in peak season you’ll find coach loads of people heading there for the famous view across Florence. But as you can see from the photo above, by going early in the morning outside peak season I had the famous view all to myself!

I spent about 3 hours wandering around and having some lunch. It was a really nice thing to do.

The Boboli Gardens are fairly central and a short walk from Ponte Vecchio, behind the Pitti Palace. It costs €7 to get in. The views across the city are magnificent.

 

Oltrarno

Oltrarno – literally, on the other side of the Arno – is known as the ‘Left Bank’ or ‘Soho’ of Florence. This is where you’ll find artisan workshops, cafes and food shops. It’s also where my favourite restaurant of the trip, Osteria Santo Spirito is, in Piazza Santo Spirito. When I went there on my first evening there were lots of artisan craft and food stalls set up. The next day I explored the area more with the food tour. Again, if you’re looking for a quieter place to escape the crowds for a while, then cross Ponte Santa Trinita (one down from Ponte Vecchio) and enter a different world in Oltrarno.

The food tour I did was with Eating Italy – click here.

 

Florence 2017: Hotel Cellai

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Most of my holidays are short breaks, usually a 3-night weekend break, or in the case of Florence this week, 5 nights. I’ve got into the habit of booking flight and hotel through British Airways as the package is usually a good deal and living so close to Heathrow I always prefer to fly from there. This is how I came to find Hotel Cellai in Florence. It describes itself as a ’boutique hotel’ and from some research online, as well as the BA recommendation, it sounded very nice. But of course you can never really tell what a hotel is like until you experience it.

Hotel Cellai sounded friendly and when you’re travelling alone that’s very important. It’s nice when hotel staff bother to greet you as you come and go, ask how your day’s been, be happy to give advice or directions. Hotel Cellai went even beyond this. I’ve only experienced such friendliness before at my favourite hotel in Venice, where I’ve been many times, and the hotel I stayed at in Bologna three years ago. All the breakfast staff would greet people with a big smile and buongiorno, the maids cleaning rooms would give a big smile and say hello. The reception staff were friendly and helpful. For me, being on my own, it gave me a little feeling of ‘going home’ each time I went back and I felt it a cosy haven in the wonderful but rather manic centre of Florence.

I’d been in touch before I arrived. Firstly to upgrade my room. When booking I wasn’t given the chance as usually happens to choose a standard double room for single use, and I wasn’t keen on sleeping in single bed and fairly small room for 5 nights. So I emailed the hotel and it was all sorted to reserve a bigger room for me. Obviously at an extra charge. I continued the correspondence to ask if they could recommend some restaurants, explaining I wrote the blog and hoped to find some nice restaurants, preferably not the usual tourist ones but also simple trattorias rather than posh restaurants. They sent me a list and one of them ended up being my favourite restaurant of the trip.

The hotel has nice touches. My room – I think I ended up with one of the bigger ones! – had a kettle which I always love. It’s so nice to be able to make a tea when you wake up, have a nighttime tea as you go to bed; make a hot drink when you go back for a rest in the day. The bathroom had the usual shampoo, shower gel and soap but also toothpaste and a beauty kit with things like cotton buds.

The only negative to the room was it was at the front with a busy road outside so it was never really very quiet, other than in the night. But then I was in the middle of a major city. There were though double windows to block a lot of noise out and air conditioning to keep the room cool.

Breakfast was included and it was one of the best breakfast buffets I’ve seen. Juices, cereals and yoghurt; steaming platters of scrambled egg brought regularly from the kitchen; pastries and freshly baked cakes; platters of meat, cheese and tomato bruschette. There was a big urn of hot water and choice of teas, coffee with the option of asking the staff to make a cappuccino if you wanted.

  

You could sit in the dining room but they also made up more casual small tables in nearby sitting areas.

   

There were lots of cosy little seating areas with artworks, books, paintings, all around the hotel which added to the attraction. You often read about hotels being ‘charming’ but Hotel Cellai really is.

One of the really special things was that between 5 and 6pm complimentary tea was offered in a sitting room with a big choice of teas and some cake. Just perfect for an afternoon rest after a day of sightseeing before going out again for the evening.

The hotel is very conveniently situated, just a 10-minute walk from Florence’s main railway station, Santa Maria Novella. And it’s only about a 15-20 minute walk to the Uffizi and Ponte Vecchio; a 10-minute walk to the Accademia to see Michelangelo’s ‘David’. It really couldn’t be much better – unless very posh and expensive is your preference – and I’ll certainly go back to Hotel Cellai next time I go to Florence.

Florence 2017: Dinner at Trattoria Cibreo & Visit to Boboli Gardens

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I decided to eat at Trattoria Cibreo last night. It had been recommended to me by both my hotel and the food tour I did on Monday. It opens at 7.00 in the evening. There are reports of long queues and you can’t book so I decided to get there in time for opening. As it happened there wasn’t a queue but then it’s not really peak season in Florence yet. The trattoria is the more simple, cheaper version of the Cibreo restaurant next door. There’s also a Caffe Cibreo nearby but on a grand cafe style and also quite expensive. When the trattoria opened I opted to sit inside rather than on the terrace outside.

It was very much a typical Tuscan trattoria inside; just the kind of place I love. The menu was quite short and handwritten. The staff were really friendly and helpful. Soon I’d ordered and had some wine before me.

I had some chicken liver pate to start and it came with little pieces of toast and some wonderful integrale bread they make themselves. The pate was deliciously light and creamy.

For my main I chose chicken and ricotta meatballs in tomato sauce. It was such a simple dish but wonderfully done with incredibly light and delicious meatballs and fabulous, deep tasting tomato sauce. They served it with some chickpeas dressed in olive oil on the side.

I finished with a slice of gorgeous flourless chocolate cake and an espresso. My bill for food and wine was €38.

Before returning to the hotel I walked down to the Ponte Vecchio and saw a wonderful sunset.

I woke to another gorgeous day of sunshine and a temperature in the 30s. The plan of the day was to go to the Boboli Gardens. I hadn’t been before and was keen to see them. I had to cross the Ponte Vecchio to get to them. The Gardens lie behind the Pitti Palace, the main seat of the Medicis in the 16th century. The Gardens are some of the first formal designs of the time and are more about design than colour; there are few plants. There are however magnificent views across the city, requiring quite a hike up steep paths, but definitely worth the effort. The entry fee is €7. Here are some photos:

   

It was very quiet in the Gardens – I’m sure it won’t be in July and August! – so a lovely peaceful place to pass a couple of hours this morning away from the crowds in the centre of the city.

It was approaching lunchtime and I decided to head back to the Santa Croce area I was in last night. It’s less touristy and more a local place. I wanted just a salad for lunch and thought I’d be sure to find a good one in Caffe Cibreo – part of the restaurant-trattoria family from last night.

I sat on the terrace, which was pleasantly shaded from the hot sun. Their delicious homemade bread came with some almond cream and a glass of white wine I’d ordered.

Then my tuna salad, absolutely perfectly fresh with crisp vegetables and the dressing put on in front of me at the last moment. All very simple and exactly what I wanted.

From the Caffe it was a short walk to Gelateria Vivoli where I went yesterday. I indulged in 3 flavours as it’s my last day, at a bargain €3.50 (it would have cost a lot more in London): pear + caramel, orange cream and stracciatella.

It was SO good! Really incredible.

A bonus and unexpected delight was by chance coming across Casa Buonarroti as I walked along Via Ghilbellina on the way from the Caffe to the gelateria. This palazzo was built in the 17th century by the great nephew of Michelangelo (Buonarroti) to house the artist’s work still owned by the family. It contains two of Michelangelo’s most important early works – 2 bas-reliefs – and a number of very early sculptures in terracotta and many drawings. For €6.50 it was great to go inside and get a close-up view of some of the great artist’s work.

Florence 2017: Early Morning at Mercato Centrale & Bus to Fiesole

Unusually it’s taken me three days to get to the local main market. But there’s so much to do in Florence with my time divided between art and food, not to mention just wandering round and appreciating how beautiful Florence is, that today was the first chance to go. I’m always up early and it turned out to be a great bonus for the market was fairly empty still when I arrived. I’ve been there before when it’s packed. It’s a large covered market although there are lots of stalls surrounding it outside selling mainly leather goods, for leather is one of the most famous things to buy in Florence.

The market has been there since the late 19th century. It sells every kind of food you could possibly want to find from meat and fish and vegetables to the best olive oil and cheese. You’ll find local cantuccini and huge fresh porcini. Here are some of the photos I took.

   

Through some windows I could see people making fresh pasta.

Upstairs there are lots of cafes and stalls selling all kinds of food so it’s a great place to head to eat. There’s an Eataly outlet too.

My plan for the next part of the day was to take a bus to Fiesole. Fiesole is up in the hills above Florence. It’s just a 20-minute journey on the No.7 bus from Piazza San Marco to Piazza Mino in the centre of Fiesole (€1.20 each way). I partly wanted to escape the madness of busy Florence for a while but also wanted to see the stunning views across the city. Again. I’ve been to Fiesole before but many years ago. In the peak season coach loads of tourists go there for the views but luckily it was fairly quiet, and again, arriving early I had the famous viewpoint to myself for a while.

I walked a bit further up to Chiesa di San Francesco, a 14th century church.

It was a lovely little church and a wonderfully peaceful place to sit for a while. Then it was time to head back down the steep narrow road to the centre of town for lunch.

I’d remembered having great pizza in Fiesole before. Unfortunately what I ended up having was one of the worst pizzas I’ve ever had! However, it wasn’t really a big deal as I’d otherwise spent a wonderful three hours in Fiesole. I took the bus back down to the centre of Florence and decided to seek out Vivoli Gelateria for some ice cream. Well, when in Italy you need gelato every day! Vivoli is the oldest gelateria in Florence – and Florence is where modern gelato was born back in the days of the Medicis in the early 16th century. Vivoli is where I first experienced the wonder of Italian gelato – 40 years ago! And I’ve never forgotten it.

It was mind blowing. I’d never had anything like it. Vivoli once claimed to sell the best ice cream in the world. Perhaps it wouldn’t be able to now for even in Italy there’s been something of a gelato revolution with new artisan gelaterias popping up all the time, but Vivoli can still claim to serve some of the best.

I had chocolate + orange and zabaione (€2.50). I had to have the zabaione because I do actually remember that’s what I had 40 years ago! It was still wonderful. The chocolate was rich and deep in flavour with gorgeous slightly bitter pieces of candied orange peel; the zabaione deliciously creamy. They serve the gelato only in cups; no cones. This is because Italians think you shouldn’t taint the taste of good gelato with a cone! Vivoli’s great ice cream lives on.

Florence 2017: Food & Art

Like most other visitors to Florence, I’m here for the food and the art. The Renaissance was born here but so too was gelato. Both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were born in Tuscany and modern gelato was born in Florence at the time of the Medicis in the early 16th century. I’ve been doing a good job of enjoying both my love of art and my love of good food since arriving a couple of days ago.

Yesterday I did a brilliant 4-hour food tour with Eating in Italy. Our guide Omar was half Italian and half Egyptian but having been brought up in Florence he knew it better than most people and was an excellent guide – well informed and knowledgeable but fun too. The tour was based in Oltrarno – literally ‘the other side of the Arno’ and away from the main tourist areas. This is where you’ll find locals and artisan shops, cafes and restaurants. We began with a typical Florentine breakfast of coffee macchiato and budino di riso (a delicious little cake with a rice pudding filling) at La Nuvole cafe.

We watched 80-year-old Roberto make cantuccini in Pasticceria Buonamici (he’s been working there since he was 13!) and sampled some straight from the oven. Roberto only cooks them once rather than double-baking them, so they’re deliciously soft and chewy in the middle.

We visited a typical deli – Sandro & Ivana – and tried Tuscan prosciutto and fennel salami and fantastic cheeses.

We sampled lampredotto – a kind of tripe; cow stomach – at a street stall, which apparently the Florentines love but Travel Gourmet wasn’t too impressed by. We then stopped for a glass of Chianti Classico at a wine bar – Fiaschetteria Fantappie – which I was definitely very impressed by.

We then moved onto Trattoria I’Raddi for a 2-course lunch. We finished with some of the best gelato I’ve ever had anywhere (and I’ve had some pretty amazing gelato in my time) at Gelateria della Passera.

They had some really exciting and creative combinations of flavours. I had chocolate & orange and elderflower berries, blackcurrant & cranberry. They were both fabulous. Such rich, deep flavours yet refreshing in the heat outside.

Today has been a cultural day – but only after a cappuccino and delicious croissant at Gilli, one of the city’s oldest cafes. Remember to always stand at the bar. I paid just €2.60 for both but it can be well over twice as much to sit down in cafes.

Then I went to the Uffizi. Not only does it house some of the best Renaissance artwork you’ll find but the building itself is great to see and offers fantastic views across the city and down the Arno river.

Do book in advance or you may not get in or face a horrendous queue.

I took a break for lunch at a pizzeria I’d passed a few times which is totally organic. I enjoyed a delicious pizza and organic Tuscan wine at Simbiosi in via de’ Ginori (€19.50 for pizza, wine and coffee).

I came out and crossed the road to My Sugar, an artisan gelateria, which was winner of the Florence Gelato Festival 2016. A small cup was €2 for 2 flavours. I had watermelon and honey & ginger.

Then it was time for Michelangelo and David. Again I’d prebooked saving myself from a huge queue and I heard someone being told there were no tickets available until next week. David is such a symbol of Florence and indeed a symbol of freedom and civic pride to the people of Florence. I’ve seen him before but even so I was still awed by his beauty.

Also I liked seeing the few unfinished works which show you how Michelangelo worked. He believed the carvings, statues, were inside the blocks of marble and it was his purpose to release them.

After a busy morning and early afternoon it was time for a rest back at my cosy hotel before venturing out again.

Return to Florence & Dinner at Osteria Santo Spirito

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It was while enjoying some Tuscan bread at Osteria Santo Spirito last night that I wondered why on earth I’d waited 15 years to return to Florence. It’s easy to be put off crowded, touristy Florence, especially in the heat of summer but then I’d forgotten how beautiful it is – and how glorious the food.

Eight hours after leaving my home I was checking into the lovely Hotel Cellai, situated fairly centrally so an easy walk to all the sights. I’d flown into Pisa and caught a train (48 mins on the fast intercity) to Santa Maria Novella station. From there it was an easy 10 minute walk to the hotel. I’ll write more about the hotel another time but it’s a friendly cosy place to stay. I headed straight out to enjoy Florence’s most famous sights, happy just to wander in the beautiful weather. It’s crowded but nothing like July and August would be and it’s an inevitability of choosing to visit a popular city.

I’d asked the hotel for some restaurant recommendations before I came. Of course arriving on a Sunday is a bit tricky as so many restaurants are closed in the evening but I saw a couple located on the other side of the Arno river in Oltrarno (literally the ‘other side of the Arno’) were open so I headed that way. I entered the pretty Piazza Santo Spirito and was met by the sight of a market still going – food and crafts – and tables outside restaurants and cafes around the edge of the piazza. It was very attractive and despite all the people and buzz, peaceful and welcoming.

I’d intended to take a look at both restaurants as it was quite early but arrived at Osteria Santo Spirito first and it was so busy with people being asked if they’d booked, I went inside and asked if they had a table for one. I just about made it! Soon after people were being turned away.

There is a terrace but I liked the inside so was happy there. Huge fans spun above bringing welcome cool relief from the 30+ degrees heat. I didn’t want a huge meal so chose a starter and starter size risotto to follow. The waitress was really helpful and recommended a glass of local white wine. My starter was Panzanella. A lot of Tuscan dishes are based on bread and this bread salad is a classic, best made at the peak season for tomatoes for the supberb taste. It’s really just simple salad of pieces of stale bread and chopped tomatoes dressed with extra virgin olive oil, and sometimes other things will be added like onions and basil.

It was glorious. This salad sums up so much of what is great about Italian cooking – using the finest ingredients, in season, and keeping things simple.  A basket of bread and tapenade was brought to the table too.

Tuscan bread is unsalted. There are various theories surrounding this. Whatever the reason, it’s delicious and the tapenade that came with my bread yesterday was fabulous too.

My risotto main dish was made with courgettes and ‘heart of Parmesan’, which turned out to be chunks of Parmesan.

It was wonderful, so delicious and the smaller size the waitress thought was probably enough for me, perfect. Especially as it left room for dessert. I hadn’t planned on dessert but the food was so good and I liked the lively atmosphere and sitting there, so wasn’t in a hurry to move on. I opted for ‘Budino di panna’, a rich cream dessert a bit like panna cotta that came with peach sauce.

This was so good – rich, thick and creamy and thoroughly delicious. The peach sauce was a great accompaniment too. A nice touch was they also brought me a complimentary plate of fresh cherries while I was waiting for my dessert. I finished with an espresso and then paid. It came to €29.50 for the food and wine. I liked it so much I booked a table for my last night so will go back on Thursday evening.