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Tuscany 2019: 24 Hours in Lucca

It’s amazing how much you can see and do in 24 hours! I’d been to Lucca before but nearly 20 years ago, and it seemed an ideal stopping-off point on my journey from Florence to my friend Annette’s home in Comano, where I’ll be staying for the weekend until I go home on Monday. Just a 1hr 20 minute train journey from Florence and a chance to revisit one of Italy’s most beautiful cities.

I always like to stay somewhere central when I’m in a city for a short time but with just 24 hours in Lucca it was essential to be close to everything I’d want to do and see. I found B&B Caterina on the internet and it looked ideal, especially at just €77 a night. I had a lovely and warm exchange by email with Fabiana before my arrival and she was so kind and friendly when I arrived, it was a great start.

I took a taxi from the railway station, although you can walk it in 17 minutes according to Google Maps. I’d arranged that I could leave my suitcase at the B&B early, arriving around 10.30am. The taxi weaved in and out of narrow streets, quite a circular route given the one-way system, but eventually I got out and faced big green double doors. I rang the bell and was immediately let into a shared apartment building hallway and Fabiana called a welcome from the first floor.

 

Happily I could get straight into my room and was given a set of keys for this, the front door and the door to the apartment; the B&B has 5 rooms. The room was lovely. Quite spacious, simply but elegantly decorated with an en suite shower room. The next morning there would be a simple but nice buffet breakfast.

  

Fabiana gave me a map and some suggestions of what to do and where I might eat that evening. Given Lucca is the birth place of Giacomo Puccini (1858), I remarked that I felt I should be going to an opera. A great alternative for someone there for just a day was a concert at the Chiesa San Giovanni: there are hour long concerts every evening at 7pm. Fabiana gave me a leaflet and said if I bought a ticket in advance I saved 20%, so part of my plan for the day was to include going to the church and buying a ticket for that night – a selection of Puccini and Verdi arias – for €20 instead of €25.

I went via the trattoria to book a table for 8.15 and climbed up onto the medieval walls that circle the city. You can walk all round the edge, 4km, and there are steps frequently offering a way down into the centre.

I was reminded of how beautiful Lucca is. One of the great things about the city walls is that you can always move away from the crowds in the centre by climbing up and walking amongst trees for a while. It also gives you great views across and outside the city.

I cut down into Piazza San Frediano.

Then on into the famous amphitheatre. It dates from the Romans in 2AD but the buildings surrounding it came later in medieval times.

Although I’d been before I was struck by how small it is; in my memory it was much bigger. It was a bit of a shame (from a selfish point of view!) that it was filled not only with the usual restaurants and cafes round the edge, but an open air market, selling mainly gifts and non-food stuff. I hoped that later in the day it would be dismantled but even late evening it was still there. However, it didn’t spoil my pleasure at being in this beautiful place. And with the glorious weather and clear blue sky backdrop, it was stunning.

 

I spied the Torre Guigini down a narrow street and remembered climbing it 20 years ago for the fantastic views. It’s extraordinary with trees growing on top. I wasn’t sure I’d have the stamina this time … but later, after lunch, I’d be too tempted to resist.

I simply wandered round the city, weaving in and out of the narrow winding streets, which often opened into piazze – squares – large and tiny. I bought my concert ticket and walked round the corner to find the cathedral facing me in Piazza San Martino. Then onwards some more, passing wonderful food shops.

 

 

I took pot luck for lunch and sat down at a restaurant with its tables laid out in a quiet open area. The caprese salad was fresh but not particularly exciting, but it was a nice place to relax and the staff friendly.

 

I decided gelato was needed! Well I can’t be in Italy and not have a gelato every day; it’s a family fact. In nearby via Santa Croce I found excellent ice cream at La Bottega del Gelato. There were some interesting flavours on offer and the gelato was stored in lidded metal pots – pozzetti – which is a good sign.

 

 

Then I walked to Piazza San Michele.

And just off the piazza found Puccini’s birth house in Piazza Citadella.

 

The ticket office is across the square from the house. It costs €8 to go in.

 

It was fascinating to see. The first room, the Music Room, had the Steinway piano Puccini bought in 1901 and used to compose most of his last opera, Turandot.

 

There are handwritten libretti, letters and costumes made for some of the operas. Visiting the house is a ‘must’ for any Puccini and opera enthusiast but it’s also great for anyone wanting to get a glimpse of life a hundred years ago through the layout and contents of the house.

I found myself close to Torre Guigini again and this time decided to pay the €4 and climb up. It actually wasn’t so bad and quite fun to do.

And at the top you’re rewarded with magnificent views across Lucca.

From here I walked to the Botanical Gardens (€5 entrance).

 

They’re quite small but lovely to see.

 

Then back out onto the city wall again where I walked in the direction of the B&B and went back for a while before setting out to the concert.

The church was full for the concert.

The programme was a bit of a people pleaser – mainly famous and well-known arias – but actually perfect for the occasion and such a delight to be there in Puccini’s home town hearing some of his music.

It was time for dinner when I came out and about a 10-minute walk across the city. Lucca is so small it never takes more than a few minutes to get anywhere within the city walls.

I had a mixed antipasti to begin.

Then homemade pasta with a fresh tomato sauce. It’s the best time for tomatoes here and they have such a deep gorgeous flavour, they’re wonderful. A lot of Tuscan recipes require them but the locals will only make certain dishes – like pappa al pomodoro – requiring fresh tomatoes when they’re in season.

It was a nice meal, though not exceptional, but very conveniently close to the B&B.

Afterwards, as it was a little early for bed, so I took a walk to the amphitheatre to see it at night before returning to the B&B.

The next morning I had just a few hours before catching a train to travel to a friend’s. I went out after breakfast; Fabiana kindly gave me a set of keys so I could leave my bag there and let myself in to get it when I was leaving. After a while I found a nice historical cafe to stop and have a coffee and small pasty, sitting outside overlooking the Piazza San Michele.

 

I decided to go to the Palazza Pfanner. I’d seen it and its gardens while walking along the city wall. Entrance was €6.00. The gardens are glorious and so beautifully kept with statues and fountains; huge terracotta pots with lemon trees hanging heavy with lemons.

It was great to go inside too.

 

It was a little museum, with a 19th century kitchen set up and various interesting items to see as I went round.

 

I went back to the Amphitheatre to get a snack for lunch. I’d seen a good deli that I thought would be a safe bet for lunch at its tables outside but had possibly the worst bruschetta of my life. How do you get it wrong? But it only proved that eating in a very tourist place wasn’t a good idea!

I loved the statue by Andrea Roggi. A number of his statues were dotted all round the city and they were stunning; beautiful.

Now it was almost 24 hours since I’d arrived in Lucca and time to move on. I was so pleased I’d returned – albeit it briefly – to this beautiful city. There are so many good things to do and the B&B was great. The only disappointment was that I had found only fairly ordinary or even poor food (apart from the gelato), which after the glories of Florentine food was a bit disappoining, but another time I clearly need to do more research!

Tuscany 2019: Dinner at Trattoria La Casalinga & A Walk Through Florence at Night

My lovely Italian friend Lucia recommended Trattoria La Casalinga – literally, ‘Trattoria of the housewife’ – to me when she heard I was coming to Florence. It’s just off the Piazza Santo Spirito, which has become one of my favourite areas in Florence. It’s in Oltrano – the ‘other side of the Arno’ river – which has been undergoing considerable gentrification in recent years. The tourists do come here but it’s a bit off the main tourist route apart from the Boboli Gardens and Pitti Palace. You’ll find great traditional restaurants, cafes, bars and a rich cultural scene with artisan workshops.

There was a big queue when I arrived at the Trattoria at opening time, 7pm. Fortunately I’d booked by email, receiving such a friendly reply from Andrea that this, with Lucia’s recommendation, made me really look forward to eating there. And I wasn’t disappointed. This was another great find for eating good, traditional Tuscan food in Florence.

  

There are various ‘sections’ to the restaurant and I was led through to what seemed to be the main area – perhaps because I’d booked well in advance. All the waiting staff were friendly and there were plenty of them which boded well – and correctly – for good service.

I ordered a glass of prosecco to have straight away while I looked at the menu (€6) and a bottle of mineral water.

I already knew I wanted the Tagliata di Manzo for I simply had to have steak before I left Florence – and it was my last evening. I like steak a lot (though I only eat it occasionally) and the thing to have in Florence is Bistecca alla Fiorentina. However, that’s usually served for 2. Tagliata makes a wonderful alternative though.

Given my main course plan, I wanted a light meat-free starter and chose a courgette and Grana (Parmesan like cheese) salad (€6) to begin.

When I saw how much Grana was shaved on top I thought I’d made a mistake for I knew the Tagliata would be similarly dressed. However, the dish was so good, the essence of simplicity with tiny pieces of raw courgette beautifully dressed, that I was glad I’d had it. It was a huge portion though so I left some – it would have been plenty for 2 as a starter – knowing what was to come.

Well yes the Tagliata (€20) did look quite similar!

But hiding under the rocket and cheese were perfectly cooked slices of steak.

It was divine. Absolutely perfect; wonderfully tender and gorgeously tasty. I had a side of roast potatoes to go with it (€2.50) and an excellent glass of Chianti (€6).

I really didn’t need a dessert but I’d seen tiramisu (€4.50) arriving at other tables and couldn’t resist. It was very good; a classic recipe with no fancy modern ‘interpretation’ – the real thing.

An espresso, glass of limoncello and then the bill and a wonderful meal was finished.

As I came out I could see into the kitchen where huge pieces of steak were being sliced.

Then a slow walk across the city back to the Hotel Cellai. I was in no hurry for it was still quite early and this was my last evening in Florence. I felt a bit sad to be leaving so soon but then I have plenty to look forward to over the next few days, going on to Lucca next, then Comano to visit my friend Annette.

The Ponte Vecchio looked stunning from Ponte S. Trinita in the dying golden light.

I stayed on the Oltrano side to walk back to the Ponte Vecchio and cross it, where I witnessed a glorious sunset.

And looking the other way from the bridge towards where I walked yesterday to Piazzale Michelangelo.

 

Then I walked on along the side of the river towards the Uffizi where I’d walk through the courtyard and into Piazza della Signora.

As the doorway into Palazzo Vecchio was open, I took a look inside.

 

I walked a little way up via De Calzaioni before cutting through to Piazza Repubblica, which is always a hotspot of lively entertainment.

 

Then onwards past the Duomo and the Basilica of San Lorenzo, which always looks rather bare but worth knowing that Michelangelo had grand plans for its facade which weren’t carried out.

What a lovely evening and how great it’s been to spend a few days in this wonderful city again.

Tuscany 2019: An Old Pharmacy, Ferragamo Museo & Mercato Centrale in Florence

I’ve had a wonderful morning of exploration in an area of Florence slightly away from what’s become my ‘usual’ walk through the city. I’d read about the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, a 13th century pharmacy founded by Dominican monks in 1221 shortly after their arrival in Florence. It’s one of the oldest pharmacies in the world. The monks grew medicinal herbs in the monastic gardens for their infirmary. They developed perfumes too and in 1553 created ‘Aqua di Santa Maria Novella’ perfume for Caterina de Medici. So successful were their products that the pharmacy was opened to the public in 1612.

 

Entry is free and from the moment you go through the lovely doorway the whole place is a wonder and delight to the eyes. It’s simply beautiful.

Everyone was so friendly and helpful and I was invited to try spraying a little of that perfume first made in the 16th century on me. Its light, citrusy smell was gorgeous and ideal for summer – but I decided against paying €80 to take a bottle home!

There were beautiful ceilings – the fresco in the photo on the right below dating from 1312.

 

The pharmacy was magnificent with many displays showing products and history. You could also look out into the cloisters from here.

 

There was a tearoom where you could have a drink and also buy tea to take home. I was given some to smell and their ingredients and origins explained. At the back was a little museum area with machines and equipment used long ago to make the medicines and perfumes.

 

There were lots of things to buy – perfumes, body creams, soaps, ceramics. You were given a card for things to be added and then you collected and paid for them at the end.

 

And now for something completely different, as Monty Python would have said. From monks, herbals and perfumes to shoes and fashion. Though as I write this I realise that perfume adds a link to fashion! But as I was checking out the pharmacy’s location on a map I saw that the Salvatore Ferragamo Museo was quite close and it seemed like a very different place to head to next. And I do like shoes – even if I’m never likely to be able to afford some Ferragamo ones!

Situated in Piazza S. Trinita, close to the bridge of that name, the museum is in a basement under a Ferragamo shop. Ferragamo is one of Italy’s most famous fashion names. Entry was €8 but there also seemed to be a relaxed guide system. Groups were picked up and taken round with lots of interesting information given. There was a special ‘sustainability’ exhibition on at the moment and it was fascinating to see what had been used to make the clothes and shoes we saw.

 

 

This large piece of ‘cloth’ below was made from bottle tops and copper and aluminium wire. It was stunning and reminded me a lot of Gustav Klimit’s paintings.

Some of the famous shoes had been remade in sustainable products, including the famous ‘Invisible’ heel shoe of 1947.

 

I grabbed a quick cappuccino in a nice little trattoria opposite when I came out and then headed for Mercato Centrale, the large covered food market. A ‘foodie’ must always visit the local market and it was now time to turn my attention back to food.

It’s a huge market with wonderful produce of every kind you could imagine or be looking for. Upstairs there are lots of restaurant and cafe outlets and it was initially tempting to look for lunch there. But I wanted to get outside again into the sunny warm weather.

 

  

I headed to SimBIOsi, which is a totally organic restaurant in via De’Ginori.

It’s becoming a bit of a favourite – I’ve eaten in the pizzeria a couple of times – for its great food, excellent wine by the glass, happy atmosphere and friendly service.

 

I wanted just a pasta dish as I prefer to eat my main meal in the evening. I ordered Maccheroni al pesto di fave, spuma di pecorino e bottarga d’uovo (€10) and glass of local organic white wine (€6).

The pasta dish was amazing, really gorgeous. Especially the foaming pecorino cream. It was a great way to end a fabulous morning in Florence.

 

Tuscany 2019: A Morning Walk to Piazzale Michelangelo & Giardino Bardini

The weather is gorgeous here and it’s easy to walk to most sights from Hotel Cellai so I decided to visit some places I missed a couple of years ago.

The day started with the hotel’s wonderful buffet breakfast. It’s really superb offering pretty much anything you’d want from fruit, cereal and yoghurt, to meats, cheeses, slices of frittata, scambled eggs and gorgeous homemade cakes. And a waiter will bring you a freshly made cappuccino or other coffee.

Suitably fortified I set off towards the River Arno and Ponte Vecchio again via Piazza Repubblica. I wanted to go to Piazzale Michelangelo to enjoy the famous view. Rather incredibly I totally forgot about it two years ago and was determined to see it this time.

The light was clear and perfect as I crossed the Ponte Vecchio with a view of Ponte S. Trinita in the distance reflected beautifully in the still water.

Turning eastwards along Lungarno Torrigiani I passed a pretty garden – Martin Luther – where a few people sat enjoying the peace of the morning.

Signs for Piazzale Michelangelo appeared leading me away from the river and upwards. Well if you want a view you have to climb. It was some way up the very steep climb that I remembered I’d only gone up to the piazzale by car before! Many years ago …

However, about halfway up there was an entrance into Giardino delle Rose – a rose garden – where you can enjoy some great views and a rest on a bench before you carry on to the top.

 

It was inevitably quite busy in Piazzale Michelangelo; some people arriving by taxi. But I was glad I’d climbed and my efforts were rewarded as I looked over the glorious panoramic view of Florence.

I’d seen a sign for the Bardini gardens at the bottom of the steps so climbed back down and then faced another climb up a steep road.

Most people flock to the nearby and more famous Boboli gardens (and indeed you can buy a joint ticket to see both) but I walked round those last time and was intrigued to see these different ones. Here are about 10 acres of woods, gardens and orchards within medieval walls with glorious views across the city.

It cost €10 to get in but I was given a nice leaflet with a guide and photos and a map showing me the route round the gardens. I was immediately enchanted by the sight of Villa Bardini and its fantastic views.

Having been on the go for sometime I followed signs to the cafe for a drink.

I bought a cold drink and sat down and enjoyed the most wonderful view anyone might expect from a cafe seat!

Then, using my map, I followed the route round the gardens, stopping frequently to take in the views.

I walked through a long pergola which had wisteria growing across it while hydrangeas were planted along the edge. Turning a sharp left at the bottom, I came to the Baroque Stairway which dates from the late 18th century and has statues lining the way up (though you’re not allowed to do this).

 

I followed the path through the flower garden, which to be honest didn’t have many flowers but did offer a great view as I carefully made my way down the steep path.

Beautiful Tuscan buildings stood before me.

Eventually I left through the exit into via de Renai, close to the Arno again (there are two entrances/exits and this one is much the easier to access).

The Ponte Vecchio lay to my left and across the river stood the Uffizi Gallery.

It was a wonderful morning’s walk and amazingly quiet and peaceful. I think even in cities that are as popular as Florence you can always find a corner of peace to get away from the crowds. And I certainly did this morning.

Tuscany 2019: Return to Florence

I’m in Tuscany for a week, starting with 3 nights in Florence. I loved coming back here a couple of years ago after a long break so much, I wanted to return again soon. I’m staying in the lovely Hotel Cellai again. My morning flight from Heathrow took me to Pisa. There is an airport at Florence but small with few flights going there. From Pisa it’s an easy journey though. From the airport take the Pisamover shuttle to Pisa Centrale. You buy a ticket in a machine – €2.70 – so make sure you have some change on you. The journey only takes 5 minutes.

Once at the Centrale station there are plenty of notice boards for you to see where your train will arrive. There are about 12 platforms so this is useful. I bought my train ticket online which saves time and is easier. It was only €8.60 to Florence. It was lunchtime and I remembered there was a good little bar serving snacks on Platform 1, so I grabbed a panino and coffee to keep me going. The train journey was 50 minutes (make sure you book a fast connection with no changes) and I’d arrive soon after 2pm.

At the Hotel Cellai – only a 10 minute walk from the train station – I received a wonderful warm welcome, with a little note in my room welcoming me back.

I headed back out again soon, not wanting to waste any time in getting to see Florence again. First stop was my favourite cafe, Caffe Gilli in Piazza Repubblica, where I had an excellent macchiato and one of their gorgeous budino di riso, a little pastry with a sort of creamy rice pudding filling – a speciality here and absolutely gorgeous.

 

Next stop the Ponte Vecchio (literally, the old bridge) which must be one of the most famous sights in the world but always marvellous to see.

And the view from the bridge.

Then I made my way back to the hotel for a rest – given my 5am start – via the Piazza Duomo where the wonder that is Florence’s cathedral soars above you.

 

In the evening I headed back to the Ponte Vecchio to cross the Arno river to the Santo Spirito area where I’d booked a table at my favourite restaurant from last time, Osteria Santo Spirito. There seemed to be some kind of celebration going on and it was impossible to cross the Ponte Vecchio so I walked down to Ponte S. Trinita.

View of the Ponte Vecchio from Ponte S. Trinita.

The Piazza Santo Spirito, despite the busy cafes and bars round the edge, is a glorious place of calm. I just love it.

It was a bit quieter than usual, I thought, probably as it was a Monday. The Osteria is always busy though, so book ahead f you can.

It was just as wonderful as I remembered. A basket of lovely Tuscan bread came with homemade tapenade.

I just had to have Pappa al Pomodoro – a kind of bread and tomato soup – to begin. How do they manage to make something so simple so awesomely delicious?

Before I arrived I’d planned to have Tagliata di Manzo – slices of rare steak on a bed of rocket with Parmesan – but tired from my early start and journey, I decided on something lighter my first night. My first choice from their specials list was finished so I ended up having the same – but heavenly – courgette and Parmesan risotto I had on my first visit. I chose the ‘small’ plate option for both dishes and it was plenty.

I confess to greediness by having a dessert but I’m on holiday and when cooking is this good, you don’t want the meal to end. The chocolate cake with strawberry coulis was possibly the best chocolate cake I’ve ever had. Yes, it really was that good, wonderfully oozing in the centre and richly, darkly chocolatey. It was such a big portion though I couldn’t finish it!

I had an espresso to finish and the bill came with fresh cherries, a delightful touch. It was only €27.50 for food, wine and a large bottle of Pellegrino water.

The food at Osteria Santo Spirito is simple Tuscan food but of the highest quality; the atmosphere informal and the service friendly and efficient. It’s just the kind of place I like best.

The walk back to the hotel took my along via Calimara into Piazza Repubblica again, which is such a lively place.

Then past the cathedral in the darkening light.

And soon back at Hotel Cellai. I’d only been in Florence for a few hours but already felt settled and so pleased to be here again.

Chicken Braised with Fennel, Sweet Pepper & Tomato

We’ve been having a lot of barbecues recently on Sundays but the weather wasn’t great today and I had a few things in my fridge to use up before going away tomorrow: lots of tomatoes, a small head of fennel, some sweet peppers, a buffalo mozzarella … I decided to buy some chicken and make a chicken stew and slow roast some of the tomatoes to go with the mozzarella as a starter.

As my son was choosing some wine from my wine rack to go with supper, he asked, Is it a French recipe? Accustomed to my cooking French, Italian, Middle Eastern, etc. meals, keeping to a theme, it was a reasonable question. But in fact the meal had no ‘theme’ other than using up food that wouldn’t last for over a week until I get back from my holiday. It’s a Nonna recipe, I said. The grandsons call me Nonna, Italian for grandmother, so a number of food things for the family are defined by ‘Nonna’. And this is what Nonna cooked.

 

Chicken Braised with Fennel, Sweet Pepper & Tomato – Serves 4

  • 4 chicken skinless breasts
  • sea salt, black pepper, sweet paprika & dried oregano
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large or 2 small-medium onions
  • 1 small head fennel, trimmed and sliced
  • 1 yellow pepper, sliced
  • 3 large tomatoes, skinned and roughly chopped
  • 1 rounded dessert spoon plain flour
  • 250ml white wine

 

   

Season with chicken breasts with sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, a good sprinkling of paprika and a generous pinch of dried oregano. Rub in slightly and leave for a few minutes.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a large saucepan with a lid. When the oil is hot, put the chicken breasts in, seasoned-side down. Cook for a couple of minutes until nicely browning. Turn over and cook another couple of minutes so the chicken is sealed on both sides. Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate.

 

Add the chopped onions to the pan, adding a little more oil if necessary. Stir and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the fennel. Cook for another couple of minutes. Add the sliced sweet pepper. Fry it all over a moderate heat until slightly softening. Add the chopped tomatoes. Cook for another couple of minutes. You just want everything to start cooking and softening but not be well cooked as there’s a lot more cooking to come. Sprinkle over the flour and mix in. Then slowly add the wine, stirring all the time. Bring to a boil then turn down to simmer for about 10 minutes so the alcohol evaporates and the sauce slightly thickens.

 

Lay the chicken breasts on top and snuggle slightly into the vegetable mix. Put the lid on the pan and leave to simmer gently for 30 minutes. Check the seasoning.

I prepared the dish a couple of hours in advance and just warmed it through again at suppertime. You don’t want to overcook the chicken though or it will toughen and you want it to stay moist and tender.

For my tomato starter I cut about 200g cherry tomatoes in half and lay them on greaseproof paper on a baking sheet. I drizzled over a little olive oil, seasoned lightly and sprinkled over a little dried oregano (or use thyme). I put them in a 150C/Fan 130/Gas 2 oven for 2½ hours. Check them every so often to make sure they’re not burning or softening but there’s no need to touch them or do anything else. Remove them from the oven when you can see they’re drying out and shrivelling up a bit. The smell from the oven will be wonderful!

 

I served them with the mozzarella broken in the middle of the plate, the tomatoes surrounding them. I drizzle over a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar and scattered some torn basil leaves on top. We had some focaccia and olive fougasse with it.

 

Warm the chicken through if you prepared earlier.

I served with some new potatoes and French beans.

It was a gorgeous supper. The starter with the slow roasted tomatoes was fabulous. The tomatoes had such a deep and intense flavour that went wonderfully with the creamy mozzarella.

The chicken was moist and tender and really delicious. The flavours from the spicy rub had penetrated just enough to give the chicken a nice little punch but the sauce with all those flavourful vegetables was a brilliant match. It’s the kind of dish that really benefits from cooking early and leaving to ‘mature’ for a little while.

Tarte aux Abricots

My 4-year-old grandson Freddie loves apricot Danish pastries. Whenever we go to a cafe for morning coffee and babyccino, given free rein to choose a pastry, Freddie will invariably go for the apricot variety (though Pain au Chocolat is a close second). When I was shopping yesterday for today’s family Sunday meal and saw apricots, I just had to buy some. I didn’t have Danish pastries in mind though, but an apricot tart. Hopefully Freddie would judge this a reasonable alternative – and just as good!

I’m a big fan of apricots myself. They’re invariably disappointing fresh in UK but when sun-kissed in Mediterranean countries – like these in Aix en Provence, next to some gorgeous greengages – they are one of my favourite fruits, and I can never resist buying some to take back to wherever I’m staying.

Baked, the flavour intensifies and is truly deep and gorgeous. To get the best flavour for the tart, I baked the apricots first so they started caramelising, before adding them to the pastry case for final cooking.

You don’t really need anything to accompany the tart. In a French patisserie it would come on its own. But I thought a jug of single cream to pour over would go down well with the family.

Tarte aux Abricots

  • 500g (8-10) apricots
  • 1 dessertspoon caster sugar
  • 2 tablespoons apricot jam

Sweet Shortcrust Pastry

  • 225g plain flour
  • 150g butter
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 whole egg

Crème Pâtissière

  • 3 egg yolks
  • 30g caster sugar
  • 2 rounded teaspoons custard powder or cornflour
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla paste
  • 250ml milk

 

I used the same pastry recipe I used for the little Apple Streusel Tartlets I made recently as it worked so well. I’ve always liked to make pastry by hand but this recipe works brilliantly well in the food processor. And that’s so much easier! Just put all the ingredients for the pastry into the processor. Process until it comes together into a clump. Wrap in clingfilm and put in the fridge to rest and chill while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

 

Heat the oven to 220C/Fan 200/Gas 7. Cut the apricots in half and remove the stones. Lay the halves skin-side down on a baking sheet. Sprinkle over the dessertspoon of caster sugar. Bake until the juices are starting to run and the apricots are very slightly caramelised (don’t cook too much; they’ll be cooked more in the tart case). My apricots took about 15 minutes to soften and the juices to run but they were a bit under-ripe. Ripe apricots would take less time so put in for a shorter time and keep watch until you think they’re right. Leave the oven on for baking the tart once it’s all put together.

While the apricots are cooking, make the Crème Pâtissière. Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together until pale and thickening. Add the vanilla and custard powder or cornflour (this helps stabilise the custard as well as thicken it a bit). Whisk some more. Heat the milk until it just comes to the boil. Pour slowly into the egg mixture, whisking as you go. Pour back into a clean saucepan. Stirring constantly, bring gently to the boil. Leave to cool.

 

Prepare a 24cm loose-bottomed flan case by greasing with butter. Sprinkle in a little plain flour and shake around to pretty much cover the base and sides very lightly with flour. Carefully hold upside down and shake out excess. I like to prepare the tin in this way so that it’s easier to remove the flan at the end after cooking.

 

Roll out the pastry on a floured surface until it’s about 3-4mm thick. It’s a very rich soft dough so will break easily. Therefore use a good amount of flour on the surface to help hold it together. Roll it a little bit round the rolling pin and lift onto the flan tin. Gently push into the edges and cut away the extra pastry around the top. My flan case (which is about 40 years old!) has sharp enough edges for me to just press the pastry into the edge to cut the extra away.

Bake blind in the oven. Scrunch some greaseproof paper up and then lay it across the bottom of the pastry lining. Pour in some baking beans. Bake for 5 minutes. Take from the oven and remove the beans. Pop the pastry case back into the oven to dry out a bit – about 3-5 minutes. Then remove. Pour in the Crème Pâtissière and spread across the bottom of the pastry case.

 

Lay the apricots on top. (I rather wished at this point that I’d bought more apricots!) Reserve any juices to add to the glaze.

Return to the oven and bake for about 20 minutes until the pastry is nicely browning around the edge. Remove and allow to cool in the tin.

 

Melt the jam gently in a pan with the reserved apricot juices and a dash of water. Stir until the mixture melts and starts to bubble. Remove from the heat. Use a pastry brush to brush the glaze over the tart – the pastry edges and tops of the apricots.

Carefully remove from the tin. It should all come away easily. Lift the base away from the sides, making sure your tart doesn’t slip off! Then slide a large slice/turner between the base and bottom of the tart to hold it together as you lift the tart away from the tin base and lay on a serving plate.

It didn’t look quite as perfect as a a tart from a French patisserie, but it did look pretty good and more importantly, it tasted absolutely wonderful. The pastry was as perfect as for the little apple tartlets – a good flavour, light and melt-in-the-mouth. The slight tartness of the apricots, soft and caramelised, was perfectly complemented by the custard. Dessert this evening was a huge success; a perfect end to the family meal. And Freddie asked for seconds!

 

Cafe Review: Coffee 091, Whitton

When my son and I emerged from Coffee 091 on Wednesday morning after having some breakfast there, Jonathan remarked that it was ‘a little gem’.

Coffee 091 opened a few weeks ago and has slowly come together from a temporary sign by the door to permanent sign above, and the inside looking more lived in and attractive. We pass it taking the boys to nursery but having always been loyal to the Italian bakery further down the high street, didn’t at first go in. But since the bakery has stopped opening on Wednesdays, we’ve had to try other cafes. And Cafe 091 is a great find and I don’t think our visits will be confined to Wednesdays.

Whitton is in the northwest part of the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and part of Twickenham. It seems with Cafe 091 that Richmond’s gentrification is reaching its furthest corners. The cafe’s bare-brick walls and artisan feel give promise of top-quality coffee and food.

Bags of coffee beans sit on the counter; some are mixed to make the ‘home’ brew they serve as espresso, cappuccino, or whatever you choose. The coffee is excellent. There are good croissants in the morning and homemade cakes sitting under covers. I asked the Italian owner – who comes from Sicily – where he got the cakes from. He looked surprised and said, I make them.

 

 

For breakfast on Wednesday, I only wanted coffee (a flat white – £2.50) and a croissant as I’d eaten cereal earlier. Did I want jam? I was asked. In Italian mode (for their croissants are often filled with jam or custard), I said yes. Rather than it being filled with jam at the time of cooking, it was cut open now and a large spoonful of jam added. Served on a piece of slate, it was gently dusted with icing sugar and you could see, just in that simple snack, that care and attention had gone into serving it to me.

Jonathan remarked that he loved the way Italians always took care to present even the simplest plate of food nicely.

He’d opted for Scrambled Eggs on Toast (£4.00). This too came carefully presented, accompanied by a little side salad,. We could see the egg being scrambled in the back while we waited; some chopped fresh chives added to the mix. Jonathan said the eggs were well cooked; still soft and creamy.

Today I headed back at lunchtime. I’d been into central London early but decided I’d go to Whitton and the cafe for lunch before going home. Momentarily it seemed like a crazy idea – there’s a big rugby match on today and trains, roads, pubs and cafes were full of rugby fans. When I got to Coffee 091 it looked full. But the owner was at the door and I think recognised me as a local rather than a rugby visitor. He offered to find me a seat. He moved a small table and chair to a spot by the counter and invited me to sit down.

I ordered a Vegetarian Ciabatta (courgettes, aubergines, tomato & basil – £6.00).

It took a little while to come, but I wasn’t in a hurry. And when it did arrive at my table, again the care was evident. The warm ciabatta roll was full to bursting with freshly cooked slices of vegetables. I’m sure it must have all be cooked to order. And it was very good.

 

I had some Pellegrino water with it and finished with an espresso.

Coffee 091 is really a great local addition. I have to say that because everything is freshly cooked to order, it’s not a place to go when you’re in a hurry. The menu at the moment is small. But the owner talked of his plans … and it’s definitely a place to watch to see what good things come next. And I know the family and I are going to be going there a lot.

Coffee 091 Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Chelsea Flower Show 2019

I was back at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show on Wednesday with my son, Jonathan. I’ve been a number of times to this famous flower show, said to be the most prestigious in the world, but this was the third year running. Clearly I’m hooked! Well who wouldn’t be if you love gardens and the chance to see magnificent show gardens created by some of the world’s leading garden designers. And another of Chelsea’s main attractions is the Grand Pavilion full of the most glorious plants and flowers in prime, perfect condition – you’ll never see them better than this.

In all honesty, you don’t have to be an exceptionally keen gardener or even have a garden to make it worth going, for just the experience of being at Chelsea is great in itself. It’s not all about big show gardens, there are small artisan gardens (more the size of the average London garden); there are masses of stalls selling not only garden tools, furniture and decorations but jewellery, pottery, prints … it’s a bit like a craft fair. Over where the artisan gardens are found you’ll also find lots of stalls selling great street food and some live music.

But of course for even the most modest gardener with a quite small garden (like mine) you’ll be awed by the inspiration of the show gardens. I think it’s not ever about trying to recreate them yourself but taking an idea from one, some other gem from another, and piecing together some plans to take home with you.

For more about the history of the show click here for my post a couple of years ago. This year we were lucky enough to have near perfect weather – not too hot but dry with some sun shining through to make it pleasant to wander slowly round and take in all Chelsea offers.

The show is inevitably a photographer’s paradise. The rest of this post is devoted to some of the photos I took (as always, just on my iPhone). Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Restaurant Review: The Oystermen

Four weeks ago when I was happily wandering around Covent Garden early evening before meeting up with my friend Annie at Cinnamon Bazaar, I passed The Oystermen in Henrietta Street. It looked so inviting and just the kind of place I love. I more often eat fish than meat when out and love oysters, so the name appealed. I took a photo of the outside; it seemed a good way of noting the restaurant down. And it became my suggestion to Annie for our next place to meet.

Arriving last night, just after 6.30pm, it was busy and lively. I was shown to a table at the back where Annie was waiting for me. It all looked a little tight with tables close together but in fact it never felt too crowded. Maybe that was partly due to the overall friendly atmosphere. Right from the beginning our waitress was a wonder; that perfect mix of friendly and professional. She was very helpful to Annie who has a few dietary needs, checking things out in the kitchen and never making it seem like it was a problem; she only wanted to help. She made suggestions as we decided on what to eat; recommended what turned out to be an excellent Sauvignon Blanc (£8 for 175ml glass). Combined with the convivial atmosphere around us, we immediately decided we liked The Oystermen.

We liked it even more once the food started coming. There were some lovely Starters to choose from (ranging in price from £8.50-£10.50) but they sounded quite large and we opted to have two ‘Snacks … perfect to share. while you wait …

My Whipped Smoked Cod’s Roe Toast (£5) – taramasalata by another name and definitely without any pink colouring – was a glorious mound of creaminess; a light cloud of fish dip with perfectly crisp, light toasts to eat it with. It was amazing. I could have just sat there eating that until I was full … but luckily I had another fishy gem to come after.

Annie’s ‘snack’ was Sourdough Bread with Seaweed Butter (£4). The seaweed butter came in an oyster shell and was delicious. The bread was to die for … well it was some of the best bread I’ve tasted. I’ve had an addiction to good bread for as long as I can remember and am easily won over by the perfect kind. And this was perfect … and happily Annie was happy to share.

Annie made the bold move of ordering Whole Dorset Undressed Brown Crab, Garlic, Aioli & Lemon. I say bold because I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to dealing with things like whole crabs … but I do love them, and lobsters … It’s priced by weight and this was £25. It was almost enough to share … Annie made a sterling attempt to finish but I got some too once I’d finished my main course and it was superb.

There was a choice of 5 Mains. This is a good sign in a fish restaurant – a sign of really fresh fish that was caught only a few hours ago. I could happily had eaten any of them. I almost went with Oyster Stout Batter Dorset Pollack, Pea Purée, Fennel, Onion & Caper Salad (£19) but made a last-minute change of choice to Newlyn Hake, Scottish Mussels, Wye Valley Asparagus & Asparagus Velouté (£23).

The hake was excellent – a soft, tender fish with a mild, slightly sweet taste. It was perfectly cooked; the skin crispy and good to eat. The mussels were gorgeous too – large, tasty and tender still from skilled cooking. The earthy asparagus and its velouté was a good accompaniment.

Two wonderful-sounding desserts or a good cheese option on the menu were tempting but we were far too full to carry on eating. We settled instead for coffee (for me) and mint tea (for Annie).

Our bill at the end, including wine and service, was just under £88 for two.

Now before I go, I have to tell you about the toilets. Forgive me. But they have to be mentioned. To get to them it was necessary to negotiate one of the steepest and narrowest spiral staircases I’ve known down to the basement. It was a little like being on a boat. Once downstairs a recording the BBC’s Shipping Forecast was playing – ‘The general synopsis at midnight … Low Viking 1002 expected Baltic 1001 by midnight …‘ It was such a fun idea. The sink was shaped like a huge oyster shell. The Oystermen were obviously keen to give you the whole sea experience. And we just loved it … and can’t wait to go back.

The Oystermen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato