Slow travel in Tuscany, and anywhere

The last time I was in Rome, I had all these plans to visit all these places and then my son started vomiting the first morning we were there so we pretty much ate our way around Testaccio instead including a carbonara at Lo Scoppetaro restaurant that I know will become one of my lasting food memories. I always have all these plans to visit all these places, but life, as we know, never quite works out like that and unless you have the efficiency of a Girl Guide leader (which I don’t), well, it’s all just a surprise from here on folks. Besides, I never really know until I get there what we’re going to see. It all depends on how it works out, or doesn’t it?

Apparently, not for some. Some have travel itineraries that are so impressive and every trip becomes the successful completion of all the things they wanted to see, and do. Which I admire, but my own tend to depend on the moment, and if I’m with my kids, generally on them. It’s that getting somewhere and wanting to sit in the café in the square with my cappuccino and brioche and just breathe it all, just feel a place or possibly eat my way round a place. It’s what’s they call slow travel, although to be honest I’ve never known any real desire to do anything else. When I was younger I used to have this vision of middle age as being that most wonderful moment which would almost justify the fact that I want to go to the lake today and just sit and read my book and drink cappuccinos, just be, in a different place or new place and experience that relationship with place. Granted when I’m getting there it’s a very different story, that of what’s around the corner and if I have to drive another couple of hours, then that’s what I’ll do. Whatever the scenario, there’s little planning, and as someone once said to me: “Your kids never actually know what’s coming next, do they?” No, probably not.

I’m sure my kids will inform me what this actually meant as they get older. It will probably be accompanied by a “mum you were so mean, you never went to get our ice creams but sent us off by ourselves.” Yes, because a lot of time that happened to be in Spain, and when you want something, you will open your mouth and ask for it. In a different language. Linguistic need equals linguistic transaction. If there’s no need, chances are there won’t be much transaction, especially if you’re six. Lecture over.

In spite of the never knowing what’s coming next, I had a moment of maternal pleasure the other day over my younger son’s reply when I asked him if he wanted to go to Tuscany (five hours) or somewhere nearer. (And yes, I know I’m gloating but this has been my dream since they were born, so I’ll just enjoy the fruition of the said dream.) “Mum, if I have to travel two hours to see two little things, I’d rather travel five hours and go see something beautiful. Better five hours any day!” Of course, there are lots of beautiful places on our doorstep but he has vague recollections of a camping holiday in the Maremma which added to the appeal I think. So Tuscany – and more specifically, Arezzo – it will be. The downside is that we’re destined for another wave of rain and snow, although I’m sure we’ll find some suitable eating establishment to soften the blow.

I was thinking this morning about how I first went to Florence during the first year I was here in Italy and my over-riding memory was of eating sfogliatine in a bar near the pensione I stayed in. That and going late in the day to the Uffizi and sitting in the Botticelli room virtually alone. I think I found that hotel when I was in Florence in January, although it’s now twenty years ago so I could be wrong but the street felt similar. There was a bar on the corner as I remembered. I had breakfast this January morning in a different bar in the main square, although they didn’t have sfogliatine. What are sfogliatine, you might be asking. Heaven. Or rather little pleated pastries, almost like little fans and filled with crème patisserie, ricotta, nutella (naturally) and sometimes lemon cream or pistacchio.

I didn’t find the sfogliatine in Florence that day. I had to go to Rome for that, to a Neopolitan pasticceria in or near Testaccio as I remember. We’d been to try to get in to the Colosseum, but it was Sunday and the queues were horrific and in retrospect we should have known better. My elder son was flagging somewhat so mid afternoon we decided to go back to our little bed and breakfast in Testaccio. That was when we found the pasticceria. And that was when I found the sfogliatine and all those memories came rushing back of being a young woman in Florence who ate sfogliatine and hitchhiked from San Gimignano to Siena because she had to see Siena and it seemed like a good idea at the time. The guy dropped us in Poggibonsi – you can get a bus from here – and then we ended up in Siena during the Festa dell’Immacolata that takes place on the 8th December in a town that was dressed like the ultimate chocolate box. Several years later I would go back with two sleeping toddlers in the car and eat grapes from the vine that my husband had picked and look over at Siena once more. There was a wedding taking place, the Italian dream, and they all drove up, the bride in a vintage car that I don’t quite remember now. We all have our own Italian dreams.

Note to self: it’s time to go back to Siena.

Until that happens, here are a few postcards from Rome.

Skies like these in Testaccio

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And the carbonara: rigatoni alla carbonara, or rigatoni pasta dressed in egg and guanciale.

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Easter cakes in Lodi

The Agnello di Pasqua (Paschal Lamb or Easter Lamb) is a classic Easter cake from the Lodi area or the Lodigiana. It’s made of flaky pastry and is usually filled with crema pasticciera (Italian custard). Variations are fillings of Chantilly cream or chocolate.

At Pasticceria La Lombarda (the Lombard) in Lodi, they have been preparing cakes and other sweets for 90 years. It was Easter Saturday and preparations were well underway for the big Easter lunch the next day. The agnello di Pasqua is the pasticceria’s strong point and very popular.

I remember once being in Paris and walking away from a patisserie with a little cake wrapped in a box (Parisian style and incredibly chic) and thinking it was the most heavenly thing I could possibly hold in my hands. This had a similar effect, the ritual of something special all wrapped up, in this case freshly made cannoncini. 

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Pasticceria La Lombarda, Via Garibaldi, 16, Lodi.

Focaccia genovese and Recco beach

Focaccia will always have a special place in my heart, or rather in my stomach. Food is emotional, and it’s what I remember eating when I first came here twenty years ago. There was a shop around the corner from the school where I worked. I’d go off and buy it for my lunch and then go down and sit by the lake. Now I buy focaccia for my kids, the little ones, the focaccine, and they take them to school for their mid-morning snack.

Which is why any trip to Liguria has to involve focaccia, and no less so than to Genoa. Genoa is great for street food. For a start, it’s the kind of place that encourages street food. (Why go off and sit in a restaurant when you can see all this?) And the food it offers is magnificent. Remember, Genoa is the home of focaccia genovese, and focaccia genovese is to be eaten to be believed.

The origins of focaccia are ancient. Phoenicians, Greeks and Carthaginians all prepared focaccia with barley, millet and rye flour. It’s derived from the Latin focus, meaning hearth or fireplace which is where the bread was traditionally cooked. It’s the bread of travellers and sailors, and nowhere does this seem more adapt than in the heart of Genoa’s Medieval historical centre. Genoa, once a maritime republic, and now a multi-attraction city that is definitely worth the visit.

Focaccia genovese or fugàssa as it’s known in the local dialect is flatter than other focaccia you may find in Italy – generally no more than 2cm high. It’s renowned for the fact that it’s covered in an emulsion of olive oil and flavoured with rock salt. And then there’s the farinata, a kind of pancake made of chickpea flour.

We’d only been in Genoa about, ooh a good ten minutes, and there was the usual “mum, did you bring any snacks? Mum, I’m hungry. Mum, can we eat something?” It’s like that with boys. They need feeding. Often.

Spot a few could-be locals, and “Excuse me, where you can get the best focaccia?”

The directions were a bit vague and neither of them could remember the name of the place (par for course, as you learn), and off we trek into the alleyways or caruggi of Genoa. The place we went to was Focaccia e… on Via San Lorenzo by the cathedral, although to be honest you could go to any focacceria and not be disappointed.

And it was delicious.

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Focaccia di Recco (left) and Farinata (right) 

The other type of focaccia famous around here is the focaccia di Recco, a thin almost pancake-like bread filled with a soft cheese, stracchino, that is at its best when eaten warm.

On the beach at Recco, just like this was. And no better way to eat it.

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