Four days in Florence with friends last weekend and thoroughly pleased with the success of our epicurial exploits – we discovered more than our fair share of fantastic restaurants. Even J, who is a vegetarian (inconvenient anywhere in Europe but in Florence even fish is a bit of an aberration) enjoyed it, but then he tends to treat weekends away like a culinary stag party, and his vegetarianism like a long-suffering girlfriend. What happens in Florence, stays in Florence – particularly the pig’s head paté.

Our recommendations for restaurants in Florence. All bills, where recalled, are for three people:

Il Latini – Via dei Palchetti 6 (off Via del Moro, at the Arno end)

Very friendly place, stuffed with Italians (as were all of these places) rather than tourists. We were steaming drunk when we arrived, but Antonio, manning the front of house, was charming and funny and accommodated us despite our unorthodox demands for sobering coffee while we waited (the Italians think you must be borderline psychotic if you try to change the natural order in which food and drink are consumed – aperitivo [starter], primo [pasta, usually], secondo [meat or fish], contorno [side – this is where the vegetables lurk] and then dolce, followed by coffee). The pig’s head was sitting nobly on a platter at the bar – Antonio insisted we all try it. It was rich and soft, with a slightly smoky, I suppose bacon-ish flavour, but less salty.  J ate it with a look in his eye that made me wonder if he’d ever paid for sex.

We probably waited twenty minutes for a table, chatting in broken Italian with Antonio and taking pictures with the pig. We each devoured our pasta with wild boar ragu within about 48 seconds, but decided drunkenly not to bother with the meat course. The waiter looked momentarily appalled, but was mollified when we agreed to cheese – parmesan and something else that I was far too drunk to recall but of which we ate every last trace. The house wine, on the table when you arrive, was rough as hell but we still drank about a pint of it each. Despite our noisy boisterousness they evidently rather liked us because they threw in a few glasses of sweet dessert wine at the end. The whole caboodle came to about 50 euros, all-in. Bargain. The next morning’s museum trawl was a bit of a struggle.

Trattoria Garga – Via del Moro 48

One of our favourite places, absolutely heaving (worth booking – we managed to squeeze in but had to leave within two hours). Highlights were pasta with citrus (a light lemony, creamy sauce, of which there is a close approximation in Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat) and spaghetti with crisp cavolo nero (curly kale). R’s bistecca all Fiorentina was vast and velvety, while J’s steamed squid was delicious but a bit hard-going after a while. A 20 euro Chianti, recommended by the friendly waiter (with excellent English) was robust but elegant. Bill was around 150 euros, for two courses, wine and water.

Oliandolo – Via Ricasoli 38-40

Only open at lunchtime, this is a tiny, quick service place with simple local dishes. It is also ridiculously cheap. Cuttlefish and courgette pasta was large but light, with simple but well-combined flavours, while fennel in cheese sauce was unexpectedly moreish. A mixed salad was generous, plenty for three, and J, who I think had been enlivened by the fact that there was fish on the menu, essayed a superb pannacotta with dark chocolate topping, which made you feel a bit like you ought to be lying on a chaise longue clad in frilly negligée .

Trattoria da Sergio – Piazza San Lorenzo 8 (round the side of the church, where the little market is)

This place had a HUGE queue when we arrived, and we probably waited for half an hour. The key is to go straight to the front and put your name down on arrival. Again, it’s all about lunch. The pork chop is great -, crunchy around the edges but meltingly soft, and the chips, against the odds, are brilliant – properly crunchy without being overdone. I had an excellent rolled roast rabbit wrapped in pork with a thin, rich gravy. The other diners were almost exclusively Italian, and for some reason found us fascinating, possibly because we were eating so much. Two very good signs in an Italian restaurant though are elderly men eating alone and entire families (three generations) eating together. You know that place makes lunch like Nonna used to make.

Cibréo Trattoria – Via de’ Macchi (at the Via Pietrapiana end)

This is the cheaper version of the famous Cibréo Ristorante, which is next door. If you’d rather not remortgage your house, make sure you get the right one. The food is very similar, but the menu is less extensive (apparently, though it seemed huge to us). You’ll wait three weeks for a table at Cibréo, but at the tiny Cibréo T, crucially, they don’t take bookings. We waited in the porch for maybe 30 or 40 minutes but  it was soooo worth it. The food is fabulous. J didn’t stop exclaiming over it. I had raw sausage as an aperitivo, which is exactly what it says and looks rather daunting, but it had a texture similar to a semi-coarse pate and a delicate flavour. J’s simple dish of ricotta was sweet without being cloying. Soups were excellent, especially a spicy fish soup similar to bouillebaisse. R devoured her meatballs with much muffled appreciation; my baccalau was a bit much – just a vast dollop of salt cod goo with rather boring french toast, but the contorni were fantastic. Even the sprouts (no, I’ve never seen sprouts in Italy either) were tasty. They were included in the price of each secondo – 14 euros. Primi and aperitivi were all 7 euros. Wine starts at 14 euros, we had two bottles of a very decent Chianti at about 19 or 20 euros I think. The staff are all ridiculously friendly and come and sit down to take your order and take you through the menu in excellent English. If I had the money, I’d probably try the posh version next door, but probably only once. This place is great.

Art Bar – Via del Moro 4

This is the place where we got so drunk before Il Latini. Very cute, very friendly with perfect English, good cocktails (about 9 euros) and very reasonably priced basic red wine. They also serve vast quantities of free nibbles – maize snacks, crisps, huge green olives and pop corn. We stayed for ages. They know exactly what they’re doing. Most of the clientele wasn’t Italian, at least in the early evening – international students mainly. A dangerously easygoing boozer.

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Being completely skint since Christmas, for the last couple of weekends I’ve been piously making vast stews in my sexy new Le Creuset pot (which was originally bought for my Dad, but I’ve managed to end up with it through a convoluted train of events which won’t bear scrutiny and is in any case too boring to explain). It’s cheap and they last for days on end (I made one on Sunday, I’m having the last of it tonight and yes, it is still edible). I used to struggle a bit with stews but now I’ve cracked it – stick it on in the morning, bugger off for the day, eat it eight hours later. Here is the ultimate comforting stew – you need a big stew-ish cooking pot with a lid that can go in the oven and on the top:

Thinly slice and vaguely chop an onion, put it in the pot with a decent slug of oil to soften on a medium heat. Chop three or four rashers of bacon and add them to the onion. When cooked, remove to a bowl.

In another bowl, combine a few handfuls of plain flour with about a million grindings of black pepper and a generous pinch of salt. Take some cheap stewing cuts of lamb (at least some of it should be big hunks on the bone) – those horrible basic packs you can get in the supermarket are actually ideal for this, they normally have about seven or eight largeish pieces in. Whatever you do, don’t get cubes. It’ll be like lamb soup by the time you’re finished. Cover each piece completely with the seasoned flour, then shake off the excess. In the same pot, brown the meat in as many batches as you need to, then remove it to wherever you put the onion and bacon. Tip the remaining flour from the bowl into the big cooking pot and stir it around on the heat for a bit with the fat to give it a chance to cook through.

Chuck everything back into the pot and take it off the heat. Add half a bottle of red wine and about a litre or so of hot stock. Bash and peel six cloves of garlic – if huge, cut in half – and add to the pot, along with about three sprigs of fresh rosemary. Put the lid on and stick in the oven at 100 degrees centigrade.

Go and do something. Go for a walk. Visit your mum. See an exhibition. Take that offensively oversized top your mother-in-law gave you for Christmas back to the shop and exchange it for something she’d hate.

Six hours later, come home. Take 10-12 Charlotte potatoes (or new potatoes), cutting the biggish ones in half to make sure they’re all about the same size. Wash a couple of big carrots and cut into half inch chunks. Again, chop the fat end chunks in half. Throw (gently) all of it into the pot, give it a stir and poke the potatoes under the liquid as far as possible. Put the lid back on and return to the oven for two hours.

Maybe watch a few episodes of Coast, or possibly The Big Lebowski. Heathers?

Take the pot from the oven, and, using a slotted spoon, remove all the meat and vegetables to a big bowl. Put the pot on the hob on a high heat and boil the gravy until it’s reduced a bit and you’re bored with waiting. Return everything to the pot. Give it a stir. Eat/keep/eat/keep for nearly a week.

A word of warning. Unless you live in a nice house with good, sturdy doors, DO NOT DO THIS OVERNIGHT.  If, like me, you live in a tiny one-bedroom flat with no doors to speak of except a sliding one to the bathroom which barely protects your modesty, you will wake up, sweating, in the dead of night, feeling both ravenously hungry and mildly nauseous, in what is effectively a meat sauna.

Even my boss can cook this

January 14, 2010

I have, I admit, Jamie Oliver to thank for this, at least by proxy. A couple of weeks ago I ate a splendid dish at a friend’s house which she had seen on TV, and then found the recipe on the internet. I did it the other night from memory, while my boss, T, who can’t cook to save his life except, apparently, for risotto (which I always find to be a dreadful disappointment, incidentally), did it from the internet recipe. He came in a complete convert, and I came in with leftovers, which I ate for lunch. And then I had the rest for breakfast this morning, which felt thoroughly decadent and was a great improvement on my usual miserable muesli, especially in this weather in a flat with only measley electric heating. This is my remembered version, because as T said, there are way too many tomatoes in the original recipe.

Put enough cherry tomatoes to snugly fit in a single layer in the bottom of a big roasting tin (about 2 and a half punnets of not-very-posh ones, i.e. without the vines taking up space). Separate a packet of Cumberland sausages and a packet of Toulouse sausages and put them on the top. Gently bash between four and six cloves of garlic, peel off the skins and if they’re super-massive, cut them in half. Poke them, and a couple of sprigs of both thyme and rosemary, and a couple of bay leaves, in between the tomatoes. Jamie uses a teaspoon of dried oregano here. I forgot. Shake over a generous lug of what seems like a bit too much olive oil, and do the same with balsamic vinegar. Mix it all up with your hands, then push the tomatoes back to the bottom, and make sure the sausages are on the top. Bake for half an hour-ish at about 190 degrees centigrade, then turn the sausages (when you open the oven, don’t stick your face in, like I did, or the vinegar fumes will scour your nostrils clean) and bake for another half an hour or so. I served it with brown rice and sauteed Savoy cabbage, which makes it look like the perfect balanced meal even though it’s swimming in sausage fat, but JO does it with crusty bread, which admittedly soaks up the sauce beautifully. 

It is a triumph. And if T can do it, absolutely anyone can do it.