To mangle the well-known quote from 18th century diarist Samuel Johnson: “to tire of Tuscany is to tire of life.”
We just arrived back in (sunny!) Scotland from stunning, stately Lucca. And I have the strap lines and piles of laundry to prove it. Lucca, a smallish fortified Italian town a short drive from Pisa, is a place I first visited a few years ago while on a cooking course. If you have ever been to Lucca you will know why I introduced my family to its scenic charms, and have been returning as often as is permissible by our bank account. It is simply exquisite.
Hemmed in by the granite walls that ring the old town are centuries’ smoothed cobbled streets bisecting soaring medieval buildings, cafes that spill out onto plane tree lined piazzas, stylish clothing and leather goods shops, more churches than you can shake a hymnal at and, everywhere, bicycles. I’ve never seen so many bicycles. The narrow streets are thronged with wobbly-wheeled tourists (us), dashing (in all senses of the word) white-shirted businessmen, lithe-limbed and be-skirted women, their baskets and panniers brimming with fancy shopping bags, vegetables and the occasional small dog. We even held back a giggle at the sight of a gaggle of nuns free-wheeling down a hill, habits at full mast, feet off the pedals. It’s that kind of place: joyful.
I had hoped to share lots of photos with you of our short but sweet – and savoury! – adventure, but alas, my camera had other ideas. A few photos from day one and a couple of phone ones (see right; wish I knew how to make them bigger) but otherwise, blursville. So, although I am lacking in piccies for you, I can offer a few descriptive recommendations. I am not normally a travelblog, so those of you here for the recipe please skip on down, but otherwise a short interlude of how we at ‘villa food to glow’ like to spend our Tuscan time – eating!
Our hotel: A former convent, Hotel Villa Volpi offers a spacious and serene break amongst the vine and grove thicketed hills outside of of Lucca – some of which is their 20 hectare organic vineyard and olive grove.
Reached by a ribbon of smooth road, Hotel Villa Volpi overlooks a part of Tuscany that looks ready to pop with ripeness: fields of rustling flaxen-tressed corn, laden vines, trees heavy with luscious rose and green-hued pears, plums and apples, huge sunset cloaked apricots and, of course, the silvery shimmer of olive trees. The breakfast buffet gives all a chance to fill up on bowls of just-picked fruits, eaten with homemade bread, cheeses and other goodies on precipitously placed outside tables – heavenly. I wouldn’t hugely recommend the evening meals there – the restaurant, as are most hotel restaurants, is run by an outside group – a bit fried and the service a bit harried. But with so many wonderful places within easy reach it really doesn’t matter. For a great lunch, grab some delicious bits and bobs from Il Forno (literally, ‘the oven’) down the road – they grind their own flour. Or, there are some lovely hot dishes to go from the nearby supermarket, Esselunga. And, apart from a bit of multilingual banter around the pool, all is silent at Hotel Villa Volpi. Our visual highlight was an evening hour sitting up above the hotel, drinking Prosecco by the star-lit infinity pool, the lights of Lucca winking and glinting far below.
Food: For a beautiful meal on a quiet piazza, head for Ristorante Giglio. We strolled up at an early 7.30 (to get back for the Olympics) and by 8.30 the inside and outside spaces were packed with tourists and immaculately turned out locals. Miss R had the osso buco con piselli (veal shank with peas) and a starter of pappardelle with wild boar ragu (see below), I had roasted lamb with the best chard I have ever had, and Mr A had stewed wild boar with bitter olives and polenta. We were in the clean plate club that night – delicious. Every dish that whisked past us looked and smelled fantastic. Not too pricey either, and with a free glass of rather nice Prosecco to welcome guests. Do you detect a theme developing?
The most authentic Tuscan food experience can be had at our favourite dining spot, Antica Locanda di Sesto. Dating back as a restaurant to 1368, this revered family-run eatery serves from-scratch local specialities such as baked kid with homegrown roasted vegetables, gorgonzola gnocchi, farinata with black cabbage, unbelievable lasagne and aubergine parmigiana, stuffed veal breast, various roasted meats (they are big on meats here) with appropriate sides, wild boar stew, pecorino ravioli with walnuts and pears. Portions are huge by European standards so hold back on the magically refilling bread basket (homemade of course), but save room for baked fruits in wine and spices or creamy tiramisu. And more free Prosecco!
Don’t forget to buy a bottle or two of their estate’s wine and olive oil. We successfully lugged back three bottles of their herbal not too nippy olive oil wrapped in beach towels, along with a freebie wine given to us by the exceptionally helpful and kind head-waiter/owner’s son. I think we may now qualify as regulars.
I could go on and on about this special place but I will leave it by saying that the service is probably the best I have ever experienced as a tourist, so it’s not just about the history, the medieval setting or the food. If you are anywhere nearby you really must visit Antica Locanda di Sesto. Reservations a must.
In the heart of the city find fantastic pizzas and unbelievably tasty and cheap lunchtime specials at Rusticanella 2. This smallish, wood-panelled space with outdoor seating is a real find: feather-light pizzas and calzones, local dishes such as stewed tripe in the Florentine style (Mr A had this – loved it), meatballs with peas, creamed salt cod with chickpeas, and lots of pastas and hearty regional soups. All with free homemade foccacia (no free Prosecco ) and the friendliest waitress in the city walls. This is a regular stop for us in Lucca, although Lucca is rather known for its high standard of food so no place would be a complete gamble.
More tomatoes this week, but as a fresh, crimson backdrop for juicy plump prawns, sweet hot Peppadews and snow-white mozzarella. Not forgetting the unexpectedly punchy parsley and walnut pesto, as featured in last week’s Roasted (Nearly) Nicoise Salad with Burrata.
Today’s Italian-inspired recipe gives you enough sauce and pesto for double the amount of pizzas, or with leftovers for a super-quick and nourishing pasta or gnocchi dish later in the week. I can imagine both would also go well atop and alongside chicken, or in an Italian take on nachos – a tumble of polenta chips, a colourful jumble of the two sauces, plus a grating of scamorzi affumicate (smoked mozzarella to you and me). Have I just invented something?
Prawn, Peppadew & Parsley Pesto Pizza with Chilli Chard
Last year: Peach, Honey & Lavender Tart (this is so pretty!)
Miss R’s Track of the Week: From her debut album, Jessie Ware’s ‘Wildest Moments’
If you like big flavours, this pizza is for you. I’ve given a link to my parsley and walnut pesto recipe, but of course use another recipe if you like. And if you can’t get hold of Peppadews just use some roasted pepper strips that you’ve doused in balsamic vinegar or similar: the sweet-sour thing is a winner here. Seafood-phobes and veggies just ditch the prawns and add more cheese.
Dough: 240g white spelt flour or plain/AP flour; 1 heaped tsp fast-action yeast (the kind for bread machines and handbaking); 150 ml hand-hot water; 1 tsp runny honey; 1 tbsp olive oil; ½ tsp fine salt ** and here is a gluten-free pizza dough that I have not tried, but comes from Amber at The Tasty Alternative, a reliable source** It is notoriously tricky to make gluten free dough but her technique and video look the business.
Fresh Tomato Sauce: 200g peeled, deseeded tomatoes OR ½ 400g tin of best tinned tomatoes; ¼ tsp salt; ½ tbsp chopped fresh oregano; 1 tsp honey; fresh pepper
Handful of tender chard leaves, cut in thin ribbons and sautéed in a slug of olive oil with some dried chilli flakes – optional
While the dough is doing its thing pop the sauce tomato sauce ingredients into a food processor and pulse until you have a chunky sauce. If it seems a bit watery – and this will depend on your tomatoes – you may want to drain it a bit in a sieve.
If you haven’t already made the pesto from last week, make this up as per the link above, or use your favourite fresh pesto. I really like this punchy parsley one though so I hope you give it a go.
When the dough has doubled in size heat your oven to 2250C/450F, along with a pizza stone or sturdy baking tray. Or two, if making them as individuals.
Using your fingers gently press the air out of the dough. I don’t think it’s necessary to be violent and pummel it, but carry on if you need to vent a bit. Knead the dough a few times then roll out into one large roundish pizza shape, or – my preference – two rounds. As thin as you dare. I do this on polenta as it makes it easier to transfer onto baking parchment and it gives the pizza a great crispness. Carefully lift the dough onto a sheet of baking parchment, then spread two tablespoons of tomato sauce onto each round, leaving a centimetre ‘frame’ all around. Fleck on about one tablespoon of pesto evenly over the pizza, then scatter over the torn peppers, the butterflied prawns and mozzarella. No need to cook the prawns first but you may want to rub them with a little oil.
Now slide the dressed pizzas onto the trays or stones and bake for about 15 minutes, until bubbling and the edges are golden. As soon as they are done drizzle some olive oil or spread some more pesto around the unadorned frames; drape over the cooked chard, if using, as well as some extra parsley and some chilli flakes, if you like.
I hope this doesn’t sound too much of a faff because, if you have the time, and some great tunes blaring out, it’s really fun to make and tastes SO much better than takeaway or supermarket pizza.