While rummaging around in some boxes in the attic, I recently discovered some old postcards, photographs, notes and recipes that I had collected while working in Italy photographing holiday homes. As I sat there reminiscing, memories came flooding back of breathtaking scenery, seriously delicious food, wonderful people, smart towns and pretty villages… I’d like to share with you my memories of some very special places such as Monticatini Alto in Tuscany…
Nestled on a hill-top, overlooking the spa town of Monticatini Terme (on the Florence-Lucca railway line), is the enchanting medieval village of Monticatini Alto. Its ancient wall fortifications once had seven entrance gates. Sadly only one now remains the “Porta di Borgo” next to the historic church and convent with its clock tower looking over the village square. When I arrived at the B&B I had been booked into I could already see that Monticantini Alto was going to be an enchanting place to stay. The B&B had an elegant yet informal atmosphere and the equally enchanting owner gave me a key to the backdoor so I could come and go as I pleased via an alley that led to the square. I really felt I’d found a home from home, such a shame it was for only one night!
My room was very spacious with a four poster bed and an animal print theme to the decor that would not be to my usual taste but some how here it actually worked. After settling in, I went out for a bite to eat in Piazza Giústi – a really delightful square with a host of brightly painted restaurants all offering a great choice of Tuscan dishes. I explored for a while checking out the restaurants and some of the other beautiful old buildings.
Returning to the square I decided upon a lovely looking restaurant, La Torre, which I was informed by the proud owners, was established in 1951. On its menu I found such wonderful delights as white bean soup with porcini mushrooms, chickpea soup with olive oil, aged ricotta cheese served on a bed of ruccola (rocket) with roasted pine nuts and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. I tucked into their scrumptious ravioli with ruccola and porcini mushrooms.
In one of the restaurants opposite, a lively group kept bursting into song. Singing in three-part harmonies, they gave a delightful, unexpected, informal performance.
As I was finishing my meal, I noticed a lot of people wondering into the square. When I remarked on this, my waiter explained that the funicular railway had just arrived. This climbs up and down the hillside linking the village with the town below – a popular and convenient mode of transport for the locals (and no doubt tourists) when they wish to dine in the outstanding restaurants of Moticatini Alto in this magical little square.
In the morning I got up early and explored the centre of the village, a wonderful place for photography. Sadly after breakfast I was on my way but I’ve always remembered Monticatini Alto as a very special place and I really hope that I can return there one day.
Tuscan cuisine… a few notes
Porcini mushrooms are a very popular, but expensive, Tuscan favourite.They are collected locally especially in the Garfagnana region north of Lucca from October onwards, when the weather is still warm but getting damp. However, many porcini mushrooms that are sold as ‘local produce’ are actually imported from other countries.
Rocket is a versatile salad vegetable that is readily available from good supermarkets but is also easy to grown from seeds in the garden or patio tub. The dandelion-like leaves have a nutty flavour and can be used raw in salads (the young leaves are best for this) or cooked with rice or pasta dishes to which it will add a slightly spicy flavour.
They can also be fried, very briefly,and served as an accompaniment to a chop or steak as in the recipe, Manzo con Ruccola. Rocket is also used in a variation of Genoese Pesto and the seeds can be used to season a dish in place of mustard seed.
1 sirloin steak
a clove of garlic
a sprig of rosemary
1 tbsp of virgin olive oil
1 black pepper corn
freshly ground black pepper
a handful of rocket
3 or 4 2cm slices of pepper
- Slice the garlic and mix it with the rosemary, oil and peppercorns.
- Pour over the meat which should be turned so that it is thoroughly coated. Marinade for at least 10 minutes.
- Brush the slices of pepper with oil and grill on both sides until the skin starts to turn brown in places.
- Heat a large frying pan so that it is extremely hot and sear the meat, without cooking fat, for 2 – 6 minutes depending on how rare or well-done you require the steak to be. Make sure you turn the meat regularly to avoid steaming in its own juices as this will make it tough.
- Just before you finish cooking season with salt and pepper.
- Cook the rocket quickly in the same hot frying pan for about 1 minute, stirring until the leaves are just wilted. Arrange these either side of the meat and drizzle with a little olive oil. Garnish with the slices of pepper.
If you enjoyed this post you’ll probably also like an earlier post from Italy, Portovenere, the Cinque Terre and heaps of spaghetti with pesto. If you try out any of my recipes or have been to any of these places I’d love to hear from you.
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