Some Gelato, Chianti & Vespas (Florence, Italy)

Settling back into one of Italy’s new Frecciarosa 1000 trains, we left the chaotic streets of Rome behind. Not far north of the city, our window provided a view into the Italian countryside; one that has been romanticized over for many months. Rolling green hills with small villas, and blue skies. Wooded areas and small valleys, where a creek flowed through painted our own fresco from the train. Italy has invested heavily in a rail network to the equivalent of their Swiss and German neighbors, and we can assure you the Italians did not disappoint.

Over the coming days we will visit both Firenze (Florence) and Siena, and learn of their ancient rivalry. Firenze, the natural capital of Toscana (Tuscany) is a series of cobblestone laneways, laid as Julius Casaer had intended in 59 AD. Small laneways, teeming with tourists and locals, jostling for gelato, a Vespa tshirt or a caffe. Light rain is falling but the crowds do not albeit instead our shuffle along these lanes become more purposeful. Italians greet each other as long list friends and the rain seems to bring a reason to stop under an awning admiring the modern art of “window shopping”. Here amongst boutiques of jewellery and local art, a H&M stands proud with the imperial symbol of America just a further along, McDonalds.

With all the characters in place, the set lit and the curtain lifted to reveal Firenze as you intend it to be. Vespas whisk by competing with tourists, fresh gelato in shop windows sculpture into soft peaks tasting graced with slices of fruit, be it a melon or a coconut. Here in the heart if Firenze, you understand what draws people to the Region. The cuisine, renowned throughout the world, is all but an entree to Tuscany.

So what trip to Tuscany, or Italy for that matter, be complete without a scoot around the countryside with a Vespa. Nervous as we were, neither of us having ridden a Vespa or a motorcycle before, the thought of seeing Tuscany by Vespa was to good an opportunity to miss.

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Let’s roll!

After initial practice in the the Contiki camping grounds, we ended into the back lanes of Tuscany. Gravel at first, the as confidence built onto paved roads. Zipping up these country lanes pass in season olives groves surrounded by lush full vines ready for the fall harvest. Vista abound from the Vespa, as the Tuscan we all know comes into full view.

Endless rows of vineyards and olive groves up hills and into valleys. Small villas perched high with tall cyprus trees standing to attention. The lush green fields, and fresh air in our face, the ride made us understand what keeps motorcyclist on the road. It’s hard to describe the adrenaline that was pumping; be it the ride itself or the picturesque scenery.

As the lane ways winded along, we tried hard not to pitch ourselves. Here we were in Italy on Vespa, cruising through olive groves and vineyards heading to a winery began in 1400’s to have an authentic lunch with a local family. What the tour didn’t tell us was this local family, was one of the wealthiest in Tuscany and their dynasty includes Pope Clement XII (born Lorenzo Corsini) whom decreed all future descendants will be titled Prince. The winery itself, Principe Corsini, was part of a 58 room villa on a hill overlooking the valley below. As our visit coincided with the fall harvest of grapes, we were able to see first hand the grapes being prepared for vino and taste them fresh from the vine.

Our Vespa took us away from the winery and into quaint little villages and as we zipped by, we got an insight to Nonnas meandering down the path to local T-Bar to get the days supplies be it fresh cheese, pancetta or gelati. Small villages with even smaller roads made the Vespa ride thrilling as we navigated around cyclists and Fiats. In most parts the Italians were patient with our driving and we had no problems navigating.

Our tour was led by an Aussie, Virginia, whom
moved to Italy about 12 months ago and live her “under the Tuscan sun” life. As with all good stories, girl met boy. Girl and boy fell in love. Girl moves from Geelong (yes Geelong, no kidding) to Florence and moved in with Giovanni, a local chef. Virginia told us stories of life in Florence and she is very fortunate to have a job at all in Italy. Previously a teacher, now she works taking Vespa tours through Tuscany. And as fate deals us this hand, guess who is our local chef when we arrive for a cooking class – Giovanni!

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Florence Cooking Classes in Tuscany

The kitchen was in a side street of Florence and as we entered memories came flooding back of the last time we worked in a commercial kitchen many years ago. The same clean benches, hotplates and oven, fresh chef whites and large quantities of ingredients standing ready.

It’s funny how you immediately fall into line and recognise the Chef, in this case Giovanni, as your leader and how orderly we became. Giovanni took us through the simple art of using the freshest in season ingredients to make creamy Tiramisu; bruschetta; pappardelle and ravioli; and to serve with butter & green sage sauce; and for the pappardelle a simple local meat sauce made with organic pork sausages. The methods not complicated and the process so simple, you could be forgiven it lacked flavor with the omission of garlic and herbs.

What we learnt from Giovanni, is less is more. How can you taste the true individuals flavours if you make a complex sauce? The base of the Tuscan meat sauce was 1 carrot, 1 celery and an onion reduced in quality extra virgin olive oil. Simple, yet this base formed a fantastic dish that rivaled anything we had tried back home.

Over the course of many, many hours we learnt some great recipes from Giovanni and new knife skills. Perhaps one skill we did learn and will use from now on, was making pasta by hand, no machine just our hands, a fork and a glass.

Simple.

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Giovanni said, “no need for machine. This is how we do it. Only once a week. Normally a Sunday, we make for a week and then dry it.”

The class ran an hour over but it didn’t matter. Here in the back lane ways of one of the world’s culinary heartlands, we were cooking true Tuscan food with fresh produce we had gathered that morning in the local market. Giovanni, was good humoured, diligent and passionate Chef who took us into his works for a few hours that Saturday.

Towards the end as we spooned the last mouthful of the creamiest Tiramisu, his BlackBerry rang. It was Virginia. By this stage we had told Giovanni of the amazing day we had with Virginia, and he insisted on Susie talking to Virginia on the phone.

Here thousands of miles from home, three Australians did what they do best. Talked football. Swans by 10.

This blog was originally published on TravelPod on 27 September, 2012.

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