I don’t need calendar to tell me autumn’s arrived. As soon as I start craving sauerkraut and beef broth I know that time of year is here again. Talk of archetypes, these two are certainly typical autumn and winter foods in our household. So, I listened to that inner voice when shopping yesterday at farmers’ market and we stopped at the butcher’s for a nice cut of beef. Sauerkraut on hold for now.
“It’s (nearly) Christmas time, there’s no need to be afraid. Except, of course, there is. Forced festive fun is staggering towards us in its paper hat and comedy jumper, complete with flashing lights, reindeer noses and knowing irony.”
This passus by Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham from their article in theguardian.com is probably the best description of the current warming-up-to-the-hype, pre-festive hysteria. It nails it perfectly.
There’s another very interesting and thought-provoking piece related to the upcoming season (which is already here actually!) that I’ve been saving since last year. A dinosaur, I know. It’s as timeless though as the greatest Christmas tale itself: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
I’m referring to an article by Tim Harford, FT columnist and Undercover Economist. Here’s a headline and an excerpt that I particularly liked:
In praise of Scrooge
‘Scrooge didn’t waste his money on extravagances for people whose desires he didn’t really understand’
“It is hard for us to grasp the discrepancy between how we see the world when giving gifts and when receiving them. Recipients may appreciate cash or presents from a list and not fuss too much about expensive gifts; gift givers, in contrast, imagine that the ideal present is an expensive surprise. It isn’t. All this suggests we should probably be spending less on presents, and thinking a lot more about the presents we do buy.”
I’m a firm believer that we should be paying attention to people, to their needs and/or desires. There’s so much more to Christmas than presents and binge drinking and eating. (This from a person who cannot stop reaching for another slice of panettoneas if her life depended on it.) The present, if and when we intend to give one, should by all means reflect the purposefulness and meaningfulness we infused into the process of buying it. There’s nothing worse in a gift than the obvious fact it was carelessly or sloppily selected, bulk chosen or having no personal value to the recipient. Something you put away in a drawer never to recall the moment of receiving it reflects money spent badly plus the disappointment (although not expressed or shown) is immeasurable. I’d feel uncomfortable giving away things just for the sake of doing what everybody else is doing and considering a proper thing. If we’re no good at memorizing (and are parallelly employing the idea of chronic lack of time) then, in the age of smart phones that are always at the tips of our fingers, the task should not be too difficult at all: taking notes on the go has never been easier. It doesn’t take the burden of paying attention off though. Nevertheless, don’t fall for the obvious seemingly easy and generic solutions: receiving a wrong cosmetic is awful and giving cosmetic per se is bloody weak, especially for women. Same goes for wine (white wine person getting a bottle of red anyone?). Or anything else really. Give it some thought, it’s a valuable suggestion. Do try making them happy not your own self. Spending a fortune on presents is more or less passé. There’s even a scientific proof.
Pay attention then. Reach for quality in your choices. Set examples. Feel good about it. Don’t believe me? See what experts say about attention.
Autumn may righteously be the season of harvest and filling up the granaries. It may be a synonym for plenty but just as much it is foreplay to an unfruitfulness of winter. Besides, it’s an overture to the bleak season of cold and also, more and more, a playground on which the Mad Men are planting the seedlings of spending, climaxing in the actual end-of-the-year festive craze. Practically, if you pay attention to detail, the so-called Christmas season starts in September (the glossies start their jewellery editorials back then and home&garden sections of supermarkets start to display rather casually the first shiny decorations for sale). Do you comply?
I don’t. I prefer to stick to the bright colours reminiscent of summer albeit in autumn the sun doesn’t shine often enough and when it does it’s regretfully for a couple of hours only. So, when it does come out you better grab the opportunity and plan something nice outdoors. A simple walk does the trick. It lifts up the spirits like a charm.
Reinventing summer colours when knee-deep in autumn can be easy even if you don’t feel like going out and just want to stay at home (like one of my dearest friends who can’t have enough of staying at home with the crazy work schedule of hers) and watch the sunset from the cosiness of your residence. It’s absolutely fine. Tune in!
First, you can start with a glass of something cold and sparkling.
Start cooking! The peppers are still on offer at the farmers’ market (however, less and less, it’s getting too cold for them at our latitude) and they’re the ultimate summer vegetable (or is it fruit?). Their opulent shades of orange and red are invigorating.
What you see in the photo above is a bed of peppers (when exactly did the word bed get to be involved in food vocabulary?) that was in the next step topped with a few cuts of chicken and roasted in the oven. It’s based on Thomasina Miers’ lovely last summer’s recipe for Marseille-style roast chicken. What made me save that recipe were the peppers because I usually roast my chicken with lemon halves and potatoes but every household needs a diversion now and then from one fail-safe dish to another. I did add the lemon halves to this one too.
Do not let the title of this post mislead you. Actually, I don’t mind autumn at all. Not at all, when it’s this gorgeous.
Soon, the bricks and mortar of Florence were replaced by gentle hills of rural southern Tuscany. The weather, the food, the wine, the mood – everything mixed and moulded into perfect getaway.
People were picking olives on sunny slopes of olive groves with nets carefully laid under the trees. Every frantoio we passed was busy, the tractors parked at the entrance waiting to unload the crates of precious fruit.
The white and dense steam was winding out of the chimneys of local distilleries producing the intoxicating grappa.
It seemed that everyone was busy except for us, who loitered around the fruitful landscape, marvelling at the beauties around us. In reality though, the fact was that many other tourists anywhere we went and everywhere we turned surrounded us. The fantastic autumn days were too perfect to not be spent up and about.
We saw gorgeous persimmon trees, still leafy and dotted with golden fruit, and many pomegranate trees and bushes laden with fruit – how the slender and thin branches of that length can carry that heavy fruit is beyond me.
The vineyards were turning from green to yellow to deep red. The work there ceased after the harvest but it’s far from done. The rose bushes in the pole position of the rows were still in bloom although already showing the lines of exhaustion after a long season.
Oh, the late afternoon sunlight of Val d’Orcia! It painted the deepest rose-gold nuances ever and cast the longest shadows. The line for roasted marroni in the main piazza of Pienza was too long but my man was anyway on a quest to get equipped with all necessary utensils for home roasting. Call him crazy but our home kitchen is now proudly enriched with a proper chestnut roasting pan and even a pair of scissor-like taglia castagne (blimey, I didn’t even know such a thing existed). Plus, there are still about two kilos of Tuscan marroni sitting on the cool windowsill.
Thanks to our delighful host at Il Sassone I got to cut her pomegranates to take home. There’s a special treatment for you. Thank you again, Simona. Back home, their olive oil almost freaked me out for its crazy colour, it’s the spookiest shade of green I’ve seen so far. The freshest too. Tastes like heaven. Their wine is a staple in our household anyhow. Their jams are kept hidden behind the tins of fagioli and pickles in our pantry just to secure they last longer.
Since it’s autumn, the season of harvest and abundance, I’ll brag about my own little harvest: our own home grown lemon tree bore its first fruit! Ladies and gentlemen, here’s Ms Peachy.
Last but not least, I was really upset to have missed the exceptional exhibition on arte della natura morta in Villa Medicea in unprepossessing Poggio a Caiano. It’s the only museum of its kind in Italy and it houses the Medici collection of still life paintings that was never exhibited because it was for many years buried in Uffizi’s and Palazzo Pitti’s depots. Unfortunately, we missed the appointed hour and couldn’t wait for the next one but did take a walk around the immense renaissance villa and its gorgeous (citrus) garden. There’s a perfectly legitimate reason for a return visit if I needed one!
Sagre Toscane a good site for gathering the info on gastronomic events (and applying them to your itinerary accordingly)
Roughly the itinerary for this trip: after a weekend in Florence, an early evening stop in Siena for a coffee break, then via Roccastrada to peaceful Maremma where we unpacked (Massa Marittima for instance is spectacular), the next day Montalcino, Pienza and festa della castagne in Sassofortino. Finally, upon returning home via coastal raccordo, passing the beautiful Bolgheri along the way, we stopped in Poggio a Caiano before getting our teeth into packed autostrada Firenze-Bologna again.
Early on Saturday morning we left for Florence for a short break. We were eagerly anticipating that trip for we didn’t stop in Florence this last summer en route further south for the summer holiday. We thought we better leave it out so we have a relevant reason to return to Tuscany again later in the year. Not that one actually needs a relevant reason; there are plenty more or less simple and basic ones. Delightfully, we stuck to that plan.
Florence is a magnificent city as anyone who ever visited will tell you. I haven’t met a soul who’d complain about it or think ill about it (although the hordes of tourists are in fact quite overwhelming and at times very much suffocating).
Anyone heading to Florence (or further south) from the east please note that the new route between Bologna and Florence is now finally open (we gladly found that out back in July already), so a traveller can choose between Panoramica (the pre-existent motorway) and Direttissima (new and faster way, lots of tunnels). The two meet at the top of the hills near Barberino di Mugello. This part of the way between Bologna and Florence used to be the most tiresome because the lanes were dramatically narrow for all the heavy traffic (trucks! trucks!), continuing ups and downs and endless curves. Now, if you’re lucky, you’ll be jammed only for a (relatively) short period of time (of course the never-ending road works are on-going) before descending downhill to Florence.
Which reminds me of my childhood, when driving in our parents’ car towards the Adriatic coast for the summer holiday my brother and I competed impatiently who was going to be the first to glimpse the sea. Cheerful exclamations of “The sea! The sea!” were the proof the holiday had commenced. Even now, as a grown-up, when approaching that last curve before the descent, I usually feel the excitement of a child: the sea is still a vast blue breadth holding a promise of good times and jolly. This same captivating feeling upon descent down the Apennines onto the plain where Florence spreads out all elegant and classy moves me dearly, and the restless eye looks out for the tremendous cupola of the Duomo. The child in me shyly exclaims “Duomo! Duomo!” thus confirming the good time is here.
We had the best possible time in Tuscany this autumn. Two days in Florence and two in the country. The four days were sunny and warm (no socks! short sleeves! sunglasses!) and we could enjoy the impressive colours and fruits of autumn without limits.
The flavours of autumn were persistent too: marroni (glazed and roasted), freshly pressed olive oil, ribollita on day one, trippa alla fiorentina on the last. And many other delicious meals in-between.
Despite the leading motifs of autumn and the cool nights, we simply couldn’t skip the best Florentine ice cream. We walked to Carabe after dinner (every additional trip up Via Ricasoli makes the walk seem shorter) and I (of course) had a cup of Sicilian agrumi and crema. So good! As I remarked to the master how delicious his ice cream is every time we have it (for we have been returning customers for years now), he smiled and humbly said it was the quality of the ingredients that made the end product reliably superb.
Two days are scarcely enough to explore Florence if one is to do it justice. But to take it all in it’s enough to submerse into its elegant streets, turning the head more often upwards at the marvellous Tuscan facades and peeking past the ajar doors into craftsmen’s workshops or brick paved courtyards with cisterns. Notice the Duomo looming large above and behind the narrow streets. Carelessly sip the coffee or Negroni which is what Bellini is for Venice. Watch the people and scan the exquisite shops.
See some of the obvious sights en route: Piazza della Signoria, Ponte Vecchio, Davide, Uffizi, Palazzo Pitti, Basilica di Santa Maria Novella – there is more art, beauty and history than you can imagine. Breathtaking.
Shop for fantastic designer goods (many of the great Italian designers originate in Florence) or for refined Florentine prints in countless tiny shops or for medicinal herbal tonics and fragrant soap.
By all means, plan to return. Florence like Venice is pure magic.
Our favourite eatery in Florence is Sostanza in Via del Porcellana but it’s open weekdays only. So we chose this one instead and it was very good.
Ignore the silly fashion industry photos lining the walls if you please but do take your coffee at Caffe Giacosa because it really is excellent. The interior itself has been painstakingly renovated so it retains the same old school charm – a must-see – and the service is attentive. Alternatively, Gilli is another Florentine institution (for more info in Italian only see Italian wikipedia).
A few weeks ago saw a launch of a much anticipated TV series on the Medicis, the most famous of Florentine dynasties. As it turns out, it’s so far been aired in Italy only but pay attention to when it comes to your country. According to the frenzy it seems to be a good one.