Having lived most of our lives in Asia, we’ve been spoilt for choice when it comes to eating out and rarely cook for ourselves. Unless the intricate preparation required for French toast or bacon strips can be considered cooking, that is. “But it’s so fun!” exclaims everyone that enjoys slicing and dicing, baking and frying. While that may be, with an amazing variety of food around every corner and a host of dishes from city-wide restaurants just a phone call away, the motivation just isn’t there.
On our recent Tuscan honeymoon, however, this outlook on cooking would be turned on its grill.
Tuscany was a catch-22 decision for us. It’s really special, but alas, with all that specialness comes the hoards of other like-minded people that want to experience its wonders. Not wishing to either to battle the crowds or give up on the opportunity to visit the most UNESCO-endowed destination in the world, we decided to treat ourselves to a villa stay, a first for both of us. Other than private spaces, a private swimming pool, and just about private everything else, we also decided to arrange for a personal chef on one of our ‘off’ days, along with a much needed late wakeup call.
Chef Alex arrived in the morning to prepare our brunch. He was chubby, which was a good sign. There’s something about scrawny chefs that just isn’t convincing. Fair enough, they could have a fast metabolism or be a chef by day, fitness trainer by night, but I like my chefs big. As he was preparing the first feast of the day, we asked him about trying our hands at making dinner, and he nodded, saying, “Nessuno conosce che cosa sta cucinando nella vaschetta meglio di chi fa la mescolatura” – no one knows what is cooking in the pan better than the one stirring.
Surprise Italian treats
We had no idea what storm Alex was cooking up for brunch (we had asked to be surprised), but I know truffle when I smell it, and it smelled heavenly. We took the opportunity to stroll around the garden and enjoy the fresh air. Upon return, two cups of steaming cappuccino’s were waiting on the breakfast counter. Chef Alex jokingly reminding us that should we be out and about, ordering cappuccinos after 10:30 or 11am is considered a no-no in Italy and we would be taken for what we were – tourists.
With a wink, he promised he wouldn’t rat on us and handed us a platter of crostini’s with two different toppings: chicken liver (a Tuscan must), and goat’s cheese with vegetables (because we indicated previously that we’re both cheese fiends). Appetites decently whet, we – mainly I – eagerly awaited our pasta dish. All good things come to those who wait, and next the chef brought over a bowl of grilled artichoke and parmigiano salad. “Before you ask why I put only little cheese in the insalata”, he said, before setting down the rich pasta dish to finish off his sentence in a thousand delicious words.
The fettuccine in truffle cream sauce, to my delight, came with generous shavings of both white and black truffles. We were in luck that day, said Chef, as truffle season was soon to be over, which would render the fungus more expensive to source. The next 15 minutes was shrouded in contented silence, interspersed with a few “mmm’s” and belly rubs. It was indeed a mish mash of a meal, but that was one of the best things about renting a private villa. We got to eat what we wanted, when we wanted, how we wanted, all in the comfort of our own residence.
While we dug in, we discussed the evening plans with our new best friend of the hour. The main thing about cooking is the enjoyment, he reminded us, but also kindly suggested that he came to help, or rather, “allow us to help him”. A post-massive meal wave of drowsiness hit, and we agreed, then spent the rest of the afternoon lounging around, watching movies, reading, dipping in the pool, and just plodding about at the villa — all the togetherness and relaxation a honeymoon is meant to be.
A Florentine feast
Chef Alex came back in the late afternoon in all his bumbling jolliness. He fired up the barbecue grill in the garden and waved us into the kitchen to help him prepare the calamari salad. “About one minute”, he informed us as we closed the lid on the squid to cook with fresh parsley, garlic cloves, red pepper, bay leaf, salt, pepper, and some white wine. Before he had finished rattling off the ingredients, our 60 seconds was up. We mixed vinaigrette ingredients with the freshly cooked squid, and let it sit on the counter while we went on to stuffing fagottini pasta with ricotta.
My new hubby was not too nimble with his fingers, so chef got him started on the bistecca alla fiorentina – Florentine steak. I glanced at the thick piece of T-bone at least an inch thick as it was being brought outside, and the chef assured me this was to be shared. By the time the calamari salad was chilled slightly (it can be served warm or chilled) and the fagottini cooked in creamy goodness with more truffles shaved on for good measure, chef took over manning the grill while we dug in. Before we had time to polish off the primi platti, the juicy beef, cooked perfectly rare on the grill, was served with a bottle of vintage red the chef hand picked from the cellar collection. We topped off the evening feast with decadent tiramisu he generously bought from his favorite local bakery, washed down with a traditional cup of espresso.
La dolce vita may mean varying things to different people, but for us, the fine surroundings, sumptuous food (with our assistance, however minimal), smooth wine, and a fine day holed up with a loved one is etched in our memories as the epitome of the phrase.
The official Tuscan tourism board (http://turismo.intoscana.it) shares some of Tuscany’s best dishes to try, including:
- Maremmana Tortelli: Eaten on all festive occasions, this southern Tuscan dish is filled with fresh ricotta and spinach, and can be enjoyed with a typical Maremma wild boar or hare sauce.
- Buccellato cake from Lucca: First made in 1450 for nobility, the modern version of the ring-shaped cake is coated with sugar and egg, and its inside stuffed with raisins and aniseed seeds.
- Tuscan Ham: Regulated to ensure only traditional methods are used on Tuscan pork. 3 types recognized by the Slow Rood movement include Regione Toscana, Bazzone, and Casentino.