I don’t think I want to leave – me
A sprint over bridges and across uneven paving to Venezia Santa Lucia railway station, a fast train to Florence and a weary minibus ride towards Italy’s west coast saw us wave a fond goodbye to Venice and arrive in the Tuscan city of Pisa on the bank of the mouth of the River Arno beginning a three day journey that would take us through Pisa and Maremma along Alberese and Pitigliano.
Dinner at Osteria La Toscana, Pisa
Desperately hungry, we sat down to dinner at a warm and welcoming restaurant, Osteria La Toscana to enjoy a range of pasta dishes, noticeably firmer to the bite than that we had sampled in Venice. This was a trend that continued throughout the week, with the pasta becoming harder to the bite the further down the country we travelled.
We ate Pappardelle al cinghiale, a handmade egg pasta with tomatoes and wild boar, Pappardelle alla lepre, the same but with hare (both classic dishes for the region), Ravioli al ragù toscano (ripieni di vitello al timo e rosmarino) con bacche di ginepro, handmade egg ravioli filled with veal, rosemary and thyme and served with a ragu, Pici cacio e pepe, hand-rolled pasta, not unlike thick spaghetti, served with cacio cheese and pepper.
It was another delicious meal, saltier than we’d enjoyed in Venice, with less sauce, I think, but equally enjoyable and extremely filling. The simplicity of the Pici dish was wonderful – creamy salty cheese and hot, spicy milled black pepper. Could you order such a simple combination of ingredients in the UK? Probably not, but if you can, do – it was wonderful.
We finished the meal with Cantucci e vin santo, cantucci biscuits dipped in sweet wine – a new experience for me and one I’m keen to repeat soon. There’s something incredibly decadent about allowing sweet, warming wine to soak into crunchy, twice baked biscuit – a wonderful way to finish the evening.
Sightseeing in Pisa
In the morning, we rose early, grabbed breakfast and set out to enjoy the sights of Pisa. The city is stunning. Home to 90,000 residents, it bustles with tourists, commuters, shoppers and many, many bicycles and Vespas.
The real tourist action, of course, intensifies around the famous leaning tower, which is is in fact the bell tower of the city’s cathedral. Stately greys, lush greens, faded mustard yellows and peachy terracottas are the colours of Pisa and they blend against the deep blue sky in picture postcard perfection. A visit to Tuscany would not be complete without a visit to this historic city.
Lunch at Pizzeria Il Montino, Pisa
For lunch, we made a change from restaurant dining and slipped down a side alley to grab a table outside Pizzeria Il Montino where we enjoyed a fast food lunch, Pisa-style with a combination of Cecina, a pancake made with chickpea flour, Focaccia con cecina, the same cecina pancake served in a salty focaccia brea, and Pizza Margherita, cheese and tomato pizza slices folded together like a sandwich and washed down with Moretti radler, Moretti beer mixed with lemon juice.
After three days of pasta dishes, it felt liberating and a little bit rebellious to eat street food on a picnic bench down a side street, but be under no illusions, this was still great food – we all enjoyed the fluffy, light, thick pizza bases and salty, moreish Cecina.
Exploring rural Tuscany in Alberese
Exhausted from our whistle stop tour of Pisa and full from our street lunch, we once again boarded the minibus, waved goodbye to the gentle bustle of Pisa and made our way a little further south to a farmhouse, Agriturismo il Gelsomino, by the Tuscan town of Alberese.
Showering, changing and washing the city from our hair, we took a walk around the farmhouse grounds before dinner, discovering a rural beauty few places could rival.
Dinner in the Agriturismo il Gelsomino farmhouse
Dinner at the farmhouse was a pleasurable change of pace from the adventure thus far as we sat in the cosy dining room around a long table, joined for the evening by the Cirio team. You’ll recall from part 1 that Cirio canned tomatoes are a real Italian product, one of the best sellers in Italy, with close production control from the earth to the fork, and over 160 years of #TrueItalian history.
To begin, we ate Pappa al pomodoro, a tomato soup made with white bread. It’s a delicious way to begin a meal, and frugal too as you can bulk out simple tomatoes with stale bread that might otherwise go to waste. Here’s how to make it, according to our Italian guides:
- Prepare a vegetable broth by boiling 1 litre of water with 2 big carrots, 1 onion and some celery for 30 minutes
- In an other pan prepare the “soffritto” (the base for many Tuscan dishes) made with a glug of olive oil, half an onion, half a carrot, some slices of celery
- When the soffrito is cooked, add some basil, salt and 1 or 2 cloves of garlic, 1 can of tomatoes and stale bread, at least 2 days old. I’m told that bread without oil and salt is best
- When the bread has absorbed the sauce, add the broth and stir on the heat for 30 minutes
- Take the sauce off and let it “rest” for 30 minutes, then cook it again for 30 minutes. Repeat 3 times.
Next, we ate a generous pasta course: Pasta con salsiccia ricotta rucola pomodorini, pici pasta with sausage, ricotta cheese, cherry tomatoes and rocket; and Pasta al pomodoro, firm pici with rich, mouthwatering tomato sauce. The flavours here were more intense than in our previous meals thus far.
The pasta course was followed with Maialino con patate e insalata, suckling pig, served with oven cooked potatoes and salad – a classic way to follow pasta – before we finished with creamy, firm Crème caramel
and yet more grappa and limoncello. I wobbled my way to my room, full, tipsy and happy.
Observing the Cirio growing fields in Maremma, Albinia – from field to table
Packing up the next morning, we began a tour around the growing fields of Cirio, to understand how their canned products make it from seed to table, reaching the UK infused with the Tuscan sun.
In case you don’t already know, Cirio is an Italian brand of Conserve Italia, which represents one of Europe’s largest agri-food industries. Parent company Conserve Italia is part of Confcooperative (Confederazione Co-operative Italiane), a co-operative organisation that brings together over 14,500 farmers. They work to consistently reduce water waste and pesticide use in order to grow high quality plants, in a sustainable way.
At the first field, we learned of the agronomic technology Cirio uses to maximise the sustainability of its growing practices. For example, they are currently running a pilot project with a special membrane made from starch. Applied to the soil at the base of the seedlings, it is intended to conserve moisture, and improve the fertility and health of the soil by allowing better aeration, more efficient spread of fertiliser. In addition, by providing a barrier between the plant and soil, it’s designed to reduce weed growth, cut water waste and limit the need for pesticides. The overall better conditions of growth also make it possible to harvest all the plants at the same time.
Meanwhile, micro-irrigation technologies – pipes running the length of each line of plants mean only the exact amount of water needed is applied, reducing waste.
At the second field, we saw the early growth of a field of chickpeas. We learned that chickpea plants are important to Cirio and parent brand, Conserve Italia because they’re part of the crop rotation process that means crop types are alternated to maintain the quality and fertility of the soil. It turns out that chickpea plants are particularly important because as they grow, they release Rhizobium bacteria into the soil through their roots, which creates a blister pocket of nitrogen. Since this naturally refreshes the fertility of the soil, the need for fertilisers is reduced to almost zero and the soil remains well fertilised and with a good structure, even after harvest.
At the final field, we saw a screening area, entirely dedicated to improving cultivations through the trialling of new, non-GMO seeds. Each year, Conserve Italia try new tomato varieties to assess the organoleptic quality – chiefly the thickness of the flesh, essential for the chopped tomatoes and the ‘brix grade’, the amount of sugar inside the tomatoes. Their findings are then submitted to the Seeds Industries as part of a commitment to preserve the high quality and performance of the end product.
When you buy a canned product, you might not really give much thought as to where it comes from. Often, the products you by from the shelves might appear to be authentic in branding, but in fact on closer scrutiny might turn out to come from an entirely different country from that suggested by the name. Seeing the Cirio fields, watching the plants wave almost imperceptibly under the Tuscan sun, learning about how they are picked and processed within 24 hours, is so appealing. These are true Italian tomatoes – reaching your kitchen bursting with all the flavour of Tuscany.
Stunned by Porto Santo Stefano
Hungry following our walk through the fertile fields of Albinia, we took a short drive to the breathtaking Porto Santo Stefano. Just take a moment to look through the pictures and drink in the beauty of this gorgeous seaport town on the west coast of Italy, in the municipality of Monte Argentario.
Lunch at Ristorante al Moletto, Porto Santo Stefano
Lunch was an immeasurable pleasure, sitting at a table outside Porto Santo Stefano, looking out over the port.
We ate a host of classic dishes:
- Panzanella alle acciughe e tonno fresco – bread (wet) with anchovies and fresh tuna
- Acciughe con olio pomodoro fresco e prezzemolo – anchovies with oil, fresh tomatoes and parsley
- Polipo patate e pomodorini – octopus with potatoes and cherry tomatoes
- Frittelline di spigola e nasello – sea bass and hake in batter
- Baccalá con pomodoro e ceci – salted codfish with chickpea and tomatoes
- Antipasto freddo di mare (vongole, gamberi, cozze, polipo) – fresh clams, shrimps, mussels and octopus
Eating rich tomato dishes while breathing fresh, salty Tuscan air, the bright sunshine bouncing off the crisp white tablecloth and the clear, blue water lapping beyond is something I would gladly do a thousand times more.
A quick stroll round Pitigliano
Another drive and we found ourselves gazing at the small town of Pitigliano, Grosseto, which sits atop a carved cliff, between 300 and 663 metres above sea level. It’s colloquially known as Little Jerusalm because of it’s historical presence of a Jewish community, although apparently since WWII, very few remain among its 3,971 inhabitants.
The town is not untouched by the tourist trade, but remains beautiful and unassuming. Small side streets wind to the edge of the cliff above startlingly steep drops – probably not a town to be too tipsy in at night, but very worthy of a visit, should you find yourself in the region.
Dinner at Agriturismo Poggio al tufo
Our last dinner in Tuscany was enjoyed at the Agriturismo Poggio al Tufo farmhouse beneath a burning red sunset.
We began with Ravioli ricotta e spinaci al ragù e burro e salvia, handmade ravioli filled with ricotta cheese and spinach, served with a ragù sauce of minced meat and tomato sauce, or with butter and sage for me. This was a beautifully balanced meal – I realised I’ve been overcooking my ravioli all these years, and using too-thin pasta sheets to make it. This ravioli was thick, firm and delicious. I would happily eat it right now.
Next we enjoyed firm, creamy Pecorino cheese slices paired perfectly with wine jelly, pear jam and ginger jam, followed by Pici all’agliata, thick, hand-rolled pasta with wonderfully spicy chilli and garlic tomato sauce, as well as Garlic Agnello con patate al forno, oven-cooked lamb and crisp potatoes.
What I learned
If you haven’t had your spinach and ricotta ravioli with tomato sauce, do it today, and if you haven’t tried Pici all’agliata, look up a recipe and make it today. And of course, use good, Italian tinned tomatoes with real Italian provenance – you will not regret it.
Disclosure: I toured Italy as part of a sponsored campaign to discover ‘True Italian’. All words, thoughts and images are my own.