Friday, 24 October 2014

The food of Florence.

As you may have picked up on in my first Florence post, I was pretty taken by the food. The Italians sure know how to eat. Also, for such a touristy place, it was quite cheap to eat out. Most nights, we were happy with just a bowl of pasta each, which was often as little as 8 euros each. And the house wine is often less than that! You can see why I love it so.

Wine Tasting Lunch of Dreams
I looked into wine tasting, but unfortunately that was less cheap. It was over £100 a person for the day, and although that included transport, food and lots of wine, it was more than we both wanted to spend. Instead, I booked us into the wine tasting lunch at Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina. For 35 euros each, we got three courses of gourmet food and four glasses of incredibly good wine. The waiter talked us through every glass, telling us the history and what was special about it. I was so impressed. The restaurant is ranked really highly on TripAdvisor (the number 4 restaurant in Florence), and deservedly so. The wine was excellent and the food was almost the best meal we had there. It was amazing, and such good value!

Biggest Steak in the World
Our most expensive meal out was on the first night. We went to Osteria De'Benci and had a three course meal of bruschetta, Florentine steak and chocolate pudding. It came to about £50 each, which I still don’t think is too horrific. And let me tell you, that was one of the best steaks I’ve ever had. It was so flavourful – to me, the test of a good steak is if you don’t need a sauce with it, and we really didn’t. It was also huge at 1.3kg – if you ever go to Florence, just bear in mind the steak is to be shared. They also love their steak rare and bloody in Florence - right up my street!

Sandwich Shop of Wonder
I was super intrigued by All'Antico Vinaio, a tiny sandwich shop that is ranked the number one restaurant in Florence on TripAdvisor. Wee went twice. The first time, I specified what I wanted, but I wasn’t feeling great at the time and didn’t ask for any input from the staff, and it was a little dry. The second time, I asked them what would go with their mushroom spread, and they put together an incredible combination of prosciutto, cheese and mushrooms. It was so good. The reason this place is ranked so highly is the staff – they aren’t shy about telling you what works, and if they think you could be doing better, they’ll tell you (such as telling Matt to swap his mozzarella for pecorino). Also, their sandwiches are as big as your head, on just-baked, warm focaccia with great quality, super fresh ingredients… and cost five euros each. We grabbed a couple on our last day in Florence, and took them to the Boboli Gardens for a little picnic. It was an excellent plan.

Sandwich as big as your head!

Blueberry Steak
In the research I did before we went to Florence, a few blogs mentioned Acqua Al 2 which was famed for blueberry steak. I was intrigued, Matt was suspicious, but we decided to give it a go. We emailed for a reservation a couple of days ahead of time (as a lot of the reviews advised to book). The reviews were pretty mixed on Trip Advisor, but I’m not sure why – it wasn’t just the best meal I ate in Florence, but it was one of the best meals I have EVER had. We shared the sampler menu, which included a salad sampler – three pots of salad (these were just okay) – a pasta sampler, and a steak sampler.

The pasta sampler was five small bowls of vegetarian pasta, which might sound a little dull but they were all incredible. There was a broccoli pasta, a red pepper, a tomato pasta, a pesto gnocchi and a mushroom risotto, all full of flavour and beautifully cooked. Then we shared the steak sampler, which was something else. There was a toasted muffin, topped with steak slices delicately infused with rosemary – if I went again, I would have this first, because eating it last meant it was overshadowed by the other two steaks. The other two steaks were fillets. One was topped with balsamic sauce – rich and delicious, without being overly sweet or vinegary. I’ll be thinking about that for a long time. And the other was the famous blueberry steak! It didn’t disappoint – the blueberry sauce was slightly spicy, and complimented the steak incredibly. So good. Oh, and we had the dessert sampler too, which was awesome. Including a bottle of wine, our bill came to around 70 euros which I think is incredibly cheap, considering the amount of food and the quality of it.

The Food Court to end all Food Courts
The market in Florence was near our hotel and so we popped in to the indoor part to have a look around. There are lots of stalls selling incredible ingredients – we both agreed that we wished we’d gone self-catering so we could have taken full advantage! Upstairs is a food court, although to call it that seems a bit of an insult. Everything seems to be made fresh, and everything seems to be bloomin’ delicious. We were queuing at a bakery stall, watching the chef prepare fresh pizza breads and by the time we got to the front, they were out of the oven, steaming and delicious. Obviously we indulged, and obviously they were amazing. I wish we could have tried more – I was eyeballing everyone else there and their food all looked incredible too.

Holy Cannoli!
I only had cannoli for the first time last year, in New York. I must confess, I thought it was just okay, but we decided to seek it out in Florence and my googling led me to Gelateria Carabe. It was just around the corner from the museum where Michelangelo’s David is, so we popped there before getting in the queue. The cannolis are prepared on the spot once you order them, and then are beautifully packaged. They were definitely not JUST okay. They were huge and yummy. The cream inside had cream cheese in, I think, and little crystallised pieces of fruit. It was almost impossible to finish them, but I persevered. I’m so proud of me.

There are even more places I could recommend – the gelato at Grom, the pizza slices at Toto’s and the fresh pizzas at Il Francescano. I’d also tell you to avoid Zio Gigi (great reviews but it was so blah, and the wine was crappy) and any of the wine bars on the Duomo piazza - we only had a drink in one but it was the same price as a bottle of wine in most restaurants!).

Have you ever been to Florence? Let me know your recommendations in the comments or on Twitter, I’m sure I’ll be back!

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Postcards of Florence

I can't believe it's taken me this long to put up my holiday photos! It's been about a month since we got back from Florence, and it feels like a distant memory already. It doesn't take long, does it? So it's nice to go through my photos again and reminisce about what an awesome holiday it was.

It's actually the third time I've been to Florence, but the first time I've had a decent amount of time there. We visited a few years ago en route to my friend's wedding and only stayed three days or so, and then when I was in Lucca the year later, we went on a day trip. This time we went for five nights, which was the perfect amount of time to see everything. We'd neglected most of the sights when I went before, so this time it was good to see the Duomo, Michelangelo's David and the Boboli Gardens.

The trip also marked the first proper holiday Matt and I have been on together, and Florence was the perfect setting to be a bit mushy. Even though it's very touristy, it really is a beautiful city - the architecture is stunning and the scenery is amazing. Oh, and the FOOD! We ate so many incredible things, I'm actually going to do a separate post dedicated to it.

Walking up the steps to the Duomo might have killed me slightly, but it was worth it for the incredible view. But if you visit, make sure you head to the Boboli Gardens too - the view is just as good. We went on our last day, and spent hours lying on the grass reading. After days of walking around the city and cramming lots in, it was lovely to just relax and enjoy being there. It was one of my favourite parts of the holiday, because even though I don't really get a lot out of "sun" holidays where the aim is to spend as much time lying down and going as brown as possible (kind of pointless when your skin is closer to blue than brown), it's nice to take those moments to relax sometimes.

We just had the BEST time. We're already planning next year's holiday... I just wish it could be sooner!

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Back to School.

I have this long-running jealousy of schoolkids. Which, out of context, sounds extremely weird. But no, don't worry - I'm totally over my uni days, when I lived opposite a school and used to stare enviously at the happy kids across the street whilst I was trying to write an essay about Chekhov on two hours sleep. Lucky little buggers.

Nope, these days, the jealousy I have is their clothes. Those cute little blue gingham summer frocks? I would wear the heck out of that these days, if they only sold them in my size. And I've never been able to find a pleated skirt as flattering as the little navy number I wore in secondary school. This has led me to the Back to School section on the New Look website, grumpily looking at all the adorable separates that I would wear in an instant, if I just had the waist of a 14 year old. I swear clothes weren't this adorable when I was at school!


Sunday, 12 October 2014

Slow Cooker Balsamic Beef Stew

One of my favourite things about Autumn is the good, hearty food that's plentiful at this time of year. Begone, salads and white wine, and hellooo rich stews and a large glass of red. I've been waiting for an excuse to make a good beef recipe in the slow cooker for a while now, and when Lidl got in touch and asked if I fancied doing a recipe post with some of their ingredients, that was all the excuse I needed.

I've had a hankering for more balsamic meaty goodness ever since our last night in Florence. The balsamic steak we had was to die for - it was covered in a thick balsamic glaze, which tasted both sweet and savoury at the same time. God, it was good. This recipe wasn't the same in the slightest, actually, because the balsamic was a much more subtle flavour, but it was still pretty damn good.

I must do a disclaimer first - this recipe nearly went horribly wrong. The beef roasting joint I used would have been better replaced with diced stewing or braising steak, and when I make it again (when, not if), that's what I'll be using. The joint was from the rump, and was a little dense and thick. We chopped it up and returned it to sit in the sauces for an hour, and it was excellent, but it wasn't the falling-apart-meat that I was expecting. Sometimes improvising can make an even better meal though, and I really think this did. It was incredibly, incredibly tasty, and a really flavourful, hearty Sunday lunch.

Slow cooker Balsamic Beef 
(adapted from a recipe from Shugary Sweets)

Lidl British beef roasting joint (but I recommend using diced steak instead)
1 litre beef stock
100g brown sugar
60ml balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp salt
3 cloves crushed garlic
1 large onion, finely sliced
8 mushrooms, sliced
2 tbsp cornflour

Serves 6-8

1. Add all the ingredients except the beef, onions and mushrooms to a bowl and mix together with a spoon.
2. Slice the onion and mushrooms and add to the bowl and stir.

3. Transfer bowl to the slow cooker, then place the beef on top. With a large spoon, pour the sauce over the beef.
4. Cook on low for 7-8 hours.

5. If using a joint, after 7-8 hours, remove from the slow cooker and cut into small chunks.
6. Return to the slow cooker and cook on low for another hour.

7. If using diced steak, you can skip steps 5-6.
8. Remove the meat, onions and mushrooms from the slow cooker with a slotted spoon, and transfer the juices to a saucepan. Don't worry too much if the odd bit remains!
9. Make a cornflour paste with a couple tablespoons of cornflour and a small splash of water. Stir together until no lumps remain.
10. Add the cornflour to the pan with the juices, stir together and then cook on a high heat for about 10 minutes. Keep stirring, and it should start to thicken. If it's still a little watery, just add more cornflour paste.

11. Transfer the beef juices to a jug - this will be your gravy.
12. Serve your beef with mounds of buttery mash, honey roasted carrots and tenderstem broccoli, smothered in delicious gravy.

I'm a real convert to Lidl and their counterpart (who I won't name here!) - I've been shopping at both a lot more frequently lately, and have been genuinely surprised at how much more I got for my money. I spent about £15 on the ingredients for this, and considering it could serve 8 people, that's pretty impressive.