I was hoping that our annual holiday with my daughters Ellie and Lydia this year was going to go to plan, as last year's was cut short with the unexpected death of my father. It was my partner Clare's birthday, too, so we were in party mode and looking forward to our trip to the house of Jason Lowe and his wife Lori in Chianti country, Tuscany.
Often referred to as cucina povera, Tuscan cuisine is refreshingly no-frills. It's characterised by simple dishes involving the best seasonal ingredients. You'll find few sauces and trimmings and much of the food is eaten roasted, grilled or raw. Pasta tends to be of the pinci or pici variety, which is a thickish spaghetti made without eggs, served with meaty sauces made from wild boar or hare.
Soups containing beans and vegetables are also specialities, and meat simply cooked over charcoal or in a wood-fired oven is about as complicated as it gets. The bistecca alla Fiorentina, a great big T-Bone steak for two or more people, appears on most menus. Herbs are plentiful in all sorts of dishes, and you can't walk into a deli without seeing a beautiful display of pecorinos.
On arrival at Jason's farmhouse near Impruneta, the first thing I couldn't help noticing was his wood-fired oven. I knew that Jason had starting building his around the same time as I got mine, but this was definitely one-upmanship gone too far. Jason's very impressive specimen was like a small Tuscan gastro-chapel, with a tiled roof and even its own little courtyard. We do tend to compete on a friendly basis with our saucepans and kitchen gadgets, but I'm afraid that this one will be hard to beat, unless I commit myself to buying a farm in Tuscany, which is very unlikely.
Jason and Lori had some friends round for dinner on our arrival day, so the brick oven was already fired up and Lori and Clare got straight on to the sourdough production while Jason and I went shopping. Lori had her own old faithful "madre", which is a natural sourdough starter, and Jason had just returned from a shoot in Naples with a "madre" yeast culture in a jam jar, which had been knocking around in the family for 150 years.
We discovered that August in Tuscany is not the best time to shop, as everyone is on annual vacation. Even the local butcher's was closed, so it was off to the nearest "Co-Op" for our meat. (The Co-Ops in Italy are rather different to the supermarket which goes by the same name over here.) I came across four juicy looking pig's trotters, which I loaded into the trolley to go into our ham knuckle and chick pea hot pot (I'll be showing you how to make it next week).
Sitting on the poultry shelves were four delicious looking yellow "gran gallo" chickens – complete with heads, coxcombs and feet. They looked irresistible, until we started loading them into the boot of the car, where on close inspection I realised that these birds had rather small breasts and massive legs and were probably not the kind you want to spatchcock and throw into a roaring brick oven for a 45-minute roast for a dinner party. These fighting-fit cockerels lend themselves, instead, to long slow simmering in a pan of water with vegetables and aromats, so we exchanged three of the four for guinea fowls, which worked a treat. Guinea fowl is always a tastier alternative to chicken in any country. The small-breasted, leggy "gran gallo" which we kept was turned into a bloody good broth the next day.
One of Jason's other dinner guests was Guido Gualandi, who makes the most delicious Tuscan wine with ancient grapes, which went down amazingly well with the food.
Grilled courgettes with scamorza
Lori had courgettes and flowers in her garden and the markets and shops were also full of them. Good quality scamorza cheese – or mozzarella or burrata – is the key to this dish; ensure you buy the best, especially if you go for mozzarella, as there are a lot of rogues on the shelves. All three cheeses have similar textures but scarmorza is made with cow's milk and is moulded into a pear shape. It's sometimes sold smoked, but if you can, buy it fresh.
4 large or 6 small courgettes with or without flowers
Olive oil for brushing
200-250g scarmorza, mozzarella or burrata, at room temperature
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the dressing
The juice of half a lemon
4-5tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Cut the courgettes lengthways into rough cm slices. Pre-heat a barbecue or ribbed griddle pan. Season and brush the courgettes with olive oil and cook the courgettes for 2-3 minutes on each side. To serve, arrange the courgettes on a serving dish and spoon over the dressing, then tear the scamorza into pieces over the courgettes and tear the flowers over if using.
Green beans with olive oil and tomatoes
This is a great simple salad for any time of the year. Green beans, or French beans, seem to appear in shops all year round as commonly as potatoes now, and come mainly from Kenya. We made this dish in the brick oven, but your stove top or oven will do just as well and the beans actually taste a lot better the following day, when the flavours have had time to infuse.
You can serve this flavourful bean dish as a simple starter salad, or as part of a selection of salads.
400-500g green beans, trimmed
2 red onions, peeled, each cut into 8 wedges and root cut out to separate the onion into leaves
3-4tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 tomatoes, halved, seeds squeezed out and roughly chopped
A few leaves of basil, torn
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bring a pan of lightly salted water to the boil and cook the green beans for 2 minutes and drain. Meanwhile, gently cook the onions in the olive oil for 3-4 minutes until soft then add the tomatoes, beans and basil leaves, season, cover with a lid and cook gently on a simmer plate or in a low oven at 180C/gas mark 4 for 30 minutes, giving the beans a stir every so often, until they are tender. Remove the lid and leave the beans to cool.
Tuscan chicken broth with vegetables
This soup is the result of us hanging on to the tasty-looking leggy bird with small breasts – and what a great stock it made, too. I doubt very much if you can buy "gran gallos" as we did in Tuscany, but if you have a friendly chicken farmer, you may just be able to get your hands on one. A boiling fowl would be our equivalent in this country.
Depending on the time of year, you can use any seasonal vegetables, and during the spring, summer and autumn you may want to use green beans, peas and broad beans; in winter you could use root vegetables and maybe some cabbage at the end. Ensure you cut all the vegetables to roughly the same size, so that they cook at the same time and so that the finished soup looks consistent.
For the stock
1 boiling fowl
2 onions, peeled and roughly chopped
1 leek, roughly chopped and washed
3-4 sticks of celery, washed and roughly chopped (reserve the leaves to garnish the soup)
1 bay leaf
A few sprigs of thyme
10 black or white peppercorns
4 or 5 cloves of garlic, halved
To garnish the soup
1tbsp olive oil or butter
1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
A few sprigs of thyme, chopped
1 large or 2 small leeks, cut into rough 1cm squares and washed
3 or 4 sticks of celery, peeled if necessary, or you can use the heart, or whatever's left over from the stock above, cut into rough 1cm dice
60-70g pearl barley or farro, soaked for a couple of hours in cold water
A selection of seasonal vegetables weighing about 300g, cut to equal size (see above)
Chop the bird in half; remove the legs and halve them at the joint. Put the boiling fowl into a large pot with the rest of the ingredients for the stock, bring to the boil, skim and simmer for 1 hours, skimming occasionally. Strain the stock through a fine meshed sieve, reserving the fowl.
Gently cook the onion, thyme, leek and celery in the olive oil for 2-3 minutes without colouring. Add the strained stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes, then add the pearl barley and continue simmering for another 20 minutes. Meanwhile, remove the pieces of chicken from the bone and cut into even-sized pieces, slightly larger than the seasonal vegetables. Add the vegetables to the broth and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until tender. Add the pieces of chicken and any reserved celery leaves just shredded. Re-season if necessary and serve.
Scaciatta a l'uva
Makes 1 loaf
This is a local flat bread made traditionally during the grape harvest in the Chianti area. The grapes are folded into the dough – pips and all – and then the bread is eaten as a snack. There is always a bread mother or " madre" on the go at the Lowes' Tuscan residence; it's a fermentation of flour and water, but it can also be made of anything that naturally ferments such as grapes, apples and potatoes. Obviously, we cooked our bread in Jason's impressive brick oven, but any normal oven will work just as well.
Making your own starter for a sourdough loaf can be quite straightforward, although to make it traditionally is a bit of a long-winded event, as the ferment is made naturally without the use of commercial yeast.
You can make the starter by mixing a little rye flour with bread flour and enough water to make a smooth paste. There are various ways to get to the stage of bread-making from here; one way is to let it ferment naturally for a few days and allow the mixture to take on natural, wild, airborne yeasts. It can be fed daily with more flour and water for up to a week, before you start using it, and then the more you use it the better the sourdough becomes.
Basically, you need to add about 3 times the amount of strong flour to the starter and water to mix to a smooth dough, kneading it for 10 minutes or so or with a dough hook on a mixing machine. Proving the dough will take longer than with commercial yeast, so allow anything up to about 5 hours for it to double in size. The dough then requires knocking back (during which you fold in the grapes, see overleaf) and shaping into flattish rounds, or odd shapes, and then allowed to rise for another 3-5 hours (or you could leave it overnight).
We found some great green figs in the market in Florence and we thought that we'd up the fruit content in the bread a bit by adding some. You could serve this with cheese or on its own as a tea-time snack, as the locals do.
Remember that organic, untreated ingredients also speed up the fermentation process as there are no chemicals to interfere with fermentation.
1 batch of bread dough, white or sourdough
1 bunch of black grapes (weighing about 500g)
4-5 figs, halved (optional)
Preheat the oven to 230C/gas mark 8.
Prove your bread dough in the normal way until it has risen to double the size. Knock it back, then mix the grapes into the dough, form into a flattish round about 2cm thick and place on a baking tray. Leave to prove again until it has risen to double its size, then push the halved figs, if using, into the dough and bake for about 35-45 minutes.
Guinea fowl with chilli and rosemary
After our shopping extravaganza we ended up with good old faithful guinea fowls, which I would recommend to anyone. As we discovered to our disappointment, even in Italy, intensively reared and mass-produced chickens are as common as they are in the UK. But how on earth can you raise a chicken and sell it for 70p? I must say, though, that they did look much better than our cheap chickens, although their absurdly cheap price gave their breeding game away somewhat.
2 guinea fowl
2 medium chillies, finely chopped
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
The grated zest of 2 lemons
A few sprigs of rosemary, chopped
4tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Insert a large heavy chopping knife into the cavity of the guinea fowl and cut through the backbone (you may need to put some pressure on the back of the knife with your other hand). Turn the bird over on its skin and just break the breast bones in the centre of the two breasts by just lightly chopping through it with the blade of the knife.
Mix the chillies, garlic, grated lemon zest, rosemary and olive oil together and season well. Spread the mixture all over the skin of the guinea fowls.
Pre-heat a brick oven, or a barbecue, or a ribbed griddle plate. Cook the guinea fowl, skin-side down, first for about 15 minutes then turn over and cook for the same amount of time. You can finish them off in the oven if you wish.
To serve, cut the birds in half or quarters and serve with a good lemon mayonnaise, using the juice of the lemons above, and a seasonal green salad. The green bean salad and/or the peppers and onions would also go well with this dish.Reuse content