Florence, however, just as the August festival was about to begin, offered up two noteworthy meals. Neither was grand - far from it - but each served food that was of real quality, made from excellent ingredients.
The place called Garga (the dinner), named after the whimsical family who run it, is a gastronomic, bohemian dive. Garga, the chef, complete with bandanna and visibly sweaty cook's chest, is also very, very good at cooking. His son - a chatty and similarly perspiring fellow, at his elbow in a kitchen this side of Hell's - talked me eagerly through a supremely fine dish of spaghetti with bottarga (the Sardinian mullet roe variety rather than the pressed tuna roe of Sicily), basil, olive oil and a dusting of dried chilli flakes, that we had just consumed. The conclusive evidence as to the consistency of its wonderful, clinging, syrupy sauce, was credited to a battered and deep, well-used, aluminium frying-pan. "It doesn't work with any other sort of pan," he shouted.
The pasta was preceded by the simplest of dishes: two large porcini each, inserted with nuggets of garlic, soaked by olive oil (whether it was virgin, extra so, or just plain-Jane, mattered not a jot; the mushrooms were in charge here) and finished with a little lemon and parsley.
Once we were the other side of the astonishingly good pasta, a boiled octopus seemed the order of the day. A gourmet friend, who professes to know the ristorante and trattoirie di Firenze tolerably well, made the pertinent observation that octopus was not quite the thing to be eating in Florence, mid August, so far from the sea. Well, if octopus tastes as good as this in Portofino, Naples or Positano, I would be surprised and feel humbled. And if it were, I bet you it would not be simply boiled whole and served up with a few rocket leaves and a smear of oil. I suggested some Tuscan beans on the side. Sometimes, one just knows what is right.
Driving out of Florence on the morning of the "all shutting", in anticipation of great eating in Bologna that night (ha! ha!), we contemplated a simple panino prosciuto on the road. However, I still thought it was worth looking up somewhere for lunch. "Uscita 18 looks worth the toll," I muttered, as I veered across three lanes...
The world and his wife - and most of Florence - were having lunch at Ristorante Marisa that day. Inside, you could also buy various local salamis, hams and cheeses. The tree-shaded terrace was already full of families who had arrived in good time (we were there by 1pm), so we had to eat indoors. It was the last table. But bread appeared, cool red wine was brought, orders were promptly administered.
A tomato and mozzarella salad with basil, was as milky-white, ripe red and pungently green as you could wish. I again ordered porcini, simply because I can't get enough of them. A risotto of the same followed my friend's insalata tricolore, while a dish of trippa alla Fiorentina beckoned, simply because I love tripe and was hungry. Bollocks to the panini!
The food was good, not great, but it was just so enjoyable. In fact, I remember it as possibly the most enjoyable lunch of the holiday. It wasn't planned, checked out, nor were we informed of its existence.
This recipe for Genoese Tripe Soup (Sbira) comes from Colman Andrews's astonishingly fine Flavors of the Riviera - Discovering Real Mediterranean Cooking (Bantam Books), unfortunately not as yet published here. I bought mine in America, but Books for Cooks (0171-221 1992) carry imported copies.
Genoese Tripe Soup, serves four, generously
Note: In the original recipe, it is suggested that the tripe be previously blanched in boiling water for 30 seconds with some vinegar. However, the tripe that is sold on these shores is already very well blanched, indeed - too much, actually. The taste of vinegar, however, should not be overlooked when preparing tripe. So might I suggest that a trickle of fine red wine vinegar is introduced towards the end of the cooking time. It will bring the whole dish together.
900g/2lb honeycomb (if possible) beef tripe, cut into pieces about two inches by one inch
a splash of olive oil
3-4 flat leaves parsley sprigs, finely chopped leaves from 3-4 sprigs thyme
leaves from 3-4 sprigs of marjoram or oregano
110g/4oz beef marrow (ask your butcher to saw enough marrow bones into two-inch pieces, soak them in cold water and scoop out the marrow, a couple of large bones should suffice
4 level tbsp tomato paste
2 litres/312 pints well-flavoured beef stock
900g/2lb waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into 12in slices
salt and freshly ground white pepper
4 large thick slices of country style bread, toasted
freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Melt the butter with the olive oil in a suitable pot over low heat, then add the parsley, thyme, marjoram or oregano, and marrow, and cook together, stirring as the marrow melts, for about five minutes. Add the tomato paste and half the beef stock, stirring well so that the paste melts into the middle.
Add tripe, cover pot, and cook over a very low heat for 212 hours. Add remaining beef stock and potatoes, and season to taste. Continue cooking, covered, for 40 minutes longer.
To serve, place one piece of toast in each of four large shallow bowls and ladle tripe and broth over it. Serve with Parmesan, to be stirred in by each diner according to taste.
The octopus, serves 4
I have taken the liberty of combining the octopus with the side order of beans that we ate with it, and turning it into a sort of soupy stew. The results were really terrific. We managed to find tiny octopus the size of small grey mice when cooked. However, larger octopus will work, but the cooking time will, naturally, be longer. Garga's cephalopod was the size of a large rat and as tender as can be.
200g/7oz dried haricot or cannellini beans
125ml/4fl oz olive oil
2 onions peeled and chopped
1 whole head of garlic, peeled into individual cloves and each left whole
900g/2lb (approx) very fresh octopus - 1 large or 2-3 smaller ones
12 tsp dried chilli flakes
5 ripe tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped
150ml/5fl oz dry white wine
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
the leaves from 6-7 sprigs flat leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
Cover the beans with cold water and leave to soak overnight. Pre-heat the oven to 275F/140C/gas mark 1. Gently fry the onions and garlic in the olive oil using a solid, lidded cast-iron pot, or similar. Once they are softened and starting to colour slightly, bury the octopus in this oily mass. Season with salt and the chilli flakes and cover with the tomatoes. Pour over the wine and bring very gently to a simmer. Put on the lid and cook in the oven for one hour.
By this time, the octopus should be very tender and the beans soft and melting. Lift out the octopus and slice into manageable pieces - if very large. Return the meat to the pan and then stir in the parsley. Serve in large shallow soup plates with good bread.
The bottarga, serves 2, for a light lunch
I tried to recreate this pasta dish from Garga as soon as I returned home; after all, I had the bottarga in the fridge anyway. It was a disaster, but I persevered. The initial mistake was to cook the pasta first, in boiling water, as one might think, then to add the other simple ingredients. This, unfortunately, produces no sauce. The answer seems to be to cook the spaghetti in a measured amount of water, which then produces the "wetness" - a starchy "sauce", which is unique to the dish. Anyway, it's as near as dammit.
You will, I'm afraid, have to search for your bottarga. Ask your local Italian deli for it. They may have to order it in especially. But the esteem in which you will be held will be worth it, for it is a rare and wonderful thing. It is not cheap, but nor is it a 50g tin of salted anchovies.
570ml/1 pint water
75g/3oz coarsely grated Sardinian bottarga
175g/6oz spaghetti - or, better still, spaghettini (I, in fact, used De Cecco brand linguine, and it was perfetto). Do not be tempted to use fresh pasta
3 tbsp virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped
a generous pinch of dried chilli flakes
10-12 fresh basil leaves, torn into shreds
a little salt to taste
a squeeze of lemon
Pour the water into a wide enough pan (a deep frying pan is ideal) and bring to a simmer. Add 50g/2oz of the bottarga and allow to slightly soften in the water. Add the pasta and two tablespoonfuls of the olive oil, and simmer for five minutes, until nearly cooked but still chewy. Stir in the garlic, chilli and basil. Now cover for a minute or two and continue to simmer, very gently, for a couple of minutes. Note: if the pasta looks as if it is absorbing too much of its sauce into itself at this stage, add a little more water, or a splash of white wine, if you like. It should be a wet dish of pasta. Stir in the remaining bottarga and the remaining spoonful of oil. Check for salt and add a squeeze of lemon. Serve immediately.
This is the season for ceps - or British Penny Buns as we quaintly but, somehow, accurately name them. Some of the best specimens are found in Scotland.
4 large Penny Buns (boletus edulis)
2 large cloves of garlic, peeled and cut into small chunks
3-4 tbsp good olive oil
salt and pepper
squeeze of lemon juice
a sprinkling of freshly chopped parsley (optional)
Pre-heat a radiant grill. Cut the stalks from their caps and halve (the stalks) lengthways. Make incisions in both the caps and the stalks, and push in the pieces of garlic. Place on a metal tray and spoon over the oil. Season, and douse with the lemon juice. Grill until sizzling and floppy, gently gilded by the heat from the grill, but - more than anything else - be guided by the pungency of their aroma. Sprinkle with parsley to add the third dimension (mushrooms, parsley and garlic are a very tight trio) and eat with smiles.
Trattoria Garga, Via del Moro 48R, 50123 Firenze (0039 55 239 8898); Ristorante Marisa, Florence, Exit 18 off the A1, Florence/Bologna direction, at Barberino di Mugello (0039 55 842 0045)