Under the Tuscan Sun: Pisa, Siena, Florence I Pasta in Mushroom Cream Sauce and Truffle Oil

And the voices in the waves are always whispering to Florence, in their ceaseless murmuring, of love - of love, eternal and illimitable, not bounded by the confines of this world, or by the end of time, but ranging still, beyond the sea, beyond the sky, to the invisible country far away!
- Dombey and Son, Charles Dickens

I woke up in what seemed the middle of the night. It was pitch dark all around. I switched on the bedside lamp to find my newly-purchased jackets and muffler strewn all over the sofa. I looked at my watch — it was 4.30 am. I yawned and was ready to go back to sleep. And then suddenly it hit me. We had a train to catch in an hour and half. I quickly rubbed my eyes, jumped out of the bed and vigorously started shoving everything in the suitcase. Our cab would come at 5 and we had to be ready on time for it. After pretending for 30 minutes that our lives were at stake, we somehow managed to scramble down and board the cab that would take us to Milano Centralo. Tuscany Ahoy!
Pisa: In all the research that I had done while planning my trip to Italy, I had read that the train journey from Milan to Pisa is amazing — a spectacular transition from White Lombardy to Green Tuscany! But please don't ask me what I saw on the way because I kept dozing the entire while. We reached Pisa around 10 and gradually ambled our way in the direction of the Leaning Tower. We dropped by at a local cafe and helped ourselves to a piping hot mug of cappuccino, packed some Fillet Mignon Sandwich, Tuna Sandwich and Panettone and continued with our lazy walk. Pisa is by and far the quietest city in Italy. There are less people on the streets, less rush around you and the city wears a soothing — almost magical — calm. The calmness and tranquility of the city is adequately reflected in the River Arno. The crystal clear river, with not even a single ripple stands in silent grace. Series of houses line the banks of the river, their mirror image falling on it.
It was a sight more ethereal than I had seen in a long, long time. We stood by the river for almost an hour — mesmerised — only to realise that we were just halfway through to the tower and needed to buck up if we wanted to reach well on time. So this time we hurried along and a km or so later found ourselves in yet another narrow bylane, which as we rightly guessed, suddenly opened up to the huge expanse of green where neatly lined in a row were the Leaning Tower, the Cathedral and the Baptistery.

The things they do to get a decent shot of the Leaning Tower!!
Pisa was one place where we were not pressed for time. You could finish a tour of all the three monuments in 90-odd minutes if you so wished, but we had the entire day to ourselves. It also helped that the weather here was the warmest and the most comfortable in the entire tour. As you can see in the pictures, I didn't even bother to keep my sweater/jacket on!
We started with climbing the tower, which is roughly 8 feet tall. By now we were seasoned climbers (wait till you hear my story about climbing the dome of St. Peter's Basilica is the Rome post) and 296 stairs seemed nothing but cakewalk to us. But here the trick happened after you reached the apex of the tower. Due to its angular tilt, a rough 10-12 minutes later you start feeling nauseous. Your head starts spinning and you feel that gravity is betraying you. However, these are but little prices that you pay to get a bird's eye view of Pisa — one that you'd definitely carry with you forever.
We followed it up with the Cathedral and Baptistery and as sunset was approaching, rushed back to respond to the call of Arno. If we were awe-struck by Arno at 10.30 in the morning, imagine the kind of surprise that was in store for us now!
It was sunset. I watched with an unwavering gaze, as a fiery red orb of light slowly sank beneath the horizon, and threads of light lingered in the sky, mingling with the rolling clouds, dyeing the heavens first orange, then red, then dark blue, until all that was left of the sunset was a chalky mauve, and then that melted away in turn as stygian darkness took over the sky. 
— NOSTALGIA DARKNESS
P, who had dragged me to every corner of the country that facilitated landscape photography during sunrise and sunsets, later told me after the trip, "The blue hour in Pisa was the best of the lot"
We proceeded to Florence later that night, got some Tortelleni and Genovese Pesto Pasta and with the Bellini that we had saved from Venice, had a hearty dinner in our hotel before crashing flat. We had had a long day! But tomorrow was going to be longer. Siena beckoned us!
Siena: There was one thing about Italy that derailed you from executing your early morning plans. And however much we planned to get up and leave for our day's agenda by 8.30, this always came in the way. Yes, I am talking about the grand Italian breakfast. If you thought you can sip on a takeaway cup of coffee and munch on your sandwich while you went about doing your thing, you are utterly wrong! Food for the Italians are an elaborate affair, and even though it is the lunch that is the most expansive of all their meals, the breakfasts that we were offered throughout our stays in various places did more than absolute justice to the country's reputation! Unlike the Boscolo hotels, the B&B spread was not fit for a king true, but it definitely had a lot going for Aam Aadmis like us! The singlemost item that I devoured in all those days would have to be the butter croissants. I would shamelessly pluck one croissant after the other from the bread basket and chomp them away — with butter, a multitude of fruit jams and preserves, with nutella, with cheese, but mostly just on its own. Neatly stacked next to the breads would be 2-3 kinds of cold cuts and cured meats, jars of oats and mueslis, healthy toppings like chia, flax, pumpkin and other types of seeds, dried fruits and nuts and full-fat, skim and soy milk to soak them in. There would be tea cakes, muffins and cookies, a tantalising variety of fruit-yogurts and countless mugs of coffee/hot cocoa and fruit juice to go with it.
Well, after stuffing ourselves with Italy's bounty, we were finally on our way to Siena. The one-hour journey from Florence to Siena supposedly captures the essence of the lush green Tuscan countryside. But as luck would have it, the weather that day was godawful — cloudy, misty and foggy — and thus the postcard perfect landscapes remained perpetually wrapped in haze. After Milan, Siena was the place whose buildings embodied the Gothic style of architecture. The photographs that we clicked also couldn't win over the poor light conditions — all except this portrait which I quite like. :)
We hopped from one medieval monument to the other — from the cathedral to the baptistery, from Piccolomini to Pinacoteca, from the museum to the Torre del Mangia (bell tower).

It is from here that you could get an aerial view of the vibrant town. The houses with neatly sloping roofs, the brick-coloured monochrome never for once breaking its pattern, and the fog-enveloped Tuscan countryside in the backdrop.
As the sunset hour came near, we ambled towards the Piazza del Campo, the sloping city centre that was thronged with people, surrounded by restaurants and bustling with activity. A few photographs later darkness fell and with that it was the time to gradually head to the bus stand.
Two things happened on the way to the bus stand.
1. I had the BEST EVER pizza of the trip. Yeah, I know, Tuscany is not the place that you'd expect to have your best pizza in. That is supposed to be the forte of Rome or Naples. Tuscans are in any case way too ahead in the race with their hearty, homestyle regional food. But no, the pizza here was to die for as well. I first had a slice of porcini pizza, followed it up with a proscuitto pizza and lastly packed an anchovy and capers pizza for dinner, even though I was full to the brim! All of 1.75 euros, these slices were a riot in your tastebuds!
2. P finally got rid of the myth that gelatos are tasteless. Don't even ask me who planted that thought in his head! You must be wondering why I've never mentioned having a gelato in all the places I've written about so far. That is primarily because I was reeling under a severe cold. The first day in Rome I had got two fat scoops of dark chocolate and coffee gelato. P was unwell so he didn't even take a single bite. I gulped down the entire lot by myself and ever since then I had been coughing and sniffing incessantly. But on this day while passing Grom (my favourite gelataria in Italy) we decided to get in for a mug of calda and some gelato. We got dark chocolate and salted caramel and trust me, in no time P was a convert! He started regretting that he had let 8 precious days pass without having gelato. And from that day onwards, to make up for our sin, for started having at least 2 scoops of gelato a day for the rest of the trip!
Florence: Even though we had already spent two nights in Florence, we've had little opportunity to explore the city as the given days were spent in Pisa and Siena. On day 3 therefore, we found on our fragile shoulders the burden of exploring as much of the historic city, illustrious with Renaissance art. Now I had been doing a lot of research about Florence from Rice and Grafton (Book on European Renaissance from my grad days), looking up Rick Steves videos and almost memorising Lonely Planet. And all these things told us that Florence had a LOT that needed to be seen, understood and internalised. And we just had 2 days to do it. And because it was winter and the sun set by 4.30pm, it was even more tight. Anyway, after wrapping up breakfast by 10, we made our way to Galleria dell'Accademia, which housed Michaelangelo's famous David. As we were about to get our tickets, a notice board caught our attention. It said, for that particular Saturday the Galleria would stay open till 11 at night. We couldn't believe our luck! This meant we could straightaway start with the other places of interest and come back here late at night when everything else would be closed. We apologised to the security people, took back our belongings that were kept in the cloakroom and rushed out immediately. Our next targets were the Cathedral, Bell Tower and Baptistery.

Like in Pisa, in Florence too all three structures were huddled together in the same Piazza del Duomo compound. The Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, the main church of Florence, stood right opposite to Giotto's Campanile (bell tower). It was a cold Saturday morning and revellers had just started to pour in. We bucked ourselves up as we had a long day ahead of us, and one that would start with some climbing. With the ticket that you got, you could climb the bell tower or the cathedral duomo, or both of course (if you were pumped up with all the energy in the world). We chose to climb the Campanile, for the simple reason that the straight climb should be easier than the tapering one of the duomo, and also the view of the duomo from atop the bell tower was more appealing, as was the entire panorama of the "brick and white" city. We lurked around the Piazza for some time before heading right and pacing our steps towards San Lorenzo market.
The market was a wonder, by all means. The outside was lined with shops that sold jackets, bags, shoes, belts — practically anything that was made up of the renowned Florentine leather. But my quest for a leather jacket had already been met in Milan and even though I did want a bag, I couldn't find one worth every euro I'd be spending. Hence we now made our way indoors. The indoor market was divided into two floors. I had been expecting San Lorenzo market to be like this, but from the very moment I entered through its doors, I was dumb-struck. P immediately busied himself in clicking photographs of fish and meat, cheese and herbs, fruits and veggies, while I hopped from one shop to another, mentally listing what to buy and what not to. The options were tantalising and I won't even try to explain the spread that adorned the shops. Let these pictures do that job for you.
I got three small jars of truffle, 1 bottle of truffle oil, and justifiably feeling like a gourmand, darted across the hallway to Da Nerbone. Now Nerbone is serious business. A small shop tucked away at one end of Marceto Centrale of San Lorenzo, this eatery has been dishing out since 1872 arguably what is the world's best Lampredotto. What on earth is THAT, you ask? Well, lampredotto is a typical Florentine peasant dish made from the fourth and final stomach of a cow. Did I just see you going 'Yuck'? Then hold your thought, get rid of your inhibition and if ever you are in Florence, line in front of Da Nerbone to have the most amazing bit of offal in your life. However, at the last minute, we changed our minds. I went for the Mushroom Risotto while P chose to dive in Roast Beef. But you go to Da Nerbone and you do not have their lampredotto? That is sheer blasphemy! So we packed two generously sized burgers, bursting with tender, juicy and flavourful meat and waiting to be lapped up.
In his sunset photography research, P had come across this place called Piazzale Michaelangelo, which was on the other side of the River Arno (yes, the same Arno that had awed us in Pisa). It was around 6 km from San Lorenzo and we had a good 2 hours in hand to reach there. So we decided to amble our way, explore the hitherto hidden lanes and alleys, have our day's dose of gelato from Carapina, walk past the dummy David in front of Uffizi Gallery (to which we were going to come back to the next day) and stroll across the Ponte Veccio to land in Oltrarno.
It was then that my back pain started. I don't know whether it was a result of excessive walking or carrying rock-like backpacks filled with booties, but the kind of cramps I felt during those few days, I'll remember with shudder forever. By the time we reached Piazzale Michaelangelo there were already a host of people, many having set up their own tripods and the rest taking selfies. We spent around two hours there — sunsets in Italy are such beauties that you won't realise from where time flies. Around 6.30 we started making our way back. We walked through lanes where the school/college-going crowd were busy singling carols, strumming their guitars and sipping their beers. We passed a Christmas market from where I bought a 2 kilo-cheddar wheel and a jar of Chilli Jam (I had seen Nigella make Chilli Jam in one of the episodes of Nigella Christmas and had wanted to have a taste of it ever since). We sat in the cathedral complex and munched on our packed lampredottos and finally when everything around us had died down, we decided to gently walk towards Galleria to have a view of our beloved David.
David, as we know, is a marble statue carved out of a single block of stone that represents the Biblical hero. We spent almost an hour there, gaping at the marvel that was David, his impeccably carved structure, his mersmerising expression.Under my breath, I lauded the sheer brilliance that Michaelangelo was.
Maybe too much of Italian food had got to me, and when I chanced upon a Chinese takeaway on my way back to the BnB, I couldn't help but stop for a serving of Chilli Garlic Noodles and Chicken in some Spicy Sauce. Yes, I did that. In Italy. Judge me all you want.
The next day, we had two major sight-seeing plans. So after spending a good 3 hours at the Uffizzi gallery early on Sunday morning, we crossed the Ponte Veccio and with two huge scoops of Dark Chocolate and Mixed Berry Gelatos in our hands, headed straight to Pitti Palace in that part of Florence which I have already referred to as Oltrarno. We had around 2.5 hours before sundown and the people stationed in the Biglietteria (ticket counter) warned us that we could either cover the palace or the adjacent Boboli Gardens. Now, we were kind of influenced by Robert Langdon's exploits at Boboli Gardens in Inferno and therefore chose the latter over the palace. The garden was beautiful and P went on a photography spree but towards the end of our time there, my back pain started triggering like crazy and I could barely manage to walk out just as the sun was setting. We had the rest of the evening to us, so trudging and limping and at the same time munching on a pizza al taglia (by slice), we decided to do a little bit of shopping. I got a dress and a pair of leather boots (which, after all this while, I plan to wear on my birthday in July), treated ourselves to the world famous Bistecca Alla Fiorentina (T-bone steak) because that is the IT-thing to do while in Florence, went back to the BnB, packed our bags and in the biting cold, sleathily made our way out to walk a couple of km to the bus terminus where the bus taking us to Naples would arrive at midnight.
A few travel tips:
1. The entire city of Florence can be seen on foot: each place of attraction is roughly 1-2km from the other. So as long as your legs are supporting you, don't ever think of taking public transport.

2. If you're a food buff like me, make sure you spend a substantial amount of time at the San Lorenzo market. If you're staying in somebody's house/airbnb and have the scope of cooking there, then splurge. You'll never get such a bounteous variety of fresh produce — meat, cheeses, vegetables, fruits — you name it, they have it all. So pack in a few little jars of truffle spread and a small bottle of truffle oil. The one that I got did wonders to this pasta dish that you see below. While at the market, sample the lampredotto at Da Nerbone (if you're okay with the idea of offals). It also has a food court on the first floor that has a tantalising variety of counters. But I was firm of my resolve to have my tripe-lunch, and that's why didn't eat anything there.

3. Florence is the hotbed of gelatos. Have as many as you can in a day and try to taste each flavour at least once before you come back! The web goes berserk about Carapina but Grom still remains my favourite. A close second would be the lovely dessert bar located at the corner when you cross the Ponte Veccio to reach Oltrarno (pardon me for forgetting the name)

4. Visit the Galleria dell'Academia with at least an hour in hand. And if possible, spend that entire hour gazing at David. I am no fan of art, but a lover of history and admirer of aesthetic creativity and my time at the Galleria would probably be the best hour I had spent in Florence.

5. Climb as many bell towers/monuments as you can, but arm yourself with a big bottle of water before that. The view will be worth the stairs. Every single time. The calorie burn is just a bonus!

6. While in Pisa, do not miss the sunset by the Arno. DO NOT. Period.
Pasta in Mushroom Cream Sauce and Truffle Oil
Serves: 4

Ingredients:
Pasta of your choice: 250 gm (I used penne)
Button Mushrooms, washed and sliced: 400 gm
Heavy cream: 250 ml
Onion, finely chopped: 1
Garlic, finely chopped: 5-6 cloves
Pecorino Romano cheese, grated: 4-5 tbsp
Salt: to taste
Black pepper powder: to taste
Olive oil: 2 tsp
Truffle oil: to drizzle on top
Method:
1. In a big wok, heat 1.5 litre of water (the proportion should be 1 litre of water per 100 gm of pasta) with some salt and allow to come to a boil. Once the water starts boiling add the pasta and cook covered or according to package instructions till al dente. Once the pasta is done, reserve 1 cup of pasta water and drain the rest.

2. In another wok, heat the olive oil and add the chopped onion. Saute for a couple of minutes till translucent and then add the chopped garlic. Saute for a minute more.

3. Now add the mushrroms and saute for 5-6 minutes till they start releasing their water. Once the mushrooms are cooked through, add 1/2 of the cream and stir well.

4. Add salt and pepper. Now tumble in the cooked pasta and mix well. Add the remaining cream and the use the pasta water bit by bit to de-glaze your pan at this stage.

5. Add grated pecorino romano and give a final mix.

6. Garnish for more pecorino, freshly-ground black pepper powder and a generous drizzle of truffle oil. Serve hot.
Most of the Tuscany photographs in this blog post have been taken by my husband
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For more travel stories, click here
To read about the Milan leg of my Italy trip, click here
To read about the Venice leg of my Italy trip, click here
To read about my entire trip to Italy and my culinary adventures therein, click here


Comments

  1. Beautiful!!...and I don't believe you ate that much and you packed that much!!

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  2. Beautiful pictures and amazing literature, Pritha!

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