Eat here: S.Forno Panificio, Florence

S.Forno Panificio
Via Santa Monaca 3r, Florence
http://t.ilsantobevitore.com

My auntie is a wonderful artist; she often travels to Italy to paint, which means she has plenty of opportunities to find some real hidden gems. When I told her we’d be visiting Florence again, she told me I had to go to S.Forno. She was right.

The beautiful little bakery looked like it’d be more at home in Fitzroy or Collingwood than a wonky cobblestoned street in Florence, but the retro decor and feel isn’t just fabricated to be reminiscent of the past. This actually is an old bakery that’s been rescued by an enterprising  group of people…

The space has been a forno (bakery) for over 100 years. For the past 40 years, baker Angelo has walked into the store every morning to prepare freshly baked bread for the local Florentines. But something happened lately. After years of 7-day weeks and 18-hour days Angelo needed time beyond the bakery business and local restaurant team behind the successful Il Santo Bevitore came to the rescue. Partnering with Angelo, they have brought the business, but kept the baker, to ensure its place in the neighbourhood is secure for the future.
                                                                            – Lost in Florence

The daily offerings are written up on a chalkboard behind the counter, and baskets filled with loaves of bread. The front counter’s display case is filled with a mixed bunch of cake trays topped with an assortment of sweet treats, and the air smells like freshly baked bread. Heaven. We were told the food was delicious and it didn’t disappoint; we ate cauliflower quiche and a prosciutto-topped slice of foccacia for lunch, and they were divine. While we ate, we watched customer after customer come through the door and leave with arms full of fresh bread.

We weren’t ready to leave after lunch; the atmosohere and people watching was too good. Sitting in there felt like total immersion in Florentine life, and we couldn’t have been happier to be sitting in the middle of it. Also, the sweets looked too good to leave without sampling.

Just to be clear, this is not a coffee shop. There’s no fancy espresso machine or 2 page coffee menu. The focus is on the dough. But they are kind enough to offer some self-service, stock-standard American coffee and boiling water for tea, so we grabbed some of that and chose two typically Tuscan desserts – a baked rice cake, and a piece of castagnaccio, made from chestnut flour, rosemary, pine nuts and raisins.

Don’t be fooled by the nondescript façade; the service and atmosphere are both so warm and welcoming, and the food is some of the best in the city. It seems that they’ve arrived at the perfect balance between old tradition and new innovation, and that should earn them a visit when you’re next in Florence.

Photo Journal: Siena, Italy

When we talk about Tuscany, everyone’s heard of Florence. But not quite as many people know Siena. And the few who do generally only know it for the horse race held there every year, the Palio – horses topped with bareback riders race around the Piazza del Campo in an ode to the times of old. If you’re still unsure about what I’m talking about, maybe this scene from Quantum of Solace will ring a few bells.

But I’m not talking about the Palio this morning, because there’s so much more to Siena than a horse race. The beautiful little city, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site way back in 1995, still looks every bit the picture-book medieval town it probably was back in 30AD when the Romans plonked a military outpost there. There are uniform terracotta roofs as far as the eye can see, those beautiful but somewhat difficult to walk on cobbled paths, and symbolic and religious iconography around every corner. There’s also the incredible Tuscan food, the sweet little corner stores, the steeply sloped alley ways that you just have to wander up and down, and the best door knockers you’ve ever seen.

 

Welcome to Siena, through my eyes…

Photo Journal: An Italian family tradition – tomato sauce making day

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My father’s parents are salt-of-the-earth people. They are humble, kind, generous almost to a fault, and incredibly self-reliant, even as they grow older. Each year, my father’s parents pay tribute to the generations that came before them and honor their (my; our) Italian heritage by bringing in a truckload of tomatoes, and making and bottling their own tomato pasta sauce. It’s an age-old tradition still followed by many Italians, all over the world; even when we immigrate to new lands, we don’t leave our traditions behind. They make hundreds of bottles from thousands of tomatoes, with the help of my dad and auntie, and often a few friends and other relatives. They work under the eagle eyes of my grandparents, and while everyone has a good time, the sense of duty and respect is palpable.

 

Recording memories, through blogging, photographing and journaling, has always been incredibly important to me, and as my grandfather closes in on 90 years old, the realization that this beautiful tradition won’t go on forever under his watchful eye has really hit home. I initially took my camera along this year, with the intent of capturing as many wonderful memories as I could, both for myself and the generations of my family to come. Then, I realized a far greater thing would be to share these precious memories with others.

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Cook this: Almond Amaretto cake

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Growing up, Sundays were always “family days.” They were spent with grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins. I’m sure this will ring true for a lot of others with an Italian background. As I’m getting older, that’s changing; I’m needing a little more time alone, time to look after me. The one thing that won’t ever change, though, that still makes me as happy and comfortable and safe as it did when I was a child, is seeing my grandparents. My paternal grandparents are two of the most incredible people I know. Well into their eighties, they are so self-sufficient it almost defies belief. That my beautiful little Nonna is still growing all of her own produce (literally everything from carrots to strawberries, zucchini to tomatoes, figs to grapes grow in their ENORMOUS garden – see below for a little bit of it), spending hours on her hands and knees digging up the sweetest carrots and that Nonno is still climbing up small step ladders to pluck me a small bowl of the figs I’ve loved since I was a tiny little person is both crazy, and at the same time, I can’t imagine it any other way.

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But don’t think it’s limited to fresh produce; Nonno does his own alcohol, too. A genuine purveyor of quality home brew. Wine and spirits, thank you very much. And every time we visit, we get sent home with half a car full of fresh fruit and veggies, as well as a little bit of whatever’s just been bottled; last visit was Amaretto, a sweet, almond-based liqueur. I really like Nonno’s Amaretto, particularly for use in baking. It’s insanely strong (really, I shudder to think of the alcohol percentage…), so you don’t have the problem of it all being baked out when you add some of the home brewed stuff to your cakes, which means it’s still got that distinct flavour and kick that I remember so vividly (and fondly) from all the cakes and biscuits that I used to eat when I was younger.

I didn’t really have a recipe in mind to use when I got the bottle from Nonno the other week, so I had a flick through one of my older cookbooks, the Larousse Treasury of Country Cooking Around The World (1975 edition), purchased for change at the Grub Street Book Shop a few years ago. I found this recipe which I screwed around with a little and ended up with a cake that Nonna and Nonno would have been pretty happy with, had husband and I not eaten it all within 48 hours.

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What I changed:

– Swapped the walnuts out for toasted, slivered almonds (left whole, not ground)

– Used the juice and peel of an orange instead of a lemon

– Added a standard shot glass of Nonno’s Amaretto

 

Other than that, I used the recipe and method as printed in the cook book, and got a great result – it was somehow dense, yet light and moist all at the same time, with the almonds really bringing out the flavour of the Amaretto, and the orange flavour sitting nicely with the almond. A bit of whipped cream would have been perfect with it (note to self for next time), and a little icing sugar dusted lightly on top wouldn’t have gone astray either (if I’d had any in the pantry). It’s one I’ll definitely make again (don’t think husband is going to give me much choice there), and I’ll double the recipe next time so I have some to bring to Nonna and Nonno!

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Photo Journal: Nonna’s chocolate roll cake

My family is Italian, which means two things – the food is delicious, and recipes are rarely written down. They’re just remembered, somehow. One of the recipes I really wanted to learn to bake myself and ensure was recorded was my great grandmother’s chocolate roll cake. It’s my dad’s favourite, and he has some really fond memories around this cake. I was really excited when my auntie (dad’s sister) offered to show me the ropes and take me through the whole procedure.

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