The Food of Tuscany
"We're going straight to the pub" were the first magical words my friend Clare uttered as soon as we'd finished hugging in Pisa airport at the start of our July 2019 visit. Aperol spritzes were polished off in no time in the tiny Palaia bar before Clare and her husband Andy whisked us to our next stop, an amazing al-fresco restaurant with breath-taking views and my favourite of all - no menu!! Our hosts explained in perfect Italian my requirement for vegetarian dishes and what followed was one of my favourite meals ever. The wine arrived by the jug, was delicious and by some sorcery never seemed to empty!
There's just no place like Tuscany for food. We first visited in the late 90's and after a decade away while the children were small, we've been able to visit frequently since Clare and Andy took the plunge, buying first an apartment in Palaia and then a dilapidated farmhouse with a plan to breath new life into it. In 5 years they have created something beautiful - I'll let them describe it in their own words
"In 2016 we took a giant leap into the unknown and invested every last penny into the derelict Podere dell'Alloro (Bay Tree Farm) in Palaia, a small pretty village in the Valdera region of Tuscany. We wanted to live in this beautiful part of Italy and share our home with people who want to come and discover its riches. Our farmhouse is over 100 years old and we are only the third owners. Before we bought it the house had been empty for 20 years, slowly falling down. We have restored and converted the main house into four apartments."
So back to the food and let's start with the gelato. San Gimigano is a half hour drive away and is home to Gelateria Dondoli which it would appear sells every flavour imaginable in every cone or copa form you could wish for. The queues are huge but go down pretty fast and once you have your ice cream you are in a beautiful Piazza where you can slurp or scoop while you watch the world go by. The last time we were there I went for Stracciatella (white vanilla with irregular chocolate shavings) and it was amazing. Palaia has amazing ice cream too and on out last visit in 2020 I managed 2 visits in one day (mango sorbet in the morning and pistachio gelato in the afternoon)
The farmhouse is surrounded by olive trees so Podere dell'Alloro have their own Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Other trees include fig, cherry, persimmon and apricot. On our 2019 visit I couldn't wait to get my hands on the apricot harvest and brewed up a good few jars of golden apricot jam to save me from venturing out into the super hot afternoon sun.
As well as being a brilliant linguist, Andy makes a legendary lasagne which I have been enjoying for decades and Clare has become a sourdough expert as you will see from these pictures below.
A typical 'day of food' starts the night before when Andy takes the croissant order so he can be first at the bakery and deliver them to your apartment. As I've just mentioned the sourdough is plentiful so who would want anything other than that plus some cheese and olives for lunch. Mid afternoon ice-cream in Palaia (of course) and then later it's time to meet on the COVID terrace (so called as it was created by Andy during lockdown) for pre-dinner drinks.
It's one of those amazing dinners which is the inspiration for the It's From Scratch Tuscan cookalong. I can't get enough of the Lebanese appetizer Baba Ganoush so aubergines seldom get the opportunity to live on in any other dish in my kitchen but that was until I tried Clare's Aubergine Parmigiana with some of her home baked Focaccia. It's a dish which demonstrates how some simple ingredients can be brought together to make something memorable and spectacular.
Clare blogs about Tuscan life at https://gallinadoroit.wordpress.com/ and of course she and Andy would love to have you come and stay (so they can feed you too!). Palaia is an easy 30 minute drive from Pisa airport and if I've not persuaded you to add a visit to your wish list, I leave you with this sunset.....
Follow Podere dell'Alloro on instagram @poderedellalloro