Today, thankfully, we had an opportunity to air out our hiking and biking clothes and give our tired aging muscles and bones a bit of a rest, as we were headed off to Florence, by bus, to go sightseeing. We started off in our minibus with Claudio. Once we got off the strada bianca (dirt road) and close to the autostrada (highway), we pulled into a parking lot and switched to a big bus. Claudio was rather excited to be driving the big bus. Now he could really show us his stuff and take it up, over 100 km per hour on the autostrada without the bus getting the shakes.
Our day in Florence included lots of options for everyone to choose from. As you can well imagine, with a group of 18, there are varying interests. The morning options included a Segway tour of Florence or a walking tour with local guide, Simone, starting at the Arno River and ending up at the Jewish Synagogue. Afternoon options included a visit to the Uffizi gallery, a tour of the Duomo or sightseeing on your own. Late afternoon, there was an optional visit to an artisanal chocolate master, for a chocolate making demonstration (and tasting, of course).
I remarked to Cameron and Leif, our B&R guides, that organizing the day in Florence must have been a bit of a challenge. They just looked at each other and laughed. Apparently a spread sheet was involved in order to keep straight where everyone was going and at what times. They were more than a little nervous about losing someone. He said that the swan was a perfect avatar for a B&R guide…all calm and serene on the surface, but paddling like mad below the surface to stay afloat.
This was my second visit to Florence. My first was in 1984, with my sister, after I graduated from University. What I remember most vividly about the city was not the typical sites (the Duomo and The David) but laughing with my sister, eating amazing gelato and buying a beautiful leather purse. Shockingly, I can still remember the name of the ice cream shop, Vivoli Gelato.
Truthfully, this visit was not much different. Switch a sister for a sister-in-law and our day was pretty similar. My sister-in-law, Marion, and I are great friends, but because we live in different cities, we don’t get to spend as much time together as we wish. We decided to just wander on our own and opted out of the afternoon tours. My husband questioned the wisdom of doing this. He said, “You’re here in Florence, don’t you want to visit the famous sites?” When I stopped to think about it, the answer to his question became obvious to me. I said, “Many years from now, when I’m on my deathbed, I doubt that I’ll regret not visiting more of the tourist sites in Florence. But I do know that I will regret not spending more time laughing, eating gelato, shopping, and just hanging out with Marion.”
We ate some incredible coconut gelato (could this be the best thing I ate all day?), bought matching silver woven evening bags, tried on dozens of hats and scarves, took pictures of some really beautiful old doors and flowers and got quite lost looking for the leather market. I have never been known for my sense of direction but I always thought Marion was skilled with a map. Clearly I was mistaken! I think we circled the same several blocks 4 times before we actually realized it. We did, however, make it back in time for the chocolate class.
Our lesson was in the lab of Andrea Bianchini at La Bottega del Cioccolato. Andrea is an award-winning pastry chef and one of Italy’s leading chocolatiers. He greeted us dressed in pristine chef’s whites. He had a ready smile and a little twinkle in his eye. I suspect that he regularly gets himself in just a little bit of trouble with the ladies.
I let out a little yelp when I saw the chocolate tempering machines in the pastry kitchen. He had one for milk chocolate and one for dark chocolate.
In the chocolate tempering process, the cocoa butter molecules within the chocolate are stabilized through a process of heating and cooling that allows the chocolate to harden properly and ensures a shiny finish. Untempered or incorrectly tempered chocolate can be brittle and may appear lackluster, spotted, or blotchy with a whitish film on the surface because the cocoa butter separates from the chocolate and some cocoa butter crystals are visible to the eye. Tempered chocolate will have a nice shine and a “snap” when you bite into it.
The tempering process involves melting the chocolate to about 113° F, then adding some unmelted chocolate and stirring, so that it cools down to 81° F, and then heat it up gently to about 88° F. Then you must maintain this temperature while working.
When I make truffles at home, I do this entire tempering process by hand, using a heating pad to regulate and maintain the temperature of the chocolate. (Click here to see how I do it at home.) I was quite jealous of these tempering machines. The entire tempering process is done by machine. These machines are not inexpensive. A small home model could start at about $500. I can only imagine the cost of these beauties.
We got to try a selection of different chocolates, as well as his version of tiramisu, made with his secret recipe for mascarpone cheese. My favourite was the salted caramel truffle. (Could this be the best thing I ate all day?). He sprinkled a secret ingredient on one of the chocolate bars he made for us. We all licked the chocolates trying to guess what it was he had coated them with. Finally it came to us…Parmesan cheese! I had never thought of that combination before. Unusual, for sure but I’m fairly certain this year’s holiday basket will not contain Parmesan truffles.
The plan was for everyone to meet at the bus at 6:30 and then we would all go on to dinner together from there. When we arrived at the bus, about 10 minutes late, almost everyone was there. Leif had beads of sweat on his upper lip and he and Claudio were exchanging worried, anxious glances. Suddenly Leif’s carefully crafted calm veneer cracked, and he yelled, “OK, everyone on the bus. Now!” We were shocked, but we quickly clambered back onto the bus and took off at top speed. Those already on the bus were in various states of undress, as most of us had brought a change of clothes to wear for dinner. Clothes went flying, lipsticks and earrings went rolling up the aisle of the bus and perhaps someone lost her balance and landed in the lap of the wrong husband. It was chaos.
We later discovered that large tour buses are not permitted inside the old city walls of Florence. Claudio snuck in and was parked illegally. With each passing minute he risked the chance of being caught and getting a huge fine.
Dinner that night was at Cibreo. I had spent quite a bit of time researching where to eat dinner in Florence. Cibreo was very highly recommended by Liria, the owner of the villa we were staying at. What you need to know about Cibreo is that this is not your typical Italian restaurant. There is no pasta on the menu. Actually, there is no menu, but more about that later.
I knew we had made the right choice, when our friends, who live in Milan, joined our group for dinner and told me they were so excited we had chosen this restaurant. They said it is their favourite in Florence and come here for dinner every time they are in town. We began with Prosecco and a small plate of amuse bouche. Now, you have to understand that I have been tasting Prosecco on this trip, like it’s my job. Tough job, I know, but I am doing it for the sake of research so you can benefit from my hard work! I have come to adore Prosecco very late in life. I always thought I didn’t like sparkling wine because all I had ever tasted was Champagne. But Prosecco is so much lighter, fresher and less yeasty than Champagne. I am on a mission to sample as many brands as I can, to come up with a favourite. It seems like I may have found it!I Definitely my favourite of the trip so far.
On the chef’s amuse bouche plate were an egg custard with herbs, smooth delicate and airy, chicken liver crostini that was rich, hearty and oh so silky, and a sun-dried tomato crostini.
Next we were served, what looked like someone had taken a can of Campbell’s tomato soup and emptied it onto a plate. Sort of like a small tomato jelly mould. Made me recall my cooking school days when we had to make aspic! I took a little nibble to be polite and then another and another. Pretty soon we were all licking our plates clean. It was a sort of tomato aspic but nothing like I have ever eaten before. Brilliantly red and kissed with just a touch of red pepper flakes this custard was silky like velvet in texture but tasted like the freshest vine ripened, just picked tomato you have ever tasted.
Then one of the waiters came in with his arms full of long baguettes. Upon closer examination, each baguette had knots tied in both ends so it resembled the femur bone. Bread shaped like bones! Somebody here had an incredible sense of humour. I loved it!
When it came time to order our primi and secondi, a woman entered our private room and pulled up a chair to join us at the table. When she got our attention, she explained that at Cibreo, they don’t have menus. She will recite and explain all the choices for that evening. There were about 7 choices for primi and of course we forgot them all as soon as she finished explaining each in loving detail. We had to get her to recite them about 3 times before everyone was able to decide. She was very good-natured about it. She took our orders and got quite excited when it became obvious that at least one person was going to try each item. Apparently, it upsets her when everyone at the table all order the same thing. I can sort of understand that. I get really annoyed if my husband orders the same thing as I do, because then I can’t taste something different off his plate.
Although I didn’t get to taste everything, I was able to snap a few shots before everyone grew very impatient with me. The first picture is Cibreo’s yellow pepper soup, for which the restaurant is well-known. I managed to find a recipe for it on-line.
Everything I tasted was delicious. The flavours were somehow dense and compact yet light at the same time. Chef Fabio Picchi lets the simplicity of in-season, top quality ingredients speak for themselves.
Award for the best thing I ate all day has to go to the soup I ordered, Pappa al Pomodoro. This is a tomato soup, thickened with bread. They actually served it with a fork! I had to laugh as it made me think of that commercial for Campbell’s Chunky soups…”Thick enough to eat with a fork but use a spoon. You’ll want to get every last drop.” I used some bread to sop up every last bit.
Desserts,which, in my opinion, are usually besides the point at Italian restaurants, really surprised me. Everyone who ordered the orange marmalade cheesecake raved about it. Those who ordered the panna cotta with caramel sauce had no trouble finishing and the few bites of raspberry tart I managed to swipe from my husband’s plate were incredible.
I am trying to figure out how I can get back to Florence as soon as possible to visit this wonderful restaurant.
Stay tuned for Day 8 when we visit Pitigliano, and learn a wonderful lesson about cultural co-existence.