HAPPY HOLS IN TUSCANY [originally published in FT Weekend]
Forget two weeks on a paradise island in the Indian Ocean, a fortnight on a private yacht off the Dalmatian coast, a hip hotel on Mexico’s Pacific coast, or a castle in Spain with its own spa. One of the best hols we ever had was in a simple self-catering farmhouse in Tuscany.
The plot was hatched in England under grey winter skies after a brisk New Year’s Day walk on Romney Marsh followed by a long, large, well-lubricated cassoulet lunch. Back in early January the shimmering landscape of Tuscany (or indeed anywhere) seemed like a Very Good Idea. We did the homework, found the place and made the booking. Then everything went quiet till July.
On the appointed date ten of us assembled from various points of the compass in the four-square, classic Tuscan stone house, until then glimpsed only on the website (www.gargonza.it). The five bedrooms were allocated, the three bathrooms divvied up and the kitchen checked out. Some of the party disappeared on a mission to stock up on essentials (prosciutto, peaches, pecorino, pane toscano, Chianti, vin santo, cantucci…). Others did a removals job on the garden table, lifting it off the scruffy, burnt up patch of grass in front of the house to a space across the road under some trees beside the rabbit hutch. The rest of the party sloped off to the large pool that serves the whole complex (Gargonza is a medieval enclave in which all the houses have been converted into rooms, apartments and studios, with a central reception and booking office.)
The week’s activities featured a judicious mixture of sunbed-hogging by the pool and intensive museum- and monument-hopping in Siena, Arezzo, Cortona and Assisi. There was one plucky attempt at a walk but definitely no tennis (too hot). Memorable meals were had both in and out, and noisy discussions alternated with (fairly) silent Scrabble sessions.
So what was there to write home about? The house was adequate but certainly not luxurious, the kitchen was reasonably well equipped, the showers and loos were up to speed. The sun shone – but you expect that in Italy in July. The food – whether gazpacho and salumeria under the trees beside the rabbit hutch, or pici and T-bone steaks in a trattoria – was gutsy and delicious and the week was fuelled by some terrific Chianti Classico discoveries. The Duomo in Siena and the Basilica in Assisi blew a few minds. There were plenty of cars for expeditions so those who didn’t feel like culture could goof off at the pool (and vice-versa).
But the key to success – as we modestly concurred at the end of the week – was the people. The ten of us (Brits, Dutch, an Anglo-Argentine and some Anglo-Swedish hybrids, plus two afterthoughts from Argentina who lodged in the village but joined in the fun) didn’t know one another especially well at the start of the week. But, definitely more by good luck than good management, we turned out to have similar ideas about how to do the week together.
Everyone shone at something, including stuff they might not ordinarily shine at back home. Some discovered special skills for food shopping, table laying/decorating or dishwasher-loading. Others, phrase book in one hand and Slow Food’s Osterie d’Italia guide in the other, undertook the task of booking tables. One turned out to be a dab hand at vinaigrette (so stiff with garlic it was practically an aioli), another a demon at boiling the breakfast eggs (put them into cold water, bring to a boil, count 1 minute), still another discovered a hidden talent for roasting and peeling peppers.
The unsung hero of the party (whose day job is writing home-accounting software packages) was a wizard at Excel, and took a lot of good-humoured flak for keeping everyone’s expenses on disk, updating the accounts regularly and offering them up for random audits. At least one of the group had clearly missed her vocation as a panel discussion host: the trick was to throw seemingly innocent reflections into the ring (‘so what actually is the point of the European Union?’ ‘I wonder if women can combine interesting lives and careers with family life?’ or ‘is boarding school really such a great idea?’) and then sit back and let it happen.
So that’s it. The secret of happy hols according to my formula is to choose a good spot (probably in Italy, ‘which hath civilized the whole world and taught Mankind what it is to be a Man’*), organise the weather, mix eating in with eating out, combine leisure with culture, and hire or take plenty of cars for maximum autonomy. Finally, invite a good bunch of people (preferably ones you don’t know too well). The rest will take care of itself.
AN EXPLOSIVELY TASTY SICILIAN MEAL
This is a story of a memorable meal. It begins one fine morning in Catania, on Sicily’s eastern side, not far from the regularly erupting Mount Etna. My foodie friend Roberta was in charge of the programme, which began in the fabulous vegetable market where I wished – not for the first time when visiting a strange city – that we’d rented a little apartment so we could scoop up all that wonderful produce and cook up a storm.
There were great pale green zucchini that looked like writhing snakes, wild strawberries like little splashes of blood and apricots with sunset streaks.
Polychrome peppers were artfully arranged on baskets in fours and fives, olives came in all colours, shapes, sizes and marinades, and were weighed on venerable scales with brass pans and weights.
The fish market, under the viaduct with trains rumbling overhead, went one better: we marvelled at massive gleaming tuna, coveted calamari at 7 euros a kilo (the week before in L’Escala, Catalunya, I’d baulked at paying 33 euros), saw shrimp of all conceivable sizes (only raw) and fancied mackerel with iridescent, hologram-like skin – all at prices so absurdly low by any standards that it must almost be worth packing your chill bag and boarding a low-cost flight to Catania just to stock up on some of the best, most succulent, freshest fish ever.
By now we were getting peckish. We called up Claudio, a local journalist contact, for tips on where to eat. ‘How many of you – just 2?’ he asked. ‘Meet me at the Piazza Mazzini in 20 minutes, I’ll be on my bike – it’s a BMW.’
We hung around trying to look nonchalant, discreetly scanning the horizon for every potential journo on a bike with room for two more. Claudio hove into view, shaved head à la Agassi, brilliant smile, mwa mwa, a single spare helmet on his arm. ‘Hop on’, he ordered. We clambered aboard, Claudio leading from the front, me in the middle like the prosciutto in the panino (senza helmet – I figured I was safely sandwiched), and helmeted Roberta bringing up the rear. We sped off. My stomach stayed in Piazza Mazzini for a few blocks, then caught up with me and I began to enjoy the ride.
Twenty minutes later, dodging ancient old market carrozze and weaving our way through
labyrinthine Catanian streets, we ground to a halt before an anonymous doorway fringed by a beaded curtain. We dismounted and pushed through the beads to find a tumultuous greeting (for Claudio, a regular) and a courteous welcome (for us two hangers-on).
In the kitchen was a bevy of women cooks – la nonna, her daughter and granddaughter and lots of other smiling ladies. We joined our fellow workers (painters in overalls, builders with dusty shoes, businessmen in ties), already tucking into their lunch, at a huge refectory table.
At a word from Claudio it started raining antipasti: raw anchovies with herbs and olive oil to which we were permitted to add a squirt of lemon – ‘lemon only at table’, admonished Claudio, ‘otherwise you lose the taste of the sea.’ There were flash-fried fresh sardines, infant red mullet not much bigger than the sardines, shrimp so sweet and succulent that they’ve certainly spoiled me for shellfish ever after, roasted green peppers in fruity oil, a toothsome caponata with aubergines, potatoes and peppers, all of it served with hunky bread.
Claudio warned us off the brutal house wine (‘there are great wines in Sicily, but not here’) but when glasses of Zibibbo were pressed upon us by our table neighbours (to go with some of those sunset-streaked fresh apricots), it seemed churlish to refuse. The naturally sweet, pale amber wine was nectar: fruity but not cloying, with wonderful marmalade-y overtones.
I couldn’t tell you where we ate – and besides, Claudio swore us to secrecy – beyond the fact that it was flanked by a horse meat butcher and a bathroom fittings shop, opposite a place where they fix punctures and in a ‘quartiere molto popolare’. I’d go back tomorrow if I could find it, if only to try the bean soup, or the the fusilli with capers, or even the garlic-laden chunks of roast meat. They’ll have to be just a memory, a promise unfulfilled. Better that way.