The first in my series of Food and Travel articles, taking place across five days at the end of February this year that I spent in Florence and surrounding Italian areas. Joining me on this six-day adventure were the following characters: Curly George and Smokey George, Adam, Matthew, Ollie, English Ryan, German Ryan and Marvin – to name the main ones. We had also many others who may come to prominence in later articles.
I must say that there is truly nothing like working in a crowded hotel bar on a Sunday night (a rarity, one would imagine) only to come home at midnight, knowing that in only four hours time, the slow process of waiting for luggage to be loaded and passports to be checked will begin. Arriving at the rendezvous point of the college car park, I found myself among the latecomers, with fifty other students all waiting in the dark – the only lights visible would be the dim orange glows of their cigarettes. Nearing the end of winter, our early-morning tired-irritated conversation was mainly targeted toward the low temperature and the how early we had bothered arriving. The discourse among the students only increased in vehemence as we learned our escorts to Gatwick airport (a pair of coaches) had directed themselves to the wrong campus. Luckily for us, the coach’s seats were comfortable enough to reacquire the other two-hours-or-so I missed out on in checking, double, triple, quadruple-checking that I did in fact have my passport and no metal in my hand baggage.
With little time for anything interesting to happen once we had actually arrived at Gatwick Airport, naturally our next move was to get the flight out the way. Florence – though a city – does not actually have an airport of its own, so our voyage across the sky was in fact destined for Bologna. A white-blanketed Bologna at that! I can say I have never seen such weather anywhere near Italy; I would have said it would not be caught dead there! However we were aware that Florence was recovering from a recent snowfall. It was sleeting when we disembarked and entered the arrivals lounge to the conveyor belts, where we knew one or more of us would not find our luggage, and so there we were – all frantically hoping that our suitcase came into view. The unfortunate gentleman was more a minor and quieter member of our party, whose name I do not recall, whose luggage was actually returned to Gatwick.
We were still two more hours away from our hotel in Florence at this point, and once we found our coach driver to take us there we embarked on a journey that took some of the party by surprise, for some of them were debutantes as far as Italy was concerned. Being one of the elder among the party, some of the others at sixteen or seventeen were greatly excited at the lower age limits over there: so they stocked themselves full of cigarettes and alcohol ready for the evenings ahead. And the coach journey itself took us closer and closer to warmer and drier weather, as I watched the clouds emanating out the sleet, which then turned to rain, and then in turn to just spitting, and eventually just dull and grey. Still very uncharacteristic conditions for Italy.
￼Luckily the hotel – The Hotel Golf – made up for it. As an employee in a three-star hotel, I had my expectations. The Hotel Golf’s (lack of) size and facilities would have passed for a high-quality two-star, in my opinion. The room was comfortable enough – a three-bed with an ensuite bathroom, which I shared with Matthew and Ollie, sixteen and seventeen respectively.
I am not going to review the aeroplane food, because I ate barely any of it: that is to say out of the stale chocolate-pastry twist, the Benecol yoghurt drink and the bowl of muesli, I unwittingly ate the former. Needless to point out, our minds were all on our stomachs upon arrival at the hotel and we were all in the mood for something to quench our hunger. While some were intent on a quick meal, for instance the Italian McDonalds, me, Curly George, Adam, Matthew, both Ryans, Marvin and Ollie were all much more willing to get something a little more inclined towards the culture.
Having never before experienced Italy in the late winter, being in Florence for the first time in five years seemed entirely new to me once again. Needless to say, I also needed to re-familiarise myself with the fabulous and famous food that the little Italian city is renowned for. It would seem like stating the obvious to say that many places were shut in light of the aforementioned snowfall. Walking around this alien little place took us to many buildings – each with “ristorante” or “pizzeria” panelled vertically down the side, and each as unattractive as the next. And those that were open offered a calibre of cuisine a little beyond the budget of a near-dozen college students. When we actually found a place – after around a half-hour walk – all we were after was a pizza and a drink. Pizza, Italy, self-explanatory surely?
￼The restaurant was called Ristorante de Medici, named after the family who held jurisdiction over the dukedom of Florence (in particular, Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519-1574) (see pictured) was the first to hold the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany). Upon seeing the menu this pizzeria had to offer, all but two of us were instantly attracted to the Pizza and Beer deal they had going on, and I was loathe to do the same for two reasons:
One: the pizza selection this restaurant had was very uninteresting, though not necessarily unappealing: anchovies, capers, pancetta, to name a few (I was expecting more from a genuine Italian.) And secondly, having visited Florence once before, along with Naples and Rome, I have never before realised how unadventurous I had been regarding food. For instance: I had never had proper Italian spaghetti. Until now, that is. Spaghetti alla Scoglio was the title given to my selection from the restaurants rather limited menu.
Now I am definitely not one to snub a starter; that is to say I began my meal with a chicken liver pâté on lightly-toasted ciabatta bread. This, I might add, was vastly inferior to that which I regularly partake of at Café Rouge in Westbourne back home! Rather than a stack of bread, a slab of pâté and a little ramequin of chutney, I was presented on a plate three generously-sized pieces of ciabatta with the pâté already spread. No butter, no chutney, no fun.Now in my experience I have found that the Italians are very temperamental and proud of their food – and rightfully so, after all. But that is also to say they are easily insulted when aspersions are cast or adjustments are suggested that they do not deem necessary. For instance, one of my younger cousins was nearly beaten senseless and evicted from a restaurant by a waiter for asking for tomato ketchup to accompany a pasta dish. Following advice well-given from this example, I did not complain about my antipasto. However, I will say it was rather difficult for this mild-flavoured pâté to compensate for the otherwise plain and bland ciabatta.
On to the main course: – this Spaghetti alla Scoglio (see pictured). Having watched six of my companions settle with Margherita pizzas, I coloured myself cynical about the size of the dish. I anticipated something mediocre in breadth, having judged likewise my antipasto. My goodness, I was wrong! A large and deep-set plate – comparable to a soup bowl – filled with golden threads of spaghetti, which were cooked in and covered in an albeit mildly-flavoured garlic butter. Intertwined among this delicious spaghetti was a cornucopia of seafoods: wholetail prawns – complete with their heads and eyes still intact – along with squid rings and little octopi one would expect to find deep-fried and battered as calamari. Very visible were the mussels and clams that apparently form the signature of the dish. I could not compose a hierarchy of flavours; it would simply not be fair.
And then to wrap up this novel I must comment on the quality of service and – I will admit our waitress did well. Initially, she seemed rather begrudging in disposition. I cannot decide what she was more insulted by: either our perception of her English (as we pointed at our menus and spoke extra slowly and clearly) or our pidgin Italian. As I say, it was not exactly silver service, but I will readily admit that I’ve had worse. As for the pricing, at seventeen euros, plus gratuities, I can say I have had better value elsewhere. However, it was not out of my budget (says the person who came armed with an extra “emergency” forty euros).