I could not leave my little Italian detour without mentioning my most and least favourite places on this trip.
About 12 years ago I visited Florence and fell in love with it; the love affair has not endured. I was shocked and disappointed by the blatant commercialism everywhere, with beautiful historic sites and buildings hidden from view by tacky stalls selling cheap souvenirs. The pavements are almost impassable due to large walking tours of mainly Chinese tourists and they are shoulder to shoulder with the guys selling ‘selfie sticks’!
I myself live in a very popular European city, that sees its fair share of tourists, but nothing on this scale and I perish the thought of the French ever allowing Asian traders to set up their stalls right outside Notre Dame – one guy outside the Duomo actually tried to sell me a print of the Sacre Coeur!!! I, admittedly was a tourist myself, but individuals or couples or even families do not overtake the place as a 50 strong hoard following a plastic sunflower does………
This is a real shame, and I feel that if the city Florence does not do something to address this, then it will suffer. Most European and American people visit for the culture and the architecture, it is now nigh on impossible to appreciate either, as the tour parties form enormous queues around places of interest. I for one, will not return, a sentiment that I heard echoed by many fellow travellers, so sadly this great and noble city will be left to the type of tourist who likes cheap tacky stalls, and has no interest in going into a museum or eating in a nice restaurant……
Rather than stand in 37 degrees heat amongst the great wall of China, we did opt for a nice restaurant, and had one of the best Lasagnes that I have ever tasted, I asked the waiter what gave the sauce its distinctive taste, and he told me that his grandmother always puta good pinch of cinnamon in her Bolognaise – so I am going to try to emulate it this evening, and if all else fails, we have a bottle of ‘Vino Nobile di Montepulciano’……….
I have tried to conjure up the essence of the city in a few photos – YES the Duomo is still magnificent, and if you have never been before, and have nothing to compare with, then still go, if for nothing else than to see this impressive structure. Away from the crowds on the banks of the Arno, you can still appreciate the loveliness of the city, and the views from the Piazza Michelangelo are second to none. But the hands down winner of our Tuscan adventure was without a doubt Sienna.
‘Ah Sienna’…….how would I describe you, cool, classy, understated, sensual, seductive, secretive, evocative, dramatic, and mysterious – I am totally under your spell…..
Tourism here was much more low-key and I only bumped into two small organised tour parties, Sienna is a place for couples. The sound of gentle guitars and sultry saxophones drift through the air and everything is unhurried and unintended as you meander through the shady streets that wind their way around the ‘PIazzo Del Campo’ giving tantalising glimpses of this vast, distinctive, half-moon arena that fans out from the ‘Palazzo Publico’.
I was tempted into dark little shops selling exotic hand printed writing paper and quill pens, and led by my nose into others selling artisan soaps that the shop owner/soap maker carved an inscription on before wrapping it in gorgeous paper, and others selling ‘Dolce Sienna’ a ‘Specialita Artigianali’ a sort of nougaty cake brimming with nuts and smothered in the most wonderful spicy cinnamon, which tasted more like nutmeg, or a cross between the two – it was this that gave the lasagne the distinctive flavour – needless to say I bought some to use in my recipe below.
The Piazza itself is so vast that there is room and space for everyone, even at the chilled café/restaurants surrounding it. We stopped for an Aperol spritz and were treated to a procession of men and boys in medieval dress waving flags and beating time with drums as they made their way around the periphery.
If Florence is the sequined Ball Gown, then Sienna is ‘The Little Black Dress’
Here’s what I did
Serves 2 very generously (with left-overs)
For the Bolognaise sauce
8 oz/200g mince beef (steak Hache) if you have a mincer, then it is best to buy rump steak and mince it yourself.
1 medium shallot (echalot) finely chopped
1 large clove garlic (gousse d’ail) crushed
1 tin of good quality chopped tomatoes (chair de tomates)
1 tablespoon (2 cuillers a soupe) of tomato puree (double concentre de tomates)
1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar
1 level teaspoon of cinnamon
1 good teaspoon of dried oregano
Freshly ground sea salt and black pepper to taste
For the Béchamel sauce
1 tablespoon (2 cuillers a soupe) of cornflour Farine a mais)
½ pint/250ml milk
A ‘pinch’ of salt and white pepper (black pepper will discolour the sauce)
Enough sheets of fresh lasagne to form two layers in your lasagne dish
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
I ‘dry fry’ the mince very slowly releasing its own fat and cook it until enough fat has been released to add the shallot and cook for 3-4 minutes until clear, then the garlic, oregano, tomato puree and red wine vinegar and cook gently for a further 1-2 minutes.
Then add the chopped tomatoes and the cinnamon (you can rinse out the can with a little water and add this also) and simmer gently for around 20-30 minutes.
Add freshly ground sea salt and black pepper to taste, remove from heat and leave to cool a little while making the sauce……..
Melt the butter on a very gently heat in saucepan and stir in the corn flour.
Remove from heat and the milk a little at a time, stirring first with a wooden spoon, then as the sauce becomes more liquid return to the heat and continue with a hand whisk, keeping the sauce moving all the time to prevent lumps forming (if this happens – don’t panic, just remove from the heat, add a little more liquid and whisk like crazy)
Once all the milk is incorporated into the sauce, let it simmer while stirring gently with the wooden spoon again for 1-2 minutes to remove the floury taste.
Season with a little salt and white pepper.
Put a layer of the Bolognaise sauce in a lasagne dish and top with a little of the Béchamel sauce.
Cover with a layer of lasagne (for me this took one and a third sheets)
Add the remaining Bolognaise sauce and again a little Béchamel sauce
Cover with another layer of lasagne and cover completely with the remaining Béchamel sauce
Sprinkle with a generous coating of freshly grated Parmesan cheese, cover with a loose sheet of baking foil and bake in a preheated oven at 180 degrees/gas mark 4 for 30-40 minutes.
Remove the baking foil and increase the heat to 200 degrees and let the top bubble and brown (about 5-10 minutes)
Serve with a slice of garlic bread and a nice fresh green salad.