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Monday, September 19, 2011

Guest Post: Buon appetito!

Fed up with microwave Bolognese or the same old choices from the pizza menu? Try sampling the food in Tuscany and Sicily, two of Italy’s most famous regions for foodies.

If you had to name one European region that had food and wine at its very essence, it would be hard not to choose Tuscany in the north-west of Italy. Tuscany holidays are all about spectacular rolling countryside dappled in sunlight and glasses of chilled Chianti, but they are also about fantastically authentic Italian food.

The gateway to discovering this wonderful gastronomic heritage is the city of Florence, home of the Renaissance and a destination that will spark a rebirth in your interest in great food, no matter how tired your palate. Forget molecular cuisine and gourmet meals, the key here is simplicity, and there’s nothing like filling a basket from a small deli with schiacciata bread, marzolino cheese and some Tuscan salami. Find a spot in one of the beautiful city gardens and soak up the flavours in the afternoon sun.

In the surrounding countryside, the famed wine regions of Chianti and Montalcino await. Most of the experiences here centre around the vineyards, and instead of the bargain bin at the supermarket, you can taste superbly-made Montepulciano and Chianti the way they were meant to be drunk – surrounded by the beauty of Tuscany. There are hidden Michelin-starred restaurants dotted around the region, but perhaps best of all are the family-run trattorias, where the most flavourful of dishes are served up in simple, honest surroundings.

You can choose from a host of UNESCO World Heritage Sites as a backdrop to your foodie adventure, from the cathedral and square in Pisa to the historic centres of San Gimignano and Pienza. The outstanding beauty of the region comes though in all of its best-loved dishes, from wild boar pappardelle to white truffles and Florentine steaks. With so much visual and culinary distraction around, it’s amazing that the famous artists of the region got any work done at all.

Good food and drink spans Italy, of course, and you can travel the whole length of the country discovering exciting specialities, even all the way down to the glorious Mediterranean island of Sicily. (If you look at a map, it’s the ‘ball’ being kicked by the Italian mainland.) Holidays in Sicily are just as appealing as those in Tuscany for foodies. Its very different landscape and culture offers uniquely interesting items to the menu. The warm Mediterranean climate means that fresh citrus fruits, olives and all manner of herbs and spices are readily available, and the diverse cultures that have influenced the island – Arabic, Spanish and Greek among others – have all left their mark on the food.

Wander around any of the markets in places such as Palermo, Ragusa or Catania, and you can pick up delicacies such as arancine (rice balls) or sfincione, which is a regional pizza with the distinction of being made without cheese. Many of the recipes go back hundreds of years as Sicily is one of Italy’s most historic regions. There’s even a strong argument that Italy’s most famous dish – spaghetti – was invented here.

Given the abundance of fruits, it’s no surprise that the desserts in Sicily are nothing short of spectacular. The soft texture of gelato ice cream is known across the globe, and here you can sample some of the most authentic flavours, from pistachio to floral favourites such as jasmine. Another diet-challenging sweet is cannoli, the long tubular pastry usually served with ricotta cheese and – in the best places – small chunks of candied fruit.

Again, there are historic attractions to explore and work off a few calories. Among them are the UNESCO-recognised Valley of the Temples in Agrigento and the mosaics of the Villa Romana del Casale.

All of this adds to the sheer pleasure of eating Italian food the way it was meant to be eaten, surrounded by culture, sunshine and the odd carafe of wine. Buon appetito!

About the Author: Paul Oswell is a freelance travel writer based in the UK. Over the years he has visited and written about many European destinations. His favourite Italian food is Spaghetti alle vongole.



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