Food in Italy is still largely about seasonality, and never more so than in late fall when the new olive oil (‘olio nuovo’) begins to arrive in the shops. Take a drive into the Tuscan countryside anytime between late October and December and you will see olive groves with nets spread under the trees and pickers hard at work raking the fruit off the branches. Olio nuovo retains its peppery piquancy until the spring, so make sure you taste the ‘extra virgin’ gold while it’s still young. This photo was taken in our olive grove just outside Florence during olive-picking season.
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Christmas in Florence
Like everything else they do, the Florentines are very elegant when it comes to decorating their city for Christmas. A huge tree lit with thousands of fairy lights is erected in Piazza Repubblica and the streets in the centre of town are hung with gorgeous red, green and silver decorations. There’s no place for anything vulgar here! Many churches set up cribs and nativity scenes: check out the ones in the Duomo, Santa Croce and San Lorenzo.
The Oltrarno (literally meaning, ‘beyond the Arno,’) refers to the long swathe of the old city that lies south of the river. Managing to resist the worst of the tourist crowds, it has been a center for artisans and craftsmen for centuries, and a walk through its quiet backstreets and alleys will reveal studios and workshops inhabited by furniture painters and cabinet makers, restorers and wood turners, bookbinders and marbled-paper makers. Focus on the area between Via Maggio and the Pitti Palace, and the streets leading off Borgo San Frediano and Via San Niccolo.
If you want to see Florence at its most authentic, visit in the winter months between November and February. The crowds all but disappear, you won’t have to stand in line to get into the Uffizi, hotel prices go way down, and the Florentines themselves are much more relaxed when they can claim their city for themselves. You may even be lucky enough to see the cupola topped with snow.
These days, an increasing number of visitors to Florence are choosing to rent an apartment rather than stay in a hotel, and not only for reasons of budget. Having a home in the city -albeit a temporary one-will give you a taste of living local. You’ll meet the neighbors, shop in the local stores and markets and have breakfast in the local bar like this one in Via del Parione.
The Italians (and that includes the Florentines) take their coffee very seriously indeed, and if you don't want to stick out as a tourist, you need to follow certain rules. The most important of these is that cappuccino is a breakfast drink. It should never be ordered after 11am and should never EVER be drunk after a meal.
Travellers to Florence this summer are being offered a unique dining experience in some of the city's most atmospheric cloisters. Promoted by Firenze Expo 2015, the dinners will showcase both the beauty of these 13th-15th century buildings and the idea of 'simplictas' as inspired by the recipes of Florence's monastic orders. The cloisters of Santo Spirito, San Marco and Ognissanti (home to Domenico Ghirlandaio's glorious Last Supper fresco) will all host dinners prepared by top Tuscan chefs using organic farm-to-table produce grown on the farm in the Cascine park in the west of the city. Each evening kicks off with an aperitivo and a guided tour of the precious art works on site (some of which are normally hidden from public view) followed by gourmet dinner with wine. Up to 50 guests are seated at a single long table draped with white linen and lit by flickering candles, echoing the simple 'fratina' tables used by the monks centuries ago. Luckily, silence is not a requirement. You’ll never get a chance to eat in these venues again; I was lucky enough to attend the inaugural evening in the basilica of Santo Spirito and would highly recommend it. Tickets cost €80.
Not knowing Italian, we at first thought "Bar Aperto" was the name of the restaurant. (There is a separate bar area.) But then we realized every restaurant in Florence couldn't have the same name! We were lucky to get a reservation here, and only because we Americans eat early. The place filled up and it didn't seem like tourists. The food was excellent, fresh and flavorful, and we'll always remember this view across the Arno to the Ponte Vecchio and Uffizi.