Paradise on a Plate

Article excerpt

Byline: Bruce Palling

Welcome to foodie Eden: from three-star restaurants to humble markets, Tuscany is a gourmand's paradise.

Tuscany is arguably the birthplace of foodies. Dante's ill-fated brigata spendereccia ("spendthrift brigade"), who appear in the pages of The Inferno, ate and drank themselves to destruction. But in reality, they were based on a set of idle rich men from Siena whom Dante considered outlandish because they larded their roast pheasants and served partridge stuffed with cloves. They also wrote the first modern cookbooks. Tuscans remain inordinately proud and protective of their culinary traditions, with many still mistakenly believing Catherine de' Medici was responsible for transforming French cuisine by taking a retinue of Florentine chefs to France when she went to marry the future Henri II.

I was a relative latecomer to Tuscany, having made my first visit only in my 40s. It was partly because I had spent my formative years living and traveling throughout Asia. I felt relaxed about Tuscany, as I knew it would still be there when I had more time on my hands. Also, I like to slightly ration pleasurable experiences to avoid sensory overexposure. This meant that on my first trip to the Baptistery in Florence, I deliberately refrained from entering the interior. Besides, I wanted a good incentive to return.

I am hardly the first Anglo-Saxon to respond to Tuscany's allure: in the 20th century, it was home to Sir Harold Acton, the ultimate dandy-aesthete, who lived for most of his life at La Pietra, his family estate near Florence. At the other end of Tuscany--and the sexual spectrum--there was Lord Lambton, the British politician who thought it necessary to decamp from London in 1973 after he was photographed in bed with two prostitutes while smoking a joint. He set himself up in the magnificent Villa Cetinale outside Siena, where he lived contently for more than 30 years with his aristocratic mistress and a repertoire of only two Italian words: capito and grazie.

Most people flock to Tuscany because of its incomparable art, breathtaking architecture, and exquisite countryside. The cultural and physical richness of the region attracts me, too, but the quality of its food, both at the upper reaches and on the street level, also has a powerful pull.

The epicenter for haute cuisine in Tuscany is Enoteca Pinchiorri, the only three-star Michelin establishment there. Located in a Florentine palazzo, it offers food influenced by French tradition, which is hardly surprising, given that chef Annie Feolde was born in France. There is no such localism when it comes to the wine list, one of the world's greatest, with virtually every top wine around the globe represented among its 150,000-bottle cellar. I once spent an entire morning roaming among the wines, which are formed into pyramidal stacks.

Giorgio Pinchiorri, the owner, has a playful side, which manifested itself once when I was dining with Burton Anderson, perhaps the greatest foreign expert on Italian wine. Giorgio came over with a masked bottle of Mouton-Rothschild 1982, one of the iconic vintages of this famous chateau, poured each of us a glass and asked Burton to pronounce. After a studious amount of sucking and slurping from both of us, I suspected it was a grand Australian red because of its leathery sappiness, while Burton declared it was "a Super-Tuscan from 1990."

The joys of eating in Tuscany are not just at the very highest end. In 1991, after my first visit to Enoteca Pinchiorri followed by an expensive dinner on the terrace of the Villa San Michele in Fiesole, my then-girlfriend (now wife) and I were virtually penniless. The next day we bought a kilogram of figs with our remaining coins and literally sat in the gutter experiencing near-blissful contentment at what remain the most luscious figs we have ever eaten.

To check out the current state of Tuscany's produce, I made a visit to the central market in Florence, which was purpose-built in the late 19th century when the city was vying to be the capital of a united Italy. …