Florence, Italy

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I knew this would happen.  I’m in one of Italy’s most beautiful cities, Florence, and I don’t want to leave my hotel. Maybe ever.

A couple of years ago we stayed at the Ferragamo family’s Portrait Hotel in Rome.  It was one of my favourite hotel stays of all time. So when I heard that they were opening another Portrait Hotel in Florence, I didn’t hesitate to book it.  The other reason I was keen is that they have family suites, which are often in short supply and high demand in Europe.

And it’s beautiful.  The epitome of modern elegance and style.  All I needed was a Fairy Godmother who could wave her magic wand and turn me into Audrey Hepburn so I could sit by the window and stare out, pouting appropriately.  The staff too, are fantastic, thoughtful and warm (and some of the best dressed hotel staff you’ll see anywhere!).  The fine eye for detail, comfort and quality I love in my Ferragamo shoes has been seemingly effortlessly translated to hotels.

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The hotel breakfast is top notch – everything is excellent quality.  Because we were booked as Virtuoso guests (see below), the fabulous breakfast was included.

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Eventually of course we do venture out and I am reminded why I love this little city – easily walkable, hardly any traffic due to car restrictions, amazing history, great food, and plenty of shopping.   A guide tells us there are 36 museums in Florence – enough to keep you busy for a while.  Of course don’t miss the magnificent Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia, and the Uffizi Gallery. And do go up to Piazzale Michelangelo for a lovely sweeping view over the rooftops.

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And one thing to remember when you are in Florence – look up!  Some of the ceilings in these places are just as amazing as the statues and paintings you will see.

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Do go to the Florence food market.  What a vibrant, fantastic market – we came here almost every day.

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There are a few little counters where you can sit an eat, but otherwise just pick up some fresh bread, some cured meats, cheeses, salads, marinated vegetables, and make yourself a beautiful lunch.

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On one of the days we saw something you don’t see too often – fresh truffles! At the bargain basement price of EUR800 per kilo.

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We also stumbled across this fabulous grocer in Via Dello Studio called Pegna which was a treasure trove of goodies, some of which I bought home (and yes do declare them at customs).

A few places that we liked – Il Borro, on Via Lungarno Acciauoli, is a smart modern Tuscan bistro, with a small amount of outdoor seating but the interior fit out is beautiful.  I bought some of their fantastic olive oil to bring home.

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Cantinetta Antinori in Piazza Antinori is a more traditional Tuscan restaurant.  The star of the show here was a pasta dish with fresh porcini mushrooms. We don’t get fresh porcini in Australia and in fresh form they are fragrant yet delicate.  Combined with silky pappardelle, this was a winning dish.

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We went to Il Pizzaiuolo for some good pizza, but I loved the Sfizio Misto, which had some potato croquettes, some arancini, and some zepulelle (a fried dough) – delicious.

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For a casual and very central eat, try Osteria del Porcellino on Via Val di Lamoni near Piazza della Signoria. On the way there you will pass the porcellino statue – make sure you touch the nose – it apparently brings good luck!

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Something there is an abundance of in Florence is gelatarie – I think it must be council law there to have at least one on every street! One of our favourites was Gelateria Santa Trinita, at Piazza Frescobaldi

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On the shopping front, there are loads of stores everywhere in Florence, but for some of the most high end outlets you’ll ever see, head to The Mall at the Florence outskirts. A bus there, which costs 5 euro and takes a bout 40 minutes, can be caught from the bus depot at Via Santa Caterina di Siena. There are only about 25 stores but all very high end. The Prada and Gucci are enormous and I picked up some very very well priced shoes.

And then of course there are the random entertaining things you see when you are travelling…..

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Florence, you’re a pretty steep competitor to Rome.

Belinda Manning is a luxury travel advisor and Virtuoso specialist http://agents.mtatravel.com.au/bmanning/

http://www.lungarnocollection.com/#/en/the-collection/florence/portrait-firenze/

Milan, Italy

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Milan is a strange city. I thought that a decade or so ago when I was last here, and I think it now.  As you drive in from the airport (try and land at Linate, Malpensa is miles away), you’ll see an relatively unattractive, run down city and you’ll be surprised that this is the fashion capital and a financial centre.  Then all of a sudden you’ll get to the city centre and you’ll see beautiful cobbled streets, some lush greenery, and some amazing old architecture.  But let’s be honest here – I’m not here for any of that, I’m here to shop.  And after eight days of kicking back in Greece on a small island, I was ready for it.

The key shopping district is known as the “fashion quadrangle” and is comprised of four key streets: Via Monta Napoleone (the most famous, it even has its own website), Via Manzoni, Via Venezia, and Via Senato.  In this quadrangle and it’s off streets, you’ll find all the big names and correspondingly big price tags.  The shopkeepers though, don’t seem to discriminate and are nice to everybody (unlike the waitstaff in restaurants who I found decidedly snooty).  For instance one day we were in the Giorgio Armani store in Via Sant’Andrea and in the store there was a wrinkly cougar with massive diamonds buying an entire wardrobe for her cute 35 year old boyfriend; the most immaculately coiffed transvestite; some locally famous Italian who was being served food and drink on silver trays a la Pretty Woman; and us in our shorts and rubber slides.  We were just as well looked after (other than the silver trays).

Other, perhaps more affordable, shopping streets include Corso Buones Aires, Via Torino, Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, and Via Dante (which doesn’t have anything special in terms of shops but is a lovely strip to walk down). On the off chance you need to take a break and need some greenery, there are the lovely Giardini Indro Montanelli.

In terms of food, I was surprised at how much good, affordable food there was in a major city.  There are of course several Michelin Starred restaurants in Milan which will set you back hundreds of Euros per person, but for the most part you can eat well without forking out too much.  A few eat streets include Via Brera, with lots of outdoor dining, Corso Garibaldi, Via Fiori Chiari and Via Fiori Oscuri (Light and Dark Flower street, which strangely also had a lot of tarot card readers).

One very good meal we had in Milano was at Trattoria Nerino Dieci on Via Nerino, which is off Via Torino so you can drop in after the shops close at 7pm.  The buffalo milk plate three ways – mozzarella, ricotta, and smoked, is something that I will remember for a long time. And the cotoletta Milanese was just delicious.

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And for one of the world’s best snacks, head to Luini Panzerotti on Via Santa Radagonda just off the piazza where the Duomo is.  A friend had told me there are always queues, but there was actually a guy on full time crowd control! The line does move very quickly though.  The Panzerotti are either baked or deep fried, and we tried some of each. Go deep fried all the way baby. We had the spinach and ricotta, and a mixed vegetable, but the winner was the mozzarella and tomato, followed closely by the mozzarella and ham. At €2.70 a pop, this is one of the best snacks going.

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After that cross the street and go into Cioccolati Italiani for a delicious scoop of gelato.

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When it comes to breakfast in Italy, don’t go looking for bacon and eggs – it is just not the done thing. A typical Italian breakfast consists of a large milky cup of coffee (and note they don’t put chocolate on top of their cappuccinos) and a brioche/sweet pastry/croissant. One of the places we tried was Biancolatte (White Milk) on Via Filippo Turati. I’d seen website and I thought the place looked gorgeous – and it was. The Milanese workers were clustered at the bar for their morning coffee – and the coffee was very good – but the brioche and croissants were unfortunately a bit meh.

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We all agreed that the brioche and croissant basket at Caffe Armani (Via Manzoni, next to the Armani Megastore) was far superior. Their crema croissant (croissant with custard) was devine! We had a couple of meals there and it was good food.

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And of course there are plenty of pasticcerie around town. But remember, you’re in the north, so don’t go looking for cannoli and cassata, its not the done thing up here. I did see a lot of bigne (pronounced bin-yeh), that is little profiteroles, and sampled a good few.

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Oh, and if you do actually want to sight see, then yes, there are quite a few interesting things to do. I definitely recommend climbing the Duomo – walking on the roof of an incredible cathedral is pretty cool – and do go see the Last Supper. Tickets for one of Da Vinci’s great works generally sell out weeks in advance and you can buy online. I suggest doing this with a guide because rocking up yourself for your allocated 15 minute timeslot really doesn’t put it all in context. There are only 3 or 4 official ticket sellers for the Last Supper; we bought ours through Tickitaly (www.tickitaly.com) and our guide was a Milan local who was great. There are also a few museums and the Castello Sforzesco.

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Hotel – we stayed at the Hotel Armani on Via Manzoni. Uber cool, very sleek, I didn’t quite feel stylish enough to be there! But I loved it. Beautiful wardrobes (no surprise there) and huuuge bathrooms. The staff were awesome. Make sure you check out the jacuzzi and day spa on level 8 looking out over Milan rooftops.

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And did I shop? In one of the world’s fashion capitals during sale season when everything is 40-50% off? Please.

Next stop – Florence!

Paros, Greece – Part II & Antiparos

Here are a few more pictures I took during out time on this lovely little island.  I’m no photographer, but for those who are it is a photographer’s paradise.

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Neighbouring island Antiparos, a seven minute ferry ride away, is also worth a stroll.  You can take your car on the ferry for the princely sum of eight euro.  Apparently Antiparos is the home of the “money set” with many of the seriously rich holding property there.  No ferry ride for them, its usually helicopters or charter jets.  Another charming little spot, one of its real jewels is an amazing cave – it was discovered several hundred years ago, but who knows how old the rock formations actually are.  It is at the top of a hill, and if you have a car you can drive straight up to the very nondescript entry.  There are a lot of stairs, and its a long way down, but absolutely amazing.

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Back in the main village of Antiparos, needing some energy replenishment after all those stairs, we stopped at a great bakery which also did unexpectedly good gelato.

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We loved our time in Paros and neighbouring Antiparos; there several islands that make up Greece, and it was a very ‘tough’ decision on which one we would stay at, and I think we ended up somewhere pretty fabulous.  And that little propellored plane I mentioned – we caught it back to Athens.  It was time for the next leg of our trip, Milan.

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Paros, Greece – Part 1

Pristine, serene, an arid landscape peppered with white homes and enveloped by a cloudless blue sky. This is what we find arriving in Paros, a relatively untouched Greek Island, some 30 minutes from Athens on a tiny propellored plane. Some months before, after sifting through seemingly endless villas on different islands with the help of the fabulously patient people at White Key, Villa Farragas is the one for us.

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For once, the reality outdoes the pictures on the internet and I find myself looking for the appropriate adjectives – a magnificent sea view, expansive outdoor areas perfect for dining or relaxing, a generously proportioned modern home yet in keeping with Greek tradition. Cleverly designed – even two of the showers have an ocean view – the home is beautifully styled.

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Sweet couple Maria and Archie, who are live in staff, as well as Daria our concierge from White Key, are on hand to take care of anything we might need for the next eight days.  We quickly realise this is going to be a holiday on steroids. The evening we arrive, Dimitris, a local cook, makes us feast of fresh stuffed sardines, pasta with lobster, and a mountain of Greek salad.

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Armed with an appropriately compact set of wheels, we explore the island, which you can drive around in about an hour (unless you are like us and get totally lost the first night and take two instead), and there are plenty of charming villages and sandy beaches  – Alyki, Parikia, Naousa, Lefkes, Golden Beach, Faragas. And as we meander through the alleyways, the shopkeepers are all happy to have a chat, delighted we have come all the way from Australia to their little island.

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We feast on simple, fresh food –  tomatoes so sweet that they could almost qualify as dessert, fresh seafood that has been caught by a local fisherman that morning, and cheeses we cannot pronounce. Fruit, local honey from wildflowers, and yoghurt are on the breakfast table each morning; we realise now that the ‘Greek style’ yoghurt we get at home is most certainly not the same as the real thing.

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One day we hire a traditional wooden boat and Captain Petros takes us exploring. The water we see that day can only be described as a collection of jewels – sapphires, aquamarine, emerald, topaz.  No camera can do it justice.

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Part II of this little gem of an island coming up.

Today’s cake – Pear and Hazelnut Cake

This recipe is by Frank Camorra of Movida – except I omitted the chocolate (there was 50g of dark chocolate as well), as I thought there was enough flavour to enjoy with the hazelnut and the pear. If you can’t buy blanched hazelnuts, this is how to do it. I blanched mine the day before making the cake to ensure they were nice and dry before grinding. This recipe is a keeper.

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Ingredients
100g blanched hazelnuts
140g self-raising flour
175g butter, cut into cubes
140g brown sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
3 semi-ripe packham pears
Icing sugar, for dusting

Making it
1. Preheat the oven to 140C for fan-forced (160C conventional). Butter and line the base of a 25 x 11-centimetre loaf cake tin with baking paper
2. Grind the hazelnuts in a food processor until fairly fine. Add the flour and mix briefly. Add the butter and pulse until it forms crumbs
3. Transfer to a bowl, add the sugar and eggs and mix briefly with a wooden spoon (mixture will be quite thick). Peel, core and chop one-and-a-half pears into a small dice and stir the pears into the cake mixture
4. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and smooth the top. Peel, core and slice the remaining pears and arrange on the top of the cake. Press down lightly and bake for 50-60 minutes, until a skewer comes out clean when inserted in the middle.
5. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then turn out and cool on a wire rack. Dust with icing sugar. Serve warm or cold

Supernormal, Melbourne

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So I have to ask as soon as our cute waiter approaches, “what’s with the name?”.  Supernormal is apparently the name of a Japanese art movement (how did I miss that) whose premise is seeing the beauty in everything.  I’m not quite sure how that ties in with Andrew McConnell’s latest venture, a voluminous, almost sparse, and canteen-like space in Flinders Lane – but maybe that’s the whole point – I somehow have to find it beautiful? (They also seem to have a thing in Melbourne for restaurants starting with the word ‘super’ – really not fond of the name Supermaxi as a place to eat).

After a good gossip with my friend, first up is the Spicy Braised Eggplant with Housemade Tofu, which we both like, with an unusual mix of spice I’m trying to identify – cardamom maybe, among other things? The chilli sauce underneath – delicious.

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Boiled prawn & chicken dumpling, chilli & vinegar sauce – woha, good chilli hit here, they weren’t kidding, and the dumplings get a little lost underneath it all.

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Then the New England Lobster Roll. Hello. Where have you been all my life?

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Duck Bao – twice cooked duck, vinegar and plum sauce.  Bit of DIY going on.  Lovely steamed buns, flavoursome duck, a little more cucumber would have been good.

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Cold Rolled Pork belly, white kimchi, yuxiang sauce. I should have asked more about this, it wasn’t quite what I had in my head with the thin slices of pork belly.  That sauce makes an appearance again and again I wish there was more of it.

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So overall, pretty good, not mindblowing, but they have only been open 5 weeks, and the menu is certainly interesting enough to give one more go. But be prepared that it is not overly cheap for Asian food – the dishes above came to $90, with the duck being a fair whack of that ($26)

Supernormal, 180 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
http://www.supernormal.net.au

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Today’s cake – pear and ginger brown butter tarts

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When you read pastry recipes, there is a lot of ‘relaxing’ going on. Which is quite ironic really, because I don’t find myself relaxing – I’m usually huffing and puffing and thinking “this bloody pastry better work out”. So maybe I should take the cue from the recipe and chill a little. I read recently that Gwyneth Paltrow said we shouldn’t yell at water because we “might hurt its feelings” (really, Gwyneth?), so perhaps the pastry can sense my anxiety?

Following the pastry class I went to with Lorraine Godsmark, I decided I would try to make the pear tart with the sour cream pastry at home – that evening we only made the base pastry and not the fillings or toppings, so time to try it myself without The Master’s watchful eye.  In the class she described this pastry as “very forgiving” – and it is too – so it’s a really good one to tackle first up. It comes together nicely, doesn’t stick to the bench, lifts easily into the tin and you can bash it about a bit. Ta da!  And as Lorraine suggested, I filled my tin to the very brim.

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In terms of the pear filling – the method she gives isn’t very descriptive (no chef is ever going to give away all their secrets, are they?). For instance, the Buderim ginger comes in chunks, is it meant to be cooked with the pears then removed from the mixture (as it wouldn’t be great to bite into a whole piece), or chopped finely and left? I opted to remove the pieces after cooking. I also found that there was quite a lot of liquid after cooking so I strained the pears.  And the brown butter topping – which is so so delicious – I discovered runs as soon as it starts cooking.  I had heaped my pears into a little mound, which turned out to be not a good idea.  Make sure they are in a very flat layer, and perhaps a couple of millimetres below the top of the pastry case, so that when you pipe on the brown butter topping it can’t really go anywhere. Because it ran, my pears are sticking out a little at the top, whereas they should be completely covered.

Make the pastry and the brown butter topping the day before and the pears the day of cooking. The pastry was enough to make 1 large tart and 4 x 12cm tarts, but the pear compote quantity was just enough for 1 large tart, you’d probably need to double it to have enough for all the pastry.  This was seriously some of the best pastry I have ever had, and the brown butter topping is to die for.  Definitely worth perfecting, and will also try it with apple.

Cream Cheese Pastry (make the day before)
300g plain flour
Pinch of salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
170g unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
130g cream cheese, cut into cubes about twice the size of the butter
30g ice water
30g apple cider vinegar

1. Place flour, salt and baking powder in a food processor, pulse for a couple of seconds to sift.
2. Add the cream cheese and pulse for 2-3 seconds
3. Add butter and pulse for further 2-3 seconds
4. Combine water and vinegar and add to mixture and pulse for a final couple of seconds.
5. Turn mixture out onto bench, and using the heel of your hand smear the dough (fresage) across the bench forming streaks of butter and cream cheese through the dough. Use a pastry cutter to bring the mixture back to you and smear another two times. It will be slightly marbled which is fine. (You can find some examples of how to fresage on youtube).
6. Press into a flat disc and allow the pastry to relax in the fridge overnight
7. Remove from fridge and roll out onto a surface 5mm thick. Fit into a flan tin and allow it to relax in the fridge for a further 2 hours

Brown butter topping (make the day before)
3 eggs
200g caster sugar
80g plain flour
185g unsalted butter
1 vanilla bean, split down the middle with a knife

1. Using an electric mixer, whisk eggs and sugar until thick and pale. Lower speed and mix in flour.
2. Meanwhile place butter in a small pot, add vanilla bean and heat over a medium-high heat until butter is brown and foamy. Continue until bubbles subside and colour turns dark golden and has a nutty aroma. Strain the butter through a sieve onto the egg mix whisking continuously until well combined. Refrigerate overnight

Pear and Ginger Compote (make the day of baking)
1kg pears
80g unsalted butter
40g sugar
100ml lemon juice
80g ginger in syrup
80g candied orange or marmalade

Peel, core and cut pears into 2cm cubes. Melt butter in a wide saute pan, add pears and cook over high heat for 5 minutes. Add sugar and cook until pears are soft. Deglaze pan with lemon juice, add ginger and marmalade and allow to reduce for 5 minutes. Allow to cool and refrigerate until required.

Blind baking and assembly
1. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C.
2. Remove your prepared tart tin from the fridge and prick the pastry lightly with a fork
3. Spray a sheet of foil with canola oil spray and place it in the tin. Fill to the brim with baking beans or rice and bake for 20 minutes
4. Remove from oven and remove beans and foil. Lightly beat an egg and using a pastry brush lightly brush the pastry with the egg. Put back in the oven for a further 15-20 minutes until golden
5. Remove from oven, fill with pear, then pipe a thin layer of the burnt butter topping to cover the pear, and return to the oven for 45 minutes then lower the oven the 160 degrees for 15 minutes

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