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Esurientes - The Comfort Zone

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


So, whereas I didn't have the most wonderful time in Florence, I had the opposite experience in Siena. Love it. Interesting, as the day we went was cool, grey and occasionally pouring down with rain. Plus we had to make our own way by the country bus services with drivers who yell at you (I'm Italian, I yell back) and with a lengthy stopover in the highly crapola town of Poggibonsi; a town as alluring as a homeless man's dribbly shirt. Lovely, helpful staff in the tourist office too...ahem! No clothes washing facilities in the town either, though the espresso was good at the bus station cafe!

But, Siena, when we finally got there, was gorgeous. I know it's a bit fashionable these days to rubbish Florence and prefer Siena (especially to people who only visit Florence), but it is the way I feel, and shared by many others in our group. For one thing, there was a total lack of African-immigrant-sidewalk-fake-handbag-sellers, which made it more relaxing straight away. But, also the winding, cobbled medieval streets rising uphill from the huge main square (the Campo, where the horse race is held twice a year) are perfect to wander through, and inevitable get lost in. We spent a bit on phone calls that day trying to locate which alley people had turned down, and eventually decided it was too hard to get everybody together for lunch, so my friend and I finally re-found the place I had had spotted an hour ago, and had been searching for since. All I can tell you is that it was in a small square near the Campo, on the way to the church where St Catherine's shrivelled head and dessicated thumb are preserved! (lovely pre-lunch viewing). And it was called Renzo, and run by quite rude people. We had to fight for a table from the nazi waitress woman who didn't want to serve people, while the locals rolled their eyes and whispered to us that they only come here for the food.

I was really keen to try some local specialities, and had heard about a local soup called 'ribollita' (i.e. reboiled). It's a thick soup full of vegetables, beans and bread. My friend decided to order it, feeling decidedly in need of vegetables, after a few days of cheese & salami feasts. She really enjoyed this hearty soup, but felt it needed to cook a bit longer to get the flavours really happening; it needed salt.

I ordered a wild boar stew, with vegetables and black olives. The olives tasted like not much, sadly. Like the black washers you get on pizzas. The meat was very interesting. I'd not tasted wild boar before, and imagined it would be really strong and gamey. Not at all; I could really taste that it was from the pig family, and it was just a little more strongly flavoured than chunks of pork. I tried wild boar several times afterwards, in Switzerland and the UK and each time the muted flavour was the same. But as stews go, it was really tasty.

I was also feeling the effects of a diet of cheese and bread, so ordered some roast vegetables, which were excellent. Eggplant, zucchini, capsicum, tomato, garlic...Tasted like something I'd cook at home when on a veggie kick, so I was happy.

Panforte and pasta in the Dolce Siena shop
After spending the afternoon being gobsmacked at the amazing Duomo (easily my favourite ever) and the absolutely incredible music manuscript library, with the most colourful painted ceilings I've seen, we wandered the town, watched local artisans making candles and bread, poked around shops and decided it was time for something sweet. At the bottom of the campo is a shop selling artisanal sweets and local produce. If you've been to Siena, you'll know what I mean when I say it's just to the right of the town hall.

Siena is famous for panforte; a sweetmeat made with lots of candied fruit. It's not nougat, but similar. I've had it with coffee before, and not enjoyed it much, but hey, I was in Siena and they were local so I bought one for our middle-of-the-campo-afternoon-tea. Even though it was drizzling and we were under umbrellas we were going to sit in the Campo and eat our sweets, goddammit!!!
This panforte was different. For one, it was chocolate - mmm. Also, it was very fresh. The ones we get in Australia are definitely not fresh; they've gone a bit hard and chewy, but this was soft and the flavours were clean. I loved it. The others were not so keen, so I got to eat most myself...hehehehe.

The others loved this: Siena is also famous for torrone, a soft, sticky nougat, made with egg whites, sugar and honey. This one was studded with huge chunks of chocolate. It was goood. It was also really sweet! I was happy with my panforte. And I was very happy with Siena.
That night we had a picnic in the hotel dining room of the bits and pieces we bought in town; we had everything from white peaches, to mozzarella fillled with fresh cream to local proscuitto to orange amaretti biscuits; a perfect way to end a excellent day.



  • Panforte is dead easy to make, thought I haven't done it for ages, and even easier to eat when you have. I used to have a good recipe from, of all things, a Women's Weekly Italian cook book. And, yes, it had chocolate in it. Yum.

    Trivia of the day: Siena cathedral was the insipiration for the scenery for the first production of "Parsifal" at Bayreuth. -- Frank

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/05/2006 01:20:00 pm  

  • My comment comes a little late, as I've only discovered your blog today. I've made a wonderful recipe for chocolate panforte (at the link below), full of fruit and nuts and complex spices. Since you make it yourself, it's not been imported across the globe (in your case), and won't be dried out. I've found that friends and family who enjoy fruitcake and similar confections love this.

    I make more cakes of this in smaller pans. If you scroll through the user reviews, you'll find the one I submitted after I first made the recipe; it's the one from "A Cook from New York, NY on 03/12/03". There is one typo in the recipe: where it says "unblanched all purpose flour," it should say unbleached.


    P.S. I also really enjoy Alice Medrich's Chocolate and the Art of Low Fat Baking, which I bought when it was new here in the States. My mother regularly takes her fallen chocolate souffle cake to dinner parties, and no one but her is the wiser that it is low fat, even with the enlightened whipped cream; I also particularly like the fudgy brownie recipe and the tangy lemon curd made with no butter(!). I grew up in Berkeley, California, where Medrich opened her shop, Cocolat, and introduced the U.S. to true French chocolate truffles, and I well remember their glorious cakes. Her other (decidedly not low-fat) books are equally finicky but show her expert knowledge and passion for all things chocolate.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/22/2006 09:48:00 am  

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