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FLORENCE     Florence –  the capital of the Tuscany region and the cradle of Renaissance   We opted for Flix Bus while traveling from Venice to Florence. The road journey takes about three and a half-hour. In Florence, it terminates at the rear end of Santa Maria Novella (SMN) train station. One of Italy’s busiest stations, it got its name from Santa Maria Novella Church just across the plaza from the main entrance. We debarked at the station and refreshed ourselves at McDonald's before hiring a cab for our hotel. Florence, popularly known as ‘Firenze’ by the Italians, is located in central Italy. This dreamy city with a romantic name is the regional capital of the lovely Tuscany region.   Columbus Hotel, where we stayed, is located in Lugarno District. We always prefer to book our hotels through Booking.com as we always land up getting good hotels at good locations. Despite being a little away from the heart of the city and Santa Maria Novella station


Risotto with Nettles
by Anna Del Conte
(Published by VINTAGE BOOKS , London)


Born in Milan in 1925, the author grew up in Italy. When world war II came to Italy her family had to abandon  their  spacious house in Milan and move to the countryside to avoid the ravages of war.
Though this book, as the title suggests, is about Italian food, Anna takes the reader on a narrative that begins from her early childhood and schooling in fascist Italy under Mussolini's reign all the way till her family settles in in England at the end of the war. Along the way, there are breathtaking stories of near-death experiences during the war, vivid descriptions of war-ravaged towns and cities, and bombing raids. Through it all, she still manages to pull your focus towards the food - from her childhood memories of delicious home-cooked meals, to her own coming-of-age as a culinary expert. The end of each chapter features a recipe that comes out of the story preceding it. Anyone who reads the book will admit that Anna is not only a great cook but she is a powerful writer as well. She writes at one place '...as soon as I heard the noise of the planes diving, I immediately threw myself to the ground, which was covered with nettles - old nettles which have a powerful sting.'

The stinging nettle grows abundantly in the European countryside. It has hairy stings all over.
Stinging nettle tastes  similar to spinach when cooked and is rich in vitamins A, C, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium. In India stinging nettle it is found in the Kumaon region and is known as 'shishnu'..


Risotto with tomato and cheese

Anna says that she belonged to a generation that was taught to be self-effacing. In spite of that she has written books on cookery which inspired a new generation of cooks. For all culinary enthusiasts, here are recipes of two of Anna's most popular dishes.


Risotto alle Ortiche
Risotto with Nettles


300g nettle shoots, or baby spinach
Sea salt
2 shallots or 1 small onion, very finely chopped
60g unsalted butter
1 litre vegetable stock
300g Arborio rice
4 tbsp double cream
60g freshly grated Parmesan

The sweet delicate taste of nettles is just discernible in these moist creamy risotto Wearing gloves, pick a large bag of tender nettle shoots. It will boil down as much as spinach does. Cooking removes their sting. The same recipe can be made with very young spinach or Italian spinach, but don't use the larger and older spinach as its taste is too coarse. Pick the leaves and shoots of the nettles and discard the stalks. Wash in two or three changes of water. Put the nettles in a saucepan with 1 teaspoon of salt and boil over a high heat, until cooked. You don't need to add water; as with spinach, the water that comes out from the leaves is enough. When cooked, drain, keeping the liquid. Set aside, keeping the nettles in a sieve placed over the bowl containing the nettle water. The shallots or onion in half the butter are sauté, very gently, until soft. Heat the stock and keep it at simmering point. Squeeze all the liquid out of the nettle into the bowl. Chop the nettles coarsely and add to the shallots or onion. Sauté for a minute, stirring constantly, then add the rice and fry it until the outside of the grains becomes translucent. Pour the nettle liquid into the simmering stock and then add about 150ml of the stock to the rice. Mix well. The rice will soon absorb the stock. Then add another ladleful of hot stock and continue cooking and adding more hot stock until the rice is done. Stir frequently, but not all the time. The better the rice, the longer it takes to cook Draw the pan off the heat, add the cream, the rest of the butter and half the cheese. Leave it to rest for a couple minutes and then stir vigorously to incorporate these final condiments; this makes the risotto mantecato - creamy - as any risotto should be,  Transfer to a heated dish and serve at once, handing the remaining cheese round separately

Risotto al Limone
Risotto with Lemon

SERVES 3 - 4

60g unsalted butter
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 shallots, very finely chopped
1 celery stick, very finely chopped
300g Italian rice, such as Carnaroli

1 litre light meat stock or vegetable stock
1 organic lemon
5 or 6 fresh sage leaves
A small sprig of rosemary
1 free-range egg yolk
4 freshly grated Parmesan
4 tbsp double cream
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat half the butter, the oil, the shallots and the celery in a heavy saucepan and cook until the soffritto of shallot celery is done (about 7 minutes). Mix in the rice and continue cooking and stirring until the rice is well coated in the fats and partly translucent. Meanwhile heat the stock and keep it simmering all through the preparation of the dish. Pour in about 150ml of the stock when the rice becomes shiny and partly translucent. Stir very thoroughly and cook until the rice has absorbed most of the stock. Add another ladleful of simmering stock, and continue in this manner until the rice is ready. You may not need all the stock. Good quality Italian rice for risotto takes about 20 minutes to cook. While the rice is cooking chop up together the rind of the lemon and the herbs, and mix them into the rice halfway through the cooking. In a small bowl, combine the egg yolk, the juice of half the lemon, the parmesan, the cream and a very generous grinding of black pepper. Mix well with a fork. Draw the pan off the heat and stir in the egg and cream mixture and the remaining butter once the risotto is al dante. Cover the pan and leave to rest for 2 minutes or so. Then give the risotto an energetic stir, transfer to a heated dish or bowl and serve at once, with more grated parmesan in a little bowl if you wish.    


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