#AD: A FOODIE FAMILY HOLIDAY GUIDE TO ITALY
From foraging to feeding fussy eaters, food writer Uyen Luu provides recipes + inspiration from her foodie trip to Siena
I am the type of person who loves to travel to a destination specifically for the food it has to offer. I find great tranquility in cooking and I take great enjoyment in food shopping on holiday - whatever the season. For me, pleasure is food shared with others. Now that I have a young family, (my daughter is currently just under 2 years old), cooking is strongly weaved through our daily lives and meal times are milestones of the day, even on holiday.
We recently went to Tuscany with some friends. Sunshine, splish-splashing in the pool and good food was our entire agenda. We stayed in a gorgeous 4-bedroom Airbnb villa with a swimming pool, about 30 mins outside of Siena.
The villa had a swimming pool overlooking the endless groves of olive trees, luscious vineyards and lavender bushes spreading wildly under the golden heat. The major selling factor was also the many great dining spaces the villa boasts. Since having our daughter, we have had less time to spend with friends, and so big communal meals were always going to be a big part of our trip. We could take our pick of where on the property to eat, from the most romantic and breathtaking of places: under the tall, protective pine trees; underneath arches of thorns and roses next to the swimming pool and beside the giant perfumed fig trees. Inside the house, the kitchen was great for breakfasts, and the roofed balcony and various living spaces for snacks and feasts by candlelight and cicada cries. This was a perfect place for our new family to spend precious time with friends, especially with the bottles of wine left for us by the Airbnb host, who also owns a vineyard.
If you love cooking and feeding as I do, ideas for Italian-inspired recipes can be endless and I loved spending time in the cool kitchen, slicing melons and making fresh pasta. The kitchen had the most amazing view and such great contrasting light. I could seriously romanticise and be there all day looking out of the window, writing a novel and cooking meals for the family, if it weren't for all the children running around! It had everything that we needed from big plates and platters for feasts, to pots and pans for cooking it all. The only missing thing was a pasta machine. We even found a second fridge for drinks which was great. If you love cooking on holiday, don't be afraid to ask your host beforehand to detail exactly what equipment there is, just so you can make the right choice for you.
Food-wise, I firmly believe you wouldn’t miss meat if you just decided to cook all sorts of beautiful Italian vegetables and enjoy them with the simple pasta. Making fresh pasta is better but perhaps too time-consuming for all apart from the most dedicated foodies, so having it from the packet is just as good.
There is no time or inclination to ever count calories or drink kale juices, especially not on holiday
For me, there is no time or inclination to ever count calories or drink kale juices, especially not on holiday. Make cake, buy cake, eat cake and do what brings the family utmost pleasure.
Tuscan-inspired holiday recipes
Simple tomato pasta
Get hold of one or a variety of delicious red plum tomatoes. Fry with shallots/onions, garlic, chillies if you like them, and a splash of white wine, then season with salt and pepper. Add a couple of spoonfuls of water from the pasta pan, and reduce with butter or olive oil. When the pasta is cooked, I mix it all together and serve with torn basil and a fresh grating of parmesan. On some nights, we just used the sauce from a jar, just as good.
Roast vegetable trays
Lay your favourite cut vegetables on a baking tray and drizzle olive oil, season with salt and pepper and herbs. Choose vegetables with similar cooking times (which you can guess by the hardness/softness of each item) to roast together. If leaves are put in with butternut squash, for example, then the leaves might burn before the squash cooks.
My favourite pairings are fennel and aubergine; squash, olives and beetroot; courgettes & tender-stem broccoli. Add a whole or half bulb of unpeeled garlic, hardy herbs like mouthwatering rosemary and sage. Or make a fresh basil or parsley olive oil dressing to toss everything together in once it is cooked.
Tray roasts are also a great way of using up vegetables on the last few days when you have to eat all the fridge contents. Be inventive with ingredients and use what’s available. Sometimes the nicest things are the simplest things.
One of my favourite meals of all time is a plate of glorious spaghetti vongole. Sweat out some onion, add garlic, then clams and a generous amount of good quality white wine, chopped parsley, chillies (optional), a couple of ladles of pasta water, and salt and pepper, then leave on the lid for a few minutes until all the shells are open. Mix with grade-5 spaghetti. Done. Heaven!
For carnivores, what better than seeing the smoke rise from a sweltering barbecue with steak sizzling on crackling red coal? Whole fish like bream, lemon sole and huge tiger prawns are also so moorish as they sear and soak in a good squeeze of lemon juice and a generous seasoning of salt and pepper. Use a liberal amount of rosemary to brush on to meat, fish and vegetables with olive oil, butter or dressings. Grill vegetables such as courgettes, spring onions, corn on the cob, aubergine, tomatoes, and enjoy.
What I fed my daughter
My daughter Olive will sometimes eat everything in front of her, especially runner beans, courgettes, asparagus and anything green. I have always heroed the vegetables on her plate. But she can also be extremely picky and won’t like things if they are over seasoned, over sweet, over sticky! She also doesn’t like eating when she’s over-excited. It’s always a balancing act.
But I know what she favours. She loves a piece of fresh baked salmon, pasta with tonnes of chopped vegetables tossed in butter and a bit of cheese; she loves mashed potato or baked potato; she finds sucking spaghetti hilarious and, give her veal escalope Milanese, and she’ll be away with it. She usually eats what we eat but slightly altered with less seasoning.
On holiday we tried to stick to some sort of routine, so that we could have some me-time in the evenings (a big bonus of staying in Airbnb accommodation). So I usually cooked her something earlier which she could enjoy by herself with just her mum or dad instead of being in a big group which can over-excite her (not good for sleep), then we’d have bath-time and bed-time like at home.
Food shopping on holiday
When you do your holiday food shopping, check the rental kitchen first because it usually has things other people have left behind. Our Airbnb kitchen already had stock cupboard essentials such as salt, sugar, spices, olive oil etc so we could concentrate on picking delicious things to eat instead, and it saved us money too.
Also, remember to check the best-before dates on fresh fish and meat as I managed to go home with fish which was two days out-of-date!
Foraging on holiday
Obviously don’t go an pick a local farmer’s cherished produce, but check your immediate surroundings for things such as rosemary, sage, etc and pick only what you need. Sometimes locals set out extra produce they don’t need in crates at the rim of their properties, which you can normally loot for a small price or for free. At our Airbnb villa we had an endless supply of the sweetest aromatic figs, beautifully ripened on the trees, which I served fresh with blackberries and ricotta, and roasted with fennel and aubergine (see above).
How to choose who to go on holiday with
If food is as big a part of a trip to you as it is to me, and especially if it’s a self-catering holiday as ours was, it might be wise (if at all possible) to select friends who have the same mindset about the enjoyment of food. Those who will gladly say yes to an antipasti of melon, prosciutto, salami, pickled artichoke, figs, ciabatta and olives at 11 am even though they’ve just had a hearty breakfast will really please the feeder. Friends who don’t ever muck in with the tidying up will not.
How to deal with fussy eaters on holiday
It might be difficult to juggle cooking for children who are fussy with food when in a new location. Make sure you stock up on some solid backups, such as pesto and pasta, bread, cheese and yoghurts, from a local market or supermarket, so no one goes hungry.
How to do holiday picnics
I find that if you create irresistible antipasti and snacks on boards or platters, everyone dives into them more than if you lay them out still in their packets. If possible, have a cooler to keep drinks, cheeses and things that melt easily cool in the heat (it’s worth asking your Airbnb host if they have one you can use before you bring or buy your own).
Food for holiday car journeys
Holidays often bring an element of discovery which can mean long road trips. Along with favourite songs to play in the car, we discovered great security in carrying around an array of snacks to keep tantrums at bay. Sandwiches made from fresh ciabatta with brie, tomato and basil; prosciutto or grilled vegetables are firm favourites. Or any leftover tart or other sweets are great too. Without fail, I always forget to bring a rubbish bag and plenty of paper towels. They come in very handy if you remember them.
Eating out on holiday
Keeping our eyes peeled for signs helped us find a wonderful osteria by a free-range beef farm, high on the hills overlooking the most spectacular view of grape vines and olive trees. Italy boasts many off-the-beaten-track restaurants in someone’s house or farm. Usually in these places, there isn’t such a thing as a menu but the host just brings out an array of courses based on what they happen to be cooking. This one (Podere Montechiarino di Machetti Mario, near Pianella) was all about the wine from their vineyard and the gorgeous beef from their cows, all for 40 Euros per person.
We ate next to a peach tree accompanied by the farm dog. The beautiful sunset quietly seeped into the luscious land. It was one of the most magnificent and memorable meals of all time: the view, the food, the wine, the company.
We also stopped on the road at little villages and chose to eat in some lovely trattorias and pizzerias along the way. We went out of the way for some recommendations but they were disappointingly closed for private weddings. Thank goodness for the packed lunches!
As Italy functions around children, families and their mealtimes, many places we found had their own playground with swings and see-saws to keep the little ones entertained. Eating with young children isn’t unusual, it’s a given. Going for gelato is a great treat. Holidays are a time to treat yourself to all the things you like eating and cooking.
We loved our time in Italy. As a keen cook, my heart will never leave it. With the views, with its warmth and with its infatuation with its own cuisine, food will always taste better there.