Two years ago, Sam and I visited Siena on holiday. And since then, Siena has been my favourite place in the world.
It’s quieter than Tuscany’s biggest city, Florence. It has a breathtaking palazzo, an incredible Gothic cathedral, sleepy streets lined with even sleepier wine bars. I thought it was unbelievably romantic the moment I saw it. And I discovered, soon after arriving, that it’s home to some of Italy’s best food. So when we found out we would be returning to Florence for a wedding this September, it needed no discussion: we were going back to Siena.
Leading off from the central square are a handful of narrow cobbled streets, unfeasibly steep, with tables perched outside restaurants at 45° angles. Down one of these streets is the market place, home to a clutch of restaurants and, for my money, the best deli-cum-sandwich shop in Siena. When we first visited, we went for dinner in a little trattoria there with little thought or planning. And I had the nicest plate of pasta I’ve ever had.
Siena was different the second time we visited. Still beautiful, still romantic. But we were coming back; there was not of the frenetic breathlessness you feel the first time you go somewhere.
On my birthday, we sat in the square drinking americanos until the sun set, and then made our way to that trattoria. We took a different way to the restaurant that night, a quieter way. And at the top of the road Sam paused and removed a sheaf of papers from his bag. Written on those papers were the lyrics to ‘You’re the Top’ by Cole Porter, a silly song that we sing at home, dancing round the kitchen. We have our own parts in that song, taking the lines in turn, and as Sam walked me down the street, reciting his part, the flashcards held my lines. And at the bottom of the road he proposed. And I said yes.
Almost four years ago I went on a date with a man I knew from Twitter, a man who’d made me laugh and occasionally cringe. Since then, in person, he’s made me laugh more times than I could ever possibly count, and he continues to make me cringe. He’s made me impossibly happy and, occasionally, impossibly frustrated. He’s made me shout and shriek. He’s made me brave, and he’s made me kind. He’s made me care about things – people, politics, crochet – in ways I could never previously have imagined. He’s made me write, and edited just about every damn word I’ve ever written. We’ve endured deaths and celebrated births together. We’ve started jobs and walked away from careers together. We’ve bought a house together. And now, I suppose, we’re going to get married.
That night we ate wild boar ragu (him) and pici with huge hunks of smoked bacon (me). And exhausted by prosecco and emotion, for pudding we ordered cantuccini and Vin Santo. Cantuccini are Tuscan biscotti: packed full of whole, unpeeled almonds, and baked twice so that they are crunchy and dry. You dip them into Vin Santo, sweet Tuscan wine, to soften them. That night, we worked our way through a huge pile, along with what must have been close to a whole bottle of Vin Santo, and it was the perfect celebration.
So when we got home, unwilling to give up on the magic of our holiday, I made cantuccini.
It goes like this:
Makes: About 30 small biscuits
Takes: 5 minutes
Bakes: 45 minutes
Zest of a small orange
Zest of a small lemon
400g plain flour
1.5 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
150g whole almonds, skin on
2 tablespoons amaretto
1. Preheat the oven to 160°C. Place the sugar and butter into a bowl and add the citrus zest. Cream the mixture together until pale and fluffy.
2. Add the eggs one by one, and mix thoroughly. Stir through the amaretto and salt and mix in the flour and baking powder and then the almonds. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead very briefly to bring the dough together and distribute the almonds evenly.
3. Line a baking sheet with paper and divide the dough into three oven portions. Roll these each out into sausages about 2” wide and 1.5” high and place on the baking tray, leaving space for them to spread.
4. Bake for 20 minutes. The sausages will have spread sightly and should be firm but not hard. As soon as they’re cool enough to handle, and using a bread knife, cut slices on the diagonal about an inch wide.
5. Set these slices out on a baking tray (you will likely need a second tray here) cut side up. Return to the oven for 10 minutes. Turn each of the slices over and place back in the oven for a further 5-10 minutes. The biscuits should be golden but not brown, and feel hard but not brittle; they will harden as they cool. Allow to cool completely. As soon as they are cool, place in an air tight container, where they will sit happily for a week.
6. Ta Dah!
Icing on the Cake
We ate these dipped in Vin Santo, like the Italians do, and dipped in coffee, like the Italians don’t. And both were bloody great.