Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Refreshing tired sourdough

If you have ever had a go at sourdough, you will have encountered tired sourdough syndrome. The baker gets tired of sourdough, with all its foibles and unpredictability. And the sourdough gets tired of being left in the back of the fridge, unloved and unfed. I imagine the sourdough starter thinking to itself, like the hero of Beckett's The Unnamable -

I have dwindled, I dwindle. Not so long ago (with a kind of shrink of my head and shoulders, as when one is scolded) I could disappear. Soon, at my present rate of decrease, I may spare myself this effort.

But there is almost always life in the old dog yet, and successful sourdough (which I manage to achieve in fits and starts) involves coming to an understanding with your starter. It is actually a remarkably flexible part of a baker's armoury, and will meet you half way. Well nearly half way. Usually. With a bit of luck. To be honest, it is usually the baker's fault if the starter goes west.

How do you decide if your starter has died? It almost certainly hasn't, but it's up to you to manage resuscitating the old thing. You know you want to! This was where my neglected starter had got to in the back of the fridge recently -

You know how it is. You are intending to feed it before you go to bed. Then you think you'll do it after breakfast. Then you put it off till the weekend. Then there's no flour left. And so it goes on and on, week after week. Then eventually you decide it must be dead and throw it out.

Here's what you should actually do. Fear not. Although it's true that there are endless, numberless ways that sourdough can go wrong, if you really want to do it, you will succeed, once you get to that understanding of what you absolutely must do, and what you can simply let the sourdough show you you need to do. Give it a fair start, and then watch and respond.

So, given the grey, nasty looking mess in the picture above, what do you absolutely need to do? You could start again, but that would just be swapping the devil you know for the devil you don't. Every sourdough situation has problems waiting to catch you out. If you can deal with what you have got, you know where you are, roughly. In my case I know this is a very stable strain of sourdough, and it has been very well behaved. Above all I like the flavour it delivers, and the level of sourness is low enough for my taste. So I am definitely not throwing it out.

The first thing to deal with is that nasty grey water on the top. There are two schools of thought on this - either stir it back in or replace it. When pushed, Simon from Staff of Life came down on the side of replacing it, so that is what I have always done. But Simon definitely had to think about it, so feel free to stir it back in if you like.

I start by putting the pot on the scales, noting the weight, and then draining off the excess water. Then I put the pot back on the scales and add fresh water to bring the weight back to where I started.

If I were that sourdough starter, I'd feel like I had just had a good shower. It can't do any harm to introduce a bit of fresh water, and whatever was just thrown down the drain, I doubt if it is the essence of sourdough! A quick stir, and the old thing starts to look like a culture again. Just a few bubbles, which presumably were trapped in the floury part of the starter.

After a good shower, nothing beats a fresh set of clothes, or in sourdough terms, a new pot. This is the chance to cut back the starter so that there is a very small bit left, which means that the feed it is about to get will seem like a complete blow out, and it will get busy eating "for England, home and beauty".

Ah, bliss, thinks the sourdough - fresh water, a clean pot. I am suddenly fitter and leaner. Well, leaner, but still hungry. And then the cavalry arrives, with ample supplies of flour.

As always, when feeding sourdough, it is important to keep the ratio of flour to water the same. That way you always know how must flour and how much water is going into your dough when you add any given amount of starter to your sponge, or to your dough if (bad choice) you are not using a sponge.

Many people feed equal quantities of flour and water, so their starter is always at 100% hydration. I prefer to keep mine wetter - 140% hydration. This makes the maths easier when you bake using a sponge. 300 g of sponge contains 125 g of flour and 175 g of water, so you make a loaf's worth of dough with 300 g of sponge, 375 g of flour and 175 g of water.

All that is left then is a good stir, and back into the fridge. The small amount of old starter can now settle down to a huge meal of fresh flour and water, and start making bubbles. It's what it does.

This starter has a fair way to go before it's ready for baking, but it has shown quite clearly that it is up and running, bubbling, and ready for a good bout of eating over the next few days, then it's bread time. My job now is just to keep an eye on the starter, and respond to what I see. As I know I am going to be baking, I will be cutting right back and giving big feeds through the week, so that my little friend is ready for baking action at the weekend.


After a week's tender loving care, and a sequence of progressively larger feeds the day before baking, this once neglected starter produced a pretty creditable sponge, and 6 small and 4 large sourdough loaves as part of Heron Corn Mill's Locale festival of local food and producers this weekend.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Woodbridge Tide Mill

Woodbridge is a lovely seaside place. It's worth a visit at any time, but the best time to hit it is when the tide is on the way out. 

The main attraction at Woodbridge, for bread-heads at least, is the Tide Mill. And when the tide goes out, something magic can begin. That's because on the landward side of the mill buildings there is a pond which floods at high tide. The sea water goes straight through the mill, under the water wheel and into the pond.

At high tide the miller craftily closed the gate at the seaward side of the pond, trapping the water inside. Once the tide goes back out to sea, the miller can open the gate and allow the pond water to follow it, at a steady pace, driving the water wheel as it goes.

Et voila - the mill starts to turn. Here you can see that the tide is well out, but the wheel is turning
clockwise as the water from the pond flows under the wheel, from right to left in the picture, following the tide out to sea.

This is the pond water that has just flowed through the water wheel and is now on its way back out to sea.

Unlike the Heron Corn Mill, where the water hits the wheel at the side, high up (a high breast shot wheel) the water at Woodbridge hits the wheel at the bottom (an undershot wheel).

Undershot wheels use a flat water source like a stream and are simply pushed along by the flow of water. As you can see in the picture below, the Tide Mill just has boards on the edge, which the flow of water pushes against. This is a very old and simple design, but it is not very efficient.

Breast shot wheels exploit a drop in the water level such as a waterfall or weir. As you can see in the picture below, the Heron Corn Mill wheel has buckets on the edge, to hold onto the falling water and make use of the potential energy it contains.

To digress slightly into philosophy, in chapter 2 of Ulysses, Stephen is thinking about the nature of events, and this idea from Aristotle comes to mind, as he ponders why one thing happens and not another -

It must be a movement then, an actuality of the possible as possible.

When something happens, there is a position before and a position after. The event is the movement from one position to the other. Water coming down a waterfall where there is no water wheel (one possibility) releases its potential energy by landing with a great slap on the lower level. Water coming down a waterfall where there is a water wheel (another possibility) expends its potential energy by turning the wheel and landing gently on the lower level. Which possibility becomes actual depends on whether there is a water wheel there or not. But the amount of energy expended is the same in either case.

End of digression.

Once the water wheel starts turning on the outside of the Tide Mill, so does everything on the inside. Woodbridge has a fine set of largely wooden machinery, and lots of wooden teeth - not cheap to replace when they get broken. Much like my own teeth, come to think of it.

As in all mills, there are plenty of belts passing power on from one wheel to the next, applying the power from the water wheel wherever it can be made use of.

This set of steps didn't have much head room to spare so the Tide Mill have made appropriate use of modern technology and installed a sensor on the steps which activates a loudspeaker when you walk past. A little voice from behind you helpfully warns "Mind yer 'ead, mate!"

And when you turn round to thank whoever tipped you off, you find it was Cardy McCardboard Face all along.

Here you can see the feed from the top floor, where the bulk grain is stored, into the hoppers over each set of stones, from there into the shoe, and finally a sprinkle at a time into the eye of the runner stone. You could think of this as a microcosm of the whole supply chain for food. The top floor is the supermarket's distribution depot, the hopper is the supermarket, the shoe is the kitchen cupboard and the damsel is the cook weighing out a cup full of flour at a time to cook with.

These beam scales are like a set at Eskdale Mill in Boot. The Heron Corn Mill does not have such a heavy duty scale as this one.

These are the scales at the Eskdale Mill.

The Tide Mill's grain hoist is also heavy duty, with a chain instead of a rope, and going right to the top of the building. 

As the notice board explains, this is powered from the crown wheel at the top, along with other labour saving devices.

Te handle in the picture below is the fine tuning device which raises or lowers the runner stone to alter the coarseness of the flour.

The Heron Corn Mill uses a massive spanner to do this job, but the principle is the same - tighten the nut, and the vertical bar is moved up slightly, raising the lever at the bottom, which is connected directly to the runner stone: raise the lever, raise the stone - raise the stone, don't grind the grain so hard.

And when you want to turn the Tide Mill off, you just close the pond gate and stop the flow.

The old bushel and half-bushel measures below date back to 1824.

The notice helpfully explains that a bushel is a measure of grain by volume. The bushel shown here was probably a Winchester bushel, which measured 18.5 inches across and 8 inches deep. My schoolboy maths suggest that means that a bushel is roughly 2150 cubic inches.

Schoolboy workings:

The area of a circle is Pi * (the radius squared), and the area times the depth gives the volume, so Pi * 9.25 * 9.25 * 8 = 2150.

2150 cubic inches is roughly one and a quarter cubic feet. If you are too young to understand a word of that, you could fit about 28 bushel in a cubic metre.

The notice also suggests the weight of a bushel of grain might be 56 lbs or 80 lbs, which is a sack or a sack and a half of potatoes. I doubt very much that you would fit 28 sacks of potatoes in a cubic metre, which suggests that a bushel of grain is considerably heavier than a bushel of potatoes. Not something you would want to pick up on your own, anyway!

The second notice moves from lbs to kgs, but the message is similar. Eight bushels makes a quarter which is about 230 kg or 506 lbs. So a bushel by this calculation is about 63 lbs, or a little over a sack of potatoes.

The notices generally are full of good clear information. The Tide Mill uses traditional French burr stones with a familiar pattern of furrows.

 I didn't realise this about balancing the runner stone.

And I didn't know this about angle grinders!

The Tide Mill can trace its ownership back to 1170, right through to auctions in 1811 and 1968 and the setting up of the trust in 1977. So the start of the modern phase of the Tide Mill's history starts about the same time as the first phase of restoration work at the Heron Corn Mill.

The damsel is one invention that every mill uses. Whoever dreamed it up really earned his bonus that year, but I often wonder how many millers over the years have been driven up the wall by the regular tap, tap, tap of the damsel against the end of the shoe, as it encourages a few grains at a time to drop into the eye of the runner stone.

Millers love gadgets, especially if they can reduce the stress level of the job. There's nothing worse than constantly having to keep an eye on something. The bell does that job with the level of the grain in the hopper. When most of the grain has been fed into the stones, the bell rings and gives the miller a five minute warning to throw in another sack of grain. At the Heron Corn Mill, you can hear when the grain is getting low, because the mill speeds up. When the next bag of grain goes in, everything slows down again. But a bell would be nice.

Again the miller would always be looking to automate heavy jobs. If the water wheel can hoist a sack of grain up to the top of the mill, the miller certainly won't be carrying it up on his back! And what better than gravity to bring the finished product down again? At the Tide Mill, the stones are at floor level, and the flour ends up being collected in sacks on the floor below. This is the more usual arrangement, but it doesn't work like that at the Heron Corn Mill. Our stones are raised up on the lauder frame, and the flour comes out into sacks on the same floor as the stones. This design is quite local to our area, and makes our mill quite unusual.

I wonder what happened to this arrangement at the Tide Mill? It looks like a 1950s attempt at bringing the old place up to date, but why did they want to do that? It's the very fact that things have moved on which makes the old place worth preserving as an example of how things used to be.

Another gadget that every mill uses is some sort of temporary blocker in the flour chute. At the Heron Corn Mill we slide a piece of wood across the chute so that flour builds up behind the piece of wood. That allows the Miller time to change to a new sack when the last one is full. It looks like the Tide Mill has a hinged flap in the chute, with a string attached. Drawing up the string raises the flap and blocks the chute, stopping the flour from coming out while the miller changes the sack. I'm not absolutely sure how this works!

The Heron Corn Mill has a bin metal lined box for storing grain. The Tide Mill seems to be able to work with larger quantities, judging by the bulk storage bin on the top floor.

The fact that all the Tide Mill stones are made with French burr suggests they have always milled wheat rather than oats. The Heron Corn Mill has a light pair of stones, specifically for cracking the hard outer casing on oats without actually grinding the grain.

I had a great time when I visited the Woodbridge Tide Mill, and I can thoroughly recommend a visit if you are ever in the area. Check the web site for times when the mill will be working. This is simply dictated by when the tide is in and when it is out. You can buy their excellent very strong wholemeal wheat flour in coarse or fine form, and it makes very good bread.

Here are some short videos of the machinery turning, which I took on my visit on Sunday June 17 2018.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Keep an eye on the weather when baking

This weekend at Heron Corn Mill we had another boon day, when volunteers of all ages come and do a bit of general tidying up around the mill. In return they get a fun day in the sun in each other's good company, and the mill provides a lunch to say "thank you for your hard work". This time it was me doing the lunch.

As part of the meal, I thought I'd offer a choice of breads - some using the excellent Heron Corn Mill flour and commercial yeast, and some white sourdough.

Crank up the starter...

Making sourdough needs some preparation a couple of days in advance. You make a "quarter sponge" by gradually bulking up your starter until you have fed it a quarter of your bread flour. Then you leave it overnight. The wild yeast in the sponge breaks down the starch in the flour into sugars and various good acids. Getting the sourness right is a matter of timing and managing the yeast. It's like a fitness regime, aiming for peak condition at race time, only in this case it's aiming for peak condition at baking time.

Somewhere along the line I lost the plot and before I knew it I had enough starter to feed the five thousand. What to do?

Loafing around

I've been doing some experiments recently with "pain de campagne" - country bread that starts off with a sponge and then has commercial yeast added to the dough on baking day. So I thought I might as well use up my spare starter in some country bread. What could possibly go wrong?

Bread is reasonably predictable. If you use the same amount of yeast and let the dough rise for the same amount of time, you will get similar bread at the end. But if you start to vary the yeast or the timing, your bread will be different.

And another thing...

There is one more thing that affects your bread - the weather. The week before the boon day was just one warm day after another. As one baker from Bread of Heron, the Heron Corn Mill's bread group, said -
For once the instructions ‘leave for an hour to double in size’ is correct.

When you make sourdough it's vital that you observe what is happening and react accordingly. You have to fit everything else in around your sourdough. But what did I do?

Winging it...

I was at the mill the afternoon before baking day, preparing the boon day lunch. So I made up the dough alongside everything else and left it to rise in the bowl overnight. I never even thought about the warm weather. Normally the yeast feeds on a quarter of the bread flour for about 8 to 10 hours in a cool room. This time it fed on all the flour for about 16 hours in a warm room. What was I thinking of? Of course the bread was sourer than usual! 

The debrief...

I'd broken my own golden rule. Instead of noticing the warm weather and managing the wild yeast accordingly, I let it loose with more food, more time, more warmth.

Bread is very much a matter of taste, and my boon day bread may have been just right for some people. But I like my sourdough milder. Still, it wasn't the end of the world.

There's always next time...

A real baker would just have made the quarter sponge as usual and got up really early on baking day to make the dough. But that requires a whole extra level of commitment. You have to suffer for your art.

For a home baker like me, it's just one more lesson to learn: observe the weather conditions and react accordingly.

Friday, 25 May 2018

How to start a water mill

There is no start button at a water mill. The wheel turns when water flows onto it, and when the water stops flowing, the wheel stops turning. So how do you control the flow of water?

In chapter 17 of Ulysses, Bloom's approach was -

to tap the current by turning the faucet to let it flow

In other words, he turned the tap on. The principle is the same at the mill, but it's a bit more complicated than that.

Although the mill sits next to the river, it's not driven directly by the river. The amount of water coming down the river varies enormously, from a gentle trickle in dry weather to a raging torrent at times of flood. Imagine the damage that could be caused to the mill if the river flowed straight through it.

Tap the current

Instead, water from the top of the river is diverted towards the mill through a kind of wooden aqueduct called a launder. This allows the miller to take a reasonably constant amount of water from the river, whether it is flowing gently or violently.

There is a gate at the top of the launder, to control water flowing in towards the mill. And there is a gate at the bottom to control water flowing out of the launder onto the water wheel. There is also a gate at the side of the launder to allow water that has flowed into the launder to escape again before it reaches the water wheel. This is the miller's safety valve.

Here is a breastshot mill (like the Heron Corn Mill) with the side gate of the launder open. The water is escaping through the side gate before it gets as far as the wheel. The wheel is designed to turn clockwise as you look at it.

At the Heron Corn Mill, the gate at the top of the launder is shut overnight so that no water goes anywhere near the water wheel when there's nobody around. At the start of the working day, Stuart the miller has to do a few things before he's ready to let the water onto the water wheel.

First of all, for safety's sake, he opens the side gate of the launder so that any water flowing along the launder will escape at the side before it reaches the wheel. Then as a belt and braces, he closes the gate at the bottom of the launder, next to the water wheel. Now he is sure nothing can actually start the machinery turning until he's ready.

At this point it's safe to take a leisurely walk up to the top of the launder and open the gate there to let the river water in. This is the first opportunity to tune the flow of water to the water wheel. If the river is running slowly, Stuart can open the gate wide; if the river is running fast, he can just open the gate part way. He can adjust the amount of water going into the launder, without anything turning the water wheel, until the flow looks about right.

I can imagine millers of old taking five minutes at the top of the launder to enjoy their last bit of peace and quiet before the long, hard, noisy day's work began.

Turn the faucet

Once he has set the water running into the launder, Stuart makes his way back down to the mill where there is a strategically placed window looking upstream along the launder. There he can see how much water is being taken from the river, and he can also see it escaping again through the side gate of the launder. Right by the window is a wheel with a handle attached which opens or closes the side gate of the launder. It works on the same principle as this worm drive - you have to turn the handle many times to turn the wheel once.

The point is that however much water is flowing along the launder, opening or closing the side gate in an emergency is never hard to do.

The side gate is the second opportunity to tune the flow of water to the water wheel. If the flow of water from the river unexpectedly picks up, which can happen if it has been raining out in the hills, opening the side gate a little will quickly calm the flow of water onto the wheel. But generally, the side gate is closed when the mill is running.

Let it flow

With the side gate closed, river water reaches the gate at the bottom of the launder. Ratcheting up the bottom gate finally lets the water flow right inside the mill and onto the waterwheel. The water fills the buckets, and the wheel groans into action.

The bottom gate is the third opportunity to tune the flow of water to the water wheel. Stuart usually raises the gate by two notches, and then locks it at the right height. If the mill starts to run too fast, he can let the gate down a notch, and if he wants a bit more speed, he can raise it a notch to let more water in.

This picture shows an overshot wheel, being turned by the weight and flow of the water falling onto it from above. This wheel turns anticlockwise as you look at it. The breastshot wheel at the Heron Corn Mill, where the water hits the wheel part way down the side, turns in the opposite direction .

The Heron Corn Mill's waterwheel has buckets to hold the river water and exploit its weight. Undershot waterwheels have simple paddles instead of buckets. Here it is just the flow of water in the river that drives the wheel, not the weight.

Sometimes, if the wheel just won't start, desperate measures are called for.

Tuning the flow of water onto the waterwheel is only one way the miller can control the milling process. The machinery inside the mill has lots of other features built in, but that's another story.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Florence - art, food and music galore, and no salt in bread

Florence! What a place! No wonder E. M. Forster set his novel A Room with a View here. The views are breathtaking right across the city. There is so much to see and do, and the food is so good, you could easily stay till Christmas.

A week in Florence

We decided to split our week into 3 days set aside for music, 3 days for art, leaving food to fit in around that. The music was easy to arrange, because the Belcea String Quartet were giving 2 different programs in different theatres on our first 2 days, and the pianist Radu Lupu was playing on the third day. The art was also easy, because wherever you turn in Florence, art leaps out at you. This time we concentrated on frescoes.


We got off to a bit of a shaky start by revisiting what used to be a very reliable trattoria - Il Contadino. Unfortunately this has changed hands and was no longer the great place it once was. The glory days are over!


My plan for our first full day was also a bit off-beam. Looking at a few churches was not the cleverest idea, as churches tend to be busy on Sunday mornings. We'd planned to look at Santa Trinita, Santo Spirito and San Felicita. We got to see them all eventually, just not on Sunday morning.

After these minor hiccups, I realised I needed to sup my game a little, and once I'd got my planning head on straight, everything started to go more smoothly!

Santa Trinita

Santo Spirito

This must really be heaven for architecture buffs. Off to the left in this picture is the sacristy, which houses a crucifix presumed to be by the young Michelangelo -

More up my street was the cloister we had to go through to reach the sacristy. Both the cloister and the refectory that opens off it were highly decorated -

Next door to Santo Spirito is the rather wonderful Fondazione Romano. Unfortunately it only opens a couple of times a week and we weren't able to visit. Next time, maybe!

San Felicita

As two of these churches are south of the river, we went for lunch on the south side, at Trattoria Sant' Agostino, which had been recommended by an Italian friend. This was a good tip, and we had a very good lunch, especially the peposo, a rich beef stew with red wine and whole pepper corns. The good quality bread set the style for the week - white, crusty, baked free form, and no salt.

There was a bottle of olive oil on the table. You can get an idea of what kind of place you are eating at from the olive oil policy. If profit margins are tight, there will be no oil on the table, and your food will be brought to the table suitably dressed. If there is a reasonable markup, you will get a reasonable bottle of oil on the table. If there is plenty of markup, no expense will be spared, and you will have a really good bottle of oil on the table.

At Sant' Agostino, there was an excellent bottle of oil on the table. A Chianti Classico in fact. I looked this one up on Google, and it's about 17 euros a bottle. Not my cup of tea, really, because Tuscan oil generally is very peppery. This one made me cough it was so strong. No doubt about the quality though.

Teatro della Pergola

Our concert in the evening was at the charming Teatro della Pergola. On a previous visit, we had a concert in the main hall -

But this time we were in the Saloncino -

This was significant because the shoe-box shape made the hall very resonant indeed. Still, the Belcea String Quartet were excellent, as usual, and we had a great concert. Very unusually, they placed modern pieces between the movements of Beethoven's enormous quartet Op 130. Beethoven became the framework for the modern pieces to sit in, and there were some really interesting contrasts. But the great fugue that ends the Beethoven quartet still crowned the whole concert. How could it not? And this was a really great performance to end a wonderful day.


We stayed south of the river on Monday and visited a couple more places that are free to enter. Most places in Florence do charge, but there are plenty of places where there is no charge, if you do your homework in advance.

Casa Siviero

On the way up to San Miniato, we called in at a curious little place, free to enter, which was the home of Rodolfo Siviero, also known as the James Bond of the art world. He was responsible for recovering a lot of the art stolen by the Germans in WWII. At the same time he amassed a private collection of minor art works, which is now open to the public. This was considerably more interesting than it sounds, and there was a marvellous breadth to the collection, which included some very old things indeed. Nothing was roped off so you could really get up close. A very satisfying visit. This is a self-portrait of the man himself as a bull fighter.

We had been expecting to be in and of Casa Siviero within the hour, but in the event we spent most of the morning there, finally setting off up the hill ito San Miniato n the midday sun. Fortunately there is a set of steps up to the top which is largely shaded. Climbing the steps feels like being on a pilgrimage. There are even stations of the cross on the way up. Angie made a new friend on the way -

San Miniato

I had long wanted to see this church, which has a striking view across the city.

The church itself has an interesting history, including Michelangelo wrapping the tower with mattresses to save it from cannonballs.

The facade looks like a stage set, with its three doors.

Inside, San Miniato is quite breathtaking.

Upstairs and to the right is the sacristy, which is frescoed right round. Not unreasonably they ask for a euro donation to have a good look round here.

Trattoria Sergio Gozzi

After a relatively vigorous morning's walking and sight seeing, we were ready for lunch. We had another hot tip from our Italian friend. He suggested Trattoria Sergio Gozzi was worth a look. This is a lunchtime-only eatery, which appeals to me because it shows they take work-life balance very seriously. I also very much like the fact that you get a daily menu, so you are genuinely getting what the cook wants to cook that day. It is just up the road from the market, so you are guaranteed the freshest and best of everything. Just as it should be! And it is just across the piazza from San Lorenzo, so it's very handy.

The atmosphere is very laid back here, and you just feel at home straight away. I chose home made thick spaghetti in a rich tomato sauce with peperoncini. Good choice. This was the first of many home made pasta dishes during our week in Florence, and it was only when we got home that I realised we had actually had fresh pasta every single time. No fuss, no special prices, just honest to goodness home made pasta all week! That's what I like about Florence - it just quietly delivers on the important things.

My main course was not such a good choice. Boiled beef and ox tongue. I was expecting something along the lines of boiled beef and carrots. And I know tongue as something that is pressed and sliced. This was not like that at all. It was just a couple of slabs of beef floating in its cooking water, and a slab of tongue ditto. Not for me, even with the side dishes of anchovy sauce and glace cherries in a sort of chutney. Definitely one to avoid! Angie did much better with the peposo.

Teatro Niccolini

In the evening we had the Belcea String Quartet again, this time playing in the charming Teatro Niccolini. This is the oldest theatre in Florence, and has been lovingly restored after falling into some disrepair. It had been used as a cinema and various other things, and has been closed for many years. It reopened in 2015.

The big event in the concert was a thrilling performance of Ligeti's first String Quartet. It's a highly dramatic piece, and when played with such attack as by the Belceas, it can really knock you sideways.


After the high drama of Monday's concert, we had a relaxed start and spent the morning just strolling round the streets, taking in whatever presented itself. We drifted across the Ponte Vecchio, holding tight to all valuables, and finally got in for a quick look round San Felicita.

But for lunch we were on a mission - a trip to Trattoria Mario by the market. We went here once last time, and thought it was really good. On that occasion we rolled up at 12:10 and had to join the latecomers' queue. We finally got in about 12:40, when the bar man came out with his list and roared out our name - "TAYLORRRRRR!"

This time we weren't going to risk being late, and joined the queue outside at 11:35. Mercifully, they let us in at 11:40 and we had 20 minutes of happy anticipation of what was to come.

And plenty of time to study the handwritten menu which, like Sergio Gozzi's, changes every day.

Mario's really is a special place. It's been in the family for over 60 years, and if you watch their 60th anniversary video, you will see that they really think of the place as home. Certainly the food is really genuine. And not many places give you proper bread with a cover charge of 50 cents.

The lady who took our order also took half a dozen others at the same time. She didn't write anything down, and got everything right. She's obviously done this before.

I had the ravioli, which was cooked in bulk very quickly, while we were waiting for service to begin, and piled up by the cooker to keep warm. When needed, it was simply covered with hot tomato sauce and straight out into the crowded room.

 Angie had a very hearty pasta e ceci, which interested me intensely, as Rachel Roddy has been talking about it in her Guardian cookery column. It's basically chickpeas soup with pasta and oil, but then the details are up to the individual cook. This one was blitzed, and the pasta added in the middle of the bowl along with a glug of olive oil. I've had a go at home and was very pleased with my version, which had the chickpeas mashed up a little, and the pasta cooked in the soup. I took up Rachel Roddy's suggestions of adding anchovies, tomatoes and potatoes, but everything in moderation of course.

After this, I went for the peposo again, and Angie had a generous fillet of beef, all washed down with beans in oil, potatoes "in umido", which basically means stewed with onion, tomato and lashings of oil. Add on the usual  salad, wine, water and bread and you've got quite a blowout.

In the afternoon we activated our Firenze Cards. This is a card that gets you into everywhere free, and crucially free of queues. It costs 72 euros, and lasts for 72 hours, rather than 3 days, so you can spread it over 4 days if you want. We had no trouble at all getting twice our money's worth from the card, and I would certainly recommend getting one. But you really need to plan your trip very thoroughly to make sure you know where you want to go, and when.

Santa Maria Novella.

This was the first place I wanted to go, without giving it a second thought.

This is just next to the railway station of the same name, and is full of wonderful paintings. There is also a large cloister, surrounded with frescoes, and full of daisies when we were there.

As well as the beautiful facade, similar in style to San Miniato, and the classic black and white marble all round the outside, Santa Maria Novella is absolutely crammed with treasures inside.

The nearby Museo Novecento, the modern art gallery, was generally less inspiring, but we did eventually find a few early paintings by Morandi, which was interesting as the Morandi museum in Bologna was on our radar for the last day of the holiday.

In the evening we had a very disappointing concert by the elderly pianist Radu Lupu. Or at least, we had the first half.


The very pleasant place we were staying at (Albergo Bencidormi) is really well located, a short walk from the railway station in one direction, the market and Trattoria Mario in another, and the San Lorenzo complex and Trattoria Sergio Gozzi in another.

San Lorenzo

The three parts of San Lorenzo are the Medici Chapel, the basilica and the library. The Medici Chapel is fine if you like the trappings of worldly wealth. Not for me! The basilica is a wonderful architectural space, and I love the contrast between the unmade facade and the inside.

But for me the best thing is the library. Designed by Michelangelo, it is a haven of peace. Look at that ceiling, and the mosaic floor.

I love these catalogue lists at the end of each reading area -

Most of the original windows survive -

While we were there, there was a show about women writers. That is, manuscripts of various ages, written by women. And after that we were ready for lunch. Trattoria Sergio Gozzi was just across the road.

Angie chose well with the roast lamb with potatoes. I was wide of the mark again, taking polpette to be meatballs (and Google Translate agrees with me). When they arrived, they were more like potato croquettes with just a suggestion of meat among the potato. Oh well, at least there were beans and spinach to go for as well.

I consoled myself with some cantucci and a glass of vin santo to dunk them in. There is no doubt that this is a great place to eat. This lady's blog from 2008 shows that the food has been good for at least the last 10 years of the trattoria's 100 year history. And at least one of the waiters is still there from 2008.

Looking back on it, this day seems rich beyond the wildest of dreams. In the morning we had all the riches of San Lorenzo. For lunch we had Sergio Gozzi. And then in the afternoon we went back south of the river and packed in enough culture to fill a very full day.

Brancacci Chapel

I managed to miss Santa Maria del Carmine last time we visited Florence, but if I ever come again, I will make sure I visit it again. The church itself was largely destroyed by a fire and rebuilt in th 18th century. Miraculously, the Brancacci chapel was largely undamaged. This is about as good as it gets for frescoes.

At the right hand side of the frescoes above, you can just see somebody sleeping on the job.

This apparently shows St Peter being smuggled out of prison while the jailer sleeps.

The madonna and child in the middle of the chapel is wonderful, and really forms a great focal point.

Next door to the chapel itself is a refectory (I think) with a rather splendid last supper. I only realised late in the day that last suppers are all over the place in Florence, and could be the theme of a holiday in their own right.

I particularly liked this last supper because the food is so interesting. Christ seems to be eating a whole lamb, cooked with its head still on, while the person on his left is on the mussels. There is good bread all round, baked in single portion loaves. There's not much oven leap, so probably low protein grain was used.

Further along the table to the right seems to be where the fruitarians are sitting. And check out the cat under the table.

There's another cat near the other end of the table. 

A closer look up that end of the table shows that fish is on the menu, so that's what the cat's smelling. The bread here appears to have a very open texture, so we are looking at a long rise, and certainly something akin to sourdough.

By a rather delicious coincidence, when we were there, the person who was allegedly guarding the last supper was fast asleep, just like St Peter's jailer.

And another thing

You wouldn't think one day could fit any more art, but we strolled further east along the river and up the hill to the Boboli gardens and the Palazzo Pitti.

Although it's reasonably formal, the main feature of the Boboli gardens is the hillside, and the view over the river and the city. The two ducks in the little pool at Neptune's feet seemed very relaxed about him waving his trident at them. 

Angie was very taken with the cedar walk. This reminded me of Dave Angel, eco warrior.

The Palazzo Pitti is now a rambling collection of rather wonderful galleries. There is enough to see here to fill a whole day. Nice view from one of the guest bedrooms.

My favourite part was several rooms full of trompe l'oiel 3-D chicanery like this -


This was another day so full of art that looking back on it, it's hard to believe how much we managed to fit in. We started off with a couple of hours at the glorious San Marco. I think this is my favourite place in Florence, and there is so much to see that I've written it up in a blog post of its own.

After that sumptuous feast for the eyes, there was only one thing for it - lunch at Mario's.

I had the tortelle di patate e ragu - basically ravioli with potato on the inside and meat sauce on the outside. Angie had ribollita - bread soup with cavalo nero and beans. If you've never had ribollita, you really should try it!

The tortelle are on the left in this picture - briefly cooked, then put on the side ready for dishing up and topping with the ragu on request.

As in Italy generally, a lot of rabbit is eaten in Florence. We've had it several different ways - in spicy tomato sauce, baked with rosemary, or on top of polenta. Mario just roasted it with a good helping of oil.

After lunch we headed off towards Santa Croce. I had done my homework, and marked on the GPS map all the places the Florence Card can get you into, so on the way we made an extra stop.

Casa Buonarroti

This is basically a Michelangelo museum, set up by his descendants. There are a couple of Michelangelo marble reliefs -

And his model for San Lorenzo -

A couple of rooms are completely covered with pictures -

And there is some splendid marquetry that my dad would have enjoyed.

Santa Croce

This is another place I have managed to miss on earlier visits to Florence. Goodness knows how, as the 14th century frescoes alone would be the the jewel in the crown of any city's art collection.

Many of the big names feature at Santa Croce - Donatello, Giotto, Brunelleschi. And Michelangelo and Galileo are buried here. The flood of 1966 caused severe damage here, some of which is still visible, even after decades of restoration work.

After Santa Croce, we still had time to visit one more gallery.


This is probably the most queued-for place in all Florence, and even in March, that is saying something. There were so many people pouring in at 17:00 that even we exalted people with Florence cards had to endure a five minute queue before we could be incorporated into the stream of people passing through the security checks.

You either have to give up a week to the Uffizi, or you have to be brutally selective. Angie wanted to focus on the early stuff, so we had chosen a short list of rooms to visit. It's definitely worth knowing where you are going in here, because it is so huge you could easily get lost and not make the most of your time. And it is definitely worth going very early in the morning or towards the end of the day. Although the place was heaving when we went in at 17:00, by 17:30 it was thinning out, and by 18:00 it was quiet - a rare thing at the Uffizi, I guess!

Another rather amazing Michelangelo -

And how's this for condition? 600 years old and fresh as a daisy.

As the Uffizi is open till 18:50, we had time to take in some of the famous pictures, and no crowds!

Angie couldn't believe her luck getting Venus to herself for five minutes. Our Italian friend was also very surprised by the lack of crowds in this picture.

Even the way out of the Uffizi is worth lingering in. You actually pass through many of the higher-numbered rooms on the way to the door, so it's worth not being in a rush.

And this is a view on the Palazzo Vecchio that you can only see from the Uffizi. The addition of the crane I find very pleasing on the eye, but then I like cranes!

At the very end of the Uffizi is this rather handsome hog, as if to say, you have now officially hogged out at the Uffizi.

But we decided to go the whole hog and have an ice cream. This rather ridiculously cost 12 euros, but it was pretty good, I have to say!

Just to complete a rather fabulous day, Angie had a go on a roundabout.


I had saved a couple of my favourite places for our last full day in Florence. It's well worth realising that some places are only open in the morning. That piece of research saved my bacon this time.


The Bargello, or the Bordello as it is fondly known in our house, used to be the local prison. It is now put to much better use as a gallery specialising in sculptures. There is a small courtyard downstairs, which is very pleasant.

But the main attraction is the large room upstairs which contains the fabulous Donatello David. If Michelangelo's David is the butch David, the Donatello is very much the camp David.

There are quite a lot of Donatellos in the Bargello.

More exquisite marquetry -

This rather fantastic Mary has all her people under her wing -

Angie got very excited when we found a whole room full of Della Robbia and his workshop.

But by now it was fast approaching lunchtime, so we shot round the corner to Sergio Gozzi, where, it being Friday, there was plenty of seafood to choose from. We had the calamari risotto followed by cuttlefish with chard, peas and beans.


After lunch we squeezed the last ounce of value out of our Florence cards, and just got in to the Accademia to see Michelangelo's David before our 72 hours were up. For us it was definitely a great buy - but you do need to do your homework in advance and plan your days carefully.

He really is quite fantastic. And what a nice thing it was to see both the Davids in the same day.

Round the corner from David, there is what amounts to a store cupboard, full of busts in various conditions. Many have the small holes in where the key points are marked out during the copying process. I had no idea how complicated copying was, mainly because I had no notion of making a copy at half size, or twice life size. And I had always lazily assumed a copy was a cast, but that is not always the case at all. 

You could easily spend all day in the Accademia, but we were getting tired, so we just strolled around and looked at anything that took our fancy.

There is certainly plenty of the early stuff here too.

I've got a green jumper that looks a bit like this -

After a bit of a siesta, we got everything packed up ready to travel home the next day.

The market upstairs

For our last evening, we went upstairs at the market, where there is a haven for foodies which stays open till midnight. Here you can get all sorts of fast and not so fast food - pizzas, chicken, seafood, steak, arancini, bread, cheese - but all to a very high standard. And there are lots of bars, all open plan. It's a joy to walk round an watch what is going on. The wood fired pizza stand is particularly mesmerising.

These mugs were on a 3 hour course on hamburger making, or rather hamburger accessory making, for which they had paid 130 euros. All men, note.

Much better value was the bread stall nearby. This place is bursting with credentials - only organic flour, only sourdough. And I was rather thrilled to see that one of my favourite slashing patterns (which I thought I had invented) is in use here. See the round loaf at the bottom right, which has a square slashed round the edge, and a little cross in the middle, pointing to the corners of the square. Classy!

This place sells everything you can imagine, battered and deep fried - chicken, tripe (gulp)...

... artichoke, aubergine, courgette. And potato croquettes or meat balls on skewers.

They aren't shy about prices on the seafood. 68 euros a kilo for the red prawns!

 You can have your black swine, if that's your thing,

And there's always something sweet for afters.

It was coming up to easter, so everywhere was getting into the spirit of the thing, including the place where we were staying.This was on the lift -


All good things come to an end, and on Easter Saturday we had a train to catch to Bologna, and a flight home. This made a change as we arrived via Pisa, both ways being via Manchester.

I'd done a little homework on Bologna, and not only bought our train tickets from Florence and our bus tickets from Bologna to the airport, but also found the Museum of Modern Art, which is a few minutes walk from the station, and has a very good Morandi show as its regular collection. Angie has long been a fan, and to some extent copies his approach by repeatedly drawing the same shapes  over and over. In Morandi's case it was a few (generally wonky) glass jars like this one which is in the Bologna collection -

In Angie's case it is usually a vegetable gourd or this olive oil drizzler -

And finally, after a 90 minute delay on our Ryanair flight, we made it back to the UK, and were home in time for something to eat before bed, at the end of a long day and a really great holiday.

Grazie mille, Firenze!