Paul Wedgwood takes a trip to Florence June 2015

Sunday, 21st June

Excited is definitely the word of the day. I am excited to be travelling to a new city. I am excited to be learning new cooking skills and techniques. Immersing myself in the local culture and traditions. I am excited to be given this opportunity to represent my home city of Edinburgh out in Florence to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the twinning of these two magnificent cities, excited about taking up a week long residency at a Florentine restaurant called Finisterrea and I am excited about my first tram ride to the airport!! I decided upon getting a tram as its highland show weekend and I expect the roads will be busy! On boarding the tram I stow my bags and sit by the window so I can watch as we travel through this beautiful city, remembering to look up to take in the majesty of the architecture. A very quick trip to the airport in a clean comfortable carriage follows, and whilst passing Gogarburn I notice the roads are actually very quiet but the tram is packed, I guess everyone had the same idea as me!!

With surprisingly no direct flights between Edinburgh and Florence I board my British Airways flight for the quick hop to London City airport where I will transit and take my short flight to Florence. I use this time to brush up on my little knowledge of Italian using a language CD in my laptop...

As I feel the plane start to descend I look out of the window to take my first view of the Tuscan countryside, its more beautiful than I had imagined, lush green hills covered in vines and trees roll down to reveal  small conurbations  with what look like terracotta roofed domiciles. I feel the first nerves of the adventure as I wonder how I will be welcomed into a new kitchen where I don’t really speak the language, I don’t have any experience in a professional Italian kitchen and a place that I know caters for around 1200 people a day!! The most I do in my kitchen in a day is around 120!!

I am met at the airport by a welcoming party of 3, the son of the owner of Finisterrea - Francesco, a manager- Filippo and an ex-employee- Cesare who speaks perfect English. A 15 minute drive and quick guided tour into the very heart of Florence and we arrive at my home and place of work for the next week- Finisterrea restaurant right in the shadow of the spectacular Santa Croce church. Bellisimo!!!!

I finally get to meet Colin the general manager a Scottish gent who I have been in contact by phone and email for the past month working through menu and ingredient requirements – as I present him with cans of Irn Bru his face lights up! I also unpack the neeps, black pudding, oatmeal and the sheep’s stomachs that Findlays of Portobello supplied me with to make the Florentine Haggis which will take centre stage at the Gala lunch on Tuesday being attended by Edinburgh’s Lord Provost and the Lord Mayor of Florence.

Colin then gives me the guided tour of the restaurant with its many rooms, all of which filled with what looks like very happy diners, when once again I feel the nerves of getting involved in such a busy operation, yet brimming with excitement as I really like what I am seeing and the place just has that buzz that great restaurants have. Going into the kitchen I am immediately surprised to see its size, I was expecting huge areas considering the numbers this place does but what I observe is a clean well organised space where all the brigade are communicating and working in unison within this “well-oiled machine”.  I am introduced to Maria Dimaglie the head chef - we exchange our friendly greetings and I manage a little small talk in Italian before she gets back to the stove to continue the busy service. My first impressions were very positive, she seemed genuinely happy to have me in her domain and this puts me at ease for the week ahead.

I retire to the outside terrace to be treated to an ice cold beer and the best pizza I have ever had in my life. When service begins to quieten down Maria joins me outside to reconfirm the produce I need ordering for delivery the following days, we order local pigeon, rabbit, moscardino ( baby octopus ) amongst other things but most important is the local lambs pluck and more importantly that this comes with the windpipe still attached. Very difficult to explain in my broken Italian but Colin, a 20 year resident in Italy and fluent in the language, steps in to help me out!! PHEW!

With the orders done I retire to bed eagerly anticipating the next few days ahead.

Monday, 22nd June

I am to use the separate pastry kitchen as my work space for the next few days and the pastry chefs have all changed their shift patterns to allow me time and space in the area, they are coming in earlier and working through the night to allow me to do this, surely I will feel some animosity towards myself when I take over the space, but again my fears were miscounted as  I am greeted by a team happy to meet me, showing me round and grabbing all the utensils and equipment I will need for the day and providing me with an espresso whilst we do the handover of the spotlessly clean kitchen. Absolutely everybody here seems happy to have me and they are all going out their way to make me feel welcome and make sure I have everything I need.

This is going to be a great week.

Maria immediately checks in on me to enquire if I have everything I need, so good to know she has my back and will offer guidance and support throughout my time in her kitchen.

My first job is to get the haggis on the go. I approach the fridge with fingers crossed that nothing was lost in translation and all my required ingredients are here and to the right specifications.

To my immense relief, all is delivered and to my exact specification!

As I prepare the haggis the entire brigade of chefs and front of house team parade through the kitchen taking a genuine interest in what I am doing. I begin ezplaining the importance of having the windpipe attached to the as they trail over the side of the pan as the offal boils to release any impurities from the lungs. I am surprised by the fact not one person is put off by this process and are all collectively looking forward to trying the finished product.

I meet the sous chef Ben Broux, Belgian born but fluent in Italian and English and immediately strike up a rapport with him - he can’t do enough to help me even though he is so busy in the main kitchen with the restaurant service. Anything I need or don’t know the Italian word for he is on hand to assist with.

With the haggis preparation ongoing, I return to the fridge to claim the fresh rabbits and find beautiful specimens with all the offal still attached – as requested. It’s a pleasure to break down these animals knowing they are going to taste as good as I could have possibly hoped. The same can be said of the whole pigeons that I prepare next. I immediately notice the meat is not as dark and rich looking as that of their wild Scottish cousins but on tasting I found them to be equally as good, not quite as “gamey” but with its own exquisite rich taste, one which will complement the Haggis, neeps and tatties dish it is accompanying. Again during each stage of preparation the entire team of Finisterrea would circle my kitchen asking what I was doing and why, questioning me about the difference in their local produce to mine in Scotland and I in turn would enquire as to what would be done with these products in the local cuisine.

I am distracted momentarily from my chopping board by Filippo who asks me to write the name of my chef from Wedgwood who is arriving at the airport soon to assist for the next 2 days. Alan Keery is written carefully on the board and Filippo leaves to go and collect him. A few seconds later my mobile phone buzzes with a message from KLM to inform me that Alan’s luggage did not make the connecting flight in Amsterdam! Nightmare- he is bringing more Neeps for the Scotch Broth soup later in the week and also some Scottish raspberries so we can taste the difference between the raspberries in Italy for the Cranachan dessert I have planned. Need to start making a plan B!!!

I finish off the haggis by mincing the cooked offal with my secret spice blend and add some Italian herbs, a little minced lamb, the oatmeal, a little of the cooking liquor, some onion and garlic and stuff the natural sheep’s casing with the mixture and tie it off with nearly the entire team of Finisterrea watching on.

We cook most of the haggis with exception of the presentation one ( and a spare- just in case!) for the lunch. All the team at the restaurant take it in turns to come in and taste it……… its an unadulterated success, everyone across the board loves it, such a relief and a proud moment in my career.

Alan arrives and I give him a set of my whites to work in, everyone welcomes him the way they welcomed me and we crack on with the rest of the day’s job list.

Tuesday, 23rd June – The gala luncheon!

So today is the day! We start nice and early, as again the boys on pastry have worked through the night to give us use of the kitchen even earlier today as it’s a lunch service. We have prepared a 7 course Italian/Scottish fusion tasting menu for our dignified guests, the menus are printed and look fantastic, Colin even asks for my opinion of how the tables are set in the garden and how its presented. I really feel part of this close knit team already and I have only been in the kitchen for a day. Ben is first to pop in to see what’s cooking and offer his help if we need anything.

Today the main interest points for the team are my Sweet potato gnocchi that I am doing with a rosemary ice cream as a pre dessert and also the dehydrated porridge we are using as a garnish on the Cranachan dessert.

Alan’s luggage is here by 9 am so we retrieve his kitchen whites, the Scottish raspberries and the extra neeps for use tomorrow- SUCCESS!!

It’s a very busy day in the main and pizza kitchens, yet everyone still finds time to check in on us, observing and tasting what we are doing, bringing us water and coffee, and generally looking after us. Maria is always on hand and finding out how she can help during service!!!

1pm, the celebratory haggis which will be piped into the restaurant, given the traditional address and then piped out again is put in the oven to cook, it should take about an hour, we are so nearly ready, it’s a great feeling.

The rest of the days prep all goes to plan, our timing are spot on and everything looks well for sit down at 2pm.

Approaching 2 pm we here the familiar sound of bagpipes and know the time is approaching and pre service nerves set in. One final run through on the menu and all is prepared and ready to go. Happy days!!

Maybe I will just put the spare haggis in “just in case” and if we don’t need it at least I know the staff love it and will devour it in seconds if allowed.

2pm passes and still no sign of our distinguished guests. That’s ok, we are ready to go whenever so they can take their time, 2.30pm passes, not everyone is here yet, again no problems we are ready.

2.45pm…….,2.50pm - OH NO!!!!! I have left the haggis in the oven, I check it and the bag has burst!!! That would be the ultimate nightmare as the main part of the address is slicing it open and releasing the steam and aromas from inside…….. But VERY luckily I have the spare which has now been in just seconds short of an hour and is perfect!!! Colin comes to the kitchen with the for presenting the haggis covered in fresh bay leaves and rosemary, I remove it from the oven and place the steaming haggis onto the plate, Maria comes into the kitchen, the pipers start playing and we parade the fresh perfect haggis into the restaurant to be expertly addressed. In front of the TV cameras and waiting press photographers, without any single person knowing just how close to catastrophe we were!! Always have a backup, you never know when your gonna need it!!!

That was lucky!!!

Maria, myself and Alan under observation of the entire team send the 7 courses out to our 14 people party without a hitch and each course is greeted with wows and empty plates are returned with compliments. I am relieved, proud and exhausted all in one and especially thankful to Colin, Maria, Ben, my chef Alan and all the team at Finisterrea for helping to create a meal which I hope befitted the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the twinning of our cities.

After the meal I come back out to the restaurant to properly meet everyone and am taken aback by the truly positive feedback I hear about the lunch with every couple of people each favouring a different course as their favourite. I do really have to thank everyone involved for producing such wonderful ingredients for me to use whether Italian or the imported items from Scotland.

After a rigorous clean down so we can hand the kitchen back to the pastry chefs, we have an early (ish) finish and myself and Alan have a night out round the beautiful city of Florence.

Wednesday, 24th June

Today is the patron saints day in Florence and is a public holiday, immediately outside the restaurant in the Piazza Santa Croce a small stadium has been erected for the final of a sport I am not familiar with but everyone I have met so far is truly excited about and insists I must go and watch when it begins. It is called Calcio Fiorentina or Calcio storico and I am led to believe it is a mix of football and street fighting…… Sounds intriguing!!! There is Police and security everywhere and after a quick lunch service barriers and fences are being erected, essentially closing off the square to everyone but the lucky few thousand who have tickets to the “game.”

As the restaurant is closed after lunch I have the run of the kitchen with all the team on hand to help out.  Our task for today is “Aperitivo Scozzese” where we are to create some Scottish inspired canapé style nibbles to be sold in the evening for up to 150 people. We are told as we start that the Mayor of Florence is returning again, along with The Lord Provost and other dignitaries as they had enjoyed their luncheon banquet so much they all unanimously wanted to return to taste more of our Scottish/Italian fusion cuisine. That’s great news but adds a  little more pressure as the original plan was to miniaturise most of yesterday’s luncheon dishes into bite size snacks to go along with a couple of extra dishes I have planned. I start on the Scotch broth soup with the lamb necks I roasted and braised yesterday adding the “delayed” neeps, potatoes, carrots and local Orzo instead of the barley. When this soup is finished and seasoned I am over the moon as it truly is the best tasting Scotch broth I have ever made. This is a very good start to the day. Thinking on our feet Alan and I go through our ingredients and change the dishes so they are different from yesterday, we have Tuscan beans on toast with roast rabbit saddle, smoked salmon and zucchini rolls stuffed with black pudding and ricotta, haggis bon bons, Arboath smokie crostini’s to name just a few. Again all of the team are showing great interest in what we are doing and keen to taste everything.  From the kitchen we can hear chanting and singing as the fans start to arrive in their droves. I quickly pop my head out to see what was happening and I see hundreds of people all dressed in white, some are dressed in medieval style trousers and are obviously the stars of the show. Colin gives me an explanation of what is happening and informs me that city of Florence is split into 4 (quartieres) and each quartiere has a colour and a team. Today the final is to be played between the whites (bianchi) of Santa Spirito and the greens (Verdi) of San Giovanni.   We manage to get all the prep done and head out to the square in time to watch the match. It is a brutal affair with violence and sport brought together yet, its rules about no kicking in the head or sucker punches are mainly being up held. Punching, choking, knees and elbows however, are all allowed and are being used with fierce regularity. The game lasts 50 minutes and the Bianchi are crowned champions, after the game finishes its time to get back in the kitchen and get ready for tonight’s Apperitivo service.

Our first order is for 10 people and I am told it’s for the Lord Provost and the Mayor of Florence who, like me, have been to watch the match. We send out our plates and a few minutes later, a request was sent to the kitchen for me to go out and explain my thoughts behind my dishes. I do so and am told by our distinguished guests that they are a hit and they would like another plate!! Back to the kitchen and the “checks” keep streaming on, plate for 6, plate for 4, another 6, it’s busy but we have all the mise en place ready and a very successful and busy apperitivo service follows. The final count was about 140 and we had prepped for 150 so we plate the last 10 plates up and send it into the main kitchen for all the hard working team to try.  After the evening service comes to a close, Colin invites me back to the restaurant to chat with all the customers who have eaten the canapés we prepared. My Italian has improved over the last few days and I am able to converse with most of our guests with a little interpretation from Colin. I ask everybody’s opinion on their favourite and am ecstatic to know it’s an even split between all of the canapés we produced although again unanimously everyone loved the haggis!!! Another strict clean down of the kitchen is carried out followed by a glass of wine. Exhausted and elated it’s off to bed, BIG day for me tomorrow.

Thursday, 25th June

Today is the day I have been most looking forward to but also most apprehensive about. It’s my day in the Pizza kitchen. Over the last few days I have kept an eye on proceeding in this kitchen, Calogero and Essa really make it look easy but I can’t bring myself to believe it. On arrival in the kitchen I am tasked with grating mozzarella, lots and lots and lots of mozzarella, today apparently is going to be busy!! I am then taught how to make the pizza dough, why the type of flours used is so important but what I am most taken aback about is the science that goes into making the dough. Environmental factors are taken into account, air temperature, humidity, water temperature, and the recipe is adjusted accordingly, with more or less, salt and yeast added to make the dough at different times of the day. I am then shown how to hand stretch the dough by Calogero, he tosses his base and spins it round over his head flipping it from one hand to the other, I am in the presence of an expert. Essa seeing his colleague showing off a little steps in and does the same, we have two pizza bases flying through the air in choreographed unison. These guys are great and obviously have worked with each other for quite a while.

The first check of the day buzzes in the printer, it’s a margherita, just one, I can do this boys, leave it with me. I stretch the dough importantly making the crust first, flip it over and start stretching it out. Not bad I am told, now to top it, a wonderful fresh tomato sauce followed by the freshly grated mozzarella. I am given a lesson in how to put the pizza onto the paddle, and then from there putting it into the wood burning oven. Checks start firing through the printer and we suddenly have 30 pizzas on order. Calogero begins stretching the dough quickly and with precision and skill, no showboating this time by spinning the dough above his head, I guess he knows what’s about to happen. Bzz bzz bzz bzz the printer is working overdrive now, Essa grabs them all from the printer with one hand whist finishing the toppings with another, Bzz, Bzz, Bzz. I feel so in the way! Bzz Bzz Bzz it’s not going to stop! Essa is now frantically paddling the pizza into the oven whilst Calogero is stretching the bases and I am saucing and adding all the different toppings, am I part of this team?? I think I AM! Essa is now using the pizza peel to spin the pizza in the oven and then to remove them when cooked and place on the plates to be served to the customers just minutes after they ordered. He is majestic in his roll, he now has the paddle in one hand and the peel in the other, both are 5ft long poles and in the small confines of the pizza kitchen he is wielding them round like a samurai missing both myself and Calogero by calculated centimetres. As the day begins to slow down I am given the poles and its now my responsibility to pick the pizzas up, put them in the oven correctly and in the right place, spin them to ensure even cooking whilst avoiding burning either of the boys when I am spinning with the pizzas from the oven to put on the plates! WOW these boys do make it look easy because I am finding it so hard!! At the end of the 3 hour lunch service we had done over 300 pizzas, all stretched by hand to order then topped and fired. I have a new found respect for pizza - it’s an art form from start to finish and something I would love to spend a bit more time on again in the future.

In the afternoon I am back in the pastry kitchen being shown how to make the following mornings bake by Luigi, he is a master in his craft and quickly prepares the croissants, pain chocolate, etc whilst also giving me a demonstration in the art of Gelato, today has been amazing!!

I escorted Alan to the airport that evening after his days sightseeing round Florence and thanked him for his help, he has to fly home and get straight back on the stove in the morning -poor chap!!

Friday, 26th June

A very early start and Maria takes time out her busy schedule to give me a one on one pasta masterclass, she explains again the importance of the ingredients along with temperature and other factors, you can feel the passion she has in her food and it carries throughout all the dishes to final execution when the taste does all the talking!!

I have learned so much on this trip and can’t wait for the return trip in October where hopefully I can repay the favour and teach as much about Scottish cuisine as I have learnt about Italian. I am very much looking forward to getting back into my own kitchen and sharing this new found knowledge with my brigade and integrating some of the thing I learnt into my own repertoire.

I am treated to a guided tour of Florence that afternoon by Davide, an assistant manager/ cashier  at the restaurant but also a fully qualified licensed tour guide. I learn so much history and insider tips that will see me well over the next couple of days which I have free to enjoy Florence.

I really can’t thank everyone at Finisterrea, Edinburgh Council and all other involved in this wonderful adventure and hope that we in Edinburgh can appreciate and enjoy the continuing bonds between our cities for many more years to come being twinned.

Chou, bouna notte

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