It is the quintessential English garden, an Arcadian idyll of gently landscaped lawns, straggling paths, venerable cedar trees, statuary and even a 21m-high folly. On a pleasantly mild evening in late summer, the doors to one of the garden’s many greenhouses are flung open; just inside, the table is set elegantly for dinner.
Outside, as the sun starts to set, the barbecue’s coals smoulder more brightly. Tending the makeshift outdoor stove is Mark Hix, the Dorset-born champion of regional British cuisine, with several cookery books and a clutch of restaurants to his name: nothing unusual about that, you might think – Hix is a veteran of food festivals from Aldeburgh to Abergavenny – but we are neither in England nor the countryside. We are in the middle of Florence.
When the French writer Stendhal visited Florence in 1817, he was famously so overcome by the beauty of the city’s art treasures – especially those at the Basilica di Santa Croce – that he collapsed from dizziness and heart palpitations. “Stendhal syndrome”, as it is now known, is said to affect hundreds of visitors to the city each year.
Had he only managed to struggle over the Ponte Vecchio and through one of the gates that lead to the Giardino Torrigiani, he would have found himself in a serene sanctuary, its high walls shielding his eyes from Florence’s unsettling beauty. At nearly 17 acres, it is the largest privately owned garden within city boundaries in Europe; laid out in its present form by the Marquis Pietro Torrigiani a few years before Stendhal’s visit, it is a glittering emerald in Florence’s opulent crown.
And it is still a family affair. The Marquis Vanni Torrigiani Malaspina and his wife, Marchesa Susanna, live in a part of the premises, Serre Torrigiani, that is not normally open to the public, and Vanni has made it his mission to restore the garden’s original, 18th-century purpose as a botanical garden. Earlier in the day, he had guided Hix through his spacious greenhouses and lovingly tended beds, flitting from plant to plant like an excitable bee, plucking a leaf here and a flower there, while Hix filled a plate with a bunch of lemon verbena, a pomegranate or two, some fronds of fennel, a bright handful of chillies, his brow furrowing with ideas for dinner. There is a box of persimmon, too. “Not ready yet,” says Vanni. “Stick them in the freezer,” advises Hix. “It’ll ripen them. We’ll serve them with some Parmesan.”
In fact, preparation for the dinner had started the day before. Hix, Vanni and Susanna have a friend in common, an Englishman called Oliver Rampley: his business, Altana Europe, offers tailormade Tuscan experiences to anyone with a genuine interest in ecology, land management and fieldcraft. A passionate ornithologist, a crack shot and a keen angler, he spends much of his time guiding clients around the lakes, rivers, woods and hills of his adopted land: from birdwatching in the Giardino Torrigiani to fishing on the Arno and stalking wild boar in the drained marshland of the Maremma, his knowledge and enthusiasm is infectious, and his contacts are second to none.
And, thanks to his friendship with Hix, Altana’s bespoke trips now offer the chance for guests to have dinner cooked by the chef in the Serre Torrigiani, inspired by ingredients hunted and foraged over the previous few days: food always tastes better when you’ve caught it yourself, especially if somebody else has done the cooking.
During my visit, one of those contacts had taken Hix shooting in the Mugello Valley: the resulting bag was modest (they were wild birds, not reared for a shoot), but enough for lunch – pheasant Holstein, the breasts beaten out, breaded, fried, topped with an egg, a lattice of anchovies and a scattering of pickled walnuts (smuggled from the UK) – and offering plenty of bones for a rich game broth. Hix and Rampley then clambered into a high seat, rifles at the ready, in search of wild boar; a stiff breeze, however, meant the boar were scarce and, as dusk fell, the guns reluctantly unloaded.
Hix is a phlegmatic character, an accomplished angler who knows that sometimes it’s just not your day; in any case, thin on the ground though the boar might have been that afternoon, they are rife throughout Tuscany, and – during the season – their meat fills many rural fridges.
Rampley sees no contradiction between his roles as naturalist and huntsman. “Everything we do at Altana is sustainable, with respect for the countryside and its natural equilibrium. In Italy, unlike in the UK, wild boar hunting is recognised as a necessary element of rural management – in fact, landowners will be fined unless they keep their populations down, so there is none of the surreal disconnect about where meat actually comes from. And we don’t offer access to driven or ‘pressure’ hunting using dogs – only stalking or high-seat work. Our hunting trips have an expert academic framework.”
Back in town, Rampley introduces Hix to another of his aristocratic acquaintances, someone who, although not able to attend, will play a vital role in the next day’s dinner. She is the Baronessa Maria Teresa Ricasoli Firidolfi, scion of one of Florence’s grandest old families. They meet in the dining room of the Baronessa’s Leone Blu, a fabulous, quirky hotel of nine unique suites on the banks of the Arno, named after the blue lion on the family’s coat of arms. The lives of the Baronessa’s ancestors are stitched into the fabric of the city’s history, but it is one man in particular – the Baron Bettino Ricasoli – who achieved lasting fame. A collaborator of Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, he was one of the architects of modern Italy and, following Cavour’s death in 1861, became the fledgling country’s second prime minister.
Just as important for the discerning gourmet, however, was his championing of Chianti: he is often said to have invented the wine as we know it today. With the visionary idea of restricting production to the best sites and vinifying parcels of different grapes separately to determine their character, he had a huge and lasting effect on the quality of Tuscany’s most famous wine. At the heart of the family’s vineyards, sprawled over the countryside near Gaiole in Chianti, 65km south of the city, is the magnificent Castello di Brolio, home to the Ricasoli family since 1141 and an essential stop for any visiting oenophiles.
The Baronessa generously donates a case of three of the estate’s finest wines (from €12.50) – Brolio Chianti Classico, Brolio Riserva and Colledilà Gran Selezione – for the dinner; they are reverentially dispatched to the Giardino Torrigiani with strict instructions for their opening and decanting.
Next morning, en route to the Mercato Centrale, Hix and Rampley make a pitstop at Casa del Vino on Via dell’Ariento, a woody, historic little wine bar that still attracts appreciative locals, despite its location in the touristy, bazaar-like San Lorenzo market. Stiffening the sinews with glasses of Alto Adige white wine and little brioche buns filled with salty anchovies and thick, creamy butter, it is time to go shopping in Florence’s newly renovated central market. Gleaming, golden honeycomb; fresh root ginger; generous bundles of herbs; a riotous tumble of courgette flowers – all are carefully gathered and taken to the garden.
Vanni sets up an impromptu worksurface; as Hix’s designated sous-chef, I cut and beat out slices of guanciale to be wrapped around pheasant fillets and sage leaves from the garden before grilling; bash herbs, anchovies, garlic and capers together for a salsa verde; and make a syrup from lemon verbena, sea buckthorn berries (another UK import: bright orange, sour and fruity clusters, which Vanni tries with delight) and sugar (to be mixed with gin, ice and soda as a preprandial cocktail).
Hix, meanwhile, expertly butchers a haunch and saddle of wild boar, and, as the guests sip their cocktails, the feast begins. A seemingly endless stream of dishes emerges: wild boar fillet, chopped finely and spiced as a keema, topped with tempura courgette flowers; devilled pheasant offal on fried potatoes; the pheasant broth spiced with ginger, chilli and more verbena; grilled pumpkin with salsa rossa; pink-cooked boar dressed with pomegranate seeds and green tomato; then cherries soaked in Hix’s favourite Temperley Somerset apple brandy, with the honeycomb and soft, creamy burrata.
The rich, robust Ricasoli wines stand up surprisingly well to this onslaught of flavours, as do our Italian guests: if they were remotely disturbed by an Englishman annexing their palates for the night, they didn’t show it, and plate after plate came back clean. And Hix was, of course, entirely right about the persimmons: defrosted after a couple of hours in the freezer, they are perfectly soft, a fine foil for wedges of salty, intensely flavoured 36-month-aged Parmigiano-Reggiano.
More than just the camaraderie of a great meal cooked over wood and served in a magical setting, there is something profound that pervades the evening: an alchemic fusion of the history of the gardens, the city of Florence itself, and the bounty of the countryside that surrounds it. It is a joyous collaboration between two men who are passionate about what they do: the timeless pursuits of hunting and cooking. As the guests chatter after dinner, sipping digestivi by candlelight, it is as though a Renaissance painting has come to life; although, one suspects, it will not be Hix and Rampley’s last supper.