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The long and dusty road to find the real Tuscany

Published 5 July 2009
News Review
833rd article

Sir Michael, Lady Caine, Geraldine and Michael stop off for a snap (Paolo Greco)

Sir Michael and Lady Caine had never been to Florence. Out came private jet. In went the fabulous four. Destination: the Villa San Michele, once a 15th-century monastery, attributed to Michelangelo, now a fantastic hotel with views down hills, vineyards and villas to the town of Florence below.

There are people who say the "new" Four Seasons hotel in Florence is better. Rubbish. The Four Seasons is in a dreary area. It's a grand old palace, boringly done out like a standard-issue hotel. It's got a large garden but it seems the budget ran out when it come to buying flowers. Excellent staff, good food. But nothing beats the terrace of the Villa San Michele for food or view.

I'd forgotten what a great hotel this is. The last time I went, things were dented by the restaurant manager believing he could remember the order and frequently getting it wrong. This time Vittorio Dall'O wrote everything down so we got what we expected. That helps.

On our first morning we did the River Arno, the Ponte Vecchio, Piazza Della Signoria and more, ending up with lunch at an excellent, old-fashioned place, the Cantinetta dei Verrazzano. Our table was booked by Paolo Greco, San Michele's assistant concierge. Not at the front near the window where I've always sat, but back by the bar. Obviously no one told Paolo I went to tables not restaurants.

I spent the afternoon by the beautiful, flower-bedecked San Michele pool. The intellectuals went to the Uffizi Gallery. I've been six times. Enough already. Italian medieval religious art is not my favourite. Why is it I've seen thousands of paintings of Jesus Christ and he's never smiling? He must have smiled occasionally. "Turned water into wine, fellas" - big grin. "Raised Lazarus" - that's worth a flash of gnashers. Maybe he had terrible teeth.

Next day we set off for Siena. I usually drive in an open car along tiny side roads. There you see the real Tuscany. I was outvoted so we ended up in a people carrier with black tinted windows with driver Lorenzo and Paolo as guide. He went just where I'd asked him not to go. Taking over-developed major roads ending up in a car park.

It was actually a large village called Greve, probably very picturesque, but not with the main square wall-to-wall cars. I was not happy. I made my feelings known to Paolo. Geraldine told me off for making a scene and bought salami in a local shop, which she left in the fridge of the hotel suite anyway.

We re-started. Shakira Caine handed me a sweet. I said, "I like that."

Michael said, "Give him some more, it'll shut him up. Buy him a whole packet."

At last we got onto tiny back roads, past rolling hills, medieval villages with towers, getting out for photos as required. The roads were often no more than dust.

"We've got to give him a dusty road every now and then to keep him quiet," observed Michael.

In our photo there's a tiny village on a hill in the background. I asked Paolo the name. "Radda in Passignano," he told me. I taped it very carefully as he said it. There's no such place as Radda in Passignano. Possibly he meant Badia in Passignano. Who knows?

Paolo and the driver never stopped talking in Italian. In the cathedral at Siena, Paolo was spouting on about the connection with Napoleon. A real guide became extremely agitated.

"Why are you telling people what is not true?" she demanded. Paolo tried to get out of it. But the guide was major-incensed. A terrific row ensued. I sat down on a pew and listened. Greater fun than a sermon. With Paolo dialogue is more important than fact.

The main square of Siena is one of the masterpieces of the world. Breathtaking. Unfortunately the restaurants in it are beyond belief. We ate at Al Mangia. One of the worst meals ever. Close to us an English couple were having their wedding reception. If the marriage survives that food, it'll survive anything.

Our bellinis were made with unripe, bitter peaches. The pan-fried shrimps with grapefruit and parsley were soggy, tasted old and horrid. The main course chicken casserole with Siennese herbs and carrot souffle was ridiculous. Dry chicken, clammy souffle.

Afterwards Shakira bought ice cream from an outlet just off the square. That was no good either. There may well be acceptable food in Siena. I've been there eight times and never found it.

Back at the Villa San Michele things were stratospheric foodwise. The bellinis were perfect. Everything we ate on the trip: fresh homemade spaghetti with spring mushroom and summer truffle; duck liver terrine with pepper and pureed caramel apple; thinly sliced beef in a Brunello wine sauce with spinach and Tuscan beans; roast suckling pig; fried scampi; dessert with cherries . . . not one mouthful of food in six days was less than memorable.

Top marks to chef Attilio di Fabrizio, hotel manager Luca Finardi and all who sail with them. If you believe in tranquillity, beauty and quality, (a) read me and (b) go to Villa San Michele. This is not optional. It's a must.

Michael's missives

You rightly point out the British are loath to complain. Here in Spain restaurants have a complaints book which has to be taken to the local authority if customers cite dissatisfaction. Sometimes this results in restaurants being closed!
Adam Osborn, Malaga, Spain

You wrote about my parents, Penny and Roy Gluckstein. It must be the first time anyone has accused them of not complaining enough!
Amanda Graves, Massachusetts, US

Your opening line last week, "I eat mostly in my kitchen", was not followed by any criticism. Why then get stressed by eating out?
Steve West, Cardiff

Lovely shirt last week! At least you had the courtesy to remove the three-pointed jester's hat. Had you just come from entertaining your adoring public in the street?
Nick Jones, Le Crestet, France

That shirt - you could be hoisted up a mast and get an interesting response from a passing fleet. The flag design could mean "Abandonment and Resail".
Tom, Toronto, Canada

The shirt resembled cuttings from tablecloths of Italian eateries you've visited over the years. Did your cook, Betty, sew them together to make a fashion statement?
Edward David, London

I particularly admired the shirt. Are you prepared to share with me where you purchased it?
Ted Barnes, Chester

Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk