Leaving the romance of Rome, the next stop on my Italian tour was Elba island, where I met up with an old friend for a few days. Napolean was famously exiled to Elba, and despite it being popular among Italian tourists, the island had an air of secret about it, an undiscovered holiday gem. Crystal clear waters and sandy beaches seemed like such a contrast to the grand buildings and historical sights of Rome, and I was excited to explore.
We stayed in Capoliveri, about 30 minutes away from the main port right at the top of the islands highest peak. Winding little streets opened up onto beautiful squares, sprinkled with shops, cafes and restaurants. We rented a motorbike so could easily whizz down and around the island, and ventured into the larger area of Porto Ferraio looking for a spot of lunch.
The Italians, much like the Spanish, take lunchtime seriously, and so emerges the menu del giorno, typically a two-course lunch with wine included and a coffee as dessert (or a pud too, if your lucky). All the restaurants on the water’s front in Porto Ferraio had a lunch meal going, with everything from lasagna to lobster. We particularly fancied getting stuck into a plate of pasta and were drawn to a sweet little place with a couple of locals lunching away, where the menu offered a main dish of tagliatelle, a starter, water, wine and coffee all for €15.
Due to an embarrassing lack of Italian language skills, I was not entirely sure on what dishes to expect, but I was pleased to be greeted with a cold seafood starter for main, featuring a good old fashioned prawn cocktail, sliced squid and smoked swordfish. The stand out item on the plate was the swordfish. The strong smoked flavor on top of the thinly slice silky flesh was delightful, and something I had never eaten before.
The main was an all out winner; soft strands of tagliatelle retained their bite under the creamy seafood sauce, with chunks of white fish, mussels and prawns. The dish was topped with crushed pistachio which added a pleasant crunch against the pillowy pasta.
The portion was enormous, particularly given that I was already a starter down, but the fresh seafood mingled in with the pasta, swimming in its own creamy sauce meant I couldn’t leave my plate alone, continuing to eat well past the point of being pleasantly full. But then, what’s one to do when on holiday in Italy if not eat excessive amounts of pasta while sipping a bit of wine? So I sat back, thanking my elasticated waistband for its comfort and my cup of coffee for its digestive properties while I soaked up the beauty of the port.
Cacciucco is a typical Tuscan fish stew, local to Elba island. Traditionally made with scrap bits of fish not grand enough to stand alone on a plate, this was a dish I had read about prior to my visit and was eager to try. Again, my lack of Italian lead me to a version of the dish probably quite far removed from its original humble beginnings.
My cacciucco came al vapore, and was certainly not a chuck-it-all-in fish dish; posh, proud prawns lay delicately in the wooden steamer, alongside meaty squid tentacles and a delicate fillet of cod. Not what I expected, this dish was a simplistic stripped back version of what I imagine to be a rich and multi-flavoured stew dish. Steaming the fish and seafood meant it’s flavor stood alone, and while it was undeniably delicious and some of the freshest seafood I have had, I would have rather it be accompanied by a tomato and saffron stew, as is the dish is traditionally served.
After such a light dinner, I was certain breakfast would be more substantial. L’Orchidea Pasticceria had caught my eye from the first drive up into Capoliveri, and on our last day on the island we broke our night’s fast and satisfied out sweet teeth with some of their fine pastries for brekkie.
I normally don’t fancy a pastry for breakfast, but after my cream filled cornetto encounter in Rome, I had come to realise that perhaps Italian pastries were what I needed – for those mornings when only something sweet and buttery will start the day right.
Food wise, the Italian’s have got it pretty much spot on. Simple recipes, quality ingredients and a real appreciation for seasonal cooking. Oh, and Nutella. Sod the exquisite veal dishes, creamy carbonaras and crispy pizzas baked in wood ovens, it’s the Italian obsession with this chocolate hazelnut spread that attracts me most to their cuisine. What sweet item isn’t improved with a hearty spread or delicate dollop of Nutella? It’s never too early for this nut-chocolate delight to make an appearance; see exhibited in the photo below.
The chocolate hazelnut tart topped with pine nuts was essentially Nutella baked on a pastry crust, and it was wonderful. How about a chocolate hazelnut croissant? Also delicious. Almost in fear of too much of this divine chocco spread, I balanced it all out (flavor wise, most certainly not nutritionally) with a custard raisin roll and some amaretti biscuits.
I’ll clarify that I was not hitting the hard liquor prior to midday, and what appears to be an espresso martini is actually just an iced americano. Far less fun, but definitely more socially acceptable.
Elba island was beautiful in every sense; the scenery, the people, the food and its overall atmosphere make it one of the most special places I have ever visited. When your only complaint about a holiday is that the fish stew you anticipated came steamed instead of slow cooked, I think that’s the sign of a great trip!