To celebrate their new cookbook, Ella Walker spends a day in the kitchen with married chefs Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi.

When I arrive for my Tuscan masterclass, Giancarlo Caldesi is whisking custard in a stainless-steel pan. 

He motions me over to sniff it, fragrant with saffron, before explaining - in great detail - the art of using cling film to seal in the warmth of the custard and avoid it growing a thick, school dinner-style skin. The man is all about detail, and all about cooking with emotion.

The Tuscan-born chef and his wife Katie, a cookery writer and former artist - who is stirring a bowl of ricotta and icing sugar, puffs of it dancing off the spoon - met in 1997. Two decades on, they have two sons, two restaurants, La Cucina Caldesi and Caffe Caldesi, and their own Italian cookery school.

But today, they are buzzing around their slick teaching kitchen, showing me how to make a whole menu’s worth of dishes from their latest cookbook, Tuscany. 

It is their fifth book in a series that each take one Italian region as their focus; they’ve already covered the Amalfi Coast, Venice, Rome and Sicily.

Homegrown vegetables are key in traditional Tuscan cuisine
Giancarlo was born and raised in Montepulciano Stazione, near the Umbrian border Katie explains, while her husband shows me (repeatedly) how to scoop the egg white-rich batter of a batch of Sienese almond biscuits into quenelles using two spoons, breaking off every now and again to scold me for being too rough with them (“You must be gentle,” he cries).

“They only ate organic, seasonal, fresh, homegrown food,” Katie says, describing her husband’s childhood. “Giancarlo’s mother would cook in a cauldron over a fire - we still have it, we serve pasta in it at parties - and then the outdoor oven for baking would only be fuelled every 10-14 days, and the whole village would come and help.” It sounds idyllic, but it was a way of living dictated by poverty, combined with the tradition of eating what you’ve grown yourself.

Later, the marshmallowy-soft almond biscuits eaten and duly dunked in a creamy mixture of coffee, ricotta and brandy, Katie gets me started on a sweet Swiss chard tart - yes, a greens stuffed dessert. “It’s a traditional recipe from Lucca,” she says, explaining how post-war poverty led to people bulking out dishes, savoury and sweet, with vegetables that were more readily available.

Using our hands, we squash mounds of cooked chard, ricotta, pine nuts, cinnamon, walnuts and raisins into a pastry case, while trying not to be distracted by Giancarlo making his favourite Caffe Caldesi tomato pasta sauce nearby.

The couple are hilariously distracting, telling snippets of stories, talking over one another, bickering, wheedling and mocking each other constantly. At one point, Giancarlo proclaims: “I’m beautiful, I’m sexy and clever and very, very modest,” to which Katie responds by continuing to stir a pan of lentils while wryly rolling her eyes.

Giancarlo takes his food seriously though. Hence why he keeps interrupting our tart-making to charge me with tasting his slow cooked tomato sauce at every stage of its development. He tells me: “In Italy there is a feeling to the food - you can tell if an Italian chef made it or not.”

Taking the right amount of time over food - whether it’s a joint of meat or a simple pasta sauce - is important too he explains, and rushing is not the done thing in Italy. 

“We spent a whole day making a wood pigeon Ravioli,” Giancarlo says with a bemused huff, remembering their Tuscan tour for the book. “So long! You cannot be English in Italy, you must go with the flow.

“If you can’t embrace the culture,” he adds thoughtfully, “you can’t embrace the food.”

Katie and Giancarlo pack me off with boxes of Swiss chard tart (you’d have no idea you were getting your daily dose of iron eating this, especially when topped with a dollop of that saffron custard), luxurious lentils infused with homemade stock and the leftover almond biscuits, downy with icing sugar. It would be pretty tough to not embrace food like this.

Tuscany: Simple Meals And Fabulous Feasts From Italy by Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi is published by Hardie Grant Books, priced £36. Available now.



(Serves 10-12)
For the pastry: 200g ‘00’ flour, 200g chilled butter, cubed
1 egg, 100g caster (superfine) sugar, 1 level tsp baking powder
. Finely grated zest of 1/2 lemon
For the filling: 50g walnuts, roughly chopped, 50g pine nuts, 600g Swiss chard leaves and thin, tender stalks, or 300g spinach leaves and tender stalks, roughly chopped
Pinch of salt
10g salted or unsalted butter, cubed, 500g ricotta, drained, 100g raisins
75g caster sugar, 1tsp ground cinnamon (optional) Finely grated zest of 1/2 lemon Ice cream, cream or custard, to serve

1. To make the pastry, put the flour and butter in a bowl and rub the butter into the flour with your fingertips until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the egg and the remaining ingredients and mix again to blend (make the pastry in a food processor if you prefer). Form the pastry into a ball, wrap it in cling film (plastic wrap) and leave it to rest in the fridge for one hour.

2. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F/Gas 4) and line a 24 x 3cm tart tin with baking parchment so that it protrudes above the edge of the dish by 2cm.

3. To make the filling, put the walnuts and pine nuts in a roasting tray and toast them in the oven for five minutes. Remove and set aside to cool.

4. Put the Swiss chard or spinach leaves in a pan with a little water, the salt and butter, cover and cook until soft and tender (Swiss chard will take longer than spinach). Once soft, drain and leave until cool enough to handle. Squeeze the leaves really well to rid them of excess water. Put the leaves on a board and chop them finely with a sharp knife. When cool, mix them in a bowl with the remaining ingredients. Taste and adjust the flavour with more cinnamon (if using) or lemon zest as necessary.

5. Remove the pastry from the fridge, unwrap it, roll it out to a thickness of around 5mm and use it to line the tart tin. Prick the base of the pastry with a fork and spoon in the filling mixture, smoothing the surface with a fork or palette knife. Trim away the excess pastry. Roll out the leftovers and cut strips about 1cm wide with a pastry wheel cutter or a knife. Create a lattice pattern on the top of the tart with the strips. Bake for around 45 minutes.

6. Remove the tart from the oven and leave it to cool in the tin, then serve with ice cream, cream or saffron custard.



Ingredients: (Serves 4-6)
1 x 600g pork tenderloin, 1/2tsp fine sea salt, 1/4tsp freshly ground black pepper, 1tbsp chicken fat or extra-virgin olive oil For the dust: 2tsp dried or Fresh rosemary needles, 1tsp dried sage or 3 large fresh sage leaves, 1tsp fennel seeds, crushed (optional) To serve: Lentils

1 Start by making the dust. If you are using dried herbs, crush them with the seeds (if using) with a pestle and mortar or a spice grinder. If using fresh herbs, finely chop them together with the seeds on a board with a sharp knife.

2. Evenly sprinkle one tablespoon of dust on the tenderloin over a piece of baking parchment with the salt and pepper. Trim away any tough silver skin from the tenderloin and roll it in the dust on the paper. Roll up the loin in the parchment, place it on a plate and set aside in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

3. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F/Gas 4). Remove the pork from the fridge and allow it to come to room temperature. Heat the chicken fat or oil in a large non-stick frying pan and, when hot, add the pork and brown it all over to seal in the juices.

4. Transfer to a roasting tin and cook in the oven for 12-15 minutes or until it is firm to the touch. Remove from the oven and set aside, covered in foil and a tea towel to rest for 10 minutes. Cut into roughly 1cm-thick slices and arrange on top of warm lentils