KAY FRANCES indulges in Florence's culinary delights and checks out the city’s hottest new five-star hotel, La Gemma

SIPPING one of Tuscany’s finest Chianti’s, accompanied by rosemary bread and the Chanel No. 5 of extra virgin olive oil, I’m feeling rather smug to have found Enoteca Alessi, a cavernous Florentine wine store, first opened by the Alessi family in 1952 and where you’re unlikely to spot a single tourist.

I admit I didn’t find this place by happy accident. Linda, our Australian-born guide, has been running Florence food tours for 20 years and her skill in sniffing out the best places to eat and drink is such that I’d swear she has balsamic vinegar running through her veins.

Entertaining us with stories of how Chianti cleverly changed its ‘cheap wine’ image (is there a student from the 1980s in the land that didn’t make a candle holder or table lamp from the iconic raffia encased bottle?), becoming one of the most revered wines in the world and how, during the 1600s, when bubonic plague hit Florence hard, wine windows were invented as a safe way for shopkeepers to sell their wares with minimal contact.

Our home for three nights is La Gemma, an opulent 19th century refurbished palace, just five minutes on foot to all the city’s main sights; the Piazza del Duomo, the Ponte Vecchio as well as the Uffizi and Accademia Galleries, where you can admire Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and the largest collection of Michelangelo’s work in the world, including of course the statue of David. A hop and skip away too are all the great Italian fashion houses, a tell-tale sign we’ve landed in one of the most exclusive parts of the city.

York Press: Kay tries her hand at cocktail makingKay tries her hand at cocktail making

Newly opened, the five-star La Gemma has just 39 luxurious rooms and suites, LUCA’s, the hotel’s gourmet restaurant and a subterranean boutique spa, complete with Turkish bath and stone plunge pool. This is the Cecci family’s first hotel (with more planned for Milan and Sicily) and takes its name from the siblings Ginevra, Edoardo, Massimiliano, Maria Sole, Andrea and their parents Luca and Alessandra (with La representing their parents’ names). La Gemma’s powder pink and pea green interiors have been designed to reflect the marble colours you’ll find inside the cathedral. My spacious room has a king-sized bed, free-standing bath, and a gold art deco drinks trolley, replete with local gins and liquors.

At dinner our five-course tasting menu, designed by two-starred Michelin chef, Paulo Airaudo, begins with a flavoursome Japanese inspired Dashi. Imagine a posh Oxo drink but taken up a notch or two with the elevating flavours of artichokes, lemon, and vanilla. LUCA’s restaurant prides itself on typically Florentine dishes with a twist; beef tartare is served with a zesty lime and what looks like a little mince pie is a delicate lobster mouse with buffalo cheese. For pudding Jerusalem artichokes are served with white chocolate sauce. Dinner is accompanied by a dry and fruity Pigato wine from the Liguria region and the finale of the evening is a blood orange chilled Amaro liqueur with a bittersweet flavour and fiery aftertaste which sets my digestive juices flowing.

After a day of tickling our tastebuds, La Gemma has arranged an altogether different sensory experience and this time it’s our noses that are in for a treat. Situated on the other side of the river, in ‘Altro Arno’, where the vibe is more laid back, and traditional artisans can still be seen plying their trades in shoe making, furniture restoration and leatherware, is the perfumery of Seleno Cheloni.

York Press: View over Florence from the rooftop terrace of La GemmaView over Florence from the rooftop terrace of La Gemma

Cheloni has spent 20 years perfecting his mixing techniques and has recently made it into Harrods. Sitting in a cosy parlour around a mahogany table covered in glass bell jars, each containing prized ingredients such as musk and amber, I feel like I’m in the middle of a Harry Potter film set. We listen to tales of how Cheloni set out to find antique amber on his first buying expedition to Cairo and its these raw materials, he explains, that create the emotional impact of his perfume. Our visit finishes with an incense ceremony where we all close our eyes while fragrant aromas are wafted up our nostrils.

“We eat more with the nose than with the mouth,” Cheloni explains, once we’ve all opened our eyes again, bringing us back nicely to the subject of lunch. At Trattoria Marione we take our lead from the locals who are piling in to enjoy Ribollita, a comforting Tuscan soup of white beans, spinach, and bread.

With time to spare before dinner, I head out to the Franciscan church of Santa Croce, famously a resting place for some of the country’s greatest figures, such as Michelangelo. He’s in good company with the likes of Machiavelli, Galileo and Rossini all buried here, marked by showstopping memorials. There’s even a marble statue to the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale, named after the city of her birth.

Back at La Gemma, we enjoy the obligatory pre-dinner aperitif which we make ourselves at a master cocktail class. La Gemma’s very own mixologist, Folco, explains the Negroni has equal parts of gin, vermouth, and Campari and was invented in Florence in 1919, when Count Negroni asked his bartender to strengthen his favourite cocktail, the Americano, which resulted in the soda being replaced with gin.

Enjoying our drinks on the hotel’s rooftop terrace, which has a 360-degree view over the Florence skyline, the cathedral bells begin to chime, and I’m reminded I need to conserve some energy, as there’s still the city’s 77 museums to explore.

Fact file

La Gemma Hotel – To book visit www.lagemmahotel.com

Signature double rooms start from 475 euros including breakfast.

For bespoke tours visit www.italycustomized.it

For flights from Manchester to Pisa visit www.easyjet.com. Trains run every half hour to Florence direct from Pisa central railway station.