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   From Tuscany,
   Simple Perfection

   by Nigella Lawson

 When good food writers die — to misquote Oscar Wilde — they go to Italy. I, however, am taking no chances with what will be coming to me in the afterlife and so have decided to spend as much time as possible there while alive.

 True, there are many fine, compelling, extra-culinary reasons to book a ticket to Italy. I have nothing against architecture, art, ludicrously beautiful landscapes, the most euphonious language coined by man or the whole bella figura, dolce vita deal. It is, you could argue, a price worth paying even for those who aren't led to the travel agent by their stomachs. But when I plan a trip to the boot, my prime motivation is simple, unadulterated, pleasurable greed.

 I have been going there ever since my late teens, when I maneuvered my way into a place at Oxford — without any knowledge of Italian — to study medieval and modern Italian by promising that I would go to Florence and apply myself to the language of Dante. In fact, as it happened, I landed a job as a chambermaid and not even in a smart hotel, but in a small pensione in the street that leads from the Duomo to the Piazza della Signoria. I learned to gossip there, to shop for food and to cook and eat it all'Italiana. And to cook Italian, I learned above all, one must think Italian, which means giving the fewest possible ingredients the greatest possible respect.

 If, in a court of law (and let's hope it never quite comes to that), I had to cite two dishes that best exemplified this dictum of respect, I would have no trouble. I present as evidence a certain contender for my last meal on earth, spaghetti alle vongole, and then that perfect Italian creation, a tagliata. The first offers pasta with clams and the second, a thick slab of flavorsome steak, sliced thinly and, in this version, scattered with shredded radicchio and shaved Parmesan — what more could you want? Well, I'm with Mae West: too much of a good thing can be wonderful. And so I offer add-ons, too: oven-baked polenta and perfect lemon gelato for dessert.

 It may have been an education, a career or two, and a few lifetimes ago, but once you've lived in a country properly, even short vacations there give the feeling, in some crucial sense, of returning home.

 Of course, for most Italians, Italy isn't really a country — it's been in existence for only 140 years or so — but a clutch of regions, and I tend to feel most at home in Idyll Central: Tuscany.

 And to fulfill the fantasy properly, I need a home, which is why I rent a house rather than stay in hotels. I am not happy simply eating Italian food, I want to cook it, too. I need to occupy the life — not buy a ticket to watch it.

 Of course, everything is much easier when you're on vacation. I've always felt that shopping is the hardest part of cooking, and when you don't need to rush frenziedly to the store in your lunch break but can stroll through some Italian market, basket nuzzling at your waist, stopping off every now and again for a gelato or caffè shakerato, then we're not talking stress-inducing overload.

 Add to that a house that has a kitchen that gives out to an olive grove and a pergola-vaulted table outside where you can sit with friends, forking through spaghetti as you contemplate the Tuscan hills, and you're as near to entering a state of grace as can ever be possible in this world.

 So thanks, you might say. Where does this leave us now, at the end of September — vacation over, back to work and fall on the way? I'll tell you where it leaves us all: with the food. And to tell the truth, I don't even need the recent memory of a trip to Italy to make me feel infused with the Italian spirit. I just need to start cooking.

 The most important thing my Italian experiences have taught me is that good food doesn't have to be complicated. In fact, simplicity is ever the key. The Italians, rightly, are confident about the quality of their produce. Luckily, the rest of us now have access to high-quality ingredients, too.

 Now, as to lunch: It is scarcely authentic to the Tuscan hills, but I urge upon you, as an accompaniment to the tagliata, a bowl of golden, sweetly grainy, oven-baked polenta.

 I got the idea for serving it with a tagliata this summer, at a fabulous restaurant outside Lucca called Vipore. Cesare Casella, now of Beppe on East 22nd Street in Manhattan, was once the chef there. I was eating polenta with cheese instead of meat. But I pinched a little tagliata off someone's plate and dipped it into the polenta and found it to be heaven. There is something about the savory intensity of the strips of beef with the corn-sunny mush that blends elegance with comfort; it tastes plainly fabulous.

 Of course, I might in this case hold off on the radicchio topping, and maybe sprinkle the shavings of Parmesan over the polenta instead of the steak.

 In Italy, to be honest, if you want a good ice cream you go to the gelateria — and, in fact, even out of Italy there are good store-bought gelati to be found. But I have never, off Italian soil, come across a proper gelato di crema; think vanilla ice cream, only in place of vanilla, you infuse the milk with a modest grating or shaving of lemon zest.

 This doesn't turn it into lemon ice cream, itself a cool dollop of heaven. What happens, rather, is that the small-volume scent of lemon makes the eggs eggier and the custard creamier. In short, we're talking platonic ideal of ice cream.

 And even if you cannot quite stir yourself to make the effort to make it, just be happy in the knowledge that it exists. As with Italy, sometimes you have to be content to let it be just a state of mind.

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