I went to The Four Seasons University in Florence, Italy. How’s that for an alma mater?
Seriously, I was invited to take part in what they term their “university” to learn more about The Four Seasons Resorts and Hotels and, in this particular session, showcasing the regional and artisanal food and wine on offer. With hotels scattered around the globe, the 2 day session was aimed at getting to know about The Four Seasons in Asia, Africa and Europe. The Four Seasons flew in General Managers from Budapest to Paris, Beirut to Doha and everywhere in between for us to chat with and find out more about what makes each hotel unique from a culinary and vinous point of view.
What I found was that each one tailored the guests experience to the locale. From Paris to Prague, the hotels try to give the guests a luxury wine and dine experience while still maintaining links with the city they are in. For example, in Prague, they may be in an international hotel but offer plenty of local delicacies in their restaurants as well as offering international cuisine. Paris on the other hand, guests expect a gourmet experience and, dining in the George V’s 3-Michelin starred restaurant with a world class wine cellar, guests won’t be disappointed.
The Florence Four Seasons is no different. A spectacular oasis in the middle of the city, set within a walled garden covering 11 acres, it took seven years to renovate the 15th century Palazzo Della Gherardesca and the adjacent convent. I loved the original mosaic floors in the Palazzo as well as the original frescos and paintings that have been restored to their former glory. It’s fantastic to be surrounded by such beauty.
Florence pulled out all the stops for us to show off the best that the hotel and the region had to offer. The Florence property has the palazzo and a smaller building, il Conventino, on the other side of the garden. The first night, the Conventino ballroom, formerly the chapel – now deconsecrated, was turned into an Autumnal forest, complete with barn owls and falcons on hand to add a touch of rusticity. The hotel showcased the best of local artisanal produce that they themselves use. Tuscan cheeses, salamis, fresh produce and other local delicacies were on hand for us to sample. What would a tasting be without wine, of which, the Cupano chianti was a big hit with the crowds.
Besides the food and wine of Tuscany, there were also local artisans showing off their skills and wares. They still practice the traditional arts of goldsmithing, handmade leather bags and purses, shoemaking and even mosaic making. It’s not often you get to see artisans at work and what they were producing right in front of my eyes was amazing.
The Four Seasons as a whole is now working to source their food as locally as possible and the Executive Chef in Florence, Vito Mollica personally chooses from selected local suppliers every morning and is an advocate of the “slow food” movement which works to preserve the culinary traditions of his homeland. We got to meet more of them the next day. The standout for me was, of course, the truffle hunter and also a gentleman who not only makes foie gras but also produces an air dried goose leg, think prosciutto but made from goose. Divine! We also got to meet the local cows who produce the cheese and milk for the hotel. I don’t know if it gets any fresher than that!
That evening, we had a private tour and gala dinner at the Palazzo Vecchio. The Palazzo Vecchio is next to the Uffizi and is older than the museum, having been built in the 13th century with additions added throughout the centuries. A magnificent palace, every room filled with priceless frescos and paintings. The highlight of the evening was dinner in the Grand Ballroom surrounded by gigantic frescos painted by Michaelangelo himself. It was hard not to be impressed by such breath-taking surroundings. During dinner we were treated to an all female string orchestra and midway through dinner, 3 or our waiters burst into song! Turns out they weren’t really singing waiters. After a quick change out of their waiter’s uniforms and into more formal attire, they serenaded us with arias during dessert.
Dinner was locally sourced, white truffle appearing in one of the courses as well as farm quail with porcini mushrooms. The accompanying wines were also Tuscan, a sparkling rose to start from Fattoria di Montechiari, the 2008 Donna Catherine, certainly would give Franciacorta a run for the money in my book. Cupano made another appearance at dinner, a 2005 Brunello di Montalcino riserva in magnum showing very well. Aromatic and juicy with plenty of black cherry, black fruit and leather with fabulous structure surrounding my palate. All of the wines coming from the hotels suppliers and available on the wine list.
After that amazing meal I was ready for bed but there was more when we got back. The chapel had been converted into a Studio 54. Leave it to the Italians to have a girl in a champagne glass to greet us as we entered the dance floor. It was a hoot and as she was serving champagne from the giant glass, you gotta laugh. Dancing and chatting until the wee hours, I finally stumbled back to my room.
The next morning, a more sedate breakfast before a quick stroll around the gardens and then onto the airport back to London. The Four Seasons certainly know how to put on a university. I discovered that there’s more to the hotel then just luxury surroundings, they genuinely care about not only the hotel but also about the locality, from food to wine to the best of local artisanal producers, they’re proud of what they have to offer their guests.
A luxury experience without any of the pretense, and a friendly, welcoming atmosphere, it was very hard to leave The Four Seasons, Florence but all good things must come to an end and so, back to London.