Art or Food
I don’t really know Michelangelo’s food (few records mention cheese as his favorite), but I got a feeling of what his modern descendants have at their disposal.
Florence and generally Tuscany, like most Italian regions, is a place with a tremendous culinary tradition and has great things to offer. Florence though is not only food, it’s mostly art. It’s a beloved destination for art lovers, having an overwhelming number of museums and galleries, concentrated in a rather small area. Yet in Florence, you don’t have to go to museums to admire art. Just strolling through its streets is already enough, considering that the city, with its great architecture, is like a museum itself.
With these in mind, in Florence it feels like there is a constant interplay between art and food, like two different poles fighting each other to attract the attention. But it’s not a real fight, these elements are in any case complementary, since art can function as food and food sometimes is also art.
The danger of arriving hungry in Italy
This was my second time in Florence, the first doesn’t count though. It lasted only a few hours and I didn’t have time to explore much. In both instances, the arrival at the main station of Santa Maria Novella found me having serious difficulties coming out of the building. Outside was pouring, plus finding the correct way out to the city is rather confusing to a visitor. After opening my umbrella and getting a deep breath, I walked out fast, and luckily, I managed to find quickly my way and hop into a mini-bus, part of the public transport fleet of Florence. The bus after a short ride crossed Arno river to the south and left me somewhere in the Santo Spirito neighbourhood, where I had planned to stay for the next couple of days. In the meantime, the weather changed, the rain had stopped and clean skies appeared.
With this and that, it was already early afternoon when hungry enough, I started considering where to get my food. I checked a few tips I had from a Florentine friend and fortunately, one of his recommendations, Osteria Santo Spirito, was very close, on the southwest corner of the homonymous piazza.
First thing on the table arrived, what else, the bread. I tried a piece and surprise, surprise, it tasted unsalted. Of course, here the traditional bread, Pane Toscano, is unsalted. That feels strange at the beginning, but after a while you get used to it. In any case, I had some olive pate on the side to spread on it and infuse a savory note. Next days, I asked around why the bread here is unsalted and got two different answers. The first claimed salt being expensive back in time and the second suggested that unsalted bread was a mean for Tuscans to balance overall salt consumption because they used to consume a lot of cured products.
After checking the menu and considering my appetite, I decided to get two dishes. The first was an easy choice. Nothing could be heartier on a wet-autumn day, other than the typical Tuscan soup. Ribolitta, that literally means reboiled, is a thick soup that traditionally is made by reboiling leftover minestrone soup, enhancing further its taste. Ribolitta’s main ingredients are local veggies, like cavolo nero (see later), some kind of beans and stale bread and/or potatoes.
Even though I got a small portion of ribollitta, after eating my second choice, I felt full to the point to think that my Italian food exploration was just over. I saw the waiters wearing a t-shirt that had ‘Gnocchi’ written on it and assumed that the gnocchi dish was osteria’s specialty. That was ‘gratinated gnocchi with cheese (not written which) and truffle oil’. It came, I smelled it, I tasted it and felt happy. Greedy as I was, I got the bigger portion, which for this dish proved to be an overload. After that, a siesta was my only choice.
Show me your land
Whenever I visit a new place, I feel eager to get to know the land and the local products. For this, someone needs either to go to the countryside, to see the terrain and meet the producers or to visit the local food markets. I decided to do both.
The next morning, I went to visit an agritourism farm, west from Florence towards the coast, near to the small town of Fucecchio. Tuscans are very proud of their wines and olive oil and you can easily understand that by looking around and observe the fields and hills covered with numerous vineyards and olive groves. What I found unique, was their close proximity, lying in most cases side-by-side, feeling that somehow, they communicate with each other.
Contrary to the Pugliese olive groves in the south of Italy, the olive trees here weren’t presented ordered on flat terrains. They were mostly covering small hills and slopes, similarly to my recollections of olive groves in Greece. This configuration brings though a problem to the farmers. It makes sometimes difficult to have a direct approach to the trees, as to perform olive harvest and collection.
At that time, olives weren’t yet enough mature for harvesting, but grapes were. The people on the farm were harvesting, crushing and pressing grapes, and fermentations were already running in huge metal containers. While being guided through the whole process of winemaking, I got to know about Sangiovese, the main grape variety in Tuscany. Sangiovese grows in the whole of Italy; however, it likes particularly Tuscany’s climate and hence forms the base (or used solely) for many Tuscan wines.
We selected a bottle of Sangiovese from the wine cellar to accompany our lunch and went out to the gardens to check for herbs and greens. Sage, rosemary, mint, whole bay trees were all over. It was great to see, touch and smell, but as a Greek, I was rather familiar with those looks and aromas. However, soon after I came across and got excited with something I knew as food, but haven’t seen it growing. That was cavolo nero (known also with a bunch of names, like Tuscan kale, Tuscan cabbage, schwarzkohl, black cabbage etc..), the most typical leafy green that grows in Tuscany. Tuscans love cavolo nero and they eat it as such, briefly steamed and season with olive oil and salt, or they add it in soups and stews, like ribolitta and minestrone.
In the meantime, lunch preparations had started and the first thing to consider was the bread. My hosts had already prepared and let to rise a focaccia dough. In Tuscany, focaccia is slightly different than in other parts of Italy. The dough is stretched/opened after the first rise and goes in the oven without letting it rise for a second time. That gives a more flattened type of bread, which here is called Schiacciatta. We used half of the dough to make a plain schiacciatta, while we sprinkled with sugar and topped with grapes the other half, to make schiaccatta all’uva and eat it as a dessert.
Our big lunch included a salad with greens and tomatoes we had collected before from the garden, steamed cavolo nero, pasta aglio-e-olio aromatized with a mix of herbs and a particular preparation that dated back to the Roman times. That was fresh ricotta, cut in handful pieces, flattened by hand and sandwiched between bay leaves. The small ricotta sandwiches were drizzled with olive oil, baked shortly and served with honey after removing the leaves.
After this great experience in the countryside, I came back in Florence to have a look also at the local markets. The biggest and most know is San Lorenzo, near to the main station. San Lorenzo market is the place to go if you’re into cured products. You can find numerous shops with all kinds of cheeses and salumi from Tuscany and other parts of Italy. Among them, a large variety of local pecorino cheeses, comprising different maturation stages and seasonings, and finocchiona, a Tuscan salami infused with fennel seeds.
I found the shops in San Lorenzo rather repetitive and decided to leave soon and try to catch also the Sant’Ambrogio market. Sant’Ambrogio is much smaller but has additionally an outside space where the local producers have their stands and sell fresh fruits and veggies. That’s more my type of market because through the fresh products I can feel better the place and its food. I had a walk through the stands admiring the local products, spending substantially more time staring at the wooden crates filled with freshly cut porcini mushrooms.
The food you cannot eat alone
Sometimes it might happen a city to give its name to a food or a dish. Florence with Fiorentina is a good example. Bistecca Fiorentina or simply Fiorentina is as old as Florence itself and eating one, especially for meat lovers, is like doing the Camino-de-Santiago for pilgrimage enthusiasts. Fiorentina is a pretty thick, T-bone steak coming from local cows. The T-bone separates the two edible parts of the steak, namely the filet and the sirloin. Even though I cannot call myself a meat lover, eating a Fiorentina is an experience I’d love to have. However, to enjoy Fiorentina you need at least one more person to share it with you. The reason being Fiorentina’s cut size is quite big (usually not less than 1 kg) for someone to manage eating it alone, with a cost in a restaurant around 50 euro/kg. Since I went alone in Florence, I had long before erased this wish.
That evening, I met a former Greek colleague of mine that happened to be in Florence the same days. I had eaten something before and I wanted only to have a drink with him and his English girlfriend. Both of them informed me that they wanted to have also dinner at some point. I said I wasn’t really hungry but I could join them having a glass of wine. Suddenly, the discussion when to food and subconsciously maybe I started talking about Fiorentina. Some minutes later, we were already sitting at the Trattoria 4 Leoni, near Palazzo Pizzi, getting ready to order one.
The waiter came and I gave him our wish. He asked how much cooked we want it. I asked for his recommendation and he said ‘al sanque’, that means rare. I looked around and I noticed a slight hesitation on the face of the English girl. I reassured her and said to the waiter to slightly compromise.
A few minutes later and while we were enjoying some Chianti wine, the waiter appeared again, this time presenting us the Fiorentina cut. He informed us that it weighs 1.2 kg and he asked us for the approval before placing it on the fire. We looked the Fiorentina, then each other and remained speechless. The waiter understood our slight astonishment and gave the approval himself. He came back after some minutes with the cooked Fiorentina. He cut it and seasoned with salt and olive oil.
P.S. – The Lampredotto
Lampredotto is the most typical street food in Florence. It’s cow stomach, cooked in vegetable broth, chopped and served as bread sandwich, seasoned with green or chili sauce. You can find it in food canteens and small eateries, for instance around Fontana del Porcellino.