Archive for the ‘Florence’ Tag

Source: Old Market in Florence 1884   Leave a comment

The following was written 1884 in a vist by an Englishman mere months before Florence’s Old Market (that dated back to Roman times) was demolished.

But now to glance at the aspect of the place as a market. Could anything be more picturesque than the antique old gabled roofs, and the stalls beneath them with yellow awnings, which seem to absorb the sunlight, and yet shadow the piles of vegetables and baskets of fruit of every hue under the sun? Why, the very cabbages ring the changes on all the reds, yellows, and greens almost to blue-black! then the crimson and orange strings of capsicums festooned across the heaps of scarlet tomatoes, the rich purple of the pear-shaped petronciani, and the mingled hues of the pomegranate, make the greengrocer’s stall under the yellow shadow a feast of colour as well as a study of life.

Though we see all our old English friends of the vegetable kingdom, yet there are so many unknown herbs that we wonder what they are, and whether they are good for food. Here comes a poor tottering old woman, and putting down a bit of copper as big as a farthing asks for ‘two centesimi of radicchio’ the leaves of the garden chicory. She spends a like coin on a crust of bread at a baker’s, and there is her breakfast complete bread and salad for less than a penny.

There is a pert serving-maid, looking very pretty under her black lace veil; she spends several minutes bargaining for some lentils, and at length goes off with a parcel of those little brown seeds, of which she will make a puree to garnish the grand joint at her master’s dinner table. This esteemed dish is a zampone, a pig’s leg, bound and stuffed with meat, like a Bologna sausage, and smothered under a brown mash of lentils. But what is that keen-eyed man-cook buying? Certain pear-shaped shining vegetables of a rich purple colour. Such things were never eaten in old England. They are called petronciani, and are the fruit of the Solanum insanum or ‘mad apples’. They are first boiled till tender, then cut into slices, dipped in egg, and fried.

A sharp-faced old servant comes up, throws a quick glance round the stall, and muttering, ‘What, no gobbi, today? I shall have to go back to Menica after all’, and away she hurries. What are gobbi, do you suppose? They are a favourite vegetable in Italy, and are nothing but the stalks of the artichoke, tied up in bundles like celery. They may be eaten boiled, and served with melted butter, or cut into pieces, and fried in eggs and bread crumbs; and are excellent either way, the taste being something between celery and seakale.

Another favourite Italian vegetable consists of the knots of young leaves on the stalks of the fennel; but the flavour is too strong to suit an English taste. There are also some very small kinds of vegetable marrow, about as large as apples, which are very good.

Here comes another purchaser, who asks for ceci, and goes away with a pocket of round, yellow seeds, like over-grown peas, which were taken wet from a barrel of salt water, The plant which produces them is the Cicer Arietinum (English ram’s head, or chick pea). A very good soup maigre is made from them; but if your olfactory organs are delicate, it will be advisable not to assist at the cooking of them, for they emit a strong odour, like salt cod. The Italians live largely on leguminous plants; the numbers of different beans they use is quite remarkable; they vary in colour from the white haricot to dark red, and even dark brown species. If a working man can get a few beans, either hot or cold, with oil and vinegar, he is quite content to dine without meat ; and if a few of the greenish yellow funghi are added, he thinks it a meal fit for a king.

But what is this man calling as he conies slowly up the crowded market-street, shouting ‘Salati, salati’ (salted)? A little boy hearing the cry begins to sing ‘Son salati i miei lupini, Son salati dalla dama’. ‘My lupins are salted by my true love’ and he pulls a minute brown coin out of his pocket, and quickly exchanges it for the large flat, yellow lupin seeds, which the man has in a flat, wooden tub. There is scarcely a street corner in Florence at which you will not see the inevitable vendor of lupins, who is largely patronized by the working classes. The lupins are eaten after being kept in brine, but they are not cooked.

In the matter of salad, Italian tastes are as wide as in leguminous vegetables. They eat chicory and sorrel leaves, basil leaves, lettuce, endives, beetroot, dandelion, and cold cabbage. And a favourite salad is a grassylooking plant, which they call barba di cappuccini (or Capucino’s beard), known in England as ‘buck’s horn’, ‘goat’s beard’, or ‘star of the earth’. The Italians have classical authority for eating this, for Dioscorides said in his time that the plantago coronopus was eaten cooked; the only difference is, that the moderns do not trouble to cook it.

The fruit stall, which is often distinct from the vegetable seller’s, contains quite as many specimens which are strange to English eyes. Side by side with yellow apricots lies the cactus fruit, or prickly pear. Be sure that you don’t attempt to eat it, or even to touch it, without a knife, for the harmless little brown spots which dot its ruddy surface are each composed of a thousand invisible thorns which have a knack of entering the skin on the smallest provocation. The correct manner of eating a prickly pear is to cut off the two ends, then cut down the outer rind, and laying it open, take out the inner pulp.

Here are two baskets full of russet brown fruits; one familiar enough is the common medlar, but the other is shaped like a pear. It is the fruit of the pyrus sorbus (service tree). When fresh, they look like bright coloured pears; we were shown large bunches of them hung up in the shop, but they are only good to eat when mellowed by keeping till brown as a ripe medlar, and have a much richer flavour than that fruit.

A basket of red, velvety-looking berries, similar to strawberries, only rounder, next attracts us; they are arbutus berries, and when quite ripe are really very good to eat. The children are fond of another wild fruit, called giuggiole (jujube tree). They are glossy brown berries, with a soft, green pulp within. The oval red berries of the ‘cornel cherry’ are also greatly appreciated by children. The Romans also knew this cherry, but they grew it chiefly for the wood, from which their lances and arrows were made. But the most cooling and delicious fruit of all is the Japanese nespolo, a yellow medlar, with a delicious acid taste; they come in as soon as the warm weather begins, and are the favourite refresheners until the water-melon takes their place.

There are also different nuts eaten here. Besides walnuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts (which make a dozen different kinds of foods), we have the pinoli and the noce di Brasil. Pinoli are the little kernels of the cone of the stone pine. They are remarkably good in flavour, having a slight aromatic taste. They are obtained by placing the pine cone in an oven, when the heat causes the scales to open, and the nuts are easily shaken out and cracked with a hammer. The Brasil nut is a curious little pair of twin yellow berries in a brownish husk; the flavour is rich and aromatic.

A walk through the Italian market will certainly produce the thought that the English might vary and economize their food much more than they do. At those old cook-shops, in which the Florentines of three or four centuries ago were wont to dine, and where the ancient plates and dishes they used are preserved on shelves on the walls, one sees the most curious processes of cooking. Over the fire a large wheel revolves, on which are trussed rows of fowls, thrushes, and larks, the latter alternated with bits of bread, pork, and sage leaves. In the frying-pans are savoury messes of yellow polenta, made from the maizeflour, frying in oil, and of brown migliaccio, a cake of chestnut flour, and piles of nicely cooked fritto, the materials for which are endless, ranging the vegetable and animal kingdom.

As for economy, we might learn a great deal from a Florentine cook. For instance, when we truss a fowl, we make no use of the liver, except by displaying it under the wing. As for the cock’s comb, and other appendages to the head and neck of chanticleer, we consider them refuse. Not so the Italian; he calls them regalia, cuts them up and stews them with the liver in luscious gravy, and makes one of the most stylish entries for a dinner party, either by filling a vol-au-vent with them, or in a shape of stewed rice, called risotto con regalia. A fowl will, in the poulterer’s hands, serve several customers, for marketing is done on the infinitesimal system. The two bits off the breast are bought separately as a dish for an invalid or a fricassee for an entree. Then the carcass is sold for roasting or making soup, the legs and neck are purchased for a few centesimi by the poor, and the combs and livers go to the tables of the rich as regalia.

The fish market presents equally curious specimens of food. The sepia, or cuttle fish, is much liked, and you see its long arms, with their curious rows of circular disks, lying about in all directions. You will never find a mackerel; and if a salmon be visible, it has been imported for the benefit of some English Midas, at ten francs the Tuscan pound of twelve ounces. But there are large-headed, three-sided fish called naselli, which are as good as whiting, and a large kind of cod called palombo. Lobsters, as we know them, do not appear, but there are huge crawfish, larger than any lobster, and looking like magnified shrimps. It is a fashion to fry the very small shrimps in their shells, and eat them crisp and entire. Frogs’ legs also make a very delicate dish of fritto. Indeed, what will not an Italian make delicious in a fry? A dish of dainty morsels, fried in butter, of a pale brown, is placed before you, and its contents will prove a perfect riddle. Probably there will be melon flowers, bits of every vegetable imaginable, celery, morsels of calves’ brain and marrow, tiny lamb chops, sweetbreads, liver, artichoke, bits of fennel, &c., &c. Nothing comes amiss to the frying-pan when fritto misto is required. But our marketing is over; we have got back to the kitchen, so we will leave the cook to her mysteries.

Source: Tidbits in Florence c. 1890   Leave a comment

One of the great challenges with Italian food in the nineteenth-century is to, brush away the references to the Franco-Italian cuisine of the rich, and to discover just what the normal urban Italian was eating. Sometimes we have chance but informative references. This one comes from Florence c. 1890. The ‘Archaeologist’ is a foreign friend of the author. SY

The antecedents of the Archaeologist are known to few. One infers that a laborious life in college, library, shop, or the inheritance of some tiny legacy, on the borders of the Baltic Sea, has enabled him to realize his dreams, and seek Italy. He rents a furnished room, narrow and chill, in the household of a worthy chemist on one of the crooked streets in the rear of the Palazzo Vecchio. He rambles about the market-place, partaking of the food of the citizens, at a very trifling expense, much more frequently than he seeks a restaurant, or hotel table d’ hôte; here tidbits of fish, polenta, artichoke, and the flowers of the squash, dipped in batter, frying to a crisp brown tint in the bubbling oil of the casserole over the charcoal brazier, in the door of the cook-shop, tempt him; there the portions of boiled ham, roast beef, Bologna sausage, and Gorgonzola cheese invite to a more substantial repast; or fruit, and all the delicate varieties of bread made by English, Swiss, or Viennese bakers await him. Possibly he accepts these trifles of daily life as possessing a deeper significance than the mere nourishment of the body. Thus he has been known to waylay the vender of candied fruit on the Trinity Bridge, and purchase the segments of sticky pears, or sugared oranges in the brass dish, not from any fondness for the delicacy, but because he traces a marked Etruscan origin of speech in the aspirated cry of ‘Caramella’, rendered by the cockney Florentine as ‘Haramella’. He has been further known to sit on a wall in the country by the hour, with the motive of beguiling an intelligent young contadino to describe to him incidents of the last harvest season, in order to enjoy the picturesqueness of the language employed, and the felicitous turns of expression of this naive son of the soil, so nearly akin to Latin sources in the mind of the listener.

Posted January 3, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Source: Florence and its restaurants c. 1910   Leave a comment

The following comes from a British account  c. 1910 relating to dining in Florence. The famous Doney’s is mentioned – a restaurant that appears in Zeffirelli’s Tea with Mussolini. We see also though the rise of the ‘purely Italian’ restaurants, a phenomenon that is just beginning before the First World War.

The restaurants of Florence are those of a city where the natives are thrifty and the visitors dine in hotels. There is one expensive high-class house, in the Via Tornabuoni Doney e Nipoti or Doney et Neveux where the cooking is Franco-Italian, and the Chianti and wines are dear beyond belief, and the venerable waiters move with a deliberation which can drive a hungry man and one is always hungry in this fine Tuscan air to despair. I like better the excellent old-fashioned purely Italian food and Chianti and speed at Bonciani’s in the Via de’ Panzani, close to the station. These twain are the best. But it is more interesting to go to the huge Gambrinus in the Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele, because so much is going on all the time. One curious Florentine habit is quickly discovered and resented by the stranger who frequents a restaurant, and that is the system of changing waiters from one set of tables to another; so that whereas in London and Paris the wise diner is true to a corner because it carries the same service with it, in Florence he must follow the service. But if the restaurants have odd ways, and a limited range of dishes and those not very interesting, they make up for it by being astonishingly quick Things are cooked almost miraculously. The Florentines eat little. But greediness is not an Italian fault. No greedy people would have a five-syllabled word for waiter.


Posted December 23, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Source: Pasta and St Lawrence   Leave a comment

The following comment comes from a book describing the experience of an American resident in Florence c. 1890.

On the 10th of August Florence celebrates the Festa of San Lorenzo, and according to custom the weather should be excessively hot. ‘As hot as the day of San Lorenzo’, is a saying generally accepted, the sun’s rays possibly suggesting the glowing coals and gridiron of the noble youth’s martyrdom. Seasons may vary south of the Alps, and in Tuscany one summer is no guide for another. Why should the breeze be cool, with a hint of hail recently fallen on the heights, in its breath that enters the Florence Window, rendering agreeable at any hour of the day a ramble across the Via dei Pucci to the Via Cavour, in response to the invitation of San Lorenzo’s bells? The Riccardi Palace is magnificent in stately proportions of massive stone, barred casement, and great iron rings to hold the torches and standards of the Middle Ages, in the light of the summer morning.

Venders of small wares, brooms, lamps, bird-cages, occupy the stone bench flanking the spacious structure. There is an unwonted crowd, moving of vehicles, and perceptible hum of voices in all of the streets leading to the Piazza of San Lorenzo; and still the bell clangs out above other sounds. We are reminded that it is the festival of the shops selling pasta; and each is made as attractive in decoration of green garlands, tinsel ornaments, and little flags as the skill and pecuniary resources of the shop-keeper can render them.

In the midst the pasta is temptingly displayed, the hard red grain of wheat crushed, prepared, and manipulated into manifold shapes by generations of workers at Naples, Genoa, or Bologna. Here the long and apparently brittle pipes of macaroni are built into gigantic pyramids of interlacing sticks in a window, flanked by the short, tough stems known as padre nostra; there the more delicate white nastrini (‘ribbons’), vermieelli, and capellini – the latter as finely spun as hairs – are arranged in nests and festoons on a shelf, while heaps of tiny golden grains, occhi (‘eyes’), and transparent crescents or stars for soup are piled in bags around the entire interior.

The Italian gourmet will not fail to note the capelli (‘hats’), the small disks of paste to be filled with minced fowl or veal, like Lilliputian patties gently stewed in broth, and served with some subtle flavor of nutmeg, in one of the Case gastronomiche of the Via Porta Rossa, which are ever redolent of ham and sausage. Great wheels of golden Milan butter, the flask of oil, and the odorous Parmesan cheese at hand must additionally tempt a people of a largely farinaceous diet like the Florentines, in such a display. In the Borgo San Lorenzo rises a temple of pasta of fair and accurate architectural proportions, the proprietor of the shop beaming in an obscure perspective of triumphal arches, between columns of twisted vermicelli and with a cupola roof of solid paste overhead. Why is macaroni dedicated to Saint Lawrence by ancient Florence? Is a larger quantity of the nutritious article of food consumed by the town on this day than on any other in the calendar of the year? Was the first Italian who strung the threads in festoons to dry in the air christened Lorenzo? Nobody pauses to answer, and the bells clang on, chanting their own refrain of higher thoughts than mere aliment for the perishing body of man.

Posted December 18, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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