Introduction

Introduction

By
Emiko Davies
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781743790038
Photographer
Lauren Bamford

In Florence, history has a way of weaving itself through every aspect of life, and food is no exception. The kitchen staples and many of the favourite dishes of the Renaissance city’s cuisine are much the same as they were during Dante’s medieval Florence or Catherine de’ Medici’s sixteenth century because, as locals like to say, ‘squadra che vince non si cambia’ – in other words, you should not (and need not) change a good thing.

A stroll through the city’s streets – past pastry shops bustling with espresso-sippers, busy lunchtime trattorias, food vans selling tripe sandwiches and charming hole-in-the-wall wine bars – reveals how Florentines remain proudly attached to their unchanging cuisine, a cuisine that tells the unique story of its city, dish by dish.

The Florentines, like most Italians, have a very important relationship with their food. There are rules about what can be eaten when, with what accompaniments and in what particular order. Seasons and traditions play an important role in the kitchen and you can easily tell the time of year by simply looking at a Florentine menu, bakery window or market stall.

Florentine cuisine is earthy and rustic, at times even austere. In his 2003 book Cucina Fiorentina, Tuscan gastronome and journalist Aldo Santini compares it to ‘a man with his head screwed on’. Not extravagant, but reliable and modest. Sincere and straightforward. Although simple, it is prepared with pride and care, and makes particularly good use of bread and olive oil, two of the cuisine’s staple ingredients.

In his introduction to The Decameron, fourteenth-century Florentine author Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) recounts how some Florentines attempted to ‘live better’ and avoid the plague by following a philosophy of ‘Delicatissimi cibi e ottimi vini temperatissimamente usando, e ogni lussuria fuggendo...’ In other words, delicate food and very good wines, used with care and avoiding every luxury. In many ways, this is still the Florentine approach to food.

With a nod to medieval origins, many dishes reflect the ethos of not letting anything go to waste. The Florentines are masters of thrift, using up what others would normally throw out. They make the most of stale bread, chicken livers, lampredotto (abomasum tripe) and even roosters’ combs – although this once popular Renaissance dish, known as cibreo, is almost extinct today. All of these ingredients are carefully prepared in characteristically simple ways, unique to Florence, in dishes such as ribollita, crostini di fegatini and lampredotto panini. Not only are these ingredients a model of economy in the kitchen, but they are also exalted, with these well-known dishes being elevated to hero status in the city.

Florentine food journalist Leonardo Romanelli points out that the only weakness in the local cuisine is dessert. Missing a sweet tooth, many of Florence’s traditional sweets are either bread-based, such as the autumnal schiacciata all’uva (grape focaccia), pandiramerino (raisin and rosemary buns) and schiacciata alla fiorentina (a yeasted cake dusted with powdered sugar); or they are deep-fried and are strictly a winter Carnival treat, such as cenci and frittelle (rice fritters). Zuccotto is the closest thing to a proper dessert, resembling a bright pink version of the dome of Florence’s Duomo, with Alchermes-dipped sponge encasing a rich ricotta and chocolate filling. It seems like a relative of trifle or even tiramisu, and is sometimes served frozen like semifreddo. And then there are, of course, cantuccini (almond biscotti), the preferred way to end a meal at a Florentine table, with a glass of sweet vin santo for dipping and inspiring conversation.

It goes without saying that Florence is a city that lives in its past. Its medieval and Renaissance history, immortalised in famous buildings, sculptures and paintings, is the main reason the city is as loved and visited as it is today. In every nook and cranny, history seeps out onto the well-trodden stone streets and into the every day.

Food in the renaissance

The Renaissance was a period of enormous change, not only in the world of art and architecture, or even politics, but also in astronomy. The same sensibility that was being used in art was influencing dishes in Florentine kitchens, and the subsequent banquets in noble palazzi.

During this time, cooking techniques improved and became more sophisticated, while aesthetics and presentation of food became more important than ever. Cheese-making techniques were much the same as they are today. Apparently Michelangelo would request seasonal pecorino cheese (known as marzolino cheese) be sent to him from Florence when he was working in Rome. The discovery of the New World in 1492 also brought a plethora of new and exotic ingredients to experiment with in the kitchen. These ingredients gave rise to more refined and elegant food.

At the 1469 wedding of Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449–1492) – Florence’s beloved ruler and benefactor to artists such as Michelangelo and Botticelli – there was a deliberately modest public feast, where 400 of the town’s citizens were invited to share in the event. The simple menu consisted of savoury appetisers, boiled and roasted meat, biscuits and candied fruits.

Three years earlier, for the marriage of Lorenzo’s sister, Nannina, into Florence’s powerful Ruccellai family, celebrations were more extravagant, yet still refined. Fifty cooks fed over 500 people over three days.

Boiled tongue and biancomangiare were served at the first course: a delicate dish and enormously popular in the Renaissance, biancomangiare was made with finely pounded, poached chicken breast cooked with almond milk, white bread and sugar until creamy, then garnished with rosewater or spices. It had a beautifully creamy texture and a delicate but perfectly balanced flavour, and was made using techniques that ensured that it remained perfectly white in colour. It is a wonderful example of how the culinary arts went through a Renaissance as much as the rest of the arts, taking a giant leap from the rough gruels of the Middle Ages.

This course was followed by roast meats garnished with rosewater, then cold meats and jellied fish, and then a second roast. The food, as characterised by this period and by its leaders, was splendid and refined, but not at all over the top.

An artist’s food diary

Pontormo (1494–1557), an often misunderstood Mannerist artist, kept a diary between 1554 and 1556, the years just before his death. It was very much a food journal and, in between little sketches, a humble account of a modest Renaissance diet.

He mentions some of the fantastic meals he enjoyed with his star pupil and good friend, Bronzino. In one entry, he writes that after one such long Sunday lunch, which turned into supper, he fasted until Wednesday when he could finally bring himself to have ‘some Trebbiano and a couple of eggs’. He goes on to list, almost daily, his main meals: a cabbage and an omelette; half of the head of a kid and soup; zibibbo grapes, bread and capers in salad; mutton soup; an omelette with broad beans and some caviar; some dried figs. He even mentions eating rosemary bread, still a favourite bakery find known as pandiramerino.

The renaissance supper club

While Pontormo’s notes on his everyday diet is a modest and revealing account of the solitary life of an old but determined artist, a little earlier in 1512, twelve of Florence’s most famous artists and poets had formed a sort of Renaissance supper club.

As Renaissance artist and biographer, Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) narrates, La Compagnia del Paiolo consisted of a group of artists who were to contribute creative, aesthetically pleasing dinners for each other, one more inventive than the next. Each member could bring along four friends for dinner (Michelangelo, Botticelli and even Leonardo da Vinci are said to have participated), with the main objective being simple merry-making.

The architect and sculptor Giovanni Francesco Rustici (1475–1554) once invited his guests to eat in what seemed to be a giant, steaming trompe l’oeil tub (a reference to the paiolo of the club’s name, a large copper pot for cooking over a fire). Guests sat around the edge of the pot and dishes were held up on the boughs of a moving tree. Meanwhile, the painter Andrea del Sarto (1486–1530) once contributed a gastronomic version of Florence’s Baptistery, complete with columns made of sausages and a marble floor of soprassata (a favourite Tuscan salume similar to brawn or head-cheese), decorated with a choir book made of sheets of lasagne and a choir of roasted birds.

The nineteenth century to today

The nineteenth-century gastronome, Pellegrino Artusi (1820–1911), is considered the great-grandfather of Italian cooking. His self-published cookbook of 790 recipes, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, was written from his Florentine home in Piazza d’Azeglio and published in 1891. This was a first – a cookbook that defined Italian cuisine as a national cuisine. Just three decades earlier, the regional peninsula had been unified into one Italy, and for a brief period between 1865 and 1871, Florence was named its capital.

Artusi was a native of Emilia-Romagna who spent a significant part of his life in Florence. His cookbook is peppered with very good Florentine and other Tuscan dishes, many of which are still cooked the way he describes. His book became a national bestseller and is still present in the majority of Italian kitchens today.

Piero Camporesi, the editor of the 1970 edition of Science in the Kitchen, goes as far as to suggest that it was Artusi’s cookbook that helped bring the country and its diverse dialects together into one national language. In the Oxford Companion to Italian Food, Gillian Riley paints this picture: ‘While the questione della lingua [question of language] was being debated by academics, innocent housewives throughout the land were consulting their ‘Artusi’ every day, and his literate, slightly colloquial, Florentine version of Tuscan … became reassuringly familiar.’

In 1927, Giulio Gandi wrote Antiche e caratteristiche trattorie fiorentine (Antique and characteristic Florentine trattorie), which gives interesting insights into which dishes were on the tables nearly a century ago. He describes Florence’s best specialities as ‘the famous bistecca’ (Florentine steak) and stewed white beans dressed simply in olive oil from the Florentine hills. He also mentions deep-fried chicken and artichokes, arista (Florentine roast pork), fegatelli (pork liver parcels), ribollita and deep-fried fish pulled right out of the Arno river. All, except for the fish, are still on the menus of Florence’s best and most traditional trattorie.

No longer is Florence considered a city of innovation, inspiration and modernity, and neither is it a city that is ruled by its gastronomy, which is made of dishes that are the direct descendants of those written about by Dante, Boccaccio and Bronzino. Its unique and unpretentious cuisine remains little known in the gastronomic world – under the shadow of the Tuscan region as a whole, perhaps. But in the same way that history weaves its way into anything you explore in depth in Florence, so is the cuisine formed by its fantastic history, helped by its fortunate position in the centre of Tuscany, where good olive oil, good wine and abundant produce have always been readily available. Fortunately for all good food lovers, its proud, headstrong people have shown as much dedication to preserving the city’s favourite dishes as they have the famous buildings and art.

Notes about the recipes

Recipes were tested on a standard gas cooktop. You may need to adjust cooking times slightly for induction or electric cooktops.

Baking recipes were all tested in a conventional oven with an oven thermometer. If using a fan-forced oven, you may need to adjust the temperature or cooking times slightly.

Eggs used were medium-sized, free-range eggs.

When a recipe calls for olive oil, always use extra-virgin olive oil except in the case of deep-frying, where a regular not-too-fruity olive oil with a lighter flavour, should be used.

Some tips

Baking bread

Use a setting that distributes heat equally from the top and bottom of the oven (most importantly the bottom). You may need to place the bread on a low shelf to make sure that it cooks well from underneath.

Blind baking

Blind baking helps to ensure that the bottom crust of a tart cooks through properly. Place a sheet of baking paper over the pastry and fill with baking beads (you can also use dried beans or uncooked rice – discard afterwards or you can keep these ‘baking beans’ in a jar and re-use specifically for this purpose). Bake in the oven as per the recipe, then remove the paper and beads and continue with the recipe.

Crostini and crostoni

It is ideal to use lightly toasted, stale bread for these, as they do in Florence. An oven or grill is preferable to a toaster. If using fresh bread, simply dry out the bread by baking in a very low oven until the bread slices are just dry to the touch, not coloured or turned into crisps.

Gelato-making

The recipes here work best with an ice cream machine. Homemade gelato usually benefits from a rest in the freezer for about an hour before serving. If it has been in the freezer for overnight or longer, remove the gelato about 15 minutes before serving.

Yeast and rising dough

In Italy, fresh yeast is readily available at supermarkets and is frequently used. Dried yeast commonly comes in two forms: active dry yeast and instant yeast. They can be used interchangeably but the recipes here use active dry yeast, which needs to be dissolved first in warm water. Instant yeast can be mixed directly into the dough and does not need proving time.

If you want to double any of the yeasted bread recipes, don’t double the yeast but give it a longer rise. There’ll be enough there to work on double the rest of the ingredients. As a very simple rule, the less yeast used, the longer it will need to rise (overnight in the refrigerator is best) and with a longer rise you will be rewarded with a better developed flavour, a better texture and longer lasting bread. But if you're in a hurry and you only have time to let the bread rise for 1 hour (as a minimum), keep it in a warm place to encourage it to rise more quickly. If it is winter and your kitchen is cold, you can even warm up the oven a little, turn it off, then place the bowl in the warmed oven.

If using active dry yeast and you’re not sure how old it is, do a quick test to check it’s still alive and well. Place the required amount of yeast in 125 ml warm water and a pinch of sugar. Stir to dissolve then let sit 10 minutes. If the yeast is still active, there will be foam and bubbles – and quite a bit of them. If this doesn’t happen, discard the yeast and buy some new yeast. If all is good you can use this mixture in the recipe, taking into consideration the water measurement.

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