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Archive for February, 2011
Friday I went to Florence on the train with my friend Gina to do some research for our food and wine tours. Our mission was hedonistic- to revel in the world of food- specifically small artisan chocolate makers and the two main food markets. This trip from Rome only takes one and a half hours on the Eurostar train. It amazes me that two such great cities are so close to each other, and yet so different- the first having immense ruins which bring alive the ancient world, mated with the uber extravagance of the randy Baroque, the latter with a more staid and refined air of a grand dame of the early Renaissance with a small town charm. Just as the way people in each city speak is very unique, so is the cuisine. In speech, there is no hard ‘c’ in Tuscany, it becomes an ‘h’. It was shocking the first time I heard it, and I still find that every time I visit it makes me giggle because it is so odd, yet incredibly charming. Imagine if there was an entire state in the USA where everyone said ‘handy’ instead of ‘candy’! The people are also different. There is an earthiness there- as if Tuscans are still tied to the land and the surrounding countryside, but in a sophisticated way. They listen. And they think about what they say. Rome is more brash and lively. We started out our visit by having an excellent café macchiato and cappuccino at the Café Gala between the train station and the market and admired the Sieni Pastry Shop which has a beautiful traditional Artofex wood oven from 1909 on display. There was a big line for the complex array of pastries in the case and people were silently content as they tucked into them.
The Centrale and Sant’Ambrogio food markets are medium sized and down to earth, the latter is smaller, less sophisticated and less expensive than the first. Fruits and vegetables abound and there are specialty items such as spices, fresh and dried Porcini and Chanterelle mushrooms or grapes from the local harvests- autumn specialties. Various kinds of fresh greens, chicory and endive as well as a myriad of vine ripened tomato varieties some to be eaten green and others for sauces.
Several counters in the market have amazing cured meats- one that I have never seen in Rome being a prosciutto called Renzini Lui that is covered with red peppercorns and onion flakes over a triangular patch where the skin has been removed and aged 18 months. Gina and I ordered a couple of thin slices to try right there. The flavor was delicate with a mild hint of the red peppercorn, not too salty. Don’t be afraid to point to what you want and ask for ‘un etto’- a small enough portion to try on the spot. We went to a specialty cheese counter with twenty kinds of caprino goat cheese; tiny ones wrapped in leaves of walnut or Mirto, the Myrtle plant is associated with Venus, the goddess of love. Irresistible! At this counter you can find everything from fresh herbs and smoked duck breast to bottarga, which is tuna roe cured in salt and covered with bees wax to preserve it.
Many counters feature traditional cuts of meat- all parts of the cow and pig. The range of offerings include hooves, three types of tripe (trippa , lampredotto) from the various stomachs of a cow, cooked cows noses, cooked skin, and every organ imaginable. This is a leftover from poverty cooking when the choice cuts went the rich lords and the remainders went to the less well off. Countless delicious recipes make use of these parts and form a vital role in Tuscan cooking today.
Lampredottai are sellers of tripe sandwiches with stands around the city, a specialty for which there is always a line. Another market stand only sells poppa- the cooked udder of a cow which is served in slices with a green or spicy sauce on a sandwich or cubed with tooth picks. The people waiting in line for this have a special look on their face, like they are in on a secret that only the initiated know about, unconcerned whether you know about it or not! Tripe, organs, liver and cooked skin play a big part in Tuscan cooking. Cotiche (pig skin) and Beans – a delicious dish with the skin adding gelatin and flavor in this savory, is a fall and winter specialty which we tried. There are many bakeries to try out- at the Mercato Sant’Ambrogio Gina and I were both attracted to a dish at the Panificio Chicco di Grano that neither of us had seen before, which we discovered is a specialty during the grape harvest (vendemmia). It looks like a thick pizza with black olives on it but it is really a kind of cobbler with fresh grapes called Schiacciata di Vendemia. A yeast dough is made and the grapes are put inside with another layer of dough over the top. Then the whole thing is topped with more grapes and sugar and baked. We tried a slice and loved it!
Another stand in the market featured several types of fresh ravioli from pumkin to orange filled and even with spinach dough, gnocchi, tortellini, tortelloni, and gnocchone which are larger round balls of potato and spinach dumplings. Gina and I were drooling at this point and sad we did not have a kitchen to go to at that moment so that we could cook up an amazing meal.
The nearby meat counters had everything from the very expensive Fiorentina Chianina steaks, thick cut, aged and from free range beautiful white cows in Tuscany and Umbria- to lesser expensive cuts of veal, beef and pork, to more fanciful preparations.
One of these was a fatty pork roast stuffed with spinach, ham, yellow peppers and cheese that one bakes for an hour and a half at 350 degrees. Let’s just say that it looked sinful. Next time I come to Florence I will stay at an apartment, go to the market in the morning and buy a bagful of specialties and spend the whole day cooking… Markets can sometimes be intimidating since you often cannot buy the things that you want when you are on vacation if you don’t have a kitchen, but they give a great glimpse into the local culture and you get to see people of all walks of life making their purchases. Our foodie tours are designed to give you a taste of the wonderful delicacies to be had and learn about the local history and traditions of each city in Italy. If you are on your own don’t be afraid to ask questions- most people speak some English and are happy to tell you about their offerings. Enjoy! Mercato Centrale Open Monday-Saturday 7:00am-2:00pm Winter hours: open Saturdays and days before holidays. Mercato Sant’Ambrogio Open Monday-Saturday 7:00am-2:00pm