Fine Foods and Wine
When we speak of Florentine cuisine, sumptuous medieval banquets or refined and eccentric dishes at the court of the Medici come to mind.
In reality, the noble cuisine was intended to please the eye more than the palate and due to the increasingly scarce availability of exotic ingredients and to the elaborate preparation involved, it has all but disappeared from Florentine culinary traditions.
True Florentine cuisine, like general Tuscan cuisine for that matter, is simple, poor and has country roots.
The four basic ingredients of Florentine cuisine are Tuscan bread (unsalted crusty bread), excellent extra virgin olive oil, meat and wine, or more specifically, Chianti.
Bread is the fundamental ingredient of many Florentine recipes, from crostini to soups.
The classic starter and simple appetizers served with aperitifs consist of a vast selection of crostini and bruschette. The typical Tuscan crostino is served with a chicken liver and calf spleen pate and bread often accompanies the excellent cold meats and salamis such as finocchiona, soppressata and boar meat hams and sausages.
Bread is also the main ingredient of traditional soups such as minestra di pane, ribollita, pappa col pomodoro or the summer panzanella.
The importance of bread attests to the humble origins of Florentine cuisine, by which cooks sought to use this widely available staple food as much as possible and as creatively as possible, since it was the main and sometimes sole source of sustenance for many.
Extra virgin olive oil from the region of Florence is fruity in flavour with hints of almond and artichoke and is golden in colour. Considered one of the best olive oils in the world, it can transform a simple slice of bread into a true delight for the palate.
It is mostly used raw to enhance the flavour of soups and to dress – or “affogare” (drench) – cannellini beans, another staple of Florentine cuisine.
To speak of meat in Florence seem superfluous, given the fame attained worldwide by the fiorentina, a T-bone steak cooked on a grill.
The true fiorentina is a 600-800 g T-bone steak from a young Chianina beef. The bone must be attached and the steak must include both he fillet and sirloin.
It is grilled, preferably over chestnut ember, and served rare, with a sprinkling of salt, pepper, and a drizzle of oil.
The fiorentina tradition can be traced back to the feast of San Lorenzo and to the Medici family. During this feast, it was customary to prepare bonfires throughout the city and roast huge quantities of beef and veal that were then distributed to the people.
Legend has it that on one such occasion there were English knights present who called the meat served to them beef steak, hence the Italian term bistecca.
Entrails are another traditional Florentine fare and that the entire city is brimming with stands and kiosks that serve trippa (tripe) and lampredotto (a typical Florentine tripe), which is also used as a filling for the sandwiches that have become the symbol of Florentine street food.
Of course game is another primary ingredient, especially wild boar, which is used to make sauces, ham and sausage, and hare, used in the typical sauce served with pappardelle, a traditional cut of Tuscan egg pasta.
The most traditional dessert is undoubtedly castagnaccio, made with chestnut flour, pine nuts, raisins, rosemary and olive oil. Schiacciata is a traditional Carnival cake, prepared with flour, sugar, butter, milk, vanilla, yeast, orange and lemon.
The nearby town of Prato is the home of the famous cantucci, dry biscuits with almonds that are usually served at the end of a meal, dipped in Vinsanto dessert wine.
Vinsanto is a passito, a strong sweet raisin wine, more akin to a liqueur, typical of Florence and Siena that takes its name from the custom of transferring wine from the cask to bottles during Holy Week.
But Chianti, a Tuscan wine by definition and certainly one of the best-known Italian wines in the world, remains the true king of Florentine wines.
In the Florentine provinces, there are at least four different types of Chianti, the most famous being Chianti Classico, produced in the hillsides between Florence and Siena.
It is the historic rivalry between two Tuscan cities that gave rise to the symbol of Chianti Classico, the black cockerel that identifies the consortium.
According to legend, at the time of medieval conflict for dominion of the territory, the cities of Florence and Siena decided to end the bloodshed with an unusual challenge: two knights would leave their respective cities at dawn when the cockerel crowed and the point at which they met would become the boundary between the two cities.
The Sienese chose a white cockerel that was fed and pampered until the day of the challenge, while the Florentines chose a black, malnourished cockerel that was kept in a cramped cage.
On the day of the challenge, the black Florentine cockerel, driven by hunger, began crowing before dawn and the Florentine knight left much earlier than the Sienese.
The two knights met 12 kilometres from the walls of Siena, on the border of the Chianti area.
Ever since, Chianti has traditionally belonged to Florence.
This legend is very dear to Florentines, and if while sipping a glass of Chianti Classico, you should ask a Florentine why the symbol of this wine is a black cockerel, you will see his face light with pride as he begins to recount the tale.