Curious Appetite

food in Florence

Gluten-Free food in Florence and Italy in general

Italy is not just pizza and pasta, guys. If you think about it- the Mediterranean diet is all about whole foods and pure ingredients. Appetizers can be marinated vegetables, olives, grilled veggies, cold cuts, olive oil and crudités (pinzimonio), fried polenta and so on. First courses can be bean soups (crema di ceci!), risotti (made without cheese) and rice salads. Mains are usually meat or seafood based and not usually made with cheese unless it’s like involtini or polpette, but it is quite doable to find main courses without cheese if not certainly easy to ask for it to be omitted. Contorni (side dishes) would be a breeze: herb roasted potatoes, braised greens, vegetables, beans, salads and such. Continue Reading

Rare and protected foods in Italy- not alfredo.

Every stage of my Italian life dives deeper into the underbelly of what makes this culture tick, a new breakthrough is made every month or so, a new language barrier has been breached. And this applies also to my understanding of Italian food.

The basic level is understanding a real pizza (no tomato sauce base or thick deep pan crust here), a real plate of pasta (made fresh and with minimal ingredients like cherry tomatoes, garlic and olive oil- no Alfredo sauce ever) and that Italians actually drink beer with their pizza, not Chianti.

Then when you are here for a bit, and if you are a wanna-be food anthropologist, you’ll see that pizza and pasta really isn’t truly Italian. You’ll learn about food from the Renaissance  (wild boar cooked in a cacao spiced sauce), cakes and breads made from wild chestnut flour, foraged porcini and truffles, heirloom beans, salami made from cooked blood and pig hearts and cheese made from rare species of bovine and mountain sheep in obscure villages. This is what makes my heart flutter. This is what proves to me that Italy is a gift to the world. And the best place to live.

There are consortia, funded partly by the chamber of commerce, local governments and agricultural ministries, that PROTECT these ancient foods, and provide a means for these precious commodities made since centuries past; to survive and be cultivated for generations to come. This is what blows my mind about Italy. That here the government takes an active role to protect biodiversity in agriculture and food culture. And the aggressive stance against allowing GMO’s to be grown in the region and demanding labeling of incoming food products from abroad. How can a country like Italy be so deep in recession and so backwards in certain ways- yet is more advanced in food democracy than a supposedly free and democratic country like America where none of these protocols exist? Hey America, just label it already!

In the Fall, cities across the boot celebrate the harvest of countless foods and hand-made products like cheese, preserves, dessert breads, etc. They are put out on display at events and sagre (local fair) in piazzas and open-air markets, with live traditional folk music and dances, with wine (variety is according to the region, or the district even) that was just pressed and fermented weeks ago. And here is a little collection of what I have discovered so far:

Heirloom beans from Lucca (Tuscany)
Truffles
Aged Pecorino Toscano at a farmer’s market, so nutty and full of umami.
Biroldo (salami made from the scraps we would normally throw out like blood, heart, other organs and random face parts)- centuries old Tuscan delicacy
Panetone (big sweet bread made during the holiday season) but this one was made with Marrone del Mugello- an ancient breed of sweet chestnut that only grows in the Mugello district of Tuscany. Italians are now brewing beer with this nutty thing!

Il Cariton! This is a dessert typical to Piedmont- the slow food capital of the WORLD! This is made with some unique grape varieties that are like a cross between a cherry, strawberry and raspberry! Believe it or not, this dessert is being safeguarded as a sort of endangered cultural food. Italians do not let old traditions die.
You know its Fall and you’re in Tuscany when you see this dessert on display and at wine festivals. Its a bread (la schiacciata, which literally means smashed or squashed) with the new ripe and ready sangiovese grapes from the region! I consider the presence of la schiacciata col’uva an interlude to new wines about to be released.

Want a taste of a secret Italian dish? Try out this recipe for la schiacciata con l’uva (taken from Epicurious.com):

  • 1 package active dry yeast (2 1/2 teaspoons)
  • 3 tablespoons Chianti or other dry red wine
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 3/4 cup warm water (110–115°F)
  • 2 1/2 to 3 cups Italian “00” flour or half all-purpose flour and half cake flour (not self-rising)
  • 1/4 cup fine-quality extra-virgin olive oil (preferably Tuscan)
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 3 1/2 cups Concord or wine grapes (1 1/2 pounds)
  • 1/2 cup sugar

For instructions: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Focaccia-with-Grapes-Schiacciata-con-Luva-104514#ixzz2CVT6nUXN

BUON APPETITO!

Eating man food in Florence

Whenever I have guests, I tell them that they must try lampredotto from a banco mobile (food cart) that puts the whole “street food”…”food truck” fru fru scene in America to shame. I recommend it because it is an authentic food experience besides “pizza and pasta.”  And it’s what the general blue collar work crowd can comfortably afford for lunch. I am about to explain. I will use this post to squash some ideas Americans and tourists have of Italians and Italian life. Okay, so we come here like it’s Disneyland, voyeuristic in taking snapshots of the old ladies buying fruit at the open-air markets, or as one of my friends told me- taking snapshots of him buying tomatoes in the store. Which if you think about it, is pretty creepy. How would you like some tourist taking your picture in Trader Joe’s? But the reason people shop at these “open-air markets” that tourists think is so glamorous, is because life in Italy for some is poor and that 10 cent difference between bananas at the market and at the store is worth something that most tourists could hardly fathom.

So my point is, unlike living in the states, life is modest here. I’m not complaining, but most people in Italy don’t exactly have the luxury to eat out expensive meals multiple times a week . I’m not writing this to incite sympathy or pity-  It makes me uncomfortable to talk about money in my sort of public blog but I think people should understand this. And nothing irritates me more than people who think Italians live this life of vespas, ferrari, gucci and cappuccino. The vespa part is kinda right, but because the gas is cheaper for scooters. Gas costs almost the equivalent of 10 dollars a gallon. Cappuccino is also kind of true, but it’s part of breakfast and there is a national “cap” on how much a bar can charge which is not the Stumptown fancy schmancy 4 dollar cup to-go but 1.20 at the counter.

Anyways…do you know what lampredotto is? It’s this:

lampredotto- a Florentine specialty made from the fourth and final stomach of the cow, the abomasum.

Florence and Tuscany in general should be known for la cucina povera which is a cuisine based on peasant food that most cultures have. Tripe, chitterlings, liver “crostini”, tomato bread soup, minestrone, etc- are all cheap and crucial to real Tuscan cuisine. It’s a no-waste philosophy that dates back to when Italy was limited on resources during post-war depression periods. Because Italians are sticklers for tradition- these foods are still as popular as ever. And sadly, Italy has in a sense returned to a depressed economic state. Meno male that la cucina povera never went out of style. :/

So today I had to do an interview with the Cordon Blu culinary school for an article I am writing and I asked the director if they taught lampredotto in the Tuscan cooking courses. She said no, because most tourists and Americans are scared of it and think that they don’t like it. It made me smile that she said they think because picky eaters drive me crazy- how can you not like something you’ve never tried?!

Then it made her smile when I asked her where her favorite lampredottaio “banco mobile” was. She said near the bronze porcellino near Piazza della Repubblica. I didn’t know what the porcellino was, which apparently is the lucky rub-for-luck tourist attraction bronze pig. So I decided for lunch today I was going. I realized I’ve been here for 4 months and haven’t had lampredotto yet AND I didn’t know what the lucky porcellino was. It was a sign.

Panino con lampredotto at Il Trippaio del Porcellino.

This sandwich with a glass of wine will cost under 5 euro. The meat is stewed in a simple broth and then made to order. These innards are then cut up and laid a top a crusty bread roll, doused with salt and pepper.

the meat getting pulled from the pot- made to order!

Then a half of the bread is dipped in the lampredotto stock and topped with a kind of herb paste made mostly of parsley. I chomped on this at the “banco” counter of the food truck, observing the guy make sandwiches and noticing that most of the clientele were men and I was seriously the only woman eating a cow guts sandwich. I felt oddly proud of my “bizarre food” Andrew Zimmern inspired moment.

It was okay. It had a weird fatty consistency and there was too much salt and parsley sauce to really be able to get an idea of what lampredotto tasted like. It was a nice, filling lunch that I think my stomach was confused about how to digest (which enzymes to I make for this thing this crazy lady just ate? lipase or protease?) You could for sure taste that the meat was stewing in a broth yet it was soft and flavorful. And I could see why this would be a pit-stop for the Florentine lunch crowd- especially because there is cheap wine that you should for sure have with it. Why not?

So if you are in Florence or in Tuscany- be adventurous, be curious!  Taste everything! Unless you are a vegetarian or celiac- you can’t knock it till you try it:)

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