I fell in love with Florence at the age of 10 and have travelled widely since, but somehow I always return to this most magical of cities.
Food in Florence/Tuscany
Food is a serious business in Italy. In Tuscany, it is virtually an art form. This is hardly surprising considering it was Catherine de' Medici who, on marrying the King of France, brought her own chefs and so revolutionized French cooking. (She also introduced the fork to the French.)
Tuscany can boast a wealth of fine ingredients. Wild boar roam the plains to the south, and sheep dot the hills. The country's best beef graze just south of Arezzo, while the Tyrrhenian Sea supplies her seafood.
Each region of Tuscany has its own specialities and style of cuisine, but, in general, the food shows its peasants' origins. It is hearty and simply prepared, whether in a restaurant in the heart of the city or served on a farmer’s table.
Meals may have only a few ingredients but they burst with flavour. Cooking techniques are deceptively simple; grilling – alla Fiorentina is a favourite method. Tomato sauces are prominent. Olive oil is central to meals, with a bottle usually left on the table to drizzle over the meal.
The Tuscan Menu
Italian menus can be daunting. In Tuscany restaurants, the menu can be divided into up to six sections:
i) Antipasti – literally, "before the meal." This may be a selection of cold meats, vegetables, dipping sauces, or crostini
ii) Il Primo or Minestre - this includes soups, broths, and smaller pasta dishes such as tortellini, or a risotto.
iii) Il Secondo Pietanze - these are the main dishes
iv) Contori - the vegetable side dishes, or Insalata, the salads
v) Formaggi - the cheese course
vi) Il Dolce - never to be missed. A day in Italy without gelato is a day wasted.
Then of course there is the Vini - which covers everything from house wines (always a good choice) to more specialized brews.
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Some of My Favourites
Bistecca alla Fiorentina. This is a thick cut of steak from the famed white Chiana cattle, renown for the delicate marbling of fat through the meat. The meat is brushed with olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, salt and cracked black pepper, then grilled over either a wood fire or charcoals to which vine shoots and branches of herb bushed are added. The meat is turned only once and remains juicy and pink when cut.
Ribollita. This famous Tuscan soup is a vegetable and cannellini bean broth thickened by soaking stale bread in it overnight and then reheated the next day (hence the name, which means re-heated.) It is then poured over fresh bread, with olive oil drizzled on top.
Pappardelle al Cinghiale The best wild boar, or cinghiale, are available in autumn. They are cooked to melt-in-the-mouth tenderness in a rich wine sauce and served over pappardelle, a wide, flat pasta typical of Tuscany.
Fagioli – One of my most memorable meals was in a restaurant just opposite the Casa di Dante. We were served a dish of white cannellini beans, cooked al dente, over which I drizzled olive oil of the most vibrant green hue. A pinch of salt, some cracked black pepper, then all was lightly mashed together – simply delicious. The beans can also be served all’uccelleto: stewed with tomato, sage, garlic and olive oil.
Panzella – a salad served in summer, made from day-old bread soaked in water and vinegar, and topped with diced tomatoes, onions, basil and olive oil.
Antipasti may consist of crostini, which are small roundels of toasted bread brushed liberally with olive oil and garlic, and served with a variety of toppings: tomato and basil, or fegatini, a thick chicken liver pâté flavoured with onions parsley and capers.
There are also cooked (cotto) meats, cured (crudo) meats, such as prosciutto or salami, or carparccio – thin slices of raw cured beef. Salsicce di cinghiale are wild boar sausages. Antipasto di mare is a section of seafood.
Dishes may come with slices of figs, melons, olives and possibly cheeses, and often with a bagnacauda – (literally a hot bath) a hot sauce, seasoned with anchovies, for dipping raw vegetables
bianco / rosso locale - local white or red wine
Brunello di Montalcino - perhaps the best Tuscan wine, favoured by the Lombards
Chianti - the most famous of Tuscan wines
Montepulciano - a fine red well-worth trying (the town of the same name is also worth a visit!)
Vino della casa - the house wine, often a delightful surprise
Agnolotti – a crescent shaped pasta stuffed with meat, cheese and vegetables (a shell-shaped version of ravioli)
Al pomodoro – a tomotao sauce
Bucatini – hollow spaghetti
Cappelletti – small ravioli (or little hats) filled with meat and cheese.
Gnocchi - dumplings made from either potato (gnocchi alla patate) or semolina (gnocchi alla romana), served with a variety of sauces
Minestrone – a rich vegetable, bean and pasta soup, topped with grated parmesan
Pansotti - Pasta filled with greens, herbs, and cheeses, usually served with a walnut sauce.
Pappardelle alle lepre - A wide, flat pasta with rabbit sauce.
Risotto – Arborio rice cooked slowly in stock, with an endless variety of vegetables, meat and seafood
Spaghetti ragù – spaghetti with a meat sauce
Meats include bistecca (beef), vitello (veal), agnello (mutton), pollo (chicken), maiale (pork), cinghiale (boar) coniglio (rabbit) and anatra (duck).
Abbacchio – a roast leg or shoulder of lamb, flavoured with anchovies
Arrosto di maiale al forgo - roast pork
Coniglio alla cacciatore - rabbit in tomato and capsicum sauce
Galetto all a griglia - grilled young cockerel
Involtini – thinly sliced beef, veal or pork with a variety of fillings, rolled and pan-fried, often with a tomato sauce
Osso bucco – veal shin cooked in a rich tomato sauce until incredibly tender. Often served with a special fork for the marrow
Saltimbocca – a scallop (very thinly sliced) or veal layered with prosciutto and sage and sautéed in butter. It translates as “jump in your mouth,” referring to the tart and savoury flavour
Scaloppina alla Valdostana – a scallop of veal stuffed with cheese and ham.
Vitelle al forno - roast veal
Caprese - a salad of tomatoes, mozzarella, capsicum and basil
Fagioli - beans
Funghi - mushrooms
Insalata verde - green salad
Insalata mista - mixed salad
Patate fritte - fried potatoes
Piselli al prosciutto - peas with prosciutto
Peperonata - roasted capsicums cooked with tomato and garlic
Spinaci saltati - spinach
Cantucci - small, moon-shaped almond biscuits, perfect for dipping in a dessert wine
Gelato - many believe the world's best gelato is served in Florence. An incredible variety is available, the flavours often bearing no resemblance to the names!
Pan Pepato - a medieval forerunner to panforte, a dense cake of spices, dried fruit and honey
Riccio all a fiamma - roasted chestnuts
Zuccotto - Florentine sponge cake, filled with chocolate and nuts
Zuppa Inglese - Florentine version of English trifle
Of course, this is just the start of what is to be found throughout Tuscany. It doesn't even begin to cover street food - such as pizza served by the slice or stands selling roasted chestnuts - or the delights of visiting a delicatessen and selecting a variety of foods to be enjoyed later. Better still, wander through a local market to find a few delicacies, and enjoy a meal at the local cafe, full of the freshest ingredients.
Then, of course, there is the coffee...
© 2014 Anne Harrison