A Florentine feast

A Florentine feast

A Florentine feast

Luscious pastas, sumptuous cheeses and delicious wines. Florentine cuisine is all about simple, homely meals prepared using fresh produce. Janardhan Roye savours a meal fit for Caesar...

It doesn’t take long for visitors to Florence, who are in search of culture, excitement and romance, to get what they want. In addition, there is one other thing that enchants a discerning visitor: the food of the region. The culinary delights of the ancient city are traced back to the times of Julius Caesar, to 49 BC. Today, traditional Florentine delicacies and the modern fare sit side by side in beautiful, peaceful harmony.

Recently, after a long, hectic day of visiting Michelangelo’s David, the Cathedral and Dome of Brunelleschi, the Palazzo Pitti (the Medici home) and Ponte Vecchio, we cooled our heels sitting in the Piazza della Signoria, unmindful of The Rape of Sabine Women behind our back. A pink sky formed over the L-shaped square. It was the time for the happy hour. Ignoring our sore muscles, we trotted off to the nearest watering hole. Surprisingly there, for the price of a drink, there was a free buffet of eggplant parmesan, cheese ravioli, crisp artichoke salad, grilled vegetables and tomato bruschetta.

A gastronome’s haven

The buffet is a continuation of a long tradition that dates back to the ancient Etruscan civilisation. The practice and cuisine have since been refined and allowed to flower. Today, it marches with the times, happily embracing the present.

Even as my companions were raving about the monuments, museums, churches and masterpieces, my mind was pre-occupied with the unique, memorable culinary trials and drinking experiences that each day presented.

The gastronomic tour of the Florentine fare moved into top gear next morning when our guide whisked us off on a whirl-wind tour of the city and its neighbourhood.At the Santa Croce, while our group had its mind on art, my thoughts were elsewhere. Even as our guide droned on about Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galilei, and Donatello, I wondered about the inspiration of these artists. Importantly, what did they eat? Michelangelo, it is said, was so busy and pre-occupied that he was indifferent to food, eating out of necessity, rather than pleasure.

There were, of course, many who loved their food. The aristocrats had lavish banquets and elaborate preparation of meats and dishes crafted from the ‘finest ingredients and exotic spices’. On the other hand, the average Florentine satisfied himself with corn, beans, and some meat-based pasta. Field workers managed to survive on dark bread, buckwheat polenta, and ‘discards’ from the kitchens of the wealthy — animal intestines to other internal/external organs. Though unsuitable for the nobles’ refined taste-buds, they were heaven for the less fortunate who turned them into lively, flavoursome dishes.

I smiled at that thought, as our guide Vincenzo was calling out to us, “Avanti! Avanti!” And before we knew it, we were trundling in a beat-up van touring the cypress-lined Tuscan countryside. On gently rolling hills, age-old villages, castle ruins and farmhouses went fleeting by, as did vineyards, olive groves and saffron fields. At one intersection, a man and a pig were hunting for truffles under a mossy tree.

Eat street

When finally the brakes noisily brought the vehicle to a stop, we found ourselves in a little-known rural community. The place produced a variety of wine, fruity olive oil and the popular Bolognese sauce, Ragu. Other stops and shops followed: markets piled high with local produce. Butcher shops with sausages, salami, mortadella. There were small farms that produced organic cheese, from fresh ricotta to matured pecorino to wheels of parmesan.

Everywhere we went, there was the delicious aroma of baking bread… and locals welcoming us with a smile and samples of fresh produce.

Back in the city, when I mentioned the topic of food, I was told that there were some restaurants that hung on to the old tradition, some that hark to the times of Julius Caesar. That made me think of the push-cart vendor we had encountered earlier outside Santa Croce, hawking trippa — an ancient dish made from spongy, honeycomb part of tripe and blended with capsicum, sauces and spread on a bread-roll.

Trippa, pannini al lampredotto — a tripe sandwich, and castagnacci — a dessert, are some dishes that go way back in history, though today they are not everyone’s cup of tea. So, to taste authentic old Florentine fare suitable to us, we were recommended Trattoria Cammillo and Buca Lapi near the Duomo. 

Cammillo, a family-run 1940’s cucina casalinga or home-style kitchen, serves ‘classic, top drawer’ food. It’s a favourite of the local aristocracy, and was buzzing with warm energy, happy people and a distinct multilingual din when we arrived. The third-generation owner, the gracious Chiara Massiero, helped us with the menu — ribollita, fried zucchini blossoms, grilled lamb, pasta. The food was delicious and gave a good idea of classic Tuscan fare.

On our last night, we dined at Buca Lapi. There, to our unexpected joy, we got the closest to perhaps the oldest Florentine favourite. The trattoria is set in a refurbished 11th century dark wine cellar with a rounded ceiling festooned with travel posters including that of Air India and the Maharaja! Apart from handmade pasta, cinghiale, we ordered the charcoal barbequed house special — a dish as old as the city itself, the succulent steak bistecca alla florentina.

Walking back to our hotel that breezy evening, we were light-headed and filled with a sense of quiet fulfillment. We were seduced by the exciting, old-world charm of Florence and its high art. Besides, how many can boast they had a meal fit for Caesar?

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