The market

The market

Emiko Davies
14 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Lauren Bamford

There is no better way to really understand a city’s food and eating habits than through its daily fruit and vegetable market. I have learned a great deal about the essence of Florentine cooking from regular visits to the markets: the strict adherence to the seasons (everything has its time and place, even if it means waiting all year for it), the wonderful simplicity of the traditional recipes guided by the produce, and the little nuggets of knowledge shared above overflowing baskets of long-stemmed artichokes or freshly foraged mushrooms.

In Florence, the market is the best place to buy fresh and local, watch the seasons move and see what ingredients are commonly used – broad beans and artichokes in spring, zucchini and tomatoes in summer, fennel and mushrooms in autumn, and cavolo nero in winter. It’s also a handy place to pick up tips on the local way to cook this or that, as the vendors or even fellow shoppers are more than happy to impart their advice and even share their recipes. Many of my favourite meals have been ones improvised and inspired by a trip to the market.

Florence is blessed with two large, permanent daily markets, which have been a fixture of Florentine life since the 1870s: the Mercato Centrale, the central market in the San Lorenzo neighbourhood, which has recently undergone a very modern facelift; and the Sant’Ambrogio market on the eastern side of the city. Under the one roof, these markets offer not only fruit and vegetables but also butchers, bakers, fishmongers, delicatessens and even stalls and trattorias serving up freshly prepared food. Across the river, in piazza Santo Spirito, there is also a small neighbourhood market held every morning, with a few fruit and vegetable vendors, along with clothing, plants and household items for sale.

Eve Borsook, in The Companion Guide to Florence in 1966, paints this picture of the morning market in piazza Santo Spirito: ‘At seven the farmers start coming in from nearby hills bringing the freshest of lettuce, herbs, fennel, bunches of flowers, tomatoes, or whatever is in season. Until a few years ago, this was all brought in on red wagons by small donkeys who filled the piazza with the clip-clop of their arrival and departure and hours of their braying conversation ... During the winter there is a frantic race from stall to stall for the best of the Sicilian oranges at the cheapest price, which go by the name of ‘Tarocchi’ or ‘Mori’. The market is the site of the daily convention of the neighbourhood’s maids and housewives. Family gossip is exchanged and seller and buyer renew the daily game of needling each other (the produce is never good enough, the price never right). Signora Irma comes with Flick, her small black poodle, girded for battle. The custodian of the coach museum in the Pitti comes to pick up bread and fruit for his wife. Itinerant Sicilian pedlars wheedle odd lire out of reluctant pockets for a handful of lemons and garlic.’

Though it’s not quite the same today, and despite its smaller size and offerings, it’s still my favourite neighbourhood market in Florence for its genuineness and the people-watching. Gone are the donkeys, naturally, and probably also Signora Irma with her poodle, the museum custodian and Sicilian pedlars of this description, but they’ve been replaced with other, equally colourful characters – and the Santo Spirito market is still the place for gossip and seasonal produce.

For me, this chapter’s recipes have come straight from a visit to the market, arms laden with bagfuls of the season’s best produce. Many times, lunch or dinner has been inspired by what looks good at the market stall and this is especially true with raw vegetable dishes such as artichoke salad and broad beans in their pods with pecorino, or salads such as panzanella and farro. When fresh cannellini beans are available in summer, there’s nothing like making stewed beans to have on their own or to use in a number of Florentine dishes. My favourites – fagioli all’uccelleto (beans in tomato sauce) and tonno, fagioli e cipolla (tuna, bean and onion salad) – are featured here. But after that fleeting season, dried beans are reliably always available at the market, stored in large, open baskets, ready to be scooped out and sold by weight.

Although the Florentine menu looks heavily carnivorous, on closer inspection, vegetable dishes abound and arguably are even more varied than their meaty counterparts, thanks to the long-standing availability of good, fresh and plentiful local produce over the centuries.

Catherine de’ Medici, a Florentine in Paris

In The Art of French Cooking, Ernest Flammarion acknowledges the Florentine cooks in Catherine de’ Medici’s entourage as the creators of French cuisine. Notable dishes, from crespelle (Florentine-style crêpes) to onion soup to sorbet, have been linked to Catherine de’ Medici (1519–1589), who was the great-granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent and became the bride of Henry II of France in 1533 at the age of fourteen.

She introduced Tuscan produce such as olive oil, white beans, artichokes and figs, as well as many sauces and desserts. It is said that her favourite vegetable, spinach, was also brought into French kitchens this way, and one story relates that she insisted spinach be included in every meal. The dark leafy vegetable was already well known in Florence in the Middle Ages and by Catherine’s time it grew in gardens all around the city. So much was this vegetable connected to the Florentine queen that any dish with spinach in it is still known to the French as ‘Florentine style’.

To paraphrase biographer Jean Orieux, the saucepans were overturned with Catherine de’ Medici’s arrival in Paris.

Catherine’s fork

Not only did she introduce dishes and produce that shook up French cuisine, but Catherine de’ Medici is said to have been the one to place a fork on a French table.

Until the sixteenth century, most European table settings included only spoons and knives, often only communal knives. A fork was considered an unnecessary and even effeminate luxury when one had fingers. By many, it was also considered profane. The English word ‘fork’ and its Italian counterpart ‘forchetta’ both come from the Latin word for a pitchfork (furca), a correlation that perhaps delayed its entry into table etiquette in the rest of Europe by a couple of centuries.

The first forks, likely used in ancient Greece and Rome, had just two tines, much like today’s carving fork. They began re-appearing in Europe via Tuscany and Venice around the eleventh century. It wasn’t until the Renaissance, however, that fork-use in Italy was in full swing, with its epicentre in Florence, at the time the most culturally advanced city in the Western world.

Florentine paintings such as Sandro Botticelli’s Nastagio degli Onesti, commissioned by Lorenzo the Magnificent as a gift for the Pucci family in 1483, depicts the well-dressed guests dining with forks at the wedding banquet of one of the heroes of Boccaccio’s The Decameron.

But it still took some time for fork-use to catch on in the rest of Europe. In 1611, when an Englishman brought home a fork that he had seen on his travels in Italy, there was wild opposition to its use, and this lasted for centuries. Its pitchfork-likeness caused uproar among clergymen who believed that God’s food should be touched only by human fingers.

In France, on the other hand, forks – like Florentine sorbetto and other specialities that were introduced by Caterina de’ Medici – were initially adopted only by the wealthy, following the Royal French court’s example.

With a complete set of cutlery for each person at the table, food could be served in larger pieces, to be cut and eaten delicately. Small bites of food were picked up by the tines of a fork rather than by stained hands. Tables and dishes were forever changed.

Bronzino’s panzanella

One of Florence’s best-known salads, panzanella, is usually made these days with ripe summer tomatoes, thinly sliced red onion and torn basil in a bouncy salad, where the main ingredient is crumbled stale bread that has been revived in water and vinegar. It’s a centuries-old recipe whose simpler, more essential ancestor of bread and onion salad can be traced back to the Middle Ages with a dish that Boccaccio called ‘pan lavato’ (washed bread).

Well before tomatoes were added to this salad, the Florentine painter Bronzino (1503–1572) penned a recipe that almost resembles the modern panzanella. His salad recipe was written in the form of an elegant little ode, where he compares this salad to a trip across the stars:

chi vuol trapassar sopra le stelle

en’tinga il pane e mangia a tirapelle

un’insalata di cipolla trita

colla porcellanetta e citriuoli

vince ogni altro piacer di questa vita

considerate un po’ s’aggiungessi bassilico

e ruchetta

(He who wishes to fly above the stars / dip his bread and eat until bursting / a salad of chopped onion / with purslane and cucumbers / wins every other pleasure of this life / consider if I were to add some basil / and rocket)

Native to South America, tomatoes were brought to the Italian peninsula via Spain in the early sixteenth century. Initially the plant was viewed with suspicion and was kept at first as an ornament. It wasn’t until well into the next century that tomatoes were used regularly and the Florentines were some of the first, more adventurous cooks to accept this ingredient into their kitchens and vegetable gardens – Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici even had them planted in the Boboli Gardens along with other rare and exotic plants when he started his famous Botanical Gardens.

In fact, according to Paolo Petroni in his work on Florentine cuisine, Il Libro della Vera Cucina Fiorentina, Florence was one of the first European cities to embrace the unusual foods discovered in the New World after the 1492 discovery – including ingredients such as potatoes, beans, corn, peppers and chocolate. This singular event profoundly changed Florentine and, really, all of Italian cooking, for better or worse. In the Oxford Companion to Italian Food, Gillian Riley notes that by the time the tomato had conquered the peninsula it had crept into ‘ancient historic dishes which might have been better without them’. I imagine that this panzanella (or Florence’s pappa al pomodoro) is one of the dishes she had in mind.

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