Some say that the best way to get to know a culture is through its food, and that is especially true of Italy. Italy is defined by its food, each region known for something that it does best… Parma for its parmesan cheese, Florence for ribollita, a thick and hearty bread soup. It would be simple to complete a tour around the country simply eating in each of the cities. Technically I am here in Florence through an art residency to study and practice art, but when the chance to take an Italian food and culture class arose, I couldn’t pass up that opportunity!
Now I’m a pretty decent cook, though my vice is baking. Love to bake, which is super complicated here in Italy because… I’m American! Which is no big deal, except that we use ingredients to cook that are more complicated to obtain here in Florence, which is a bit of a mind-bender since there are so many tourists in the city. In particular, baking power and brown sugar are harder to obtain. Just to get a boxed cake mix and frosting, like Betty Crocker, is like 10 euros. Not exactly in my student-minded budget. AND to top it all off, ovens are not common in Italy. I actually have one in my apartment, but that is relatively rare… they are almost as uncommon as having a dryer here (dryers, I miss you…).
For our first outing the food and culture group went to the Sant Ambrogio market, definitely the place to go for groceries like meat, cheese and fruits and veggies. The San Lorenzo market is closer to the city center and they have a decent selection, but it’s become more of a tourist trap in recent years, so if you are looking to get more off the beaten path head a little further to Sant Ambrogio. There is an outdoor market as well as vendors inside, and our teacher took us around to her favorite vendors and showed us what she personally bought at each one, which was a fun look at an Italian insider’s perspective. Our teacher is Italian, raised in Italy for a time and then moved to the US, moving back to Italy when she got married, so she has a really interesting perspective on food and Italy. After walking around we grabbed lunch at the restaurant that is inside the market. It’s a really nifty setup, where in the winter there are side panels that open up so you can slide into booths. We were there early, due to our class time, but apparently at the normal Italian lunch hour people will stand in line to wait for a table to open up. They have these cute, homey paper placemats that tell you where famous people lived while living in Florence (of note: Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Day Lewis and a host of famous Italians).
We had ribollita, a thick Tuscan vegetable soup blended with bread, two kinds of pasta and a croquette-type meat dish served with mashed potatoes. We finished with this apple cake.
This week we headed over to our teacher’s apartment in the Oltrarno to cook some traditional Italian food, including crostini with salsa verde, spaghetti alla bolognese with homemade pasta and custard. It was way more effort than I normally put into making a meal, but with nine of us in the kitchen the work flew by! We also got to practice using a traditional Italian knife.
You hold both handles and rock it back and forth. It’s particularly challenging when the carrots jump around the cutting board and out of your way… but I have to say, I’m considering investing in one! It definitely seemed faster than mincing with a traditional knife, and I could see it being a real asset for the Thanksgiving stuffing.
Below you can see a peek at some of what we ate, including the crostini (which is made from parsley and hard boiled eggs- MIND BLOWN) and a sundried tomato and ricotta pasta. Yum!
Not everyone will have the opportunity to live and eat in Italy for an extended period of time like me, but it’s easy enough to create your own food tour of Florence, and many tour operators in Italy now offer food-focused tours and trips. Find out the region’s specialty and go exploring… you can never have too much good food in Italy!