Florence is above all – a city of art. It is the birthplace of many famous people such as Dante, Boccaccio, Machiavelli and Galileo Galilei. Artists like Botticelli , Michelangelo and Donatello made Florence one of the artistic capitals in the world.
It was during the reign of Julius Caesar that Florence came into existence. In the year 59 B.C. he established a colony along the narrowest stretch of the Arno, which is the point where the famous Ponte Vecchio crosses the Arno. After conquering the Etruscans during the third century A.D., the Romans established Florence as an important trading center.
In the fifth century, the Roman Empire crumbled after invasions from northern European conquerors. The “Dark Ages” had begun and Italian unity was lost for nearly 1400 years. After these hard times, Charlemagne’s army crushed the last of the foreign kings of Italy. However, this reprieve was short-lived. In giving thanks, Pope Leo III gave Charlemagne the title of Holy Roman Emperor to secure his loyalty.
Most of Italy came under the rule of Charlemagne and this led to future conflicts between the Emperor and the Pope that eventually led to civil war. The population of Florence became divided over their loyalty between the two factions: Guelf, those who supported the Emperor, and Ghibelline, those who supported the Pope. Over the following centuries, control of Florence changed hands many times between these two groups and families built towers to provide protection from their enemies within the city. At the end of the 13th. century, with the Guelfs in control, the conflict came to an end.
Despite this turbulent history, the region and Florence enjoyed a booming economy. At the end of the 14th. century, led by members of the wealthy merchant class, Florence became a gathering center for artists and intellectuals that eventually led to the birth of the Renaissance. During this period, the Medici family rose to power and fostered the development of art, music and poetry, turning Florence into Italy’s cultural capital. Their dynasty lasted nearly 300 years. Cosimo de’ Medici was a successful banker, who endowed religious institutions with artworks. He generously supported the arts, commissioning the building of great cathedrals and commissioning the best artists of the age to decorate them. Many artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Correggio, trained and completed some earlier work in Florence. One painting in particular done by Leonardo da Vinci captures the Renaissance essence of the 16th century: The Last Supper. The last of the Medici family, Anna Maria who died in 1743, bequeathed all the Medici property to the city.
The Food of Florence
Florentines call their cuisine il mangiare fiorentino—“Florentine eating”— and la cucina fiorentina, meaning both “Florentine cooking” and “the Florentine kitchen.” This language emphasizes what is important to them about food—its eating and cooking—both of which have traditionally taken place in the kitchen – the heart of family life.
The typical Florentine antipasto consists of crostini, slices of bread with chicken liver paté. The crostini are also served with cured ham and salami. Fettunta is another typical Florentine antipasto: a slice of roasted bread with garlic and Tuscan extra virgin olive oil. Last but not least, cured ham and melon are extremely popular even outside Florence.
Florentine First Courses
Panzanella is a typically summer first course. Panzanella is a salad made of water-soaked and crumbled bread with tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, Tuscan extra virgin olive oil, vinegar and basil. Reboulia, a winter course, is a vegetable soup with bread. Another famous Florentine soup is Pappa al Pomodoro, a hot soup made of bread and tomatoes. Pappardelle alla lepre (pasta dressed with a hare sauce) and pasta e ceci (pasta with chick-peas) are two Florentine specialties.
Florentine Second Courses
A main course favorite is the bistecca alla fiorentina ( a grilled T-bone beefsteak ). For a long time, the beef only came from Val di Chiana area steers but nowadays it comes from several Tuscan areas because it is in much demand.
Since the Florentine cuisine has peasant origins, people use every part of an animal; therefore, entrails are fundamental in the local cuisine and dishes like kidney, tripe and fried cow udder served with tomato are very common, as well as dishes based on wild animals like wild boar, rabbit, pigeon and pheasant.
A typical Tuscan dessert consists of almond biscuits, such as, Cantucci di Prato , that are often served with Vin Santo (a dessert wine). The Schiacciata con l’uva , a bun covered with red grapes is prepared in autumn, during grape harvest. Other Tuscan desserts are: the Brigidini di Lamporecchio – crisp wafers made of eggs and anise, the Berlingozzo – a ring-shaped cake prepared during Carnival time in Florence – and Zuppa Inglese, made of savoy biscuits soaked in liqueur.
Many desserts boast medieval origins. One of the most famous is the Panforte, cakes made of almonds, candied fruit, spices and honey, Buccellato, a cake filled with anise and raisins and “confetti di San Jacopo”: little sugar balls filled with an anise seed that have been produced there since the 14th. century.
Florence stands at the heart of one of the most famous wine regions in the world. During the month of May, many Florentine wine producers open their cellars to visitors, who can taste some of the wines from their vineyards. Tuscany is renowned not so much for the quantity but for the quality of its wines. In fact, despite being the third Italian DOC wine-producing region, Tuscany ranks only eighth, as far as the quantity is concerned. Only a small part of the Tuscan territory can be cultivated with vineyards; this is the reason why since the 1970’s Florentine and Tuscan wine producers have decided to aim for quality of their product instead of quantity. Of the 26 Italian DOCG wines, six are produced in Tuscany: the Brunello di Montalcino, the Carmignano, the Chianti, the Chianti Classico, the Vernaccia di San Gimignano and the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
The flower of Tuscan oenology is the red Chianti Classico, which is produced in seven areas with different procedures. The Sangiovese vine is the basis of all Chianti Classico wines; to that, several other species of vines are added in variable quantities. The emblem of the Chianti Classico is the Gallo Nero (the black cock).
The Sangiovese vine is the basis of another Tuscan wine: the Brunello di Montalcino, a red wine produced in the province of Siena. The Brunello, one of the most refined and expensive Italian wines, ages four years in oaken barrels and two more years in its bottle. A third wine, the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, is produced with Sangiovese vines. Like the Brunello, the Vino Nobile comes from the province of Siena. In the late 1980’s, many wine producers began to use different species of vines and procedures to produce a new generation of wines, called super Tuscans. The first representative of this new generation of wines is the Sassicaia, that a branch of the Antinori family began to produce with some cabernet vine shoots coming from Bordeaux, that the family had planted in 1944 in its estate in Bolgheri, on the southern coast of Tuscany. The Antinori family created Tignanello using Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon vines.
At present, wine producers increasingly blend Sangiovese with Cabernet, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir and other foreign vines. Tuscany also produces white wines. The most famous Tuscan white wine is the Vernaccia di San Gimignano. Another excellent Tuscan white wine is the Bianco di Pitigliano, which is produced in southern Tuscany.
Spaghetti with Peas and Prosciutto
- 1/4 lb. Prosciutto, in one piece
- 2 small garlic cloves, peeled
- 15 sprigs Italian parsley, leaves only
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 pound fresh peas, shelled or 1 pound “tiny tender” frozen peas
- 2 cups chicken broth
- freshly ground black pepper
- 1 pound spaghetti
- Italian parsley for garnish
Cut prosciutto into small pieces. Finely chop the garlic and coarsely chop the parsley.
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over low heat. When the oil is warm, add the prosciutto, garlic and parsley; saute for five minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. Add the peas and the broth. Simmer until the peas are tender. Season with salt and pepper.
To cook the pasta: bring a large pot of water to boil over medium heat. When water comes to full boil, add salt and the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain the pasta and add it to the saucepan with the peas. Mix very well. Cook for one minute more, mixing continuously, while the pasta absorbs some of the sauce. Transfer to a large warmed serving platter and sprinkle with parsley leaves.
Braised Pork Loin
- 1 lb. boneless pork loin
- 4 cloves garlic
- 2 tablespoons raisins
- 2 tablespoons pine nuts
- 1 oz. capers
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 lb. plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (or use canned)
- 1 tablespoon parsley
- salt and pepper
Slice the pork loin three-quarters of the way through lengthwise and flatten slightly with a wooden mallet.
Chop 2 of the cloves of garlic finely, mix with the raisins, pine nuts and capers. Place this mix over the pork and roll the pork into a cylinder. Tie with string.
Brown the remaining garlic in oil, and then remove it. Add the pork roll, brown on all sides, add tomatoes. Add salt and pepper to taste , cover and cook for 25 min. over a low flame. Add parsley, remove from heat. Let rest a few minutes before cutting into one inch slices.
- Sponge Cake, recipe below
- 3 tablespoons liqueur (Grand Marnier, Benedictine, Framboise)
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh ricotta
- 6 tablespoons sugar
- 1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted and chopped
- 1/2 cup almonds, toasted and chopped
- 1 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped fine
- 2 1/2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder
Cut the sponge cake into 1/2 inch thick strips. Spray a 1 1/2-quart bowl lightly with vegetable spray. Line bottom and sides with cake strips, ensuring a tight fit to completely encase the filling. Sprinkle with liqueur and set aside.
Whip cream until it holds soft peaks. Separately, beat ricotta and sugar until smooth, about 3 minutes. Fold together whipped cream and ricotta. Fold in half the nuts.
Pour half the mixture into the cake lined bowl. Make a well in the center large enough to hold the remaining cream mixture.
Thoroughly blend remaining cream mixture with chopped chocolate and cocoa powder, then spoon mixture into the center. Sprinkle remaining nuts on top, cover lightly with plastic wrap and freeze until very firm, at least 6 hours.
Fifteen minutes before serving, remove from freezer and invert onto a plate. Slice into 8 servings.
Sponge Cake Recipe
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 4 eggs
- A pinch of salt
- A teaspoon vanilla extract
Spray a 10-inch round cake pan with cooking spray and flour bottom of the pan. Heat oven to 375 degrees F.
Separate the yolks and put them in a bowl with the sugar. Beat the mixture until very fluffy. Beat in the vanilla extract.
In a separate bowl beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form, add a pinch of salt and gently fold them into the beaten yolks. Fold the flour into the batter and pour it into the pan.
Put the cake in the oven, reduce the temperature to 350 degrees F, and bake the cake for about 35-40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake is dry and the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan. Turn the oven off. Open the oven door and let the cake cool for one hour in the oven. Turn out onto a wire rack and let rest for an hour before cutting
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