5 things Florence taught us about food
Incredible architecture, a sunny climate, and more frescoes than you can shake a salami at – the Italian city of Florence has plenty going for it. And that’s not mentioning the food. Pride in the produce of Tuscany is evident wherever you look, from the market stalls to the trattoria menus.
But despite being just a couple of hours on a plane from the UK, the food in Florence still surprised us. Here’s what we learned…
1. A TOMATO + SHARP KNIFE = STARTER
We started our Florentine meal plan at Irene, the restaurant at the Savoy. Tuna tartare, followed by a long, thin portion of lasagne did the trick for our travel-weary souls. However, the very first offering from the UNBELIEVABLY attentive waiter caused some confusion. A tomato (one of those bulbous weird shaped ones). And a paring knife. On a plate.
We were dumb enough to ask the UNBELIEVABLY attentive waiter what to do with it, and yes, the answer was to cut up the tomato and eat it.
Our problem-solving confidence severely dented, we agreed never to apply for a place on the Crystal Maze. We then ate the tomato with a load of salt and some olive oil, and moved on with our lives. We can confirm it was a superb tomato of Tuscan origin.
As a side point, we attempted to recreate this at home and found some almost-as-good tomatoes in our local farmers’ market, which were from the Isle Of Wight.
2. DON’T ORDER ESPRESSO WITH A SANDWICH
We hit our hotel room‘s Nespresso machine with gusto, but realised we needed to sample a proper coffee sharpish. But viewing abundant Renaissance art had to be fitted in somehow, so our first morning was spent in the gigantic Uffizi gallery, which houses masterpieces by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raffaello, and scores of other artists that weren’t quite famous enough to have a turtle named after them.
So after many hours in the Renaissance zone, we rocked up at ‘Ino for lunch, a local institution that serves paninos to tourists and locals alike, round the corner from the Uffizi.
We ordered a panino of the day, and an espresso. The gentleman behind the counter screwed up his face. “Espresso? Together with sandwich? No.”
Realising that the Starbuckization of my coffee habits had rendered me moronic in this man’s eyes, I skulked to a table and awaited my sandwich.
Some hastily Googled advice on Italian coffee etiquette can be found at tourist-friendly food shop Eataly’s website.
Turns out the guy refusing to serve the caffeinated beverage we so craved was the proprietor. He’s called Alessandro Frassica and he’s written books about Italian sandwiches and is unnervingly handsome to boot.
3. CHIANTI IS DELICIOUS
Since we got home, we’ve found that Chianti isn’t always on UK supermarket and off-license shelves. Having drunk a barrel-load of the stuff, we feel that this is a shame.
We were drinking €4 house Chiantis that tasted sensational, and also had more than a few chugs of higher-end Chianti Classico versions. The latter are produced in the more upmarket vineyards of the Chianti region in Tuscany, after which the wine is named.
So Chianti is the region rather than the grape – to qualify as Chianti a drop has to be made in the right bit of Tuscany, and also consist of at least 80% Sangiovese grapes.
Some winemakers mix Sangiovese with softer grapes such as Cabernet or Merlot to take the edge off.
Chianti tends towards the dry, and works well with big foods like steak and pizza. Steak and pizza are both pretty major foods in Florence, so it’s handy that the Chianti region is just up the road.
Please note that we got through this whole Chianti section without mentioning The Silence of the Lambs.
4. PEPOSO IS OUR NEW FAVOURITE STEW
So good we had it two nights in a row, peposo is a beef stew so tasty and so simple that we are itching to try it at home. Best made with massive hunks of chuck steak, peposo is traditionally served just with bread, but the trattoria we first tried it in didn’t hold it against us that we had it with potatoes.
According to our waitress, it’s made of hardly anything.
“Beef. Chianti. Tomato sauce. Peppercorns. Cooked for six hours.”
As ever with these things, a bit of research unearths some disputes on the correct way to make it. Some take simplicity to daring levels, even leaving out the tomatoes! For our first homemade peposo, we’ll go with our waitress’s method and cross our fingers it’s as good as hers.
5. TRATTORIA AND RESTAURANT IS NOT THE SAME THING
Everybody recommended Cibreo. Lonely Planet, our hotel manager, even all the weirdos on TripAdvisor. However, no-one was 100% clear on whether they took bookings, so we gave Cibreo a call and gave it the old “parli inglese?” routine.
“We take bookings in our restaurant, is that OK?” was the hurried reply. “Sure!” we said. “See you later!”
Turns out Cibreo own a handful of joints in Florence. A trattoria, a cafe, even a Tuscan Oriental kitchen called Cibleo. None of these take bookings.
The restaurant, serving starters at €22 and mains at €40, takes bookings. So that’s where we found ourselves. There’s no written menu – instead a gentleman takes a seat at your table and talks you through at great length what the chef is cooking.
When our man joined us for the gastronomic rundown, we were still coming to terms with our costly mistake, and so he had to do the spoken menu routine twice.
You can learn about the difference between a trattoria and a ristorante on the internet.
But let’s not be mean. The Cibreo Ristorante experience was pretty cool. An enormous wedge of ricotta tart to start, followed by grilled prawns as big as my hand was a tasty way to end the trip. Not to mention all the free stuff we got – such as a load of things to try before the starters showed up. This platter included tripe (cow’s stomach, a Florentine speciality), a range of breads, and the customary Italian ham.
Our bodies and minds sluggish but satisfied after a week of white carbohydrates, we reluctantly boarded the good ship easyJet to home. Our souvenir posh olive oil packed in our luggage; our learnings etched in our hearts.