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OLD FLORENTINE CUISINE

I wrote this document in 1995  in response to a question from a friend of mine from California (she is, incidentally, the same lady who gave me the idea of writing about the Chimera myth). Initially, these notes about old  florentine cuisine were not meant for the web, but afterwards I thought they could be interesting for someone. You never know what surfers may be looking for. So, if you are interested in old cuisine, or in a different facet of the history of Florence, maybe you'll find this page interesting. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions, please write to me (Ugo Bardi)

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Antonio Bardi painting

The painting shown here was made by the author's great-grandfather, Antonio Bardi, around 1890. At that time, Florence was already a popular goal of foreign tourists but it is unlikely that they would ever have to share - or even to see - a modest meal such as the one shown here. However, a dinner composed of just bread and a bowl of soup may have been the standard fare of the average home of that age. The setting, the quality and quantitiy of food, and even the expression of the seated man, convey the impression that life was not easy for Florentines at that time
 
 

 
 


Old Florentine Cuisine
By Ugo Bardi, 1995

Tourists in Florence have to work hard. There are all those monuments, churches, masterpieces to see, and it is a lot of walking to do. And for each important museum they have to wait in line for at least a couple of hours, possibly under the sun of August. No wonder that after a day of sightseeing everyone feels like relaxing at a restaurant. Actually, food seems to have taken such an important place in the mind of tourists that it may well be that tasting a delicate carpaccio at a multi-starred restaurant should not be rated as aesthetically less pleasing than seeing Botticelli's Venus in the Uffizi gallery. And, perhaps, a hearty grigliata eaten at a countryside trattoria may well provide the same sensation of quiet fulfilment that comes from the sight of the cypress-dotted Tuscan landscape.

    It is difficult to say if food has really taken a more prominent place than art in the minds of tourists of the present age. Surely, however, this is a question that started to make sense only in recent times. In the past, there was no doubt in anybody’s mind that art - and only art - was the reason for visiting Florence. But we may also ask ourselves if the ancestors of modern tourists appreciated Florentine cuisine, too. What kind of food could make their meals - say - a century ago? This idea may be titillating our minds with images of culinary wonders: maybe we think of elaborate renaissance dishes, or perhaps of tasty home made specialties. Actually, however, reality seems to have been different and the descriptions we have of the food of long ago are far from exciting. As an example, E.M. Forster starts his novel "A room with a view" with the words of a character complaining about Italian food. The story is set around the end of last century and we have this English lady saying: "This meat has surely been used for soup". We can imagine the outraged look of this middle aged spinster as she works hard at chewing that vile chunk of meat (we may actually see her in the film that Merchant and Ivory made from the novel). Surely, also the other British guests of the pensione must have felt outraged in the same way, as they sat eating together at their tavola rotonda. Or, maybe, as more experienced travellers, they had become used to the roughness of the foreign table. But, seen with today’s eyes, this scene is hard to believe. Come on, mr. Forster, the English complaining about Italian food? That makes no sense!

      And, yet, that was the attitude of the average tourist (British or otherwise) of old times. They left us hundreds of travel diaries and notes, but when they mention Italian food - if they do at all - it is always to complain about how bad it is. So, if we go back to the prehistory of tourism, when visiting Italy was something close to taking a job as a soldier of fortune, we find an early report in the diary of a French traveller, Charles de Brosses, who visited Italy in 1740. He doesn’t say much about food, but he mentions that Italian bread is "the most abominable thing one can eat". Much later on, but still in prehistoric times in touristic terms, Stendhal left us a detailed report of his travels in Florence and in Italy around 1820. But going on for several hundreds of pages he barely manages to mention the existence of salami, and to say once that the gelato (ice cream) was good. Other old reports are those of Nathaniel Hawthorne ("The Marble Faun",  1858) and of Mark Twain ("The innocents abroad, 1867). In both cases we have long and detailed description of the Italy of that time, but about food Hawthorne just manages to mention the existence of bakeries, wine and olive oil; whereas Mark Twain only tells us that he couldn't find any bologna sausage in Bologna. Not much indeed. And all this is so typical of these old journals that will tell you about art, weather, people, transportation, about everything conceivable, but nothing - or almost nothing - about food.

    But, surely, if we take up an old travel guide there has got to be something about food. So, let's examine an early one: the 1877 edition of the Guida Manuale di Firenze e de' suoi contorni. As we would expect, the bulk of the guide is about art: museums, churches, monuments, and the like. We also find a section of "useful information" where we have barbers, tailors, hatters, photographers, and all sort of services, but no restaurants. The guide contains also a few pages of advertising: there are hotels, jewellery, and musical instruments, but, again, restaurants are never mentioned. The only vague reference about tourists having, after all, to fill their stomach, is hidden in the advertising from the Albergo Porta Rossa (a hotel, incidentally, still existing today). Here, it is said that a tavola rotonda (round table) is available at the price of 4 Lira. This is what Forster was describing in his novel, a table d’hôte meal where all customers sat at a common ("round") table. But nothing is said about the menu.

     A bit more can be learned from later guides. One of the most common was the "Baedeker", so badly maligned by Forster in his novel, but a faithful companion of many foreign tourists in Italy. We can examine the 1895 edition of this venerable book, one that might well have passed in the hands of Forster himself, or that we may imagine being carried around by one of  the characters of his novel. It is five hundred pages, crammed full of data and maps of an Italy that is almost the same as it is today, perfectly recognisable with its monuments, museums, and masterpieces. The guide also has plenty of advice for travellers about hotels, clothes, transportation, and climate. And about food? All we have is less than two pages. Not much indeed, but what we can read is still interesting.

     The Baedeker guide advises the foreign traveller in Italy to patronize first class ristoranti, where the menu is defined as "international". Nothing is said about what kind of menu that would be, but further on we find a list of "useful words" in Italian that may give us some idea about this point. We have bread, meat, eggs, vegetables, fruit, and other rather commonplace items. There is no word listed that could describe a specific way to cook or prepare a certain food. That seems to mean that there were only a few, standard items in the menu. Food would not have been necessarily tasteless, but surely not tremendously varied. The tourists of the time seem to have been happy with this arrangement, although it would hardly suit the taste of modern ones.

    But our Baedeker says more than this. It mentions also "Italian style" restaurants, named trattoria. Of these, we are told that they were frequented "mostly by men". Then, one could also eat at a caffé, where prices are said to be low and where the kind of fare described included hot and cold meat dishes. Apparently, these places were always very crowded and we are told that the smoke of tobacco in winter was so thick that it could become unbearable. With just these few lines it is hard to figure what these places could have been like. There are still places in Florence and Italy that go under the name of caffé and trattoria, however they have surely changed a lot since the times of the Baedeker. Trying to find traces left after countless remodelling and a few generations of owners is quite a work for the culinary fossil-hunter. Here and there you can still see a white tiled wall or a dark wooden bar that maybe - just maybe - go back to that age. But with a bit of imagination you can perhaps picture in your mind one of these crowded places full of those "dark and bloody" Florentines (as Mark Twain terms them), all smoking and drinking wine. Surely it would have been an interesting experience to be there at that time, but it seems clear that the average tourist of old times would rather avoid these places, unless in dire need of filling an empty stomach.

     In later times, the interest about food seems to have been rising, but only very slowly. In a 1904 travel guide we find what is perhaps the first case of an advertisement for a restaurant. It is the "Restaurant Sport" that lists as its main attraction the fact that English, French, and German are spoken on the premises (actually the only attraction, no mention is made of the menu). In a 1930 guide ("Indicatore Generale di Firenze") we find another advertisement: the Teresina restaurant. Here, perhaps for the first time, we are told something about the style of food served: it is cucina casalinga (home style cuisine). Only in guides published after the war we see the idea really taking off, until we arrive to modern guides, crammed full with advertising for restaurants almost at every page.

     So, guides an diaries do not tell us much about Florentine food of old times. How about novels and stories, then? The Florence of long ago was considered an exotic place, and several famous writers set their stories there. Unfortunately, most of them shared the general attitude that food - and Italian food in particular - was not an issue worth describing, and probably anyway offensive to the refined northern palate. Forster’s "A room with a view" was an exception. Forster always placed great attention to details in his stories and he didn’t neglect food. His attitude about Italian food seems to have been mixed. In a way, he symphatizes with his character, the lady who had to swallow that horrible meat, previously used for soup. But he could also find a genuine interest in Italian edibles. So, in the same novel we read that:

...... the ladies bought some hot chestnut paste out of a little shop, because it looked so typical. It tasted partly of the paper in which it was wrapped, part of hair-oil, partly of the great unknown. This is not exactly flattering, but it does show some interest. (Incidentally, the modern reader is probably missing the reference to the "great unknown", that at the time of Forster was widely known to be an epithet of sir Walter Scott). About the oily thing itself, Forster is clearly describing a castagnaccio, a kind of pastry that is still made nowadays in Florence and which indeed does taste somewhat weird. Castagnaccio is something like French cheese with live worms or Japanese slimy nattoo beans: to like it you must have acquired the taste for it.

      It is surprising that Forster's characters bought that rather uninspiring blob of paste because it looked "typical". That attitude, surely Forster’s own, was exceptional for the time. Most of what we can find in the work of other novelists seems to be rather more clear-cut: the food eaten by Italians can't be but awful for the palate of civilised northern people. So, in one of his ramblings in Tuscany in the late 20s, D.H. Lawrence was forced to get a meal at a small place in the countryside frequented also by mule drivers and shepherds. Here is how he describes it (from "Etruscan places"):

Everybody is perfectly friendly. But the food is as usual, meat broth, very weak, with thin macaroni in it: the boiled meat that made the broth: and tripe: also spinach. The broth tastes of nothing, the meat tastes almost of less, the spinach, alas! has been cooked over in the fat skimmed from the boiled beef. It is a meal - with a piece of so-called sheep’s cheese that is pure salt and rancidity.      Again, the meat on the plate is the same used to make the soup. That must have been the nightmare of all British tourists. Clearly Lawrence wasn’t very happy with his lunch, but at least he gives us the description of a complete menu. Since he terms it as "usual" we may imagine that this was the standard fare found anytime one left the comfortable circle of "international" restaurants. Indeed, what Lawrence is describing is more or less the standard family food as it used to be in Florence and in all northern Italy up to not long ago: clear soup, cooked vegetables, boiled meat, and cheese (often the "sheep’s cheese" variety, that is called pecorino in Italian). It is not surprising that small restaurants served more or less the same food eaten at home.

       Lawrence experience seems to have been typical. Apparently, the average tourist of old times had to be careful to avoid being served the local variety of food, or else face the risk of the wreckage of his or her more sophisticated degustative apparatus. In a way, this is understandable. During the whole 19th century and well up into mid 20th most Florentines, just as most Italians, were poor, and at that time it would have been easy to stumble into bad food, quite possibly prepared in poor hygienic conditions, to say nothing of the appalling way of presenting it. Yet, are we sure that the food of old times was always so bad as Lawrence describes it? Or weren’t instead the tourists unable to appreciate it? There may be some truth in both things, but even though the quality of Italian food has certainly improved over that of a century ago, it is rather our perception of food that has changed. And not just of food; the tourists of old had an evident feeling of superiority towards Italians, and they searched and appreciated only the Italy of the ancient masterpieces, an Italy of great men and grand enterprises that probably had never existed, except as a figment of their imagination. This attitude prevented visitors from appreciating whatever there was of good - and food in particular - in the real Italy of that time. In our times, instead, we have gone all the way around. Some have said that in our society food has taken the place of sex as source of pleasure and, at the same time, of guilt. Perhaps it is for this reason that our tastes are nowadays set into all what is exotic, special, native, and untasted before.

     So, the next time you sit at the table of a restaurant in Florence, if the place is not fancy (or, maybe, if it is very fancy), you may be able to put together the same menu that Lawrence found so bad at his time: thin soup with pasta (pastina in brodo, sometimes called stelline), boiled vegetables (not cooked in fat nowadays, but usually served with olive oil), cheese, and the ubiquitous bollito misto (boiled meat). That meat so hated by the British, the one used to make soup, is still on the menu of many restaurants. Try it with its accompanying sauces (salsa verde, battutino, and rafano). See if you find it good, then think of those ancient tourists, sitting at some not so different restaurant, but looking at the same food with so much different eyes. Haven’t things changed since then?

 

 Ó Ugo Bardi, 1995

Access number;
(from January 1998).