Florence travel journal (part 2): Eating our way to culinary innocence

YogaRose.net travel journal for Florence, Italy
Part 2: ‘A tavola non si invecchia.’(‘At the table, one does not age.’) On eating our way to culinary innocence

 

–>A tavola non si invecchia
–>Top 5 Tuscan specialties I’m already missing
–>Top 5 Tuscan specialties I wish I had tried
–>It’s the end of the meal as we know it, and I feel fine(!)
–>Catch up with Florence travel journal (part 1): Firenze as home base

>>’A tavola non si invecchia‘<<

I was born in New Orleans, where it’s said that locals are already thinking about the next meal before finishing the current one. So I love that there’s an Italian saying that goes, “A tavola non si invecchia,” which translates to, “At the table, one does not age.” When done right, food fuels the soul. Food brings us familiarity and comfort when we need it, surprise and inspiration when we’re ready for it. When done wrong, food can be soul-sucking — reminders of what’s lacking not just in our personal lives, but what’s wrong with the society in which we live.

What was so wonderful about eating these long, leisurely meals in Florence was that we got to experience how food is community. How strangers who don’t speak the same language can laugh together over something happening in the restaurant. How tourists can get a glimpse, however uninformed, about a region’s history through a simple meal.

A McDonald's billboard near the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Needless to say, we didn't eat there.

In one short week in Italy, Scott and I enjoyed so many memorable meals. I think about our gastronomic journey as one that returned us to culinary innocence. As two people born and raised in America — a country that can, for the middle and upper classes at least, too easily be a land of excess and waste — we were reminded that abundance does not equal gluttony. Simple can be refined. Eating meat, when the animal in question was not as a matter of course raised and killed as part of an ugly and despicable industry, can feel joyful.

While we couldn’t take those meals back with us, we did take back with us the inspiration we felt while dining in Italy. Between the two of us, Scott is the only one who can actually put together a good meal. He’s an excellent griller, for instance. But left to his own devices, he too easily resorts to college-era habits of eating greasy, cardboard pizza. Most 11-year-olds probably have a better sense of how to work a kitchen than I do, and while I have good tendencies toward healthier foods, I also eat way too much in any given setting.

In any case, we’ve decided we are going to try to get ourselves into better dietary patterns. We’re excited to start trying to prepare meals together not as a chore, but as something to look forward to each week, much like our salsa dancing lessons. We’ll start with very, very simple dishes, such as cooking pasta and adding a couple dashes of white truffle oil, and going from there.

>>Top 5 Tuscan specialties I’m already missing<<

In restaurants around Florence, you have an antipasti (appetizer), followed by a primi piatti (first course, usually a pasta) and the secondi piatti, a second, usually meatier course (or fishier, depending on the region you’re in). Some places offer a vegetable with the main dish, and at others, you have to order a separate contorni (side). I always loved it when fried artichokes was on the menu as a side — Italians do beautiful, beautiful things with artichokes (carciofi). Then, of course, there’s dessert, such as cantucci with Vin Santo, followed by — if desired — espresso and perhaps a digestive liqueur (digestivo) such as limoncello, if you want sweet and refreshing, or grappa, if you want quite the opposite.

Here are five dishes I’m already missing.

Pappardelle di cinghiale

I. Love. Pappardelle.
I. Love. Pappardelle.
I. Love. Pappardelle.

It’s my favorite pasta of all time — topping even gnocchi, which is saying quite a lot. The first time I had pappardelle was, funny enough, in Miami, at an absolutely fantastic Italian restaurant (Hosteria Romana, if you are ever in the area). I loved pappardelle on first bite. (No matter what the cuisine, I like my noodles flat and wide. In Chinese cooking, I’ve preferred dishes with the big flat rice noodles for as long as I can remember.)

Unless I’m going to all the wrong joints, it’s rare to find pappardelle in the U.S. I bought some pappardelle back with me from Florence, though I know we won’t be having it di cinghiale, the traditional preparation with wild boar sauce.

>>Where I had my favorite pappardelle di cinghiale: Where didn’t I love pappardelle di cinghiale? But if I had to choose, I’d have to split it as a tie between: Buca Mario in Florence and Trattaoria del Pennello in Florence. And, although not made with wild boar meat and sauce, a special shout-out goes to Peperoncino in Florence, which didn’t have pappardelle di cinghiale on the menu but made a custom order of pappardelle for me.

Bistecca alla fiorentina, or a steak for a giant?

So there’s a special breed of cattle found in Tuscany called Chianina. They have distinctive long, white hair. Chianina make incredible bistecca alla fiorentina, which looks like a T-bone steak cut for a giant. I didn’t order it myself, but I tried it when Scott ordered it. It was simple and perfectly cooked — amazing.

>>Where I had my favorite: Buca Mario in Florence

Fagioli all’Uccelleto — only Tuscans can do beans like this

It sounds kind of unsexy, but the bean dishes offered by Tuscan restaurants are excellent. One of our guidebooks said Tuscans are nicknamed mangiafagioli, bean-eaters, because of their fondness for these beans. The SmarterFitter blog has an interesting take on — along with a good recipe for — Fagioli all Uccelletto with cavolo nero.

>>Where I had my favorite: Pangie’s in Florence. I wish I could remember the name of the actual antipasti, but Pangie’s lathered olive oil on a large piece of bread, topped the bread with a green that tasted like a cousin of spinach, and put the beans on top of all that. It probably doesn’t sound very good, but somehow all the ingredients come together to leave your taste buds with an unexpected and very welcome pop.

Crostini with porcini mushrooms (or really, anything al funghi)

I had a piece of out-of-this-world crostini (small rounds of toasted bread brushed with olive oil) topped with a delicate but intense spread I couldn’t even begin to describe. It was made from porcini mushrooms and if I could bottle that stuff and ship it to Michigan, I would in a heartbeat. Incredibly, I also had crostini with chicken liver pate that didn’t make me want to throw up. (I have a visceral reaction to how liver smells, and after having it once as a young child, I’ve never been willing to try anything with liver again — until now. Whatever these restaurants did to the liver pate to make it tolerable crostini — and perhaps even slightly enjoyable — I’ll never know.) People say Tuscan cuisine manages to make tripe — which is also found in Chinese cuisine, which is how I know I don’t like it — tolerable as well, by stewing it with tomatoes, sage and parmigiano cheese. Despite the reviews of Tuscan preparations of tripe, I still had zero interest in trying it.

>>Where I had my favorite crostini: Ciro & Sons in Florence

And so ends the search for the perfect tiramisu

About 10 years ago, I decided that I loved tiramisu enough that I would start a worldwide quest to find the best tiramisu. Since tiramisu is the most classic of Tuscan desserts — made of ladyfingers, mascarpone and coffee — it’s not surprising that in Tuscany, you don’t have to search too long for a gorgeous execution of tiramisu. I had two of the best expressions of this dessert that I’ve ever had, two nights in a row. One seemed to be a more traditional, homemade preparation. It had the perfect consistency and taste. The other seemed to put a modern twist on the dessert. I loved them both, and I’ll always think of those bites I enjoyed whenever I have my OK tiramisu in American restaurants.

>>Where I had my favorite tiramisu: Tie. Buca Mario in Florence and Ciro & Sons in Florence

I’m also missing pecorino, a sheep’s milk cheese that’s aged for two months and has, to me, a sharp edge. And then there’s cantucci, a small, hard, almond cookie that’s the Tuscan version of biscotti. In Florence, many restaurants offer a dessert of cantucci and Vin Santo, a sweet wine you dip the cantucci into to soften it up so it’s perfect for consumption.

But where’s…

Are you wondering if I forgot about the gelato? Many people think Italy has the world’s best ice cream, and that within Italy, gelaterias in Florence do it better than anyone. I have to admit that I don’t love gelato! I really like it, but don’t go gaga over it.I know this is hard to believe, but I prefer high quality, creamy small-label ice cream choices in America, such as lavender ice cream from Jeni’s in Columbus, Ohio. My single favorite flavor of ice cream might be green tea cream.

We did stop by one shop near the Arno River for some gelato. I got hazelnut (Italians know their hazelnuts!), and it was delicious to be sure. But I didn’t really seek out the best gelato, so sorry, no recommendations. You’ll have to visit and find out for yourself.

Like some other European countries, dinner starts later in Italy — around 9 p.m. One of the many ways to out yourself as an American tourist is to head over to a restaurant at 7 p.m. for dinner. I also like to eat dinner pretty late, which runs counter to eating well in the United States unless you’re in New York or L.A. It’s always a treat to be in a place where late dining is the norm, so while not a specialty, I will also miss this aspect of Tuscan dining.

>>Top 5 Tuscan specialties I wish I had tried<<

In a shop near Ponte Vecchiowe picked up Tuscany at the Table, a great little book that talks about the history of dishes from Tuscan province and offers recipes from each locale. (I’d link it for you, but I looked the book up on Amazon, and don’t see it.) Of the many interesting tidbits I’ve learned from this book is that Tuscan bread is traditionally made without salt. That would explain why, if there was one thing we didn’t love in Tuscany, it was the bread. It seemed to lack some flavor. I had assumed this was because Tuscans viewed bread as a vehicle to sop up sauces. But this book explains that:

Olive oil reigns supreme in the dishes often accompanied by Tuscan home-style bread, strictly salt-free. The origin of this usage dates from the 12th-century, when Florence and Pisa struggled for supremacy. The Pisans closed their ports to the Florentines for the salt trade, and they responded merely by breaking bread that is ‘sciocco,’ without a grain of salt.      

Not surprisingly, the book has a whole chapter on wine and talks about how, beginning in the 15th century, the production of Chianti was governed by precise procedures dictated by the “Chianti League.” Panoramic wine tours are now offered along 14 routes of the “Strade el Vino.” There are the well-known reds of Chianti Classico, Morellino di Scansano, Bolgheri Sassicaia, Solaia, Tignanello and Brunello di Montalcino. Did you know this region produces white wines and roses? They include Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Bianco di Pitigliano, Val di Cornia and Rosado di Toscana Igt.

So, here are five Tuscan specialties mentioned in this book that I would have loved to have tried:

  • Marzolino — another type of sheep’s milk cheese
  • Budino di riso — sweets with a rice-pudding center and sugar on top
  • Baccaialata — Salted cod cut in strips, dressed with tomatoes, chopped onions, carrots, garlic, celery, pepper, olive oil and parsley, and baked
  • Topini (“little mice”) — A smaller variation of potato gnocchi
  • Gnochi mes’ci di castagne — Rectangular-shaped gnocchi made of chestnut flour, excellent dressed with olive oil and grated pecorino  

>>It’s the end of the meal as we know it, and I feel fine(!)<<

A major theme for me in 2011 was struggling with how to close the gap between wanting to consume healthier food and actually changing the way I eat. I have frequent discomfort most days of the week from acid reflux and a feeling of bloatedness.

In Florence, even when keeping with the local tradition of two- to four-hour meals and even while eating a ton of carbohydrates in the form of pasta, my acid reflux barely bothered me and my digestive complaints stayed mostly under control.

What happened?

My theories include:

    • We ate better food, period. Our very first dinner in Florence was at Buca Mario (which I highly recommend, if you ever go), a nice restaurant, where everything was homemade and the ingredients were fresh. It was then that I realized how odd it was, after a large meal, to feel clean as a whistle, digestively speaking.
    • The bigger the meal, the slower we ate, allowing for ample time to digest.
    • When we ate, we focused on the experience of eating. We weren’t at our desks working. We weren’t watching TV.
    • We were on vacation. No deadlines! No emails. I wasn’t stressed. I think this is huge. Even though food is my main concern right now, I feel as if stress contributes significantly to my acid reflux.)
    • I didn’t eat any processed foods. When we did eat cheaply and on the go, it was still something like a panini — something that, while the ingredients were hardly great, had been made earlier that day. (By the way, in Italy, if a restaurant offers something on the menu that’s been frozen before, this item has to be marked with an asterisk. How amazing is that? Can you imagine how many crappy restaurants here would have to star their entire menu?)
    • We were usually doing something — walking somewhere, on a train headed somewhere, looking at something, etc. The point being that we were usually engaged and therefore not in a position to snack. My biggest problem when I’m at the office all day is grazing. At home, I’m trying to do better, but there is definitely snacking going on.
    • I didn’t have eggs in the morning. Our hotel offered a lovely and free breakfast buffet. The mornings I stuck to croissants, meat, cheese and fruit, I felt fine. The one morning I had eggs, I did not feel so fine. I will have to continue to experiment with this one to see if cutting out eggs does indeed help me.

There are two that I consider truly inspirational when it comes to cooking. One is my ancestral home of Thailand, which I have been to and hope to return to some day. The other is Italy. I’m so grateful that I had the chance to visit Italia for the first time and bring back all these lessons from the dining tables there.

>>In this series:

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Florence travel journal (part 1): Firenze as home base

 

YogaRose.net travel journal for Florence, Italy
Part 1: Firenze, Italia as home base

–>Trip snapshot

–>Five sketches from Florence and Tuscany:

–>A word about the travel journal
–>Future posts in this series

>>TRIP SNAPSHOT<<

Some visitors to Italy fall in love with Venice. Others fulfill their dreams by making a pilgrimage to Rome. For me and my finance, Scott, the trip of a lifetime took us to Firenze, Italia, our home base for a seven-night visit that included New Year’s Eve. We walked and ate our way around Florence and left the city limits for a day to peek into some of the hill towns of Tuscany. Thanks to frecce alta velocita, Italy’s low-carbon-footprint and fantastically fast train line, we also got day-trip glimpses of cities to the north and south that capture so many imaginations.

Italy is a country we have independently longed to visit, and what better time than half a year before our wedding, after which time it’ll be…well, time to settle down. This was our chance to make sure we would never have to say, “If only we had…” It was our honeymoon before the honeymoon — a chance to revel in the kinds of culinary beauty and artistic genius that only Italy can offer, and an opportunity to take some of that inspiration back with us to deepen the hues through which we view the world.

Scott and I unloaded our suitcases not too long ago — we’re back home later than scheduled, thanks to a delayed departure in Florence, a near missed connection in Amsterdam and unfavorable headwinds back across the Atlantic. But of course we’re already asking ourselves if we’ll ever return. We hope so. To help our odds, before we left Florence, we paid homage to a popular bronze statue of a wild boar and did as many visitors do — slipped a coin into the mouth of the cinghiale, rubbed its snout and made a wish to return to the city that historically was the cradle of Renaissance arts and personally has become a cradle of new shared memories.

I’m starting this travel series with five sketches from our week there. Check back for future blog posts that will include:

>>Five sketches about Florence and Tuscany<<

463 STEPS
Not for the weak of heart (physically or romantically): What a cathedral whose dome became the model for Renaissance domes can teach us about confidence and faith

On our very last evening in Florence, we capped off our trip by climbing the 463 steps up to the cupola of Duomo (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore), Florence’s stunning Gothic cathedral. What makes this cathedral remarkable is not just that the dome, which took 14 years to build, was the first Renaissance dome, or that it was the largest since Rome’s Pantheon. What’s incredible to me is the story that’s told about the cathedral — that it was originally constructed with a gaping hole where the dome would go, because no one quite knew how to create a dome that could span that space. Can you imagine the immovable belief that things will all work out? And indeed, things did work out, because architect Filippo Brunelleschi came up with an ingenious double shell construction in which the skeleton of a dome was filled in by interlocking bricks fashioned together in a herringbone pattern. This created a dome that relied on its own support as it grew slowly upwards.

Not surprisingly, the 463-step trek up is winding, steep and claustrophobic (there are several passes so narrow you get pretty intimate with tourists making the return journey), and there’s really not much of a warning about any of that when you slide over 8 euros (about $11) for the entrance ticket. I would have expected an impossible-to-miss notice for anyone who is pregnant or has a heart condition, but perhaps that is the overly cautious American in me.

Neither the guidebooks nor Duomo officials adequately prepare you for the trip up — or for the view at the pinnacle. We arrived around 6 p.m. on a perfectly clear evening and marveled at the Campanile, the 270-foot bell tower designed by Giotto. Walking around, we could see the Accademia, where David — created by Michelangelo Buonarroti when he was just 26 — is showcased. Here were all the avenues lined with holiday lights and over there was the Uffrizi Gallery, where you can find Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. We could easily see Santa Croce Church, famous for housing the tombs of Galileo Galilei and Michelangelo. We slipped one euro into the binocular stand and looked with disbelief into the windows of the rooftop restaurant where we had enjoyed our divine New Year’s Eve dinner a couple nights before.

After the initial shock of this perfect view, it seemed most couples realized the romance of the winds and the perch, and shared quick kisses or longer expressions of their gratitude for each other.

>>IF YOU GO. We started the climb about an hour before the last entry, and we’re pretty sure we got lucky with the best possible conditions anyone could have walking up. Florence’s high season is April though October, although July and August can be unbearably hot. It must be a snail’s pace up to the top when the crowds are in town, and I’m sure temperatures rise accordingly in those narrow corridors. After this trip, Scott and I are sure we prefer traveling during a destination’s off season, even if it means cooler temperatures and higher chances of some closures. No matter what the season, if you go, take into consideration whether you want a daytime or nighttime cityscape, and get in line very early in the day or late in the evening. Make sure you’re hydrated going up (that’s the yoga teacher in me), but not so much so that you’ll need to use the bathroom any time soon.

>>LESSONS FROM THE CLIMB. Rick Steves describes the Duomo climb in his guidebook as “463 plunges on a Renaissance StairMaster,” but the journey reminded me less of exercise and more of a journey of faith that all these stairs were leading somewhere worthwhile. You’re placing your feet on each stony step, unable to see ahead and cognizant of the futility in looking back. I had this same type of feeling many times during Hilltop Yoga’s tough 300-hour yoga teacher training program, when I was wondering whether I should stop the emotional and physical gauntlet — a good yoga teacher training program provokes some heavy and often unwanted self-reflection — and turn around. But after the formal program ended and I taught my first Ashtanga class — after I saw the practice of yoga from that vantage point — I knew it had been the right journey.

If you’re ever in Florence, take the climb up, and see what the journey evokes for you.

WHO NEEDS A CAPPUCCINO
Try the cioccolata calda instead

Americans do not know how to appreciate hot chocolate. Italians do. People always talk about Italy and the espresso and cappuccino available there. But what about the hot chocolate? The first time I ordered a cioccolata calda I looked around to see if anyone else was drinking the same thing, and whether they were pouring milk or something in the cup to cut it. I couldn’t accept the fact that the beautifully thick, smooth molten chocolate inside this cup was mine to enjoy as is. What do Italians do when they visit the United States and have their first cup of hot chocolate? Crying seems like an appropriate response. I might not mind winter in Michigan so much if we had this kind of creamy expression of warmth. (OK, I’d probably still mind just as much, but it would at least be a little something to look forward to on the coldest days.)

>>IF YOU GO. Try cioccolata calda in Siena at the Caffe A. Nannini. And by the way, about cappuccinos — for Italians, it’s a breakfast drink. Restaurants will serve it all day if that’s what tourists want, but if you want to do as the locals do, only order this frothy goodness in the morning.

>>LESSONS FROM THE SIPS. Too often, I try to split the difference. In my brief visit, I found that Italian culture fosters making a commitment — whether it’s heavy hot chocolate or a three-hour dinner — and that, in turn, can allow you to live more fully in the moment.  

WILD FOR WILD BOAR
Giving something a (second, third, fourth…) chance

Cinghiale (cheeng-GAH-lay), wild boar, is a noted Tuscan specialty. I’ve never loved the other white meat (though as you know, I’m having issues with the main white meat these days), but when I paid a visit to Memphis a couple of years ago and had ribs down there, I understood, for the first time, the appeal of ribs. Following in the same spirit, I gained a new appreciation in Florence for prosciutto (cured ham), salami and cinghiale. When done right, these meats have a refined and comforting flavor. My single favorite dish from the entire trip (more on that in the next blog post) was pappardelle di cinghiale, wild boar with Tuscany’s extremely wide, flat ribbons of pasta.

>>IF YOU GO. Unless you’re a vegan or vegetarian, don’t be afraid to try cingahle in a few of the various forms available — in pasta, as salami, as a main dish or in a stew. If you hate it, at least you’ll know you gave it all the chances it deserved.

>>LESSONS FROM THE BITES OF BOAR. Location, location, location. I’ve learned that about so many things now — that you risk missing out on something pretty cool if you are too quick to write something off when you haven’t tried it in the right context.

THE TOWN OF SIENA IS DELIGHTFUL 
Who wants prenup?

Drive 35 miles south of Florence and you’ll hit Siena, Florence’s historic archrival and interestingly the first European city to ban automobile traffic from its main square. Siena is, in a word, delightful. An intense horse race called Palio di Siena is held twice every year on the grounds of Il Campo, the town center.

Our local tour guide explained that the city is comprised of 17 neighborhoods, or contradas. It sounds as intensely tribal as a city can get. Each contrada has its own church and fountain (and sometimes museum too), along with its own flag, a mascot (our tour guide made sure we knew she was from the rhinoceros group) and a rival neighborhood. Each neighborhood has a horse that, if chosen by lottery (the town center can only accommodate 10 horses out of the 17), runs the Palio di Siena. It’s a bareback race, and the first horse to cross the finish line — with or without a jockey still hanging on — wins.

Laughing, our tour guide also explained that two people from different neighborhoods who get married will sometimes determine their children’s allegiances in a prenuptial agreement. That sounds to me like a Michigan State University fan and a University of Michigan fan signing a prenup determining if the kids will wear blue or green. Incredible.

>>IF YOU GO. Don’t breeze through town like a tourist, reading the guidebook and looking at buildings and architecture. You have to talk to local residents to realize why this town sparkles. I know that’s true of pretty much any place worth traveling to, but it’s so true here.

>>LESSONS FROM THE TOWN. That I need to go back to spend more time there.

 CARING ABOUT CARBON FOOTPRINTS
That’s the ticket

Floating around one of our guidebooks as a bookmark is my Venice fast train ticket. Right on the ticket there’s a number — 26 Kg — that’s confusing if you’re not used to taking these trains. It turns out this number indicates the estimated amount of CO2 saved by taking this particular trip you’ve just paid 43 euros for. The trip we took to Rome — also at 43 euros each way for second class — saved 32 Kg of CO2 each way. What a sensible idea — telling people in concrete terms how the decisions they are making right now are making a difference right now.

I also learned on this trip that Smart cars — which as you can image are ubiquitous in this part of the world — can also park perpendicular to the curb, as seen here:

People say Italian drivers are crazy. After this trip, I see why and while I agree, I’d add that they are crazy skilled. It’s beyond me how people can drive even small cars through some of these narrow streets, navigate confusing city-center traffic-free zones, snake their way into a too-small parking spot, not kill anyone along the way, and keep their cool the whole time.

>>IF YOU GO. Don’t rent a car. Period. Let professionals (taxi drivers, bus drivers and train conductors) get you from point A to point B.

>>LESSONS FROM THE RIDES. Every single trip I’ve made to Europe (I’m up to four now) has underscored how much farther the U.S. could be when it comes to public transportation. The technology is there — we just have to care enough to put the policies into place that would make it happen.

>>A word about the travel journal<<

I’ve long wanted to follow up my various trips with blog posts that offer something of a yoga-themed travel journal, but it simply hasn’t happened, mostly due to time constraints, I suppose. On this trip, I spent seven hours on fast trains getting to and from Venice and Rome, and nearly 20 hours on planes to and from Florence — so I had time to start in on some blog posts before returning home. I hope that with this post, I’ll start to make it a point to do similar types of guides when I travel — some heavier on yoga and others, like this one, much less so.

If you’ve been to this region, please share your experiences and tips in the comments! I would love to hear about your trips, whether yoga-related or not.

Ciao, till the next post.

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.