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Florence’s Frugality 26/05/2011

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c. 1910

Now, in a hundred signs, this temperance in food and drink may be seen to-day at Florence. The market and its habits surprise the stranger, and if he analyse the matter he will find that a wise and convenient economy is the principle that accounts for what he wonders at. One example of this, trivial though it be, may suffice to prove the case. The Florentine chicken, having regard to its size, is now probably no cheaper than such a fowl would be anywhere else. But small as it is, the bird is dealt with as if it were a sheep: cut up, joint by joint; decomposed into the elements of wings and legs and breast and body, which are each sold separately. Even the combs of the cocks are clipped off, and the gizzards and livers laid apart; with the result that the buyer can consult his taste, and compose dishes that, if not substantial, are at least dainty in their nice economy.

So far is the matter pushed, that I have heard of a stranger to Tuscan ways whose ignorance of market usage led to his disappointment at dinner-time. He had told his servant to buy and prepare him a dish of fowls’ legs, and found, when it came to table, that these ‘legs’ were only drumsticks. On complaint, he was told the mistake had been his own, as, if he wished the thighs as well, he should have said so! To such lengths does the Florentine still go in the careful economy of the table. It might be thought, indeed, that these habits were comparatively modern, and rather the result of decaying trade here than survivals from any more remote past. But that this is not so appears from the fact that even in her greatest days, when Florence sat queen and wanted for nothing, she followed the same rule of self-restraint and wise parsimony.

A Bull of Eugenius IV (1431-39) speaks of the ‘frugalitas Florentina’, which indeed was and is proverbial: ‘Il Fiorentino mangia si poco, e si pulito, Che sempre si conserva l’appetito’. Doni, who lived and wrote a century later, tells the same story. In his Zucca (Ramo, ch. v.) he describes a banquet given at Venice by a rich Lombard: how the talk at table fell on Florence, and how the company, full-fed, mocked at the ‘onciate di carne che gl’usano di comprare (cosa favolosa da plebei a dirla) per il viver della famiglia di casa.’

He was himself present, and, being a Florentine, found the situation awkward. If the charge had been false, be sure he would have said so, yet, when he spoke, it was but to declare with national pride: ‘I Fiorentini insegnano la temperanza nel vivere’. Florence, too, could feast, as she still does on occasion, but her rule has always been that of temperance; born, we may be sure, in the earliest days of all, when the long hunter’s fast divided his brief and occasional days of plenty, and formed a lasting habit of self-restraint that persists even under the changed conditions of later and modern life.

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