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Into the Garfagnana 03/08/2011

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c. 1910

The Valley of the Serchio, in its upperpart, is known as the Garfagnana. It lies between the Apennines and the Apuan Alps (the mountains of Carrara). A line of railway already runs up the valley from Lucca for about fifteen miles to Bagni di Lucca, and it is being continued through the Garfagnana to join the line which connects Spezia with Parma at Aulla in the Val di Magra. This district shares with the Garfagnana the distinction of being the finest of the mountainous parts of Tuscany. The forms of the Apuan Alps are of extraordinary grandeur, while the valleys of the Serchio and its largest affluent, the Lima, no less than the numerous clefts through which mountain torrents join the larger rivers, have the picturesqueness and beauty of a northern type which adds piquancy to the southern life abounding on all sides. The lower slopes of the mountains are covered with forests of chestnuts. Against the sky-line villages are outlined on the mountain ridges in what seem almost impracticable places. On the river level there are factories for cotton and paper making. The district everywhere shows signs of active life and general well-being. The most convenient centre for exploring this part of the country is one or other of the villages that together are known as Bagni di Lucca. The station is at the point where the Lima flows into the Serchio. Less than two miles distant is the village of Ponte a Serraglio, and a mile farther on is the village of Villa. Between these points the river Lima makes a sharp turn round the base of a steep hill upon which stands Bagni Caldi, reached from Ponte a Serraglio by a fine road winding up the face of the hillside, or from Villa by a delightful footpath on the farther side of the same hill. There are baths at each of these places. Bagni Caldi consists mainly of the summer palaces of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, converted into hotels. The views of the Lima Valley and the surrounding mountains are fine. Ponte a Serraglio is situated in a narrow gorge through which the Lima forces its way. The bridge and piazza are picturesque. Villa is the official centre; the valley is more open than at Ponte a Serraglio, and although there are no very distant views the characteristic chestnut forests and the torrent of the Lima give a peculiar charm to the place.

Chestnut Eating 21/04/2011

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c. 1910

The taste for chestnuts here is very strong, and these, prepared in many different ways, form today no small part of the sustenance of the people. At the street corners in winter the chestnut stalls spread the ruddy glow of their fires, and the tempting odour of their hot ware: the arrostite that perfume the air around. Often you will see the passer-by become the purchaser; the quilted cover is lifted, the handful of hot chestnuts measured, and the buyer moves on, munching cheerfully what has already served to warm his frost-bitten hands.

These stalls are picturesque but peripatetic; they lead up to the regular shop in this kind, which stands open in the poorer streets, and caters for their inhabitants on a larger scale and with more variety. Here are not only roast chestnuts, but chestnuts boiled, with just that spice of fennel in the water which meets the Florentine taste, and tempers the natural quality of this somewhat heavy food. The bollite lie here in the huge coppers that have served to cook them, and on a wooden board stands the ereat round polenda, smoking hot. This, too, is made of chestnut flour, and must be very popular, to judge by the rate at which it disappears as the string cuts into its chocolate-coloured mass, and it goes off slice by slice: a cheap and comforting morsel in cold days.

There is the castagnaccio, too, also made of chestnut flour, but prepared differently, and in its way a triumph of the art. For it a large round copper tray with a shallow border is used. This is oiled, filled with a wide thin cake of dough sprinkled with pine nuts, and set to cook over the fire. The copper retains the heat well, and when the cooking is done many a cake of castagnaccio is sent in its tray to the bridges, where, as you cross theArno, you may see it sold at a half-penny a slice.

There was – is still – a dark shop under the arch of San Piero, as you come into the market from the Via dell’ Oriuolo, which had a great reputation for this dainty, nor is it so long since an authentic count and countess might be seen eating castagnaccio in the streets as they walked; people of such ancient descent and acknowledged position that they could laugh at the prejudices of their class as they followed the old Florentine habit.

It may be added that most of the buzzurri, as the chestnut sellers are called here, come from the Italian foothills of the Alps: a sign of the strong demand at Florence for their art and wares. chestnuts of its own. These fine trees are common in the hills above Pistoia, where their fruit is anxiously expected and gathered as the principal harvest of the year, and where the hill people depend chiefly on chestnuts still as their main sustenance. The form this food takes with them is, in the main, the same polcuda dolcc we have already met at Florence, but instead of the broad, rich Florentine castagnaccio they have the necci, smaller cakes of the same kind.

Here, in the cooking of the necci, a further survival may be seen, and one that seems to make our whole contention plain. Each kitchen in the hills has by the jamb of its great fireplace a pile of flat round stones laid one on top of the other. These are heated betimes in the fire, and then, when the chestnut dough has been mixed, and the pine nuts added, and the whole formed into thin round cakes, a hot stone by the fire forms the foundation on which a cake, wrapped in chestnut leaves, is laid. This is covered by another hot stone, and so on till the pile is built complete, of cakes and stones alternately. Thus, as will be seen, the chestnut and the pine furnish the whole material of this food, and the cooking, being done by hot stones applied to the cakes in this ingenious way, is primitive too; only to be paralleled by savage ways of baking and boiling, which, if used today, are yet known as a direct inheritance from the earliest times. Not only the continued use of the chestnut then, but the manner of its preparation as food in the wilder hills, suggest strongly that the present inhabitants of the Val d’Arno are the direct descendants of the first woodmen in this valley.

A morning in the Old Market 24/02/2011

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c. 1880

But now to glance at the aspect of the place as a market. Could anything be more picturesque than the antique old gabled roofs, and the stalls beneath them with yellow awnings, which seem to absorb the sunlight, and yet shadow the piles of vegetables and baskets of fruit of every hue under the sun? Why, the very cabbages ring the changes on all the reds, yellows, and greens almost to blue-black! then the crimson and orange strings of capsicums festooned across the heaps of scarlet tomatoes, the rich purple of the pear-shaped petronciani, and the mingled hues of the pomegranate, make the greengrocer’s stall under the yellow shadow a feast of colour as well as a study of life.

Though we see all our old English friends of the vegetable kingdom, yet there are so many unknown herbs that we wonder what they are, and whether they are good for food. Here comes a poor tottering old woman, and putting down a bit of copper as big as a farthing asks for ‘two centesimi of radicchio’ the leaves of the garden chicory. She spends a like coin on a crust of bread at a baker’s, and there is her breakfast complete bread and salad for less than a penny.

There is a pert serving-maid, looking very pretty under her black lace veil; she spends several minutes bargaining for some lentils, and at length goes off with a parcel of those little brown seeds, of which she will make a puree to garnish the grand joint at her master’s dinner table. This esteemed dish is a zampone, a pig’s leg, bound and stuffed with meat, like a Bologna sausage, and smothered under a brown mash of lentils. But what is that keen-eyed man-cook buying? Certain pear-shaped shining vegetables of a rich purple colour. Such things were never eaten in old England. They are called petronciani, and are the fruit of the Solanum insanum or ‘mad apples’. They are first boiled till tender, then cut into slices, dipped in egg, and fried.

A sharp-faced old servant comes up, throws a quick glance round the stall, and muttering, ‘What, no gobbi, today? I shall have to go back to Menica after all’, and away she hurries. What are gobbi, do you suppose? They are a favourite vegetable in Italy, and are nothing but the stalks of the artichoke, tied up in bundles like celery. They may be eaten boiled, and served with melted butter, or cut into pieces, and fried in eggs and bread crumbs; and are excellent either way, the taste being something between celery and seakale.

Another favourite Italian vegetable consists of the knots of young leaves on the stalks of the fennel; but the flavour is too strong to suit an English taste. There are also some very small kinds of vegetable marrow, about as large as apples, which are very good.

Here comes another purchaser, who asks for ceci, and goes away with a pocket of round, yellow seeds, like over-grown peas, which were taken wet from a barrel of salt water, The plant which produces them is the Cicer Arietinum (English ram’s head, or chick pea). A very good soup maigre is made from them; but if your olfactory organs are delicate, it will be advisable not to assist at the cooking of them, for they emit a strong odour, like salt cod. The Italians live largely on leguminous plants; the numbers of different beans they use is quite remarkable; they vary in colour from the white haricot to dark red, and even dark brown species. If a working man can get a few beans, either hot or cold, with oil and vinegar, he is quite content to dine without meat ; and if a few of the greenish yellow funghi are added, he thinks it a meal fit for a king.

But what is this man calling as he conies slowly up the crowded market-street, shouting ‘Salati, salati’ (salted)? A little boy hearing the cry begins to sing ‘Son salati i miei lupini, Son salati dalla dama’. ‘My lupins are salted by my true love’ and he pulls a minute brown coin out of his pocket, and quickly exchanges it for the large flat, yellow lupin seeds, which the man has in a flat, wooden tub. There is scarcely a street corner in Florence at which you will not see the inevitable vendor of lupins, who is largely patronized by the working classes. The lupins are eaten after being kept in brine, but they are not cooked.

In the matter of salad, Italian tastes are as wide as in leguminous vegetables. They eat chicory and sorrel leaves, basil leaves, lettuce, endives, beetroot, dandelion, and cold cabbage. And a favourite salad is a grassylooking plant, which they call barba di cappuccini (or Capucino’s beard), known in England as ‘buck’s horn’, ‘goat’s beard’, or ‘star of the earth’. The Italians have classical authority for eating this, for Dioscorides said in his time that the plantago coronopus was eaten cooked; the only difference is, that the moderns do not trouble to cook it.

The fruit stall, which is often distinct from the vegetable seller’s, contains quite as many specimens which are strange to English eyes. Side by side with yellow apricots lies the cactus fruit, or prickly pear. Be sure that you don’t attempt to eat it, or even to touch it, without a knife, for the harmless little brown spots which dot its ruddy surface are each composed of a thousand invisible thorns which have a knack of entering the skin on the smallest provocation. The correct manner of eating a prickly pear is to cut off the two ends, then cut down the outer rind, and laying it open, take out the inner pulp.

Here are two baskets full of russet brown fruits; one familiar enough is the common medlar, but the other is shaped like a pear. It is the fruit of the pyrus sorbus (service tree). When fresh, they look like bright coloured pears; we were shown large bunches of them hung up in the shop, but they are only good to eat when mellowed by keeping till brown as a ripe medlar, and have a much richer flavour than that fruit.

A basket of red, velvety-looking berries, similar to strawberries, only rounder, next attracts us; they are arbutus berries, and when quite ripe are really very good to eat. The children are fond of another wild fruit, called giuggiole (jujube tree). They are glossy brown berries, with a soft, green pulp within. The oval red berries of the ‘cornel cherry’ are also greatly appreciated by children. The Romans also knew this cherry, but they grew it chiefly for the wood, from which their lances and arrows were made. But the most cooling and delicious fruit of all is the Japanese nespolo, a yellow medlar, with a delicious acid taste; they come in as soon as the warm weather begins, and are the favourite refresheners until the water-melon takes their place.

There are also different nuts eaten here. Besides walnuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts (which make a dozen different kinds of foods), we have the pinoli and the noce di Brasil. Pinoli are the little kernels of the cone of the stone pine. They are remarkably good in flavour, having a slight aromatic taste. They are obtained by placing the pine cone in an oven, when the heat causes the scales to open, and the nuts are easily shaken out and cracked with a hammer. The Brasil nut is a curious little pair of twin yellow berries in a brownish husk; the flavour is rich and aromatic.

A walk through the Italian market will certainly produce the thought that the English might vary and economize their food much more than they do. At those old cook-shops, in which the Florentines of three or four centuries ago were wont to dine, and where the ancient plates and dishes they used are preserved on shelves on the walls, one sees the most curious processes of cooking. Over the fire a large wheel revolves, on which are trussed rows of fowls, thrushes, and larks, the latter alternated with bits of bread, pork, and sage leaves. In the frying-pans are savoury messes of yellow polenta, made from the maizeflour, frying in oil, and of brown migliaccio, a cake of chestnut flour, and piles of nicely cooked fritto, the materials for which are endless, ranging the vegetable and animal kingdom.

As for economy, we might learn a great deal from a Florentine cook. For instance, when we truss a fowl, we make no use of the liver, except by displaying it under the wing. As for the cock’s comb, and other appendages to the head and neck of chanticleer, we consider them refuse. Not so the Italian; he calls them regalia, cuts them up and stews them with the liver in luscious gravy, and makes one of the most stylish entries for a dinner party, either by filling a vol-au-vent with them, or in a shape of stewed rice, called risotto con regalia. A fowl will, in the poulterer’s hands, serve several customers, for marketing is done on the infinitesimal system. The two bits off the breast are bought separately as a dish for an invalid or a fricassee for an entree. Then the carcass is sold for roasting or making soup, the legs and neck are purchased for a few centesimi by the poor, and the combs and livers go to the tables of the rich as regalia.

The fish market presents equally curious specimens of food. The sepia, or cuttle fish, is much liked, and you see its long arms, with their curious rows of circular disks, lying about in all directions. You will never find a mackerel; and if a salmon be visible, it has been imported for the benefit of some English Midas, at ten francs the Tuscan pound of twelve ounces. But there are large-headed, three-sided fish called naselli, which are as good as whiting, and a large kind of cod called palombo. Lobsters, as we know them, do not appear, but there are huge crawfish, larger than any lobster, and looking like magnified shrimps. It is a fashion to fry the very small shrimps in their shells, and eat them crisp and entire. Frogs’ legs also make a very delicate dish of fritto. Indeed, what will not an Italian make delicious in a fry? A dish of dainty morsels, fried in butter, of a pale brown, is placed before you, and its contents will prove a perfect riddle. Probably there will be melon flowers, bits of every vegetable imaginable, celery, morsels of calves’ brain and marrow, tiny lamb chops, sweetbreads, liver, artichoke, bits of fennel, etc etc. Nothing comes amiss to the frying-pan when fritto misto is required. But our marketing is over ; we have got back to the kitchen, so we will leave the cook to her mysteries.

First Home in Florence 23/01/2011

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c. 1910

We made our first home in Florence with our good friend Signora V. and her daughter. Our rooms were on the second piano, which meant three flights of uncompromising stone stairs, but once at the top our windows overlooked the piazza on one side, a pretty garden on the other, and gave us plenty of sunshine; moreover, we had a loggia, a very different matter from a balcony or gallery both in name and character, and from which we got charming views of the distant hills. Within was every creature comfort – not luxury, perhaps, but cleanliness, order, refinement, and an excellent table with two servants, merry-faced Dina and kindly Annunziatina, to serve and pet us, to identify our wants and interests as their most pleasurable duty, and teach us to say that Tuscan cookery and Tuscan servants, at their best, cannot be equaled the world over. The relation between the Italian family and servants is in many cases almost ideal: there is complete understanding and freedom of speech; the mistress talks and consults with the maid, and she, in turn, depends on her mistress as on a mother, and yet neither forgets her place or dignity.

As for food, where will one find such sweet, tender vegetables, such crisp salads, and macaroni served in a dozen different ways, each better than the other? For the first month every dish brought to the table was a mystery and delightful surprise. How could one have lived half a century and never known fritto misto, or the changes that may be rung on rice or corn meal? What a far different object the pomidoro is in Tuscany from the tomato of commerce in Boston! Then, who ever can measure the capacities of chestnuts? As for meats, if variety is limited, certainly the methods of cooking are legion, and one never seems cloyed with the Tuscan chicken; oil and cheese are delicious. For tea Italians care nothing, and their coffee leaves much to be desired; but who would drink either, or even the questionable water of Val d’Arno, when pure wine may be had for the asking? Tuscan wine certainly ‘needs no bush’, but there are so many degrees, even of the boasted Chianti, that only the wise may be sure of the best. At our signora’s we had the most delicious wine, both white and red, and, mark you, without extra charge. ‘