jump to navigation

A morning in the Old Market 24/02/2011

Posted by florencecapital in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

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.

Advertisements

Looking for Pinoli 12/01/2011

Posted by florencecapital in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , ,
comments closed

c. 1900

Each contadino has a piece of the wood allotted to him, and when the vintage is over, and the sowing of the grain and pressing of the olives not yet begun, the pinecones are gathered and stored. This raccolta is no easy matter, as the cones do not fall of themselves, but must be forcibly detached. One of the men mounts the tall bare trunk, on which the succession of knots and lopped branches forms a rude ladder, and at last sits perched, like some fantastic bird, high among the boughs. Then a perilous process to any but an agile and skilful climber he cuts the cones with a sharp knife attached to a long pole, and they fall to the ground, to be gathered by the rest of the family into heaps. Care must be taken, however, to keep at a safe distance while the actual rain of cones continues, as they fall with all the force of heavy stones, and a blow on the head would be enough to severely injure, if not kill, a man.

The Tuscan folk are wonderfully attractive, with their dark eyes, sunny smiles, and warm-hearted, winning ways, and our arrival was greeted by the whole group with a cheery ‘Buon giorno alla Signoria!’ Dario’s wife was there, the little Madonna face looking sweeter than ever under a gay yellow handkerchief. Close by, gathering more diligently than anyone, was a deaf and dumb woman who has an immense reputation for fieldwork, and general utility, since, being denied the gift of speech, she cannot, as the men-folk say approvingly, waste the time in chattering like the rest of her sex, and must, perforce, remain ‘as still as oil’. Another of the party was Giocondo, who, however, belies his name of the ‘jocund’, being a pensive soul, ‘sad and civil’, and inclined to take a mournful view of life. Perhaps this is because he has proved the fallacy of the Psalmist’s unqualified statement that he who getteth a wife, getteth a good thing. ‘La Gioconda’ is not a treasure in domestic life, being sickly in mind and body, manifesting a feeble incapacity both for work in the fields and work in the house. Moreover, she brought as her only dowry an elderly and unamiable father, who has encamped by poor Giocondo’s fireside, and will neither lend a helping hand in work, nor withdraw the shadow of his presence from his unfortunate son-in-law’s house. Therefore, perhaps it is hardly to be wondered at if Giocondo sighs windily as he kneads the bread and performs his other duties about the Fattoria.

Half a dozen young girls, picturesque in their faded clothes, and with the lovely hair which knows the touch of sun and wind and rain alike, were busy together, chattering over their work like mill-wheels; and I saw more than one pair of eyes turned towards the fascinating Fiore, who is undoubtedly the best-looking ‘Giovanotto’ on the place, and will, it is safe to prophesy, have little trouble  in finding a ‘sposina’ when he turns his mind towards such things. At present he could hardly marry even if he wished to do so, as his eldest sister is only sixteen, and until she is of an age to be carried off to a home of her own, and leave a vacant place, there is no room in the family circle for any daughter-in-law.

The patriarchal fashion in which the contadini live, each family under its own capoccia or head, and the habit of taking the wives of sons into the house to share the work and submit to the domestic ruler, makes this arrangement of a double wedding necessary in most cases, as the sister’s departure makes room for the brother’s wife. Mafalda, arrived at the scene of action, set to work with praiseworthy energy, gathering pine-cones in her pinafore and depositing them on the heap which Dario and Giocondo and Fiore were dexterously transferring from the ground to the cart.

The small rustics, in their overalls and clumping, wooden-soled shoes, eyed her with consuming interest mingled with admiration; and as she returned from one of her journeys with an empty pinafore, the gallant Morino, Giocondo’s five-year old boy, shyly held out a branch of arbutus, bright with its scarlet and golden fruit. Mafalda received it silently, but with a smile as gracious as a princess, and came hastening to me, full of excitement over the pretty shrub, which she had never before seen. ‘Have you seen, you, that he gave it me, quel bimbo, that little boy there?’ she asked eagerly. ‘I like him: he is molto gentile; his clothes is ugly, but the little face it is very nice.’ Then, as a sudden desire for knowledge awoke in her,

‘What they do with them, these pinecones, when they get them to house?’ ‘They put them in the fire, or in hot water,’ I explained, always glad to see Mafalda’s mind opening to instruction, ‘and the heat makes these little scales unfold, do you see, my sweet one? And below every scale lies a nut, warm and snug. Then the nuts are taken out and cracked, and are good to eat, and to cook, and for, oh! ever so many things, and the empty cones are sold for fuel, to make fires when the winter comes.’

Mafalda was deeply impressed by this information. Her eyes opened to their widest extent; the mystery of the hidden nuts sleeping at the fragrant heart of the pine seemed to appeal to her, for she remained silent and nodded her head thoughtfully several times. ‘I take a cone to house, also I,’ she finally announced with determination; ‘and tonight we put her in the fire and take out her nuts, non e vero?’

Certainly we might do many things less amusing, so Mafalda selected a particularly noble and symmetrical specimen from among the piles before her, for the revels which we were to enjoy in that delightful hour which begins with the clearing away of the tea-cups, and is bounded so sadly and so soon for small people by the summons to bed.

By this time the short November afternoon was drawing to a close; the day’s work was over, the last load was ready, and the cones piled so near to the level of the high waggon-sides, that it seemed as if no place would remain for us. Mafalda was much distressed. ‘Must we go on feet?’ she asked anxiously, using a form which, when one comes to think of it, is really more reasonable than our usual idiom, since no one person, much less two, could possibly return to the house on a single foot. However, her mind was set at rest by the courteous Dario, who scooped out a nest in the middle, lining it with sacks that we might not suffer too much from the hard and knobbly cones. We scrambled up, helped by the contadini, all of them loud in their injunctions to Fiore, who was to lead the oxen, to star’ attento and not jolt the signorine; then, with much pomp and circumstance, we set off, a proud procession, on the precipitous descent.

The woods were dim and mysterious, grave with the quiet of evening, haunted by shadows and evasive presences which lurked among the trees; and it was pleasant in the misty grey of the twilight to picture the fire of blazing logs awaiting us, the welcome tea, and, beyond that agreeable horizon, the burning of the pinecones as a fitting conclusion to the day.

Mafalda could scarcely eat her bread-and-jam in her impatience to begin operations, and no sooner was tea over than she committed her pine-cone to the flames. ‘May I sit upon it, the knee?’ she asked with her accustomed courtesy, after this important business was accomplished; and so we sat bunched up together in a great chair in the chimney-corner, and possessed our souls in patience while the glowing tongues of fire did their work. It was a real story-book scene: the warm glow from the logs flickered upon the tapestry and old portraits, and up to the vaulted roof of the salotto; the dogs lay basking in the warmth; the splash of the fountain in the garden, and the wail of the rising wind as it tossed a handful of dead leaves against the window-panes, only emphasised the cosiness within. It was a magical hour, made for musing and dreams; but Mafalda was in a garrulous mood, and too deeply concerned over the well-being of her precious pine-cone to watch it quietly on its glowing bed.

‘The pine-cone, she feel very hot,’ she pleaded presently. ‘If she not cool she burn me the hand!’ And as the cone really did seem to have opened its ‘petals’, I acceded to this request and removed it with the tongs to a corner of the stone hearth. From time to time, as we waited for this cooling process, the slipping of a charred log sent a cloud of red sparks up the chimney, and Mafalda, of course, wanted a tale about these ‘sons of the burning coal’,  as the old Hebrews called them. I might have expected as much! Had she ever heard the sensational story of the army of fire fairies who lived in the heart of the wood? No? Well, the pine-log was the mother of all the fire fairies, and some of her children were good and some were naughty, and when she told them to do no harm to anyone, but to fly right away up the chimney into the sky, some said, ‘Yes, mother,’ and others said, ‘I don’t care’, and jumped out on the rug, and made holes in it, and sat down on the dogs and made them cry, and were just as disobedient as… some little girls could be!

Mafalda gazed pensively at the ceiling. Her air of detachment said plainly that though such little girls might exist perhaps on the dark side of the planet she had no dealings with or knowledge of them, and considered the allusion uncalled for and ill-timed. ‘Was there no good ones?’ she asked. ‘Yes; there was one who was as good as good could be! And he didn’t make holes in people’s pinafores, nor sit down on the rug to make it burn, nor on the dogs to make them cry, like the bad fairies; but he just flew up the chimney when his mother told him, ever so high. Yes, right in the air!’ as Mafalda’s face expressed the liveliest interest in the ascent of the virtuous spark. ‘And then, what is happened?’ ‘The angels caught him and blew on him, as Santina blows the fire, till he grew big and very bright and yellow; and then they made a little hole in the sky and planted him in, and he has been a star, a beautiful shining star, ever since, because he was good, and did what his mother the pine-log told him, and went up in the air instead of sitting down to make a blaze; and he looks in through the window every night at good children when they are in bed.’ Mafalda drew a long sigh of satisfaction. ‘Will he look at me to-night?’ she asked eagerly. ‘Of course, unless a cloud gets in his way. But the cone must be cool now, so we had better begin to take out our nuts.’

The extraction of pinoli is one of the dirtiest occupations imaginable, the cones being sticky with resin, and blackened by flame; but Mafalda and I have no objection to ‘clean dirt’ in a good cause, and, as the former sapiently observed, ‘With the soap we can wash us the hands’; so by bedtime that is to say, the bedtime of well-regulated young people of six quite a large heap had been got out and cracked. Mafalda was charmed by the whole proceedings; but her pleasure reached its height when, very carefully, I opened one of the pinoli and showed her, in the safe sheath, trebly protected by nutshell and cone, the tiny waxen hand, with its slender fingers, which the countrypeople call the ‘Manina di Gesu’. She went into ecstasies over “this little hand white’ and was not content until she had opened one for herself, a delicate operation, not easy for impatient, childish fingers to perform. At last Mafalda was led off’, reluctant, to bed; and ten minutes later I was leaning over her, and, obedient to her instruction, ‘more tuck’, straining the bedclothes to that unwrinkled smoothness which this exacting little person requires. Sitting up, she herself smooths away every crease from the tightly drawn sheet and counterpane, and then slides cautiously into a recumbent position, fearful of disturbing in the least degree the perfect neatness of her bed.