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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. ‘

The country at Badia a Settimo 19/01/2011

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c. 1900

Leaving Florence by the Porta S. Frediano we drove about four miles to the ancient Badia a Settimo, famous in the political as well as the religious annals of Tuscany. The peasants were as busy as bees, preparing casks and vats for the vintage, and the universal hammering was quite deafening, mingled with the beating out of the sagina – a kind of millet much grown for making brooms, which are sent by shiploads to England and America. Most beautiful are the fields of the tall sagina; the light green leaves bend gracefully to the breeze, and the loose head of seed falls like a cascade of chestnut-coloured rain from the tops of the slender stems. To English eyes the wealth of grapes appeared incredible, and the colours marvellous. From maple to maple hung long garlands of vines in fantastic shapes, Buon Amico, or ‘good friend’, with large loose bunches of purple-black grapes, Trebbiano, brilliant yellow, with the sunny side stained a deep brown, Uva Grassa, a dull yellow-green, and the lovely Occhio di Pernice, or ‘partridge’s eye’, of a light pink with ruby lines meandering about in every grape, the flavour of which was quite equal to its beauty.

The contadini were much amused at our admiration, and insisted on our tasting the various kinds of grapes. Immense golden pumpkins, melons, water-melons, and scarlet tomatoes were being picked, and on some of the farms the women and children were busily employed in making round cakes of the latter fruit, and drying them in the sun for winter consumption. Outside the windows hung branches of the Acacia horrida, of which the crown of thorns is said to have been made; each long thorn bore a crop of skinned figs, the gelatinous, sweet drops of juice oozing out and congealing in the sun’s rays. On the low walls surrounding the threshing-floors were flat baskets, boards, and plates, covered with split peaches and figs drying in the sun, for the children to eat in winter with their bread.