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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.

Watermelon Street 25/12/2010

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c. 1890 Watermelon Street is the old name for Via Ricasoli, Via del Cocomero

Across the way is the shop of the rosy and smiling vegetable-woman. Her door is stocked with a tempting array of red tomatoes, strings of pearly onions, tufts of celery and radishes, almonds in the green pod, as well as peas and beans, to be eaten raw by the initiated. Salads in all varieties of the crisp, bitter, and curling leaf abound. The salad is as indispensable to the Florentine as to the Greek.

The vender of wood and charcoal occupies a cavernous cellar of our palace wall. Why not? All must live, and each gain his bread in his own way. The carbonajo is a short stout man of forty years of age, robust and vigorous, with a humorous nose turned up at the tip, little, twinkling eyes, and a nature as sound as his own olive and chestnut logs, which he extols with abundant gesticulation. Dusky myrmidons come and go at his bidding, bearing on their backs the bags of charcoal sent down from the Apennines for that primitive altar dedicated to culinary rites, the Florence kitchen.

The man of charcoal has his grievances, like the rest of the world. In his case they assume the shape of modern Viennese iron stoves, capable of burning coke and coal, Parisian inventions to warm humanity with a petroleum lamp, Piedmontese calorifers, with smart brass doors and valves, warranted to consume their own smoke, in lieu of the cavernous, open chimney that formerly devoured fuel with a giant’s appetite, and gave no sign, scarcely deluding shivering mortals with a sensation of transient warmth. In the matter of private history our carhonajo is a widower, and whether from the public reprehension which would attach to him in the opinion of his own circle if he took a second wife, or because his first experience of matrimony was unsatisfactory, he expresses scorn and defiance of womankind.

His son, a small boy with a frosty nose and a wooden expression of countenance, is returned to him at four o’clock in the afternoon from the public school of the quarter, and loiters about the premises, receiving awkward, masculine cares, in the matter of shoe-tying and collar-adjusting, from his fond parent, is played with by the dusky myrmidons at leisure moments, and petted by the Street of the Watermelon, with the kindness so invariably bestowed on children by the Florentines.

The coal-dealer is rigid in the observance of all holidays. He is ready at any time to close his door, place his felt hat jauntily over his left ear, take his little son by the hand, and seek the Arno bank, if any spectacle, such as dragging the current of the river for the corpse of a suicide, invite his interest. Failing result of such gruesome dredging, he contents himself with basking in the sun with his back to the parapet, and inspecting the feathers on the hats of the ladies, the jewels sparkling in their ears, the rich furs, as the file of brilliant equipages passes in the drive of the afternoon to the Cascine. Who so proudly elated as the son of the widower, on such occasions? A fig for stay-at-home, coddling mothers and sisters, if one can walk abroad with the father, making shrill, infantile comments on men and things, so patiently and indulgently responded to by the daddy (babbo) in the streets.

The dealer in old books has a musty little shop beyond our palace wall. A stray volume of Petrarch or Ariosto, bound in shrunken, yellow parchment, may be here discovered beneath piles of cheap prints, sheets of music, the red guidebooks picked up by thrifty servants in hotel and pension, the faded albums of the school of keepsake poetry, embellished by the Countess of Blessington, scattered by the decease of old English ladies who had brought the household gods of provincial homes, the mahogany furniture and Wedgwood tea-pots of the auction sales, to Italy. The dealer is a tall thin man of studious aspect, and a uniform, powdery grayness of hue in hair, beard, complexion, and raiment, as if the sun had forgotten to pay him a visit in his dark nook, where he handles little pictures of saints painted on copper, crumbling leaves of woodcuts suggestive of Albert Durer, and portions of dilapidated missals that gleam with gold tracery and softly blended colors on illuminated pages, like fragments of rainbows amid neutral-tinted papers.

As a Florentine, does the gray and shadowy old man share the usual eccentricities of the bibliopole? Has he the excellent memory necessary to the true librarian, a quality to be ranked with that of the king, who never forgets the face of a subject presented to him, the actor, the barber, the club porter, the cabman? Is he entitled to a place between Magliabecchi and the famous old woman, La Mère Mansut of the Latin quarter of Paris? The former regretted that he did not own a copy of the Cosmogony of the historian Zouaras, and once mentioned incidentally that the work in question, bound in white vellum, with red edges, was in the library of the Grand Signior at Constantinople, in the left-hand corner of the third shelf from the ceiling, in the southern kiosque, facing the Golden Horn, in the palace of the old seraglio. The latter, shrewd and lineal descendant of generations of second-hand booksellers, could rummage out from some dark recess of her humble abode an almost forgotten specimen of antique lore at a moment’s notice. Opposite, there is a taciturn antiquarian, whose shop-window affords only transient and oblique glimpses of ivory carvings, enamelled tea-spoons, amber, Venetian lamps, tapestry, and majolica, so often is it closed. A mysterious and silent, if not saturnine, person is the antiquarian, with many business interests in other portions of the town. He would have been accepted as an astrologer or a necromancer in an earlier century…

The Street of the Watermelon is silent. The sound of passing vehicles, the strident clamor of the lace and shoe pedler, the plaintive, minor note of the knife-grinder, pierce the stillness only to die away to quiet once more. ‘He who is contented enjoys life’, says the proverb, reputed to be so venerable that it has grown a white beard.

Reader, come and dwell in the Street of the Watermelon!

The Cab Man 19/12/2010

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c. 1890

The old cabman shrugs his shoulders, and cracks the whip he carries in his right hand, as he returns to his stand on the Piazza of San Marco, where his horse, a patient white animal, with meek nose in a bag of hay, awaits the custom ever more rare since the establishment of tramways. Tramways an established fact, what fate will befall the society of cabmen, who parade in political processions on occasion, with a dark steed — such as they never drive – rampant on a banner of green silk? If the tailors are to ‘build’ the dresses of the ladies here in Italy in obedience to the feminine aspiration of the day to be as masculine as possible, what is to become of such pale and anxious little sarte as the maker of the signora’s yellow robe, bravely supporting a worthy husband out of employment through the failure of a flour mill at Pistoia? In turn, the flour mill was too heavily taxed for the owner to meet his expenses. If the type-writer is to set forth clearly and cleanly the ideas of a time-pressed world on rapidly multiplying sheets, how may bread be obtained by the clerks carefully trained to excel in writing and copying, with beautiful penmanship? Truly, this is a photographic age of swift and sharp impressions and speedy accomplishment.

These questions intrude even on the drowsy tranquillity of an old street at Florence, induced by the presence of the rubicund cabman, in his shirt-sleeves, jolly, and cracking his whip, his visage somewhat too suggestive of the purple glow resulting from a liberal use of Tuscan wine. As the husband of the vegetable-woman, and deeply interested in the business, he rejoices in the nickname of the ortolano (vegetable-dealer) bestowed upon him with the facility of Italian towns.

What befalls the displaced forces of human labor, swept aside by new inventions? One hears no more of them. The vetturino of the Riviera vowed vengeance on the railway, piercing the tunnels of the shore, from the heights of the defrauded Cornice road; still the iron rail endures, and the class of vetturini is nearly extinct. The indignant Venetian gondoliere carried their wrath at the introduction of little omnibus steam-craft into the city to the verge of a strike in the presence of the Queen Margherita, yet the vaporetti puff and shriek along the canals, and the picturesque wielder of the oar must go to the wall sooner or later. Care may lurk in the corner of the eye of the bluff cocher for the venture, from a financial standpoint, of a vegetable shop is fraught with sundry anxieties. If the outlay in rent and commodities be trifling, he doubtless wishes that the account of the superb signora, who has just sallied forth, was less lengthy for daily salad and vegetables, selected by a slatternly maid, and carried home in her apron, while he fears to cut off supplies altogether, lest he is never paid. For the rest, he anathematizes the encroaching tramway in the most ingenious vocabulary of abuse possible to the lower classes of any city; but at least on this July day let us laugh and be merry, whip in hand, while the patient white horse stands at the corner, awaiting a tardy customer.