Food, Food & More Food
I am currently sitting on a train pulling out of the station in Florence watching the top portion of the Duomo fade away as we pick up speed. Last night, I went to dinner at a restaurant that was recommended to me by many of my friends from Rome, Trattoria Zàzà. It did not disappoint. For €15, I had one of the better glasses of Chianti Classico wine I’ve had as well as a dish of penne pasta in a sauce composed of four different cheeses. It was way better than Olive Garden’s version.
After dinner, I headed back to my hostel and spoke with a few people in my room. We had two Australians, two other Americans, and two Canadians. We spoke about anything and everything. It is one of the things I enjoy most about traveling and staying at hostels. There is a sort of instant connection you share with your dorm mates. It’s a cool experience. I feel like I’ve learned so much about other parts of the world and other cultures just by staying in hostels.
I also learned that a tour company that I was considering taking is pretty good. It is called BusAbout and it essentially runs buses on loops that stop in every major city every two days. It is a lot of time on a bus, but the people I spoke with said they are very pleased with the company. You get to stay in each city for as long as you like and you can just reserve a spot on the bus whenever you are ready. It’s a very cool concept.
We all crashed pretty early last night as half of our room was checking out this morning. Today, we had to check out of our hostel by 10:00 AM, so I signed up for a 9:45 AM tour of Florence’s main food market, the Central Market of San Lorenzo.
Our tour guide worked for a company that provides tours for backpackers and flashpackers (backpackers who use technology – that’s me!). The tour company is called Tuscany on a Budget. Anyway, our tour guide was originally from Montreal, but his parents moved to Florence when he was 9. He said he has tried to leave on numerous occasions, but has never been able to stay away for a extended period of time.
The market was about 5 minutes away from our hostel and reminded me a lot of Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. It has been operating since Renaissance times although it has undergone a few significant modernization projects.
We walked in and were immediately in front of the fish market, which was pretty small. Florence is not known for its fish because it does not have a harbor. It gets all its fish and salt from the Mediterranean Sea through the Arno River which runs through Pisa which leads me to another interesting point. Florence does not put salt in its bread because when Pisa and Florence were at war, Pisa would cut off access to the Arno River. Thus, Florentines had no salt to put in their bread, so they didn’t. Now, they say their bread is so good that it doesn’t need salt, but it is really because they did not have access to salt centuries ago.
Our tour guide showed us how to pick out a good fish that is fresh by looking at its eyes, feeling its skin, and looking at the color of it. He also advised us to never buy a fish without a head because the butcher is trying to hide something.
Then, we walked to the fruit market, something that Florence is also not known for. One of the vendors gave us a free sample of cherries which were the best cherries I’ve ever had in my life. I would have bought some if I was staying I’m Florence another day. Then, the vendor gave me a bag of free fruit. I didn’t want to pay for it, but my tour guide said he was trying to build up goodwill so the tour guide would take people by his stand more often. Since he had good products today, he wanted to show off. I could not take the fruit on the train with me since my bag is so full, so I gave it to my tour guide.
Then, we walked down to the meat vendors. We saw everything – feet, stomach, intestines, testicles, kidneys, liver, brains, cow head, rooster, rabbit, pigeons, wild rabbit, and a lot more. Our tour guide also pointed out something I want to eat – florentine steak. It is a steak that is served in portions of at least a kilo and grilled on both sides for less than 10 seconds each. It is what Florence is known for. Since I am traveling by myself, I wasn’t able to order one because they need to be shared between three or four people.
Our tour guide told us about the official seals on the meat and the agencies that oversee them. He said that if Italy treated everything the way it treated its food that the actual country would be very strict! Each piece of meat has a seal with a tag on it. Before buying it, you can call a phone number which will tell you if the meat is an authentic piece of meat and is exactly what they are advertising. You can find out how many kids a cow had as well as any other information you could want to know. Every restaurant in Florence validates each piece of meat that it buys. It was very impressive.
Then, we walked down to the bread shop and tried two different types of biscotti. One with lemons, one without. They are so hard that you are supposed to dip them in the “holy wine” before you eat them. The holy wine is the same kind of wine you drink in church.
Then, we walked and looked at all the different types of prosciutto. There are so many types. Prosciutto di Parma is the most famous one, but each region has its own type.
After that, we walked to my favorite part, the cheese stand. We talked about all the types of cheese and the differences between them. We also talked about how different regions grow different types of olives.
Then, came the lesson on wine. We learned about the different types of wine throughout the Chianti region. First, we learned about the history of the Chianti region. The region is divided up into seven different mini-regions. The best mini-region is Chianti Classico because it has the best soil. Florence and Siena had a bloody war over this piece of land. (In Italy, they used to fight over everything. Our tour guide said that a war was started because a seven year old farted at the dinner table!) Anyway, the war led to nothing and both sides agreed on an alternate way to split up the region. One morning at the rooster’s crow, two horseback riders, one from each city, would take off in the same direction. Wherever they met, the border between Florence and Siena would be drawn. Both sides tried to make the rooster crow early. In Siena, they overfed the white rooster and their plan backfired because it went into a food coma and did not wake up until the afternoon. In Florence, they starved the black rooster and it woke up very early. Lets just say that the riders met 12 km outside of Siena.
Our tour guide showed us the labels on the top part by the cork of each bottle of Chianti Classico. They have a black rooster on them – the rooster of Florence, as well as an individual ID number from which you can find out everything about the wine including who picked the grapes! If you have a bad bottle, you can call a phone number and have it replaced free of charge! The Chianti Classico wine is comprised of 90% of grapes that were grown in the Chianti Classico mini-region.
After the wine, we headed to the best part of the tour, the sampling. We tried sundried tomatoes, dried out pieces of garlic, olives with extra virgin olive oil, bread with extra virgin olive oil, bruschetta, three pieces of cheese topped with fig jam, peach jam, and truffle and honey jam, cheese with ten year old balsamic vinegar, and wine made of 100% grapes from Chianti. It was all amazing. I wish I had room in my backpack to take it all home with me!
The food we tried
Our tour guide taught us how to properly taste wine, too. You take two deep sniffs with your nose practically touching the wine, then you drink it and swirl it around in your mouth for four or five seconds. It tasted even better!
After our tour, I headed back to my hostel to grab my bag and went to the train station. I am noticing a much different type of clientele on this train. They are all businessmen. Milan will definitely be a much different city than what I am used to from the rest of Italy. It will be interesting to see if I like it or not! Only time will tell…
Note: This post was originally published on June 5, 2012 in a blog entitled “Romeing Around Europe…Again” which chronicled my post-graduation trip across Europe.