Thursday, March 31, 2011

Being called the pits is no longer something to be worried about!

The wheels of cheese in their cloth bags
placed in the pit in August.

The pit lined with reeds & hay
3-4metres deep.

What is so wonderful about Italy is the sheer diversity from one region to another, often even from one town to another within the same region. I love so many of the twenty Italian regions that make up the nation, however I have a particular soft spot for Romagna in the region of Emilia-Romagna, situated north-east of Tuscany on the Adriatic coast. The main cities in Romagna are Rimini, Ravenna, Cesena, Forlì and Imola and there are numerous fantastic little towns and villages nestled in the regions hills. During the Renaissance, alot of the land was, for the most part, ruled by the Pope as part of his temporal domain. 

Here, bread is replaced with the piadina (a flat type of bread that resembles Indian naan or thin Greek pitta bread), the typical pasta is the strozzapreti (stangled priests) and in certain places they bury their cheese in pits for the last three months of the maturation process! 

This type of cheese (from sheep or cow milk or a mix of both) is called formaggio di fossa (cheese from the pit). It is documented to have been matured like this from the fifteenth century and is typical of Sogliano al Rubicone, a hill-top village not too far from Rimini. It is also practised in some places in region of the Marches and in Umbria

In August, after the cheese has matured in the open for 2-3 months, the farmers wrap the cheese wheels in white cloth with their names written on the exterior and then place them in pits, about 3-4 metres deep and shaped like a fiasco (the traditional bottle shape of chianti wine), that have been dug out from the tufa stone mountain wall. The pit is then covered and securely sealed with a wooden lid and plaster to be opened three months later. 

Traditionally, this was a way to hide the cheese (their food for the coming winter months) from  plundering bandits and armies. Every year the pits were cleaned by burning straw and twigs and then  lining them with reeds and hay, placing a rack at the bottom so that the cloth bags avoid contact with the whey drippings. 

In Sogliano al Rubicone the pits were, and still are, ceremoniously opened on Saint Catherine’s day (25th November). The cheese has a smell of undergrowth, moss, truffles and wood. So, if you are travelling in Italy during November, do some modern day plundering and do not miss the Formaggio di Fossa sagra (village festival) of Sogliano sul Rubicone held on the weekend of the 25th. Let your nose lead you to the picturesque high hilltop town where you can feast on wonderful pit cheese in an array of dishes, or simply on its own with some good local sangiovese red wine.

A native of Sogliano sul Rubicone proudly explaining the process to me.
The foto taken above of the pit is just next to his feet.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Grand Duke Cosimo II de Medici

Bust of Grand Duke Cosimo II inside
the Medici coat of arms, on the new grain
market built during his reign on the corner
of via dei Neri & via de Castellani

The front page of Galileo's treatise
Sidereus Nuncius 1610
dedicated to Cosimo II

Porphyry bust of Cosimo II,
Pitti Palace
The other day a mate of mine sent me a photo of a stone bust of Cosimo II de Medici that he saw on the facade of a palace and asked me who it was, and so I thought that this often overlooked Medici grand duke could be the subject of this week’s blog entry. It is often very frustrating that written indication isn’t engraved somewhere on the stone or marble of portrait busts dotted around the city, or are too difficult to read, thus obscuring any further understanding of the rich Florentine heritage. Cosimo II is another favourite Medici of mine, he didn’t rule for very long (1609-21) being of weak constitution, but he shared characteristics of so many of the great Medici men; he was very intelligent, a great patron of the arts and aesthetically, quite a peculiar looking human being. He and his wife, Maria Maddalena of Austria, created a flourishing intellectual activity at the court at the Pitti Palace (the Ducal palace) with Michangelo Buonarroti the Younger (to distinguish him from his great uncle, the great Michelangelo Buonarroti, artist from the previous century) as the court poet, and Galileo as the court mathematician and  philosopher. They invited many talented non-Florentine artists to the court, such as Justus Sustermans from Flanders (court painter to the Medici family for close to forty years) and Artemesia Gentileschi from Rome (the first female member of the Florentine Accademy of Fine Arts), enriching the domestic artistic ambience. Galileo who had been Cosimo II's tutor 1605-08 was working at Padua Universtiy when he published his recent discoveries concerning the skies. Desiring to return to Florence, he dedicated his treatise Sidereus Nuncius in 1610 to Cosimo II consequently securing him the court position. In this treatise he expounded his recent discoveries concerning phases of the moon, the existance of the Milky Way and the four satellites stars orbiting around Jupiter. He called these the Medicean stars (they have been renamed the Galilean Moons). Cosimo II was the father of Leopold (see blog entry 'Never judge a book...) and succeded by his eldest son Ferdinando II who, like his father, also commissioned expert artists for work on the ducal palace, such as the Baroque master, Pietro da Cortona for the decoration of the reception rooms and Bolognese experts in trompe l'oeil technique for the summer appartments....subject for another entry.

Judith slaying Holofornes, Artemesia Gentileschi, Uffizi gallery.
Painted during her Florentine period under the protection of Cosimo II & Maria Maddalena

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Saint Joseph day fritters,
called frittelle in Tuscany
Adoration of the Shepherds, 1485
Domenico Ghirlandaio
Fathers day is celebrated this Saturday on Saint Joseph’s day. Lent, the time of abstinence, couldn’t possibly mean that the Italians truly refrain from eating their delightful goodies for such a long period of time, no way! In the land of exceptions to the rule, there is of course the day given over to tasty frittelle or fritters, an indulgence eaten  to celebrate the faithful guardian to the Holy Mary.

Joseph, most often relegated to the background in the family shots, is shown here in Ghirlandaio’s wonderful Adoration of the Shepherds a little despairingly, as he is worrying about where they will be next, which will determine what type of fritters they will be eating this Saturday! Because of course the recipe changes depending on the region, and they can be either sweet or savoury.

Frittelle (pictured above) are little fried balls of rice dough, eaten in Tuscany, northern Lazio and some parts of Umbria. The ingredients are rice, milk, water, egg, rum, sultana, sugar, a little grated orange peel or lemon, flour, salt and vanilla. After frying they are rolled in  icing sugar. In Sicily, they are called crespeddi and are sweet, with a filling of ricotta and anchovies. In Campania (Naples is the capital) they eat zeppole (pictured below) shaped like a doughnut with no rice in the ingredients, but based on water, butter, yeast, flour and egg and they have a cream filling often topped with amarena cherry.

Zeppole from Naples
Father’s day originated at the beginning of the 1900’s in America and was, and still is in most countries, celebrated on the third Sunday of June. The Italians too began to celebrate it in June, however, it was then moved to coincide with Saint Joseph’s day (as it was in Portugal and Spain). The Italians have been celebrating Saint Joseph’s day with the fritelle for centuries. The day dedicated to Joseph was officially established by Rome in 1479, and it coincided with the pagan ritual rites celebrating the end of winter. Big bonfires where built with the left over residue from the fields and hymns sung to Saint Joseph, patron saint of carpenters, unborn children, immigrant workers, and of course fathers…. and all Tuscans would eat lots and lots of frittelle!

Sunday, March 6, 2011


The Orange Cloister
I love doing tours on Mondays, when the major ‘must see’ galleries are closed (Uffizi, Accademia, Pitti Palace being the big main ones) because then I get the time to take people to other really wonderful, tasty, delightful and often barely known (for no other reason other than Florence has the greatest concentration of UNESCO heritage protected sites in the world) places, and you need a lifetime in the city to see everything she has to offer. Il Chiostro degli Aranci, or the Orange Cloister,  is open Monday afternoon only, from 3pm-6pm. 

The cloister is inside the Badia Fiorentina  (Badia is a short-cut way of saying abbazia, or abbey) which was first constructed in the late eleventh century on land donated to the Benedictines and bought by the Willa, the mother of Ugo the Marquis of Tuscany. It developed an important collection of illuminated manuscripts as well as their its own flourishing workshop of bookbinders and copiers making their own production. The abbey was restructured in 1285 by the great Arnolfo di Cambio (the first architect of the cathedral, Santa Croce church and the last set of the city’s walls amongst other things) and the beautiful Gothic bell tower is one of the jewels of the Florentine skyline. In the early renaissance period one of the greatest architects of the city, Bernardo Rossellino restructured the two storey cloister of the oranges and the lunettes of the first floor were frescoed with twelve episodes from the life of St Benedict, the father of the European monasticism and, thus, a worthy subject for an abbey’s cloister where the monks followed his rule.

Beating the devil out of a monk
The painter is referred to as the ‘Master of the Chiostro degli Aranci’ as his identity is unknown and the frescoes were executed during the 1430’s. His style is described by the art historian Millard Meiss as ‘blend[ing]the geometry of [Paolo] Uccello, the luminism of Domenico [Veneziano], and the narrative repertory of [Filippo] Lippi with an idiom that is largely Angelican [Fra Angelico]’, suffice to say that Millard thinks, as many others, that it is pretty wonderful. The photo depicted is one of my favourite scenes from the life of Benedict, when he beats the devil out of the monk possessed by the devil, giving origin to the expression we have today ‘to beat the devil out of someone’.
So if you find yourself in Florence on a Monday, you could dedicate the afternoon to ‘time with Benedict’ with a little cruise around the fabulous cloister of the oranges (you are likely to be the only one there) and then walk up to the other magnificent Benedictine church and monastery on the hill overlooking Florence, called San Miniato al Monte, and see similar beautiful episodes from the life of St Benedict from the later 1300’s. You will notice that Benedict is now wearing a different colour robe, black turns to white…. but this will be the subject for another blog…..

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Give me five & five!

A serving size of Cecina, also called
Farinata. A perfect snack!
 Situated in one of the most charming piazza’s in Florence on the Oltrarno (south side of the river) is a little café with an unsual name that opened up about one year ago. My mum and I, when walking through the piazza della Passera on a cold winter’s day, discovered it and when I saw the sign for Cecina in the window, a very tasty typical regional speciality that I knew she had never tried, we ducked in. Cecina is the perfect snack but it is not easy to find in Florence. It is something that I often see sold at growers markets around here, and now it seems that it will be a staple at this place the Cinque & 5 café, as the name actually refers to the lovely thin flat bread / pancake that you see in the photo. Cecina or Farinata as it is also known, is made from garbanzo bean flour (most commonly ) water and olive oil. The mixture is cooked in the oven and big slices are cut like pizza. Here at Cinque & 5 café, a slice costs 2.50 euro. 

look at the chalk board (bottom
right of the photo) you can
order Cecina as shown in the
above photo or a panino '5&5'

Cecina is very common in Livorno where they call the whole tray, from which the slices are cut, una torta – the Italian word for cake. It is sold in the tortai (translation of the word would be a ‘cake selling place’) which is misleading to the non-local as it doesn’t sell sweet but savoury goodies, pizza slices and the fabulous Cecina! These tortai are characteristically small and informal joints where you can chow down on some great, straight out of the oven, perfect winter snack food, a perfect ‘ferma-fame’. In Livorno the most common way to eat Cecina is cinque e cinque mode, or the ‘five and five’ way, which is a slice of the warm Cecina wrapped up in soft foccaccia bread with a substantial quantity of cracked pepper. The number five repeated refers to the price of the Cecina and the price of bread which cost both cost, some time ago, 5 lire. So if you wanted the Cecina sambo combo, which most did, then you just ordered a ‘5&5’. I love it, the Italians are cool even when they order food! This therefore explains the curious name of this great little biological café in my favourite Florentine square and why you can bet that Cecina is going to be a staple on their menu. Cinque & 5 café, Piazza della Passera 1, open everyday from 10am-10pm.

Buon appetito!