Thursday, April 21, 2011


If you are in Florence for Easter this year, then you must be in the cathedral square at about 10am today, Easter Sunday, for the EXPLOSION OF THE CART (Scoppio del Carro), which will take place at 11am.

This is a tradition that has been going on for centuries. Pazzino de’ Pazzi  was one of 2,500 Florentines who ventured to the Holy Land in the late eleventh century, and was the first over the walls of Jerusalem where he planted the crusader flag. 
He was rewarded for his bravery in the form of a gift of three flints from the Holy Sepulchre, given to him by the leader of the crusade Goffreid, the Duke of Bullion (located in modern day France).
In 1101 he returned to Florence, and, from then on, three flints were used ceremoniously every year to light the domestic fire in every citizen's household on Easter Sunday, symbolising new life and the hope of future resurrection.

The flints were carried from house to house on a cart which, over time, became more and more decorated. The cart was taken to the cathedral to light the paschal candle, as well as the candles in the other churches. The cart was then piled high with fireworks and set off in the cathedral square to add drama and excitement to the celebration.

During the year, the flints were jealously guarded in the Pazzi family palace until they unsuccessfully conspired to kill the leaders of the Medici family in 1478 and take over the city. The family exiled, the flints were taken for safekeeping to the church of Santa Maria sopra Porta and, when this was suppressed, they were moved, in 1785, to the Santi Apostoli church where they are today. 

The Medici, always one step ahead of the rest and extremely avant-garde, introduced a new spectacle to the celebration at the beginning of the 1500’s - the rocket dove! 
Inside the cathedral after the mass, the archbishop, using the sacred fire that had been lit by the Holy Sepulchre flints, also lit the rocket dove (with a laurel branch in its mouth) which was attached to an iron cord. 
The rocket bird would shoot off, out through the cathedral and straight into the cart, igniting the fireworks! The dove would then do an about turn and shoot back into the cathedral! If successful, there would be a bountiful harvest the following season.
If you get to the front of the cathedral early enough for a good view of the door, you can see the dove shoot out to ignite the fireworks!

You can choose where to start your Easter festivities... either start at the Santi Apostoli church and accompany the flints to the cathedral or start at the Porta al Prato, where the cart is kept and, along with the procession, walk the cart into the main religious square. The cart is pulled by some beautifully adorned white bulls. It is nicknamed the Brindellone (the big awkward clumsy thing!) by the Florentines due to its size and how it wobbles and rambles through the city streets to its destination. 
Happy Easter and may you have an explosive weekend!

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Jean Baptiste Charpentier
La tasse du chocolat, 1768

Kaffeehaus, 1774-74,
Zenobio del Rosso (architect)
commissioned by
Grand duke Pietro Leopoldo II
of the Hapsburg-Lorraine family
Now that the weather is getting nicer a visit to the Boboli gardens would be a lovely way to spend an afternoon or morning. The Boboli gardens were, for the most part constructed by the Medici family and they were their representative, functional and recreational gardens. They were one of the first landscaped gardens since antiquity. The Medici would hold important family celebrations here, perform plays and spectacles in the outdoor theatre, go hunting, as well as grow plants and vegetables, harvest a trout farm and create ice caves. Each ruling Medici made a significant change or enlargement to the palace and the gardens from the time they bought the land in 1549 until the last Medici Grand duke who died in 1737. The Duke of Lorraine and his wife Marie-Theresa of the Hapsburg family (the future Holy Roman Emperor and Empress), took over the Duchy of Tuscany after the Medici and they came to live in the Pitti palace. From here, as the Medici’s had done, they ruled Tuscany and held court, until the unification of the nation in 1861 (this year celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Italian federation) and they too made significant contributions to the estate. Grand duke Pietro Leopold of the Hapsburg family (Grand duke from 1765-90, the second of four Lorraine-Hapsburgs who ruled Tuscany)  built one of my favourite sites in the Boboli gardens, the Kaffeehaus (1770’s) commissioned to the architect Zenobi del Rosso. A wonderfully civilised structure in the gardens where guests and the family could stop and have tea, coffee and hot chocolate. All that carriage riding and strolling in the gardens can bring on a parched feeling and the Kaffeehaus comes to the rescue! The lovely pale pastel green of the exterior was the colour of the Duchy of  Lorraine (this colour can also be seen on the walls of the Uffizi staircase up to the top floor), restored and repainted in the 1990’s. The Kaffeehaus looks beautiful, nestled amongst the greenery, seen from the other side of the river on the top floor of the Uffizi gallery, or indeed when actually strolling in the Boboli gardens. The Kaffeehaus is built in the Rococo style, the fashionable style of the mid eighteenth century (succeeding the Baroque, it was an aristocratic decorative style characterised by a sense of weightlessness in  architecture, light colours, associated with folly, pleasure and entertainment), with hints of Eastern touches, such as the bulb dome, as was in vogue in Vienna (the Hapsburg main centre). It is akin to the pleasure houses in the gardens of Versailles. The structure nowadays unfortunately is an empty shell (it was also beautifully frescoed on the interior with pastoral and illusionistic scenes), as plans to open it once more as a coffee shop were halted due to doubts regarding its structural condition.
In the eighteenth century drinking coffee and hot chocolate was something reserved for the elite echelons of society. It was expensive and a status symbol. Chocolate had entered Europe with the discover of the Americas in the fifteenth century and coffee was thought to have first come to the continent through Venice around the time of Marco Polo in the thirteenth century. Coffee had been drunk for centuries by the Muslim world, as early as the eighth century, but it only began to be something that was drunk by a growing number of people in Europe during the 1500’s. Still associated with the Muslim world however, it brought some feelings of unease amongst the clergy who viewed it as the devil’s drink. The legend is that in 1600, when complaining to the pope that he should ban it, Clement VIII demanded that he himself should try it first. Taking an instant liking to the delicious and exotic bean, he decided to baptise it, so that it could become a welcome member of the church and be freely drunk at leisure!

aerial view of the Pitti Palace & the Boboli gardens
the Kaffeehaus building & terraced gardens in front to the left.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Holy Cow! The Bistecca alla Fiorentina

Three men who are extremely happy with the individual portions of
bistecca alla fiorentina, 750grams a head. Peace will reign at the table  as there will be no arguing over who gets the bone! 

The ancient Chianina breed,
documented from Antiquity
by Pliny the Elder who
associated it with the Etruscans.
I am a carnivore, yet another reason why I feel at home in Tuscany because here, they eat every part of the cow.  A trip to the local fresh food markets will certainly back this up! (see also Florentine Street Food blog). At the markets you can see every part of the inside and the outside of the bovine and poultry families. The hearts, intestines, pig's trotters and the offal are not bought for the Italian’s domestic animals, but for their domestic tables. A famous restaurant in Florence is called Cibreo, which means the cock’s crest, which is one of the establishment’s dishes on the menu. But one of the region’s specialties is the bistecca alla fiorentina. This can be simply translated as the T-bone steak in English, but it is the quality of the meat and the way it is cooked that differs from all other places. It is grilled, served  rare, and the cut is about two fingers think. It is drizzled with good local Tuscan olive oil and sprinkled with salt. The most common side dish to order with it is white fava beans, but salad is another good option. The breed of cow from which the succulent Tuscan T-bone is taken, is called the Chianina, a quite precious white cow which is usually kept in individual stalls in the farm. It is a very old breed, mentioned by Pliny the Elder (23A.D-79A.D, Roman author and naturalist) and found in Tuscany, Umbria and the le Marche regions. The Tuscans were devastated and outraged when eating beef on the bone was outlawed by the government during the outbreak of the mad cow disease and even had a funeral for the bistecca (in typical Italian melodramatic spirit). They unabashedly rejoiced when the prohibition was lifted. It is generally quite pricy and the cost is determined by the weight. The menus will have the price per 100 grams (in Italian 100 grams is called 1 etto) and the size depends on what size cuts they have in the kitchen. The weight includes the bone. It is often advisable to order the bistecca for two people as cuts often start at 700-800 grams and continue to well over a kilo. The average price per 100 grams in the centre of Florence ranges from 4-5euros. Good Tuscan local wine, such as a Chianti, is the perfect accompaniment and it is absolutely permissible to suck the bone afterwards! Crostini toscani is a good starter (bread served with chicken liver pate) and some good grappa to aid digestion rounding off the meal is a good way to end.
A favourite place of mine to eat the bistecca in Florence is the 'La Casalinga' in via dei Michelozzi, near piazza Santo Spirito. Most restaurants serving Florentine cuisine will offer it, such as ‘Sostanza’ (nicknamed, La Troia), ‘Osteria di Giovanni’ and  ‘Trattoria Mario’ (open only at lunchtime), to name a few....