Saturday, May 28, 2011


I recently did a tour for a great group of Aussie high school teenagers. 
When speaking with their lovely (and cool) English teacher who was accompanying them through Europe, she told me an amusing story. When they were in Rome, she would start each day with a coffee in a local bar. She told the students that they should come with her as it would be a perfect time to write in their journals, something that they had to do in any case at some point each day as part of an assessment. She told them that it was a good place to experience Italian life. Initially, the teenage boys weren’t overly keen and the first few times they went reluctantly -  coffee was something older people drank and was maybe even a bit of a sissy drink, so the whole thing was a bit naff, the opposite to a pub and beer. That was until three uber cool young Roman guys rocked in one morning to the café where they were, helmets in hand for their vespas, that they had casually, and probably illegally, parked outside, sporting cool sunnies and decked out in the ubiquitous Diesel jeans and some cool and, no doubt, snugly fitting tops. They ordered three macchiato coffees, laughed and joked with the barman and with each other, drank them, paid, and then sauntered out, all in the space of about five minutes. The English prof noticed that the three male Aussie students were mesmerized, and, early the next day, they asked when they were next going to the coffee bar. On arriving at the bar, all three ordered a macchiato!   

Un caffè -  an espresso, a shot of coffee in a small cup. 
Un macchiato means ‘stained’ (it is the past participle of the verb ‘to stain’, which is macchiare) -  served in an espresso cup, the shot of coffee is stained with a dash of milk. 
Un cappuccino -  so named for the colour of the milk coffee which resembled the 
habit of the cappuccin friars ( a branch of the Franciscan order who wear a lighter brown greyish habit).
Un caffè americano -  is a shot of espresso served in a cappuccino cup with hot water added. If ordered when seated it will often be served with a little jug of milk. If ordered at the bar standing there should always be a little jug of milk. If there isn’t, then ask.
Un marocchino means Moroccan -  a shot of espresso in a small glass cup 
filled to the top with milk and cocoa added on the top as well as in between the 
milk and coffee. (this is not diffused in all areas of Italy). 
Un caffè corretto means a corrected coffee - an espresso with a shot of grappa. This could be good for suffers of Stendhal syndrome in Italy, a replacement for smelling salts to regain composure! 
There are two different price systems in the coffee bars, the price differing according to whether you sit or stand at the bar (what Italians do). If you stand at the bar, then you pay before at the cash register and take the receipt to the bar, give it to the barista and tell him what you want. He will rip your receipt and serve you your coffee, which you consume standing at the bar. If you sit at the table, somebody will come and take your order and bring you a bill. The price goes up according to  the service charge. Beware - it can sometimes triple, especially for seating outside in the piazzas. Prices are listed in the menus on the tables.  
Italians drink cappuccino at breakfast time, until mid morning. Then they switch to a macchiato or an espresso for the rest of the day. They find the Anglo-Saxon habit of a cappucino after dinner truly puzzling.  It is all about mixing too much milk with digestion, which could cause havoc!  Instead, they have an espresso, or even better, a digestivo (something like Montenegro) - or better still, both! 
Favourite coffee places in Florence: 
Cafe Giacosa Roberto Cavalli

Cantinetta dei Verrazzano in via dei Tavolini - I must admit that I have coffee here every day. It is very good, they are very nice and the cakes, pastries and 
focaccias are also very good. The benches and table tops are of Carrara white 
marble which adds to the   atmosphere of eternally good things… 
Café Giacosa - Roberto Cavalli, next to the Cavalli store on via Tornabuoni - here the good coffee is always served with the addition of liquid chocolate, so 
Café Giacosa inside Palazzo Strozzi on via Tornabuoni -  run by the Caffé Giacosa mentioned above and is a lovely place for good coffee, cake or light lunch. Never too crowded and seating in the internal courtyard. 

Chiaroscuro in via del Corso - serves good coffee with yummy variants that are written up on a board above. A friend of mine always orders a marocchino here…….

Cafe Giacosa Palazzo Strozzi

Sunday, May 22, 2011


 Girolamo Savonarola by his follower Fra' Bartolomeo
The Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, originally from Ferrara, was hanged and burnt in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence on the 23rd May 1494. Every year, on the morning of the anniversary of his death, there is a renaissance parade from the Palazzo della Parte Guelfa to the Piazza della Signoria, where a wreath is laid over the plaque which marks the spot where the burning took place. Savonarola died, along with two of his most ardent followers, in the same square where he had held the infamous 'Bonfire of the Vanities' during the period of Lent in 1497 and 1498. Non-Christian books and art (drawings and paintings), and objects of earthly passion and distraction, such as cards, precious fabrics, make-up and wigs, were burnt in the square on a platform made of seven steps, symbolising the seven vices. Savonarola was an extremely influential preacher who called for great reforms of the church which provoked anger from the pope at the time, Alexander VI. 
In 1491 he was made prior of San Marco monastery in Florence and began to preach in the cathedral. With the expulsion of the Medici family from Florence in 1494, due to a sharp decline in popularity after the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent de Medici and the incompetence of Piero de Medici, his son, to gain support from the people, Savonarola filled the power void and substituted humanist thought and neo-platonic philosophy with a theocratic government and an austere religious atmosphere for four years. Savonarola reorganised the government and, inspired by the Venetian model, increased political representation to 1500 people. He then commissioned an extension to the town hall, the 'Salone del '500' (Room of the 500), where the newly enlarged government could meet, in three sittings of 500 people at a time, giving name to the room. He referred to it as the Hall of Christ. 
His sermons increased in religious fervour and he claimed that Christ was speaking through him, he being a prophet of Christ. He attacked the papacy, who initially offered him a cardinal's hat to silence him, which he rejected, before excommunicating him. Cesare Borgia, the head of the papal army and the pope's son, came to Florence where a forced confession was taken from the friar, followed by his death in the square. 
Due to the austerity and fanatical nature of his reign, opposition had grown in Florence. The opponents of Savonarola, dubbed the Arrabbiati (Angry Ones), called the Dominican's closest followers the Piagnoni (Wailers) as they complained incessantly and spoke endlessly of the end of the world. After Savonarola was burned, his ashes were gathered and sprinkled over the Arno to avoid them being collected and kept by his believers, although the cult of Savonarola continued throughout the sixteenth century. 
Savonarola's cell in San Marco, Florence
Visitors to the beautiful San Marco monastery can enter his cell where many of the sermons would have been written and can see the bell that called the Florentines to hear him speak. This bell was exiled to outside the walls, to the dreaded enemy of the Dominicans, the Franciscan church San Salvatore al Monte, after his death. A few years later the Gonfaloniere Pier Soderini, head of the Republic, in an act of clemency, returned the bell to the Dominicans.
The hanging & burning of Savonarola in Piazza della Signoria - an anonymous painting from 1498 in the Museo di San Marco

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Lions and tigers and bears... oh my!

Room after room of the fantastic creations
that roam the earth.

Anotomical models in wax made
between 1770-1850.
La Specola, the oldest science museum in the world, should be the newest addition to a visitor’s Florentine itinerary. Opened to the public in 1775 by Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo (of the Hapsburg-Lorrain family, who ruled Tuscany the Medici and Unification), it was initially the seat for the all the science museum categories (zoology, mineralogy, scientific instruments, astronomy, anthropology, geology etc.). Over the centuries these separate scientific disciplines have been separated and spread around various different seats in the city and the museum now houses only two main sections of the magnificent scientific collection in Florence, but possibly the most fun, the zoological collection and the unbelievable wax anatomical models. The name of the museum, La Specola, means Observatory, as that was what was built on top of the Palazza Torrigiani, the building where the museum is located. The Observatory was later moved to Arcetri (behind San Miniato al Monte church more or less) but the name remains. La Specola museum is comprised of thirty-four rooms, the first twenty are dedicated to the Zoological section, organised according to animal categories such as fish, birds, mammals, reptiles, etc. Afterwards follows thirteen rooms dedicated to the intricate and precise anatomical models made out of wax created between 1770-1850, initially commissioned by Grand Duke Pietro Leopold, to be teaching and study aids, replacing real cadavers. Each room concentrated on a particular part of the body area and the models are accompanied by intricate drawings of the same body part or organ in frames above. It is a fascinating, fun, strange and a completely underrated place in Florence. Open: 9.30am-4.30pm, (6euro admission fee, reduced 3euro). Closed Monday, address: via Romana 17.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


La colomba pasquale / the  Easter Dove
During this past Easter, I discovered yet another regional speciality. The pagnotta (left), made only during this Christian celebration, originated  from a little place called Sarsina (province of Forlì/Cesena), in my beloved area of Romagna (north of Tuscany). It is a slightly sweet, light bread with a small quantity of raisins inside. To be honest, I wasn’t mad for it – it was a little unexciting, but what I love is that Italy always makes me feel a little like Alice in wonderland. Italy, like nature, always dishes up something new in different parts of the year and in different areas. The Italians have always rivalled nature herself in art, so it makes sense that they would do so in food also. The pagnotta was nicer when I dunked it in milk and when I ate it with the boiled eggs that Italians traditionally eat at breakfast on Easter Sunday. 

La Pagnotta - Sarsina
The national Easter cake, something for which I do however have great affection, is la colomba pasquale – the Easter Dove (above). It’s like a cousin of the panettone in taste, and indeed it was first made at the beginning of the 1900’s in Milan by the company Motta, already one of the established panettone companies. The difference, however, is that it is in the form of a dove, symbol of peace and rebirth, just like Easter eggs. Like the panettone, the main ingredients are flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and yeast with small pieces of candied fruit (orange and lemon), with the addition of almonds and hard sugar pieces placed on top. La colomba is eaten most often on Easter Sunday after the big lunch.

The Florentines (and those in the surrounding area) however, not being able to wait for the sweet dove to swoop down and break their fasting of all tasty treats on Easter Sunday, created some chocolate biscuits, called Quaresimali (the word Quaresima means Lent – so they are called Lent biscuits), that one is permitted to indulge in during the normally restrictive Lent period, the 40 day period between mardi gras and Easter (below). Nuns near Prato are thought to be the creators of these chocolate biscuits, in the form of the letters of the alphabet, representative of the bible text. Their dark brown colour from the cocoa is symbolic of the ink used to write the word on the paper. Being symbolic of the sacred Christian text, they are permissible during the period immediately before Easter. Indulging in chocolate biscuits, and lots of them, is even given a sacred spin in Florence!

Quaresimali - Florence

Finally, I must conclude with a mention of one of my favourite cakes in Italy, the Pastiera, traditional around Easter time in Naples. It is spectacular, a pastry base with a lattice top and a filling to die for, made with wheat kernels (its origins have pagan roots as it was historically made to celebrate the beginning of Spring), ricotta, orange flower water, eggs, sugar, pastry cream and diced candied fruits. Crazy, but oh so heavenly.
La Pastiera - Naples