Saturday, July 30, 2011


Piadina Rimini style

I am hopelessly in love with the piadina, the large flat round bread (25cm circa in diameter) of the Romagna region, north of Tuscany (the region is Emilia-Romanga). It was love at first sight and I have remained faithful to it since the first day I indulged. I am very happy however, that it is something that is only sold in abundance within the boundary of its native area, and that I live in Tuscany. Otherwise, the temptation to dive into a pool of piadinas would be an incessant torturous desire.
Piadina Ravenna style
There are kiosks selling piadina (piada or pida, as it can also go by) on street corners or on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere in particular, everywhere in Romagna, and it replaces the bread in the baskets on tables in trattorias (when the large bread circles of joy are cut into triangles). The kiosks sell the piadina alone (for people to take home, as others in different regions would buy bread) or they make up a sandwich with it, adding a variety of fillings such as prosciutto, rocket, sausage, cheese……it is irresistible. The kiosks also sell the crescione (or cassone), a piadina form of the calzone pizza, which is a piadina folded over to make a welded pocket, with the filling inside, and cooked in the oven. In the trattorias, a classic starter is the freshly made, still warm piadina cut into wedges and served with a plate of squaquerone (white soft runny cheese) and a plate of prosciutto and you create your own trinity of taste – caramelised figs is a great thing to add to the cheese also!
The ingredients of piadina are flour, lard, salt and water – no yeast so that it remains flat. There are now some places which replace the lard with olive oil, but otherwise the recipe remains the same throughout the region and it is the thickness of the piadina which gives it the signature stamp of local origin. Ravenna, one of the most northern cities in Romagna, makes their piadina very thick (or ‘alta’ – high- as the Italians say), whereas Rimini, one hour directly south on the Adriatric coast, makes theirs very thin. But, as the Romans said (and the piadina is similar to the type of flat bread that the Roman soldiers made), ‘in media stat virtus’ -the best is the equilibrium of the two extremes - and I prefer the piadina from Cesena, situated right in the middle between Ravenna and Rimini. It is the compromise of the two – it is perfect. 
Tuscan bread
The first written testimonies of the piadina date to 1371 when the cardinal legate, Angelico de Grimoard, listed its ingredients "Si fa con farina di grano intrisa d'acqua e condita con sale. Si può impastare anche con il latte e condire con un po' di strutto" (it is made with flour, water and salt. It can also be mixed with milk and a bit of lard).
Not that I dislike the typical bread of Tuscany, I just don’t dream about it as I do the piadina. Many people, however, don’t show any affection at all to the traditional pane toscano as it is flavourless, due to its lacking salt as well as its rather tough crust. The saltless Tuscan bread was already immortalised by Dante in the XVII canto in Paradise of the Divine Comedy in the early 1300’s.  He wrote : ‘tu proverai sì come sa di sale lo pane altrui’ (you shall learn how salt is the taste of another’s bread) when referring to his exile from his beloved Florence. 
Bruschetta using Tuscan bread
One explanation for the lack of salt in the bread was that Pisa, in the twelfth century, one of Florentia’s many enemies, increased the price of salt to the inland cities and the Florentines retaliated by using it only when necessary, for meat preservation, thus taking it out of the bread. Another explanation for the saltless recipe is of a culinary kind. As the Tuscans have always traditionally liked strongly seasoned (speziato) and pungent meats, strong tasting pecorino cheese (sheep cheese) and liver pate, the bland oven baked bread was ideal to balance these flavours (again the in media stat virtus rings true) and is perfect to use when mopping up the sauces afterwards. It is true that Tuscan prosciutto is ‘salato’ (salted) and not ‘dolce’ (sweet) like that of Emilia-Romagna. Tuscan bread is not eaten by itself, it requires an accompaniment. In fact, as a starter in traditional Tuscan trattorias, there is often Fettunta (translation is oily slice, fetta – slice & unta – oily) on the menu which is quite simply a slice of Tuscan bread rubbed with garlic and then drizzled with good local extra virgin olive oil and salt. 
The lack of salt is also linked to the bread's relatively short life span.  It does indeed become rock hard after a few hours, hence the Tuscan imagination with the number of dishes requiring stale bread (panzanella, ribollita and pappa al pomodoro).
Tuscans do, however, make a bread that is tasty by itself, the Schiacciata. This is a bit like a ready-made fettunta, which seems like squashed (translation of the name) focaccia and is covered with oil, salt and sometimes rosemary. During the grape harvest season, the Tuscan bakers make an addition to their bakery selection, a winner for those with a sweet tooth, with the schiacciata con l’uva. Some of the freshly picked grapes, instead of going to make us some good chianti, end up being baked on top of the bread dough, pips and all, as well as a good dose of sugar and it turns into a slice of heaven!
Schiacciata con l'uva

Saturday, July 23, 2011


Ammannati's fountain at the Bargello

On the occasion of the exhibition dedicated to the sixteenth century Florentine sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati at the Bargello National sculpture museum, his fragmented sculpture fountain complex has been reconstructured. This is one of my favourite sculpture groups from the Italian Cinquecento and it was commissioned by the grand duke Cosimo I to Ammannati in 1555 for the inside of the Town hall that had been, since 1540, Cosimo’s ducal residence.
Ammannati was born in Settignano, from a stonemasons family. Settignano is one of the hills surrounding Florence, an area which produced many very talented sculptors and stone masons as it was one of the places that sourced the city with stone (Desiderio da Settignano was one of the greatest sculptors from the Florentine Quattrocento). Ammannati trained under Baccio Bandinelli, who headed one of the largest sculpture workshops in the first half of the 1500’s in Florence, and worked for numerous Medici family members after their return from exile in 1512 (Pope Clement VII, Alessandro de Medici, Cosimo I).
Ammannati secured the commission for a fountain sculpture group in 1555, to be placed in the ex-main government room, now the ducal hearing room where Cosimo I received his subjects and held gala events glorifying his rule and territory. Giorgio Vasari was entrusted with the artistic decoration of the walls and the ceiling, with detailed imagery linking the Medici family to the city’s ancient Roman past and highlighting the astuteness and greatness of Cosimo. At the head of the room, an elevated stage area was created where the Grand duke would sit surrounded by the sculptural representations of previous important ruling Medici figures sculptured by Bandinelli. At the other end was to be placed Ammannati’s fountain, which represented the four elements in mythological allegory represented by the various gods and motifs. This was an obvious analogy to the rule of the Medici - it was part of the very fabric of the cosmos that the Medici would rule over, the traditional republic of Florence, and it had always been part of the greater plan.
Cosimo I de Medici by Bronzino
Juno, the consort of Jupiter, is seated above and flanked by her attribute, the peacock. This was also the symbol of the beloved wife of Cosimo I, the Spanish Eleonora da Toledo, the beautiful second daughter of the Spanish Viceroy of Naples. Juno is seated on a rainbow, which has been reconstructed in plaster for the exhibition as the original marble structure has disappeared.
Below Juno stands Ceres, the goddess of the harvest, with water springing forth freely from her breasts as a sign of her life giving force. She is flanked by two semi reclining figures representing rivers, the one on the left being the Arno river as he is seated on a lion, the symbol of Florence. To the right is a female representing the spring of Mount Parnassus, as she is reclining on Pegusus.
The standing figures outside the semi circle are Flora on the right and Prudence on the left. Flora represents Florentia, the ancient Roman city of Florence, which was dedicated to the Goddess of Spring. She has, however, some additional symbols pertaining to Cosimo, declaring his political desire to be viewed as the Roman Emperor Augustus. Flora has the symbol of the order of the Golden Fleece, awarded to Cosimo I in 1545 by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, around her neck.
Cosimo presented himself as the second Augustus. He too, like Augustus, stopped the civil unrest that had been plagueing Florence for decades, just as Octavian ended the civil war ravaging Rome by defeating Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in 31AD. Augustus became the first Emperor of the Empire, with the Republic of Rome gone, just as Cosimo I would become the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, ending once and for all the Republic of Florence. Furthermore, Cosimo symbolically adopted the same motto (Festina Lente) and the same zodiac sign as Augustus (Capricorn).
Finally. this brings us to the remaining figure, Prudence, on the left. He has an anchor and dolphin behind his leg, visual symbols of the shared motto of Augustus and Cosimo. Festina Lente, make haste slowly, is represented by the anchor that grounds the vessel and the dolphin which represents the swiftness and speed of these rulers in defense.
Eleonora da Toledo by Bronzino
If this had ever been installed and actually functioned as a fountain inside the sumptuous hearing room of the Ducal palace, one of the largest reception rooms in Europe, the effect would have been powerful, especially when the sound of the water is added to the overall display. It was never installed there however. Francesco I de Medici (Cosimo’s successor) installed it outside in his country villa at Pratolino and it became part of the overall internationally renowned water displays in the rest of the garden complex. After his death, it was moved to the Boboli Gardens. Dismantled in the following century, it ended up in the Bargello museum, a shadow of its former marvellous self. Today however, recomposed, we have a glimpse into the stupendous visual art creations of the sixteenth century grand dukes.
Jason returns with The Golden Fleece

Thursday, July 14, 2011


One of my favourite places to visit in the whole of Italy is the Giardino dei Tarocchi created by the French artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002), begun in 1978. I cried when I visited this place on my birthday weekend a few years ago. I love places that display stunning examples of pure imagination and colour in strong decisive ways and, on top of that, if they embody a message of some sort, it makes me tingle with emotion.

The garden is located in southern Tuscany, inland, in the middle of the olive groves.  Friends of the artist gave her some land from their estate near the delightful town of Capalbio, at Garavicchio, in order to create her outdoor sculpture garden inspired by the representations of the individual tarot cards. She began the twenty-two monumental sculptures in 1978-9, a project that was to last nearly two decades and they were finished in 1996. The idea for such a space was born in 1955 when she visited the Park Guell by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) in Barcelona.  
                    She gathered a team of visual artists and technicians to help build the sculpture armatures from welded steel bars covered in cement and decorated with glass, painted ceramic and mirrors. These enormous coloured creations are often big enough to walk into. Moving from one sculpture to the next, in the serenity of the olive grove studded countryside, is a wonderful sensation. Each creation is different and original, however it is possible to sense the common stylistic influences running through all of her work; the multi-media use and style of Gaudi, the ingenious use of colour present in Venetian art and mosaic work and the magic of that city’s architecture, and the Romanesque period with the fantastical imagination found in the stonework and decoration of the buildings. For me, this is a slice of heaven on earth and an enchanting addition to a fabulous weekend away discovering the delights of the surrounding area.
 Open: 2.30 - 7.30 pm,  April 1 - October 15

Sunday, July 3, 2011


Two new places were tried last week: a drink at the five star hotel just outside Florence, Villa la Massa and dinner at the Cenacolo del Pescatore in the centre of Florence

VILLA LA MASSA is a top-notch luxury villa-hotel about 7 km outside of Florence proper - an oasis of calm and serenity on the Arno river. It's an ex-Medici villa complex from the sixteenth century, composed of the main villa, the converted stables and a smaller villetta, all within a stone’s throw of one another  (37 rooms in total). The complexes surround the pool and the patio area where I was seated, sipping my gin & tonic, nibbling on hazelnuts and being serenaded by the piano man off in the corner under the arches of the stable where the restaurant is also located. It was perfect, truly perfect and, if I were coming to Florence in the middle of summer and wanted five-star digs, this is exactly what I would choose, no doubt about it. It was cooler here than in the centre, in serene natural surroundings, and the non-invasive relaxed demeanour of the staff would make for a perfect stay.

Dinner at the CENACOLO DEL PESCATORE in Florence offers a different experience to other places in Florence. In fact, due to its completely closed and restrained decoration, once inside (after ringing the door bell), you forget entirely where you are and give yourself up to the wait staff, your dinner company and the food. We had a fantastic Japanese waiter (the chefs in the kitchen seemed to be all Japanese also). Thin, with spiked hair and dressed in black with white leather shoes, he moved with great flair - a flick of the fingers here and a twirl there, on the heel of his shoes when turning around. I mean every time he took something away or brought something to the table he performed a subtle kind of Michael Jackson move - we loved it!  What most people who eat here seem to go for is the degustation menu, a choice of 3 courses from the menu (50 euros) or 5 courses (70 euros). We chose the latter and washed it down with a nice bottle of Fiano d'Avellino from Campania. The degustation dishes are chosen by the kitchen and the evening kicks off with some little surprise anti- primas to whet the appetite (the first was diced raw salmon with rice served with a glass of boutique beer). The menu is predominately fish based but there are a few meat choices. The restaurant is run by the Italian chef Daniele Pescatore.