Bringing Florence’s Food Home

When I checked into the Hotel Davanzati at 6:20 on Wednesday evening, I was exhausted. It took me two planes, two trains and one taxi ride to arrive in Florence, in total sixteen hours in motion and with no sleep. Weeks earlier, I made the decision to leave Rome for Tuscany immediately upon touching down, and I didn’t regret that decision. Starting the trip further north and working my way back to the capital (and its proximity to the airport when it came time to leave the country; I really didn’t relish the idea of a taxi, two trains, and two planes on the return trip) made complete sense. But I was loopy tired, and I wanted rid of the suitcase I’d been dragging behind me since the baggage claim carousel at crowded Fiumicino Airport. I wanted a bed and a good night’s sleep. The next day, my first full day in Florence would be a busy one.

The Davanzati’s master hotelier, Fabrizio, understood. “Your arrival is perfect,” he told me. “Our aperitivo, the ‘happy hour’, begins in ten minutes. Once you are settled in your room, there will be a glass of prosecco waiting for you in the lounge. And then, you may relax.”

Ahhh. The magic words: prosecco and relax. I did as I was told.

And the good night’s sleep prepared me for joining Thursday morning’s Florence for Foodies tour.

Guided tours abound in Italy. You’ll find walking tours, bus tours, and privately-driven-in-a-Mercedes luxury tours. There are art tours and monument tours; tours of every church, basilica and  duomo known to man; tours through the hearts of cities and around the countryside. So much history and so many attractions make Italy one of the world’s most visited countries and its tourism industry an important, thriving (although mostly seasonal) business. However, that same plethora of history and attractions can make a visit seem overwhelming: What do I do, see, experience in a week; where do I possibly start?  Of course a visitor can make her way through all the sights on her own, guidebook in hand, but a good live resident guide, one who will understand the visitor’s interests in art or religion or food or whatever, helps provide focus amidst the cultural overload. Because the Italian government takes the tourism industry so seriously, potential guides must take extensive, expensive courses at guide school, learn at least one language, and be able to pass rigorous oral and written exams on Italian history and culture. Only about one in ten applicants passes during the first round. A government licensed guide is likely to be a gem.

One such gem of a guide is Nathalie of Florence for Foodies. She comprises one half of Nat-and-Sam, the dynamic team responsible for dreaming up this food-based tour company about four years ago when the pair finished guide school and earned those hard-to-come-by licenses. After passing the course and entering the competitive tour guide work force, both women felt they would be most successful if they could put an interesting twist on their tours. With a shared love of their region and its food and wine, the food and wine of Florence and Tuscany became their niche. Today, they conduct stand alone walking food tours and also find ways to incorporate food into their art-focused tours. Turns out, food makes everything more fun, and after four years in business the women have propelled their company into one of the most vibrant attractions the city has to offer.

I came to Florence in part to learn about Tuscan ingredients and cooking, and taking a food tour  through the region’s largest city with this kind of knowledgeable guide sounded like a good way to start my education. To join the walking food tour, I met up with Nat and the rest of her tour group at ten o’clock outside the San Lorenzo basilica at the mouth of the San Lorenzo open air market. Our group was made up of a couple from Texas, another couple from Florida, a couple from Britain, and me. The others had set out with Nat two hours earlier, taking what she calls the Nude and Food Tour – time spent at the Accademia studying Michelangelo’s David before embarking on the walking tour of the city. Clearly they had already been having fun. Outgoing with an easy and ready smile, and full of passion for Tuscan culture and cucina, Nat is a huge hit with tourists making their way through Florence.

Although later to the party, I was welcomed warmly, and off we went, spending the next four hours together. In that time we made stops at a local pasticceria for coffee and a rice pastry; at the city’s lively greenmarket, the Mercato Centrale, for a mid-morning sandwich break, a sampling of local salamis, prosciutto, pecorino, various aged balsamic vinegars, biscotti and vin santo, and more; at a local vinattieri for a Sangiovese wines and grappa tasting; and finally at one of Florence’s oldest gelaterias, Perchè No! (exclamation theirs, and well deserved). As we ate and drank our way through Florence, Nat also fed us with facts about Florentine history, how Tuscans cook and with what ingredients, about Tuscany’s wine production, the history behind the region’s saltless bread and the peppered prosciutto, and how to order the best gelato, everything from pairing flavors in the dish to avoiding the shops that pile the ice cream high in the vats in favor of the more modest displays and better quality.

Spend four hours with Nat and you can’t miss how much she knows and loves her work, her city, its food and wine. And over the four-hour tour, she shares that all with her guests.

I admit to being tipsy at the end of the tour; we all were. As I was leaving, I asked Nat to point me in the direction of Via Porta Rossa and my hotel. A little riposa before the afternoon’s activities was in order. Nat asked me, “How do you find the Davanzati Hotel?”

“I really like it,” I said. “It’s lovely, and in a good location.”

“Have you met the son?” she asked.

“Fabrizio?”

“He is the son of Marcello, but no, Fabrizio’s son, Tommaso. He is the most handsome man in Florence.”

Duly noted.

And yes, Nat really is full of good information.

*   *   *

I took what I learned about Florentine cuisine home and last weekend we put a typical Tuscan meal on the table. Tuscan cooking is simple, focusing on the plain good taste of the region’s ingredients: beef, boar, beans and grains, vegetables of the season, fennel and fennel pollen, pecorino cheese, the salt-free crusty bread served toasted with generous splashes of a fruity cold-pressed olive oil, everything washed down with wines from Chianti. Perhaps the most famous Tuscan dish is the bistecca alla Fiorentina, or the approximately 40-ounce Porterhouse-style steak deriving from Chianina cattle, grilled until a nice crust forms on the outside but the meat remains very rare inside, served with a shaving or two of a local cheese. I did my best to bring Tuscany home using the ingredients I had at hand, substituting semolina bread when I couldn’t find anything salt-free at the local bakery, and relying on a good quality American cattle for the main course steak. My husband lit the grill. I even tried my hand at homemade gelato and sorbetto in riso (rice) and rabarbaro (rhubarb) flavors. Check out the photos below from both the food tour and our Tuscan dinner at home prepared the weekend after I returned home.

The dome of the San Lorenzo Basilica

The dome of the San Lorenzo Basilica

The door at the top of the steps, our meeting place

The door at the top of the steps, our meeting place

Waiting alongside a group of school children. They were eating mortadella sandwiches, and I got hungry watching them eat

Waiting alongside a group of school children. They were eating mortadella sandwiches, and I got hungry watching them eat

The tour starts at the entrance to the San Lorenzo Market

The tour starts at the entrance to the San Lorenzo Market

We had our morning marocchino

We had our morning marocchino

The pasticceria's original ovens

The pasticceria’s original ovens

We watch as our bollitto (braised veal) sandwiches are being assembled at Nerbone

We watch as our bollitto (braised veal) sandwiches are being assembled at Nerbone

A local salami with fennel (finnochiona)

A local salami with fennel (finnochiona)

Cantuccini for dipping

Cantuccini for dipping

At Conti for several tastings

At Conti for several tastings

Several aged balsamic vinegars to try

Several aged balsamic vinegars to try

Black truffles

Black truffles

A piece of pecorino cheese topped with truffle paste and honey

A piece of pecorino cheese topped with truffle paste and honey

A jar of fennel pollen among all the olive wood

A jar of fennel pollen among all the olive wood

In the cellars at the vinattieri

In the cellars at the vinattieri

At Perche No! and ready to sample. This gelateria is proudly part of Italy's Slow Food movement, using only the best ingredients they can find

At Perche No! and ready to sample. This gelateria is proudly part of Italy’s Slow Food movement, using only the best ingredients they can find

Only some of the flavors

Only some of the flavors, not one of them piled high

Not the real chianina but close

Not the real chianina but close

At home we paired the steak with grilled asparagus

At home we paired the steak with grilled asparagus

And made bruschetta from slices of semolina bread

And made bruschetta from slices of semolina bread

Two kinds: arugula with prosciutto and shavings of parmigiano, grape tomato with salt and olive oil

Two kinds: arugula with prosciutto and shavings of parmigiano, grape tomato with salt and olive oil

The finished plate

The finished plate

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And dessert

©2013  Jane A. Ward