Waking Up – Springtime in Florence
Isn’t it amazing how just a few notes of an old song can bring you back to a place you haven’t been in years? When thinking about this week’s menu, highlighting the first new vegetables of spring, I kept hearing the lyrics of an old popular Florentine tune – recounting the spectacular beauty of Spring’s awakening in Le Cascine, Florence’s Central Park.
This week’s menu highlights Florentine Spring rituals and ingredients Italian cooks are beginning to find in their local markets and that most likely will be included on their Spring tables.
Spring faro salad with radish, fava beans, Castelvetrano olives and pecorino
Gigli agli Asparagi e Rucola
Artisanal "iris" shaped pasta with Spring asparagus and wilted arugula
Grilled rosemary and thyme infused pork tenderloins with Florentine peas, prosciutto, and spring onions
White chocolate profiteroles and strawberries
Chef's Travel Notes
“È primavera svegliatevi bambine”...“It’s springtime, wake up little ones”
Isn’t it amazing how just a few notes of an old song can bring you back to a place you haven’t been in years? When thinking about this week’s menu, highlighting the first new vegetables of spring, I kept hearing the lyrics of an old popular Florentine tune – recounting the spectacular beauty of Spring’s awakening in Le Cascine, Florence’s Central Park. (go to: https://tinyurl.com/foodclubmusic to hear it!)
The next thing I knew, I was remembering the excitement I felt that first Spring in Tuscany. I can still feel that flutter of amazement upon seeing, for the first time, the vibrant green roadsides and hills spotted with the most colorful wildflowers. I had not realized that wildflowers are generally a more delicate version of our familiar domestic varieties. There were small wild tulips and gladiolas, poppies, and daffodils. I would spend hours walking through fields collecting and then arranging them for our trattoria’s tables.
A few weeks before Easter, the bakeries, pastry, and chocolate shops are dazzling with large, beautifully decorated chocolate eggs wrapped in colorful foil and filled with little surprises, signaling the coming of Spring. This tradition has Italian children looking forward to receiving these eggs (symbols of new life) rather than chocolate bunnies as here in the States. La Colomba, the dove-shaped, almond flavored yeast cake, baked only at this time of year, is everywhere you turn – no Italian household is without one.
On Easter Sunday, a tradition that has played out annually over the past 500 years is celebrated in front of the Duomo of Florence. The “Scoppio del Carro” or Explosion of the Cart, is a combination pagan / religious ceremony, marking both the arrival of Spring and Easter. The successful ignition of the arsenal of fireworks on the cart guarantees good crops that year as well as signifying the passage of a new holy spark to ignite the fires extinguished by Christ’s death on Good Friday.
The Carro, an elaborate wagon built in 1622 and standing two to three stories high is pulled by a pair of white oxen decorated in flowered garlands through the streets of Florence to the square between the Baptistry and Cathedral. A mechanical dove with olive branch in its beak, flies down a wire line through the Church’s open doors, picks up “fire” at the altar, returns to the cart and ignites the explosion of one of the oldest fireworks displays in the world. After this grand display and accompanying Renaissance parade, Florentines return home to gather around the Easter table.
This week’s menu highlights ingredients Italian cooks are beginning to find in their local markets and that will most likely be included on their Easter and Spring tables – fava beans, asparagus, peas, and spring lettuces. Insalata di Faro Primaverile is a Spring salad featuring faro, an ancient grain similar to spelt, that has seen a recent revival. (*Interesting fact: A few years ago, a handful of this grain was found in an Etruscan tomb and was then successfully germinated.) Faro is the base to which we add Spring’s first vegetables including Tuscan’s favorite, “baccelli” (fava beans) and pecorino, sheep’s milk cheese. At this time of year all the trattorias serve baskets full of these firm, fresh beans in their long pods, to be shucked table side, dipped in salt and eaten with slices of pecorino.
Gigli agli Asparagi e Rucola is an ode to Florence’s official flower, the purple iris found flourishing along its streets and gardens. The Giglio is the beloved symbol of Florence and is a stylized rendering of the Iris flower. We extrude fresh pasta through a brass disk to form delicate flower shapes reminiscent of the iris. They are tossed in a bright Cacio e Pepe sauce of parmesan, black pepper, asparagus, and arugula.
Filetto di Maiale sulla Brace con Piselli alla Fiorentina is pork tenderloin infused with lemon, rosemary and thyme grilled over oak embers with a must have Florentine accompaniment. This time of year, we would spend hours husking fresh peas, sitting in a circle in the much-awaited bright Tuscan sunlight, telling stories (and gossiping a little 😊). The peas are prepared with morsels of prosciutto and spring onions creating what I like to call “the taste of Spring.”
Bongo, Bongo, chocolate covered profiteroles, is one of the first Florentine desserts I ever tasted. Our springtime version is to fill these cream puffs with milk chocolate and ice them with a creamy coating of white chocolate and garnish with strawberries.
The Colli Fiorentine are the hills south of Florence. The fine microclimate and unique soil characteristics surrounding the medieval town of Lucignano, located only a mile outside the western border of the Chianti Classico zone, make it without a doubt the finest cru of the Chianti appellation. Fattoria di Lucignano Chianti is extremely consistent in quality, achieving delicious results in every vintage. Robert Parker says, “Every vintage, this wine gets my nod as the most consistently successful inexpensive Chianti produced in Tuscany”.
Although the grand colorful parades, the reenactments of Christ’s Passion and the Scoppio del Carro were cancelled again this year, Florentines will continue to gather around their tables to find solace and comfort in preparing and sharing spring’s bountiful ingredients. May we enjoy them too, as we look forward to Spring’s rebirth and a (partial) return to life as we knew it.