Florence in June – Bitter Rivalries & Sweet Elixirs
June in a wonderful month to visit Florence. It is a month when pagan and Christian rites combine to celebrate colorful sporting events, Renaissance parades, and ancient culinary traditions. Calcio Storico is a well-kept Florentine secret; Medieval-style soccer played in typical Renaissance garb. Think rugby meets cage-fighting with pantaloons.
Not only does June 24th mark the birthdate of Florence’s patron saint, John the Baptist, it is the day to harvest soft green walnuts to make the spicy “digestivo,” Nocino.
Florentine cuisine today is earthy and rustic much like it was as the time of the Renaissance. The “Trattoria” is the keeper of these culinary traditions, the equivalent of Nonna’s cooking. Our menu this week highlights the typical Florentine dinner you might eat at our trattoria in Cercina.
Fearless modern-day gladiators, enthusiastic spectators and proud Florentines gather on the afternoon of June 24th around the Piazza of Santa Croce for the most popular event of the city’s festivities to celebrate its patron saint – John the Baptist/San Giovanni.
Calcio Storico is a well-kept Florentine secret; Medieval-style soccer played in typical Renaissance garb. Think rugby meets cage-fighting with pantaloons. Four teams, representing the four quadrants of the city, compete mano-a-mano until a victor is declared. Believe me, it is not for the faint of heart. There is so much action on the field with 54 players that one doesn’t know where to look. To a novice spectator it would appear that the only rule is to get the ball in the goal – almost everything else is permitted including hand-to-hand combat.
St. John’s birth happens to coincide with the summer solstice, a period people throughout the ages have perceived as a time of highlighted cosmic power – channeling both good and evil and celebrating light’s battle over darkness. It is fascinating to see how these pagan and Christian traditions are immersed in their Italian folklore past.
June 24th also marks the day Italians harvest soft green walnut pods to make Nocino, Tuscany’s inky, spicy liquor. Historically, the walnut tree was seen as a symbol of life, abundance and fertility. Only female virgins, barefoot and dressed in white, were supposed to climb the walnut tree after dark on the night of June23rd, to gather un uneven figure (21 or 23) of the soft green walnuts. They were then crushed with a wooden mallet and placed in a large glass jar filled with alcohol, sugar syrup and spices to macerate in the sun until early November.
When we harvested our walnuts in Cercina, there were no virgins dressed in white, but we followed all the other rules, remembering to wear old clothes and rubber gloves as the green walnuts quickly turn into an indelible black ink. The result of our labor was a fabulous spicy liquor that is, by far, my favorite. I was delighted to discover that local DC distillers, Don Ciccio e Figli, makes a fabulous Nocino. We are very fortunate to be able to offer this unique liquor with our menu this week. You will not be disappointed!
Florentine cuisine today is earthy and rustic much like it was at the time of the Renaissance. The straight-forward simplicity of Florentine cooking has evolved over hundreds of years, with its humble beginnings, noble influences, and fertile surroundings all playing a part. The “trattoria” is the keeper of these culinary traditions, the equivalent of Nonna’s cooking when eating out – homestyle cooking. Our menu this week highlights the typical Florentine dinner you might eat at our place in Cercina.
Antipasto Fiorentino is what our young servers at the trattoria would automatically bring to each table – slices of Tuscan prosciutto (more salty than the Parma version,) Finocchiona - an aged salami made from minced pork with wine and fennel seed - and “popone”, sweet Tuscan cantaloupe.
Ribollita is Florence’s most famous “soup.” “Ribollire” means to re-boil. It was the custom of frugal Tuscan cooks to keep a big pot on the back burner where they would add whatever vegetables they had, together with day-old bread and parmesan rinds. As the pot boiled and re-boiled, a wonderfully flavorful, dense soup would emerge. When you get it home you can choose to reheat it or do as the Florentines in the summer – eat it at room temperature with a drizzle of good Tuscan EVOO.
Rosticciana was one of our most popular dishes at the trattoria. We would grill pork ribs over the embers taken from the wood-burning stove. These are not as sweet and wet as our American-style ribs, but immensely flavorful all the same. These ribs go well with a traditional side dish such as green beans stewed in tomato sauce.
Salame Dolce – what fun! Sweet salami is a traditional Florentine confection that resembles a cured meat salami but is really made of chocolate, crushed cookies and walnuts. For a truly special finale to this week’s feast, try it with a small glass of our featured Nocino – buonissimo!
Aside from being a flavorful repast, it would appear our menu this week has medicinal benefits as well. Fourteenth century Florentine author, Giovanni Boccaccio, recounts in his “Decameron,” how some Florentines attempted to “live better” and avoid the plague (pandemic!) by following a philosophy of austere food and very good wine. (See this week’s delightful wine blog featuring Antinori’s Super Tuscan for the whole story!) Then Nicholas Culpeper, famed English herbalist, wrote in the 17th century that Nocino was used to “resist the infection of the plague.” So maybe the Florentines have had it right all along.