Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A County Fair in Florence

      Florence, birthplace of Renaissance art, is probably the last place that one would imagine to find a country fair.  Never say never, however, as a county fair --called Ruralia--took place last weekend (Sept. 16-18) in the Cascine Park.

     The Cascine were originally cow pastures belonging to the Medici rulers before becoming transformed into a public park in the 1800s.  Not very well kept up and downright sketchy at night, Florence mayor Matteo Renzi has great plans to clean up the space and create an attractive public park complete with wi fi.  The first step to bring more people to the Cascine was the Ruralia event.

      On a very hot afternoon, photographer Carly and myself discovered that the 17C bus takes passengers directly into the Cascine Park.  Upon arrival, the bus driver hollered "last stop--Cascine Park!"

Carly and I got off in front of the Agricultural College of Florence University....

...to discover a multitude of county fair stands that stretched to the bottom of the park.  It was so hot that we visited just a few, and didn't manage to go down to all the way to the end to see the cattle and the hogs.

The first stand, predictably, showcased Tuscan wine, under the direction of the knowledgeable staff of Siena's Enoteca Italiana.  This Enoteca Toscana featured guided wine tastings (for a fee) every two hours.  

We were treated to a sparkling wine--spumante--made from Vernaccia 
grapes.  It was very special, and fabulous.

After 6 pm, the stand offered a happy hour for twentysomethings--2 drinks and munchies for 5 euro.  The happy hour entertainment consisted of two traffic cops--Graziano Graziani and Paola Troncone-- demonstrating a video on the hazardous effects of mixing drinking and driving.  

Following true Italian tradition, Graziani admitted that he cultivates grapes in his backyard in the nearby Florentine suburb of Scandicci, making table wine for family consumption.  He owned up to being the son of a Tuscan farmer (contadino).  He confessed, "my father named me Graziano Graziani because he would always say that once I learned my name, I would know how to spell my last name as well."

See what you can learn at a county fair in Florence.  Carly and I moved on to the next stand, which was about fish species native to Tuscany.

We were informed that the fish that you see above is a sturgeon, a storione, which until recently (due to pollution and man-made obstacles, like weirs) would swim upstream in the nearby Arno River to breed.  

Our next stop was a booth dedicated to wild mushrooms, both edible and poisonous, that can be found in Tuscan forests (by the way: Florence is located in the region of Tuscany).  We discovered that by law mushroom gatherers have to carry a wicker basket in order to allow the spores to fall on the ground.  The king of Tuscan mushrooms, of course, is the delicious fungo porcino.

Having been raised in the Hudson Valley, but not on a farm, I have no idea whether whether live music and ballroom dancing are normally featured at a county fair.  At Ruralia, Carly and I came upon Italian grandparents having a great time indulging in ballo liscio, not exactly a country reel.

Some of this group were more hip that we could have imagined
 (see below).

Our attention was drawn next to what was identified to us as a grain thresher....

A person in the know brought to our attention a sack of farro (spelt or emmer), an ancient grain brought to Tuscany by the Romans and still cultivated in the Garfagnana hills above Lucca.  It is the basis for many delicious soups and warm weather salads.

Moving on, we saw a display of olive trees.  A gentleman inside a nearby tent conducted on the spot olive oil tastings.  When we asked which was the best, he refused to commit himself.  

He did, however, give us a clue.  "Look for olive oil that comes from the hills of central Tuscany.  The closer the estate is to the sea, the milder (più dolce) the olive oil becomes."

So much to see!  We learned that there is sheep cheese made in the mountains above Pistoia from unpasteurized milk (latte crudo).  Carly took this picture of aged pecorino.

We met a very nice beekeeper from the Rufina hills above Pontassieve who insisted we taste his honey.

Although Carly and I never made it to the pigpen, we were given slices of salami made from cinta senese-- a small, gray Tuscan pig native to the Siena area characterized by a white stripe--close by to an explanatory chart.

The Cascine Park also hosts a ipprodromo, a Hippodrome, where occasionally polo matches are scheduled. Carly isn't sure whether these are random polo players visiting the country fair Ruralia, or whether the men on horseback are actually part of the park's security, keeping an eye on small children.

Dov'è la mamma?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Coffee Milkshake in a Traditional Café

 Well, I've just gotten back to the office after the nationwide August ferie (vacation), and it's still very hot in Florence even though it is September.  This morning for the time-honored Italian pausa caffè (coffee break), photographer Elke and I decided to try a place we'd never been.  Located behind the office, Vivoli is famous the world over for its homemade gelato.
 "Are you sure Vivoli serves coffee?"  I asked.  

"Natalia (a Vista intern) says she has breakfast here every day," replied Elke.  Once inside, for the very first time, I looked past the containers of signature Vivoli ice cream

 to discover an old-time traditional Italian café.   Best of all, there were no waiters in smart jackets lurking around--I was ecstatic to find that I could order a coffee at the counter, bring it over, sit down and stay as long as I like and not be charged an exorbitant fee.  Have breakfast, meet with friends, do an interview, read the paper, daydream, write in my journal...all for the price of a coffee.  And also in the company of murals by Falai, a disciple of Annigoni.

I stepped up to the counter, and in view of the still-hot weather, 
asked for ice coffee. Long-time Vivoli employee, Tamara Galanti, 
suggested I try their caffè crema (it is an Italian idiosyncrasy
that each café and restaurant lists a specialty that is found 
no where else).  Caffè crema?  It sounded appealing--so
I ordered it out of curiosity.  Tamara assured me that it was cool, 
coffee-ey and refreshing. I watched her place hot espresso coffee,
milk, ice cubes and a smidgen of sugar into a blender to create....
a coffee milk shake aka caffè crema.  No fake flavoring or additives.

Voilà!  Italians certainly also care about presentation.  Cool and smooth, it lived up to promise.

Meanwhile, Elke, who is German, didn't want to know about cold coffee for breakfast.  In her best Italian, she very confidently ordered a macchiato, accompanied by a budino di riso (a Florentine rice pudding pastry).
I shared some advice that an Italian friend, Daniele, gave me years ago.  "Always order espresso in a glass--it's tastes better (that I am tempted to give credence to) and is more hygienic,"  he told me (???).   Daniele (a soccer umpire in his free time) was so positive about what he said, that I became a believer, ordering my shot of Italian coffee in a glass every since. The Vivoli caffè macchiato came topped with steamed, frothy milk that the powers behind multinational coffee chains would sell their first-born to be able to imitate. 
But what caught my eye was the budino di riso, rice pudding pastry, which, at first glance, was unlike the out-of-the-same-mold boring version available in most Florentine coffee bars.

Silvana Vivoli, daughter and granddaughter of the original owners, stepped forward to explain,

"We make all the gelato and pastries served on the premises, and still use my grandmother's recipe for the budino di riso.  She used to put milk, butter and rice to heat over a low flame and would forget that it was cooking.  It would become soft that we could eat it with a spoon--which we still do.  Then, eggs and pastry cream are added, and the cooled rice custard is transferred to individual, homemade pastry shells."

Silvana is the one in viola shirt, the color of the local Fiorentina soccer team;  Tamara is next to her.
Silvana also revealed that her mother Simonetta originally lived across the way from Vivoli, which is located in the Santa Croce neighborhood.  One day Simonetta was locked out of her apartment, came to Vivoli to wait for her mother, and thus met her future husband, Piero, shortly thereafter becoming part of the Vivoli clan.
Simonetta is still found at the Vivoli cash register--"where else would I be?," she says.

Like everything authentic in Florence, every action--even having breakfast-- reveals a story
 embedded in layers of history.  And as always, something unexpected--like a coffee milkshake, christened caffè crema, in a Florentine café.