Friday, October 21, 2011

The First Day of Fall in Florence--Schiacciata all'Uva

   Yesterday morning, I stopped at a shop near the Duomo to buy a spotlight for the office where the owner asked me to translate for the tall American tourist in front of me.  After I helped him buy an adapter, he inquired if it would still be raining in the evening.  Without thinking, I answered "it hasn't rained in Florence for six months."  Today, the weather is sunny, cool and crisp, and could be considered the first true day of fall.

     Fall in Florence is signaled by the arrival of schiacciata all'uva, a sort of grape cake.  I say "sort of" because traditionally the base is slightly sweetened bread dough.  I tried schiacciata all'uva at four different places:  two cafés serving made-on-the-premises pastries, a deli and a bakery, all of which provided variations on a theme.

This very grape-y schiacciata all'uva comes from Bar/Pasticceria La Loggia close to the office on Borgo degli Albizi.  Sweet, but not too sweet, the flavor of anise was evident.  The owner and pastry chef Walter confided how the recipe came from his late co-pastry chef Franco Iandelli.

"When Franco was nine years old, he went to learn the trade at the Crociani pasticceria in piazza Dalmazia (which still exists today), and didn't see his parents again until he was 15.  This took place during the 1940s and I still make schiacciata the way
Franco was taught then."

Walter adds a little butter to the bread dough, which is layered with grapes, a particular type called uva fragolina.  "It gives a slightly sweet aftertaste," he says.

The next stop was Bar/Pasticceria Cosi on Borgo degli Albizi, which, unfortunately, is no longer owned by master pastry chef Patrizio Cosi although many of his recipes still are used.  I can hardly believe that Patrizio would have made the schiacciata all'uva that I tried there--it was dense, and too sweet.

The current owner of Cosi, a native of Greve in Chianti, told me that it was important to use Chianti wine grapes--Canaiolo or Sangiovese--in making schiacciata all'uva as well to add sugar on the top before baking so that "it will carmelize in the oven."  Maybe that's why I found his version cloying.

Across from Cosi, at the corner of the Arco di San Pierino at a deli Carly and I found the real deal.  Owner Antonio Porrati told us that this was the true schiacciata all'uva, which he has delivered from Montespertoli, a Chianti wine producing area.

"This was customarily made by the wives of local farmers--contadini-- using extra homemade bread dough and grapes from the harvest while adding a touch of anise.  The bread dough would be rolled out, the grapes layered, and more bread dough added on top," as he demonstrated with his hands.

Well, the schiacciata was tasty, not overpoweringly grape-y nor overly sweet.

Walking down from my home outside Porta Romana, with this fall dessert on my mind, my eye was caught by the following sign displayed on the door of the Sarti bakery,
via Senese at the Due Strade.
Literally, it publicizes that Sarti makes GOOD schiacciata all'uva.

It was true.  The baker told me that no, this wasn't exactly bread dough, but a secret recipe using a little butter.  "The grape variety is not Chianti but rather moscato d'Amburgo which comes from the south of Italy, or, at this moment, from France.  The sweetness is just right."

I tasted a piece, and I agreed.  Squisito.   The top of Sarti's schiacciata all'uva is sprinkled with a little sugar when it comes out the the oven, not before.
 A nice baked dough, a touch of anice, a good all around choice.  I translated this for the baker in Italian and he answered "equilibrato" "balanced."  

Tuscans are known for not wasting anything, so from the origin of creating a dessert from leftover harvest grapes and bread dough, 
an autumn tradition was born.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Last Day of Summer in the Cinque Terre

     The amazing spring of Beautiful Florence 2011 was mirrored in an exceptionally warm and sunny September and October, with almost no rain.  Up to now, residents are still wearing their warm weather clothes with a sweater on top.  Sandals (except for those packed by tourists) were put away only this past Monday.  Having a heavy workload, apart from one excursion to a Tuscan beach, I was unable to take advantage of this incredible weather, which, as I write, is continuing, albeit a little cooler.

With the intuition that Sunday, October 9 would be THE LAST DAY OF SUMMER, I decided to go to Monterosso in the nearby region of Liguria.  Monterosso is one of the Cinque Terre, which, thanks to publications by Rick Steves, has unfortunately become overrun by hordes of Americans who hike and swim there during tourist season.  My intuition proved correct--the day represented the sunset of summer, with very few tourists in sight.

See the autumn colors?

 An early riser when going to the beach, I arrived from Florence at 10 am, to find the sandy beach nearly empty of umbrellas and sun beds.  I walked to a lone establishment that I am familiar with at the far side of the beach, and rented a sun bed for the day (six euro).  After handing me a receipt, Mauro told me, "this is our last day, we want to pack up around 5."  I said, "I am leaving at 6, but will go and have an aperitivo (glass of wine or cocktail)
before I go."

Initially, there were not many people on the beach;  although warm, there was a stiff breeze blowing from the north.  I lay comatose on my sun bed soaking in the rays with a smile on my face.  Around lunchtime, five German women--ranging in age from 25 to 40, showed up and rented sun beds close to mine.  Perhaps because they were a group who came later, they were charged 5 euro a head.  After lunch (a sandwich and beer), I fell asleep like a baby, stomach down.  I woke up around 2:30 to find the formerly empty beach pleasantly inhabited with (mainly) Italians and people in the water.  Deciding "it's now or never," I went for a swim (remember this was Oct. 9).

The water, a little less cold than Maine, was clear and gorgeous.
One of my German neighbors joined me in the sea, followed by a fair-faced twentysomething wearing white bathing trunks down to his knees.  His demeanor reminded me of a friendly puppy.  In fact, he started to chat with the German girl in English--she responded by returning to the beach.

The bathers watched a small boat arrive out of nowhere.  It was bearing a bride and groom,
 powered by a man who was rowing in back.
The boat anchored in a rocky cove, while a crowd that spontaneously gathered on the beach cheered.  The groom in a formal suit carried the bride in his arms and deposited her, white dress, high heels and all, on the sand.

Wouldn't you know it, when I finally decided to get out, the wind whipped up.  I treaded water for a while, then ran out, wrapping myself in a towel (unheard of in Italy).  "See, I told Mauro, "I even managed a swim."  His expression said it all, "she (and everyone elseis crazy to get wet."
Then the wind died down for good and the atmosphere began to change.

The five German women had glasses of spritz (spumante and Campari) from the nearby "Starfish Beach Club (Stella Marina) bar.  The boy timidly approached and identified himself as (first name?) Schmitz, resident of Buenos Aires.  The women said they had fled lousy weather in Germany, flying from Berlin to Pisa on Easy Jet.  Getting into the groove of the moment, one of the bikinied thirtysomething women and the boy cut an impressive figure by tango-ing on the sand.

Mauro, who decided to mellow out, went and fetched complementary beers for us from the Stella Marina, whose trademark starfish wears beach trunks and sunglasses.
Two obvious tourists, taking a rest from hiking in the hills above, walked along the shore, he in shorts held up by suspenders, she is a frilly skirt; neither cared that their clothes were getting wet in the tide.  Ditto for a mother who accompanied her children in the water fully dressed, as were they.
On our part, we bathed in the golden light, our party growing larger.

When shadows finally began falling on the beach, and Mauro starting putting away the sunbeds, I walked to a café above to have, following the German's example, a spritz.  From my vantage point over the water, I heard the Argentinean boy call out to the German women,  "See you on Facebook!"  Although it was nearly 6 o'clock, there were still people swimming.

I also ordered some delicious hot pizza, gazing over the coast to see the rest of the Cinque Terre towns:  Vernazza in a V shape, Corneglia snuggled on the crown of a hill, Manarola perched unobtrusively near Riomaggiore, which appeared to be spilling down a hill into a fisherman's cove.

Below the café, some men showed up, laughing and joking, appearing to be a priest, complete with a pompom-ed hat, and sailors.  "They are just kidding around," said the barman.

The scene was so unbelievably laid back that I looked down and thought "everyone here has had sex on the beach."  Then I turned and saw, on the café's video screen, images of John Lennon's and Yoko Ono's famous bed in, to the sounds of the Beatles' song
 "All You Need is Love."

My train to Sarzana, with only seven minutes to change for a direct train to Florence, was 15 minutes late.  Someone waiting at the track advised me to get off at La Spezia.

On the train, I decided to ask the green uniformed conductor complete with mustache and hat, what to do.
"Don't get off at La Spezia," he said.  "At Sarzana, there is another train following this one that will take you to Pisa."
I was dubious.  "What time is the connection?"-- I don't want to get stuck in SARZANA!"
A young couple on the train going back to Sarzana overheard me and snuggled closer.
Two elderly ladies across from me said, "this is vacation."  "Yes," I said, "but I need to get back to Florence."
As we were passing though the various Cinque Terre towns,

(above is Vernazza)  one pointed out, "look at the sunset!"

After La Spezia, I asked the train conductor again about getting to Florence.  "If we miss the seven minute connection, the next train--to Pisa--is an hour and a half later." he said.

     Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he admitted:  "I have talked with the conductor of the connecting train.  I told him there is a 90 year old on board who needs to get on his train, along with five teenagers (they were sitting across from me) en route to Viareggio.  This train has been moving fast, and if we are not too late, he will wait for you."

As the train pulled into the Sarzana station, his cell phone rang.  "We are nearly there, he said, "we will pull up alongside your train, and they will walk across the tracks (which, incidentally, is illegal in Italy).   They would lose too much time going down into the underpass."

So it was.  The five teenagers bounded across the tracks.  My feet in beach sandals sunk into the gravel, so the kind conductor took my arm and accompanied me to the train.  The driver was leaning out of the window.  "This is the 90 year old," he joked (look at my picture by clicking on the book on Beautiful Florence home page).

Clearly, I had lost sight of the fact that, in Italy, man-made law is suspended and natural law celebrated on the

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Antiques Biennial--A Timeless Event

The Italians have a saying, dalle stelle alle stalle, "from the stars to the stalls, roughly equivalent to "Pride comes before a fall." Add this to the common knowledge that journalists (at least the real ones) work too hard but are often compensated with fabulous perks in order to get the idea of photographer Carly's and my experience at the Florence Antiques Biennial, our first outing after the County Fair (Ruralia, see preceding post) in the Cascine Park.

As the name implies, this world-renowned show-- the oldest of its kind in Italy— offers visitors the opportunity to view and perhaps purchase rare works created by prestigious artists that are destined to become part of private and public collections. Our first stop on during this Cinderella day was the press conference, held at the Villa Cora hotel (see July's post "Poolside Cocktail Hour" to get a good look at where we were invited guests).

Not bad, huh? But let's not forget that we were there for work. Besides the Beautiful Florence blog, an article on the Antiques Show was published by my company, Magenta, in Vista, Florence & Tuscany, the area's only magazine in English. We joined our colleagues in the lobby to sign in for the press conference.

Once inside, the Biennial's president, Giovanni Pratesi, told us that Italian antique dealers dominate the show—only 14 of the 88 exhibitors come from foreign countries. On display until October 9 are an astonishing number of artworks--2700 in all--ranging from paintings, sculptures, furniture, porcelain and textiles to represent various time periods and artistic styles. The oldest exhibits date before Christ, with the bulk falling somewhere in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. As we were to notice, there was also a scattering of outstanding modern and contemporary works--you could actually take home a Mirò if you happen to have enough change in your pocket.

The conversation on the Antiques Biennial continued over a complementary lunch (this is Italy after all).

While Giovanni Pratesi (pictured right) was waiting for the next course to arrive, he confided to journalists that, because of the recession, the antiques market for buyers has never been better thanks to many cash-hungry art patrons who are sacrificing a jewel or two of their collections. He also praised the work of a commission of experts who certified each antique's authenticity, removing any piece of dubious make or origin. Exportation of antiques is also a problem--the best case scenario is a 40-day wait, but in the case of a sale at Florence's Antiques Show, the permit is granted in only two days! Carly and I were the only foreign press members present--our Italian colleagues did not bat an eyelash. In Italy, it is all a matter of who you know... After lunch, the hotel provided shuttle service to the Antiques Biennial venue, Palazzo Corsini.

Again, not bad, huh? Palazzo Corsini is located in downtown Florence (riverside address: Lungarno Corsini). The Corsini family rent it out to the Antiques Show every two years. Each section of the Biennial is planned by set designer Pier Luigi Pizzi to complement the existing frescoes and baroque decorations characteristic of Palazzo Corsini.

After showing my press pass (they even checked the photo), Carly and I spent nearly two hours on the ground floor where we visited the 40 stands located there. At stand #1, Robilant, we immediately noticed a beautiful antique painting, "A View of the Arno and Ponte Santa Trinita in Florence" by local expatriate artist Thomas Patch (Exeter 1725 - Florence 1782).

At Carlo Orsi's stand, there was an original plaster cast for a statue depicting Cupid (or: Amorino) by no other than the Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova.

Moving on, we arrived at a stand (to remain nameless) right at the moment when an antique dealer opened a secret door to show some hidden treasure (we think) to a prospective client.

When we asked the dealer what was it was, he closed the door and told us to come back in a half hour. Mum's the word.

I don't know which stand we saw this work and who the sculptor happened to be, but if this hunk of a man happened to be alive, he would be date material. Oh, I think I found the reference in my Beautiful Florence journal--he must be the Lute Player (from where and when I don't know).

Next, we saw two dancing Moors, 18th century works from Germany. It is easy to imagine that the sculptures might have served as inspiration for Josephine Baker in her choice of costume for the Paris stage.

At the Sperone & Westwood (New York) stand, Carly especially liked this contemporary exhibit by Luigi Ontani (1997).

Nearby was a beautiful stand featuring antique jewelry. The exhibits were so attractive--see for yourself
-- that I forgot to take notes.

A sensation of awe came from turning the corner to come upon this statue fragment from 480 B.C. at the Turchi stand, exhibited by the only antique dealer in Italy specializing in archeological works.

If it weren't for prospective thieves and the price tag, it would look nice in the garden...

Actually, the only price tags we saw displayed were at stand # 39, Les Enluminures, which specializes in illuminated manuscripts. A single page started at 25,000 euro.

A fabulous gift would be these antique table and chairs on view at the Diana Vreeland stand.

But keeping in mind that we are heading towards Christmas, perhaps giving (or receiving) an authentic 18th century Neapolitan nativity scene would be more apropos.

Referring back to the previous post, "A County Fair in Florence," the mother has been found but now the child is missing. Where is Gesu Bambino (baby Jesus)?