Thursday, November 24, 2011

Truffles, San Miniato & More Truffles

       "Hey, Carly--we will be covering a truffle festival this month at the hilltop town of San Miniato."
    This elicited a puzzled look on photographer Carly's face, close to a pout.  No comment was forthcoming, however, until the day before our adventure in the company of truffle festival veteran Rita Kungel and friend Gabrielle Taylor.
     Carly finally confessed:  "I thought you were talking about chocolate truffles.  Why would there be a festival just on chocolate truffles?"

Above is a bowl of chocolate hazelnut truffles from our favorite Florentine chocolate shop, Vestri.  
     Some one else in the office said "what does the church of San Miniato have to do with truffles?"  (NB, the Romanesque church of San Miniato with its 12th & 13th century architecture,  Renaissance art works and a birds-eye view of Florence is located above Piazzale Michelangelo).

"No,"  the hilltop town of San Miniato is located on the way to Pisa.  And the surrounding countryside, stretching from San Miniato to Montaione and Castelfiorentino is where the prized white truffle is hunted every autumn by specially trained dogs."

Carly, Rita, Gaby and myself saw the real deal depicted above a stand at the actual San Miniato truffle festival, which is always held on the last three weekends of the November.  The truffle portrayed is larger than any we actually saw while there.

What is a non-chocolate truffle?  It is a fungi that grows underground in a symbiotic relationship with a tree (see the trees behind the above hunter?).

To add to the confusion, one of the first stands we happened upon at the San Miniato festival was a showcase for a
 local chocolate shop.

When we asked for chocolate truffles to photograph, the owner brought out a tray of  truffle-flavored candy truffles selling at 1 euro per piece.  Delectable is too modest a word for the experience--as the chocolate taste disappeared, the flavor of nature's truffle lingered at the back of my throat.  We were treated, sparingly of course, and the obliging owner cut one open for us to take a picture.

The inside of the chocolate treat was as pale as the actual tartufo bianco di San Miniato-- the white San Miniato truffle--that we later admired at stands in a tented area at the fair.

Due to the exquisite flavoring and rarity value, the price quoted to us was 220 euros per etto (100 grams), i.e. 3.5 ounces!

Also available was a selection of truffle-flavored butters (as a pasta condiment) and fresh cheeses studded with pieces of truffle.

We saw people buying truffles, which were weighed and the price quoted before their eyes.  At one stand, smaller truffles at more economical prices were displayed as an enticement to the
 potential buyer.

Having seen with her own eyes that there are truffles beyond chocolate truffles, Carly tasted a sliver of truffled cheese, and decided to take some home.  At this point, Gaby, Rita, Carly and myself wanted to indulge in a truffle-themed meal (why else had we come?)

Having decided to do this excursion on the Thursday before the Sunday that we went, I was in a panic about reserving the restaurant, whether we would find a place.  Rita sent me several suggestions.  I looked at one "Upupa," recognizing that as a name of bird and made a quick decision to go with that.

Knowing it was a desperate feat to book a table during a festival with such late notice, I called the "Upupa" and spoke to the owner Roberto, saying "I am a journalist, I am not looking for a free meal or a discount but a free table."  Roberto had reserved a table for four at noon ("not a minute later.")  I was relieved, and said "afterwards if there is anything else we need to see, we will avoid the crowds as all Italians will be having lunch at the same time--1 pm of course--(see the Day of the Dead post).

When we went looking for the  "Upupa" restaurant, feeling like Cinderellas with a noon, not a midnight deadline, we found it thanks to the sign (see above).  I'll be darned, I thought the word translated as woodpecker, which it does not--it is the Hoopoe bird.

Carly later looked up this bird on the Internet where, among other things, it was identified as the national bird of Israel.  Despite this fact, the Upupa restaurant has Tuscan cuisine with of course a truffle menu; it is a tiny place with seating for 20 and Roberto, the owner, is in the kitchen.

When I asked him why he gave the restaurant the name, he said, "that what it was called when I purchased it last year, so I just kept the name."  Roberto, a Florentine born on via degli Alfani, is a dedicated foodie who has been in the restaurant business as long as he can remember, including many years at the Gilli caffĂ© in piazza della Repubblica.

Now, on to the food.  This is worthy of an entire blog post, but suffice to say that we enjoyed the truffle menu and even received a bit of a discount on the bill (the perks of the trade).  Gaby and Carly ordered the classic tagliatelline al burro e tartufo bianco (thin egg noodles sauced with hot, melted butter and truffle shavings).

Well, it was 25 euro but very truffle-y.  Our dining companions assured us it was worth every bite.

After lunch, Rita wanted to see the Duomo, the Cathedral, where a WWII tragedy had taken place that inspired the Taviani brothers' film Le Notti di San Lorenzo.  

The retreating Germans
 has ordered that inhabitants take refuge in the church.
 The Americans were bombing the vicinity and a stray Allied shell entered a window,  ricocheted off a stone relief
and exploded, killing 55 civilians.  This quiet sanctuary
shows no lingering signs of the massacre,
 which took place on July 22, 1944.

We went into the nearby Cathedral Museum seeking the art work involved in the incident.  The custodian, who later identified himself as Francesco, immediately demanded an entrance fee x four.  "I am a journalist," I said, digging into my bag for my press pass although I was certain I had left it in Florence (which I had).  I pointed to Rita and explained her mission.  Francesco paused, and in the true Italian art of arrangiarsi (of getting by), peered at an (attractive) Rita and asked tactfully "are you a senior citizen?"  Mindful that she had passed as a senior citizen in Greece (defined at 55), she answered yes and went in and look at the art work.  Francesco turned his back and we followed her.

"See," I said, "neither the angel Gabriel nor Mary were harmed.  That's what comes of having God on your side."  The caption identified the work as a 1274 Annunciation by Giroldo da Iacopo da Como.
Makes sense when you take into account that the 13th century Duomo was built on the site of an earlier church dedicated to the Annunciation.

We thanked Francesco and went on our way.  Rita, however, wanted to see the plaques in memorial to the victims of the fatal accident.  For many years, the Nazis were blamed...

then proof was uncovered that 
it was a misguided Allied shell.  

At least equal time was given to opposing viewpoints....

There would be much more to write, and someday I will.  Suffice it to say that at 3 pm, while all the Italian were arriving in swarms, Rita, Carly, Gaby and myself decided to return to Florence.  We left the medieval town to catch to catch the shuttle bus down to the lower, modern part of the town, San Miniato Basso, where Rita's car was parked. 

On the outskirts of the festival, as at every festival in Tuscany, there were street vendors with food specialities.  As we were truffled-out, some of us purchased the original Italian candy bar--nuts covered in molten chocolate which slowly hardens (this was the work of a candyman from Lamporecchio, near Vinci, Leonardo da Vinci's hometown).

So much for truffles (chocolate), San Miniato and truffles.  See you same time next year for a festival update!
Si, we are going back...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Little Bit of England in Florence

Due to inevitable budget cuts, the closure of Florence's British Consulate at the end of this year was announced this past spring, a decision which provoked headlines and controversy.  

Controversy because the Consulate has a 555-year history, having been founded in 1456.  It was common knowledge that all local consular functions would be moved to the Milan consulate and the Rome embassy, but everyone was waiting to hear who would be appointed Honorary British Consul, an unpaid position.  As an answer to the question, the above gold-engraved invitation arrived in the office from the British Embassy in Rome, and I confirmed my presence.

When I called the British Institute Library asking if Carly could take photos during the reception, I was told that there was a press conference scheduled prior at 5 pm, so dressed to the nines, we hurried over, crossing Ponte Santa Trinita to Palazzo Lanfredini.

As evidenced by the longevity of the British Consulate's presence, there has always been a large number of visitors and notable British residents--including Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning-- in Florence through the centuries.  There is an historic "English" cemetery (owned by the Swiss Evangelic church) outside the city walls in Piazzale Donatello, an English Church, St. Mark's, on via Maggio, as well as the British Institute.  Granted a Royal Charter in 1923, the Institute offers English and Italian language and cultural courses;  in addition, the British Institute Acton Library has the largest collection of books in English in continental Europe.

Carly and I arrived 15 minutes late for the press conference, which would normally be on time for Italy, but Ambassador Christopher Prentice had already given his speech.

He is seated third from the left, while city councilman president Eugenio Giani is making a few remarks.  To the left of Ambassador Prentice is the new Honorary British Consul (awaiting final approval), Sara Milne, who became the head of the British Institute this past spring.

Daughter of concert pianist Hamish Milne, she arrived in Florence after heading up Science and Media, a company that promoted the London science museum's collection and intellectual property.  During a Vista interview, she said "my aim for the British Institute of Florence is to reflect its history, but also to reflect the here and now--the latter is what excites me."

No small thing in a town where tradition always comes first.

Speaking of tradition, a few stray Italian journalists showed up at press conference's end, convinced they were not late, while refreshment tables were being set up with a night view over the
Arno river.

I have always been invited to the all important British Consulate functions, feeling like a member of the family as the token, adopted American (this event was no exception, with only one other American present, the artist Charles Cecil).  Over the years I was personally acquainted with every single British Consul starting with Rawlinson in the 1980s, and witnessed the closure of the passport/visa and commercial sectors.  New staff members were rarely hired to replace those who retired.

As David Broomfield (pictured above), Florence's last official British Consul now at the Rome Embassy, told me,  "The change enabled consular staff to focus more on helping British citizens, including providing support or advice in case of document theft, legal or medical problems, hospitalization and jail."

"Consular staff was also responsible for taking care of requests to provide a nulla osta for marriages between international citizens and British nationals to the tune of over 1,000 requests arriving each year," Broomfield said.

Now the only person left at the British Consulate office on Lungarno Corsini until next March is
Vice Consul Jane Ireland.

Jane is overseeing the not-so-easy transition.  It is unimaginable how British subjects with stolen wallets and passports are being redirected to the Milan consulate; so go the times.  Jane is still working in the British Consulate's majestic offices in Lungarno Corsini 2, above which flies the Union Jack.  Local Brits like to recall that Lungarno Corsini 2 was once the home of poet and Count Vittorio Alfieri, who became an intimate friend of Bonnie Prince Charles' wife Louise, Countess of Albany.

The lovers are buried in the basilica of Santa Croce, under a beautiful neoclassical Canova monument between the tombs of Michelangelo and Macchiavelli.  So much for fostering good Italo-Anglo relations!

At the reception, my attention was drawn to someone saying "you look like a duchess," to Mary Shipton Foreman, a pillar of the English resident community in Tuscany.

She is the anonymous British Consulate receptionist mentioned in the British Embassy press release who  helped turned Consulate premises into a clinic during the 1966 Florence flood.

"I was hired for six months--the flood happened during that time and I ended up staying 18 years," she remembers, "commuting always from her home in Panzano in Chianti (where incidentally, she had the honor of hosting Prince Charles who did en plein air watercolors followed by lunch at the nearby Montagliari estate).

"Having been trained as a nurse I gave all comers--British and otherwise--typhoid shots in the aftermath of the flood.  I only had trouble with Italian men, who were worried that the shot, which could save their lives, might possibly affect their virility,"
she told me with a discreet laugh.

Hail Britannica!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Day of the Dead & Halloween

      Italians call today Il Giorno dei Morti (the Day of the Dead), while officially it is the  Catholic feast of Ognissanti, All Saints Day, a legal public holiday throughout Italy.  Tomorrow, Nov. 2, is All Souls Day, which could be considered the true Day of the Dead, which some southern Italian cities do, thereby extending the long holiday weekend.  Last night was Halloween, an Anglo Saxon tradition that has become popular in Italy over the past 10 years.  Photographers Carly, Michelle and myself set out to make some sense of these interwoven, bicultural festivities.

I always say, "gli italiani vivono in condomio, vanno al mare in condomio, e stanno in cimetero in conodomio," (Italian live in condominums, frequent condominums at the beach (beach clubs) and hang out in condominums at the cemetery (where frequently they are buried one on top of each other in mini-marble apartment buildings in individual loculi).  Italians (I love them, I am of Italian blood and have dual citizenship) are also known for moving en masse at the precise same time.  So it should come as no surprise that on  Il Giorno dei Morti that everyone in the country decides to visit their loved ones at the cemetery to deposit a bouquet of flowers.

Carly and I decided to go to a cemetery within walking distance of my home close to via Senese.  Besides the fact that two of my neighbors are buried there, il Cimitero degli Allori, however, is no ordinary cemetery.  It is a historic Protestant cemetery, a Cimitero Evangelico, run by a group of local Protestant churches and located outside the walls of a Catholic city.  When Carly, with a camera around her neck, and I got out of the car, the cemetery custodian appeared and shouted, "NO PHOTOS, NO PHOTOS."

"But we are not going to take pictures of people, just gravestones," I said.  (The Allori Cemetery, in non-Italian fashion, has many individual graves with tombstones).  The man didn't budge, and upon my suggestion, called the cemetery director, whom I know.  Gerardo Kraft gave us permission to take a panoramic shot.  After this, the custodian, who identified himself as Fabrizio, warmed up to us and even allowed us to take his picture next to a cypress tree.  The cypress in Italy is traditionally planted in and identified with cemeteries.

Fabrizio admitted that he had already chased away Italian journalists and TV crews reporting on the Day of the Dead, but as we were the only foreigners and simpatiche, he gave a quick tour.  He showed us the Swiss artist Arnold Boecklin's grave.  We saw that many of the tombstones were engraved in English, including one "In Loving Memory of Catherine Seaborne/died in Florence on March 30, 1881/Aged 69/Deeply Mourned by her Loving Daughter."  Another, a foreigner identified by his Italian nickname of "Pavo,"
carried the inscription, "Peace at Last."  In a plot there were the graves of seven Gibsons
plus "Baby," born stillborn to James and Lily.

Fabrizio took us to a grave where, according to him, a relative of President Truman was buried.  "Yes, military men come here often to pay him tribute," he said.  Well, Carly and I saw two stars above the name "Truman Seymour."  As we suspected, he was not related to Harry Truman, but a West Point graduate, a veteran of the Mexican-American, Seminole and Civil Wars.  He fought in many major battles, and according to Wikipedia, commanded Union troops at the Battle of Olustee, the largest Civil War battle fought in Florida (incidentally Carly is from Florida and
I grew up near West Point).

To give Fabrizio credit, it was customary for Italians sign their last name first, so for him Seymour could have been the American military warrior's last name.  But how did he end up (and die) in Florence?  Looking online I discovered that General Seymour retired to Europe, where he became
 a watercolor painter (!!!)
Beautiful Florence, it is known, has always attracted artists....

On the way out, we found a time-worn stool next to the grave for family mourners to sit on and meditate on death.  Fabrizio gave us permission to photograph it.

Yesterday evening, on Halloween, I was in a hardware store having keys made when a man came in and asked for face paint.  "No," the man at Bati (near the office) said, "you need to go
 to Filistrucchi on via Verdi."

Curious, Michelle and I decided to investigate.  I met Gherardo Filistrucchi, who is the youngest family member to run the business, which was founded in Florence in 1720.  Filistrucchi specializes in wigs made of human hair, makeup, special effects, masks and costumes for theater, Carnival and special events such as Halloween.  When I was in the shop, a man came in to buy a scar.  Obviously I need to dedicate an entire post one day to Filistrucchi.  Suffice it to say that I asked Gherardo how Italians perceive Halloween and he answered, " for us it is a Carnival of horrors
il morto in tutte le salse, the dead in all flavors,
zombies, Jack Sparrow, Frankenstein etc. etc."

When I wrote Florence's first article (in English) in the 90's on Halloween for La Repubblica, Italians barely knew what it was.   I explained that it is the evening of the last day of the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon calendar when (appropriately in view of the following Day of the Dead), those who passed away can visit their former haunts on earth.  I was the first to translate "trick or treat," as "dammi un dolcetto o ti faccio uno scherzetto" literally, "give me a treat or I'll play a trick on you."  As Filistrucchi specified, "Italian children and grown-up foreigners" walk the streets of Florence on Halloween dressed in costume saying "dolcetto o scherzetto."

Sweet or trick--well Italians have their priorities straight,
 food first.

Speaking of food, Sugar & Spice, Florence's American bakery, besides offering themed cupcakes, did a nice Halloween display window at their via de' Servi location.


In the spirit of the two holidays, I will sign off with a tomb inscription I saw at the Allori Cemetery: