Florence proved a swoon worthy city where ever twist and turn offers new and unexpected delights. We spent over three days in this city and while it was a good start, it was not nearly enough to absorb its beauty or take in all the features that make it unique (more details later). I’ve mentioned before that Mr. Oyster and myself have a routine of early morning runs to explore when we travel, it allows us to find treasures that might be a bit obscure. We kept this up through Florence and were greatly rewarded for our efforts.
When I run in the morning, its pretty much mandatory that I must have my coffee first, or I’m as cranky as an old beater of a car to get started. Since this routine was not always possible in Italy, we adopted the habit of grabbing an espresso on our runs initially so I could get my fix, and subsequently because they were some of the best coffees we had ever sampled and we were simply looking for excuses to get our grubby hands on more. Also, in Italy you have the option of drinking your coffee standing at the counter, and in case case of an espresso, you throw it back like a shot of liqueur, or sitting at a table. We generally took our java at the counter. I would like to incorporate this routine into my running now that we are back in San Francisco, alas no sane person is up when we are and no one serves coffee where you stand and drink.
Of course you should not necessarily drink coffee on its own (my rule, why miss an opportunity to try a new baked good?), and while in Florence we discovered Schiacciata con l’uva (Sweet Grape Bread, or literally “smash with grapes”) and let me just say it was a delight. We were fortunate to get our hands on some slices as it is a seasonal treat made only a few weeks in the Fall around the grape harvest. The annual wine grape harvest, la vendemmia, that takes place annually at the end of September is, for many Tuscans, one of the most important times of the year. To celebrate the fall wine harvest, bakers (panettiere), make schiacciata con l’uva – and that’s lucky for us. ‘Schiacciata’ comes from the Italian verb schiacciare, literally ‘to flatten or smash’ and Tuscans use this term to refer to focaccia bread. Schiacciata con l’uva is a bread-makers celebration of the fall wine grape harvest, and during the months of September and October, schiacciata con l’uva is found in forni (bakeries) throughout Florence and other parts of Tuscany. The focaccia dough is hand molded by the bakers and the grapes are generously scattered over the dough and as the baking process begins, as the grapes cook, their juices are absorbed in the bread, rendering a sweet and savory treat.
Schiacciata con l’uva is “found in the fanciest pastry shop or the simplest bakery,” writes Florentine cookbook author Giuliano Bugialli in Giuliano Bugialli’s Foods of Italy. “Even the most refined city people in Italy treasure their links with the rustic country traditions, and they are happy to serve [schiacciata con l’uva] after the most elegant dinner during the harvest season.”
The slices of schiacciata con l’uva I tried were not dainty pieces of foccacia with grapes artfully placed. No sir, the top of my slices were littered with small sun dried grapes so little of the bread was exposed, and a generous coating of a sweet anise flavored syrup slathered those grapes and made the eater sigh in delight with each bite. (I am not kidding, the sounds from that bakery spelled trouble). Generally I am not a fan of sweet and syrupy, but this addictive treat worked for me. The juices of the grapes and the syrup baked into the bread imparting a sweet flavor to the bread and in some versions a crispiness that was unexpected but soon became a sought after feature. This is not a dessert for ladylike eating, not with the possibly of loosing a precious grape or a drop of sticky sweet syrup. It turned Mr. Oyster and I back into kids as we squabbled if we thought the other took a bigger bite, and we were not above counting bites, either thereby assuring ourselves complete equity when it came to this Tuscan treat. Of course we could have each gotten our own, but where’s the fun in that.
This recipe from About.com comes the closest to what I remember made this bread so special, specifically the use of wine grapes or concord grapes (the intensity of the flavor made a big difference), and anise seed. This herb was on every slice we sampled, and believe me I think we tried versions in every neighborhood in Florence, and that flavor combination is now tied for me with this bread.
The use of anise might be specific to Florence, but other tasty versions about that omit this herb (some use rosemary) and OrganicTuscany, AngiesRecipes, and Cackalackyfoodie offer up some tasty options. Some bakers warn that to get too fancy with the herbs and you will loose the flavor of the grapes. I would agree, those that used a deft hand with the spices were my favorites. Many of these recipes do not require the wine grapes or concord grapes, and if you have to use other varieties just seek out the sweetest, most intensely flavored grapes you can find, and some recipes call for a combination of fresh grapes and raisins to add intensity.
Finally, when you run in Florence, you get to see places a bit farther afield but definitely worth a glimpse, take for example:
We ran by Galileo‘s home. How many times do you get to say something like that? Even more amazing it was in a neighborhood that looked relatively ordinary except for the age of the homes, and it even looked like it was lived in, and not kept as a museum. This street just blew me away when I considered that most of the homes here (and still in use) were over twice the age of my country and I could only imagine how much history had taken place here. Oh the conversations I wish I could have listened to. We also stumbled across the oldest city gate in Florence (just up the hill from Galileo’s home) and crossed part of the old city walls.
We ran down the meandering lanes that yielded incredible view of the Tuscan countryside and Florence. All I can say is, if you want to escape the crowds of the city center, head out of the city and walk along the lanes, the sites are beautiful and it could not be more peaceful. Even better, get up early and watch as the sunlight touches the trees and the buildings, it is something to behold. Just don’t tell my husband I said so, because I think there is something fundamentally wrong with using an alarm clock on a vacation. Alarm clocks should be banned in general – a health hazard, but most especially on vacation. But it was worth it here. Where else can you say your route took you on Viale (Street) Niccolo Machiavelli – yes that one, to Viale Galileo to Viale Michelangelo? All streets named after famous Florence denizens who contributed to the fortunes of this fascinating city who sought to rival Rome.
One afternoon we were lucky enough to meet with some Italian friends for lunch in Florence. We had a wonderful time, made all the more special as they regaled us with stories of Florence and Italy. One story specifically stuck with me about the start of the Italian language. In case you didn’t know it, Dante lived in Florence and among other reasons he is famous for writing the first book in Italian. Before Dante books were written in Latin. Consequently, Florence is considered the seat for the Italian language, and Florentine the foundation of pure Italian, if you come from Milano, or Roma you have the accents of that area, only Florentines have no accents in Italian.