Florence and Why Running Offers the Best Rewards

Florence in the early morning light

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.

vital for a good run

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.

Bakeries are a wonderful thing

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

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.

more of Florence in the morning

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.

a tray of grape goodness

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:

Galileo's home

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.

The oldest city gate in Florence

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.

on a hill overlooking Florence

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.

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31 comments for “Florence and Why Running Offers the Best Rewards

  1. November 11, 2010 at 4:30 PM

    Sounds like amazing routes for running! Definitely worth waking up early for, and how fun to have such great views. I’ve been wanting to attempt a schiacciata and this makes me want to try it even more!

  2. November 12, 2010 at 12:17 AM

    What a lovely written post!! Running your way through a city, as beautiful as Florence,Firenze!!

    Aaaaaaah,….oooooooh! That bread stuffed with sweetergrapes looks just lovely,..Now, I would like to have a big bite,…!

  3. November 12, 2010 at 12:44 AM

    What a beautiful place!! I’m seriously having a jealous moment right now… You ran by Galileo’s home!? How cool is that!?

  4. November 12, 2010 at 7:36 AM

    Not to knock your morning pick me up, cause you know I love ya!, but I have learned to deal with caffeine free exercise over the years. I start by walking and then break into sprints, and then a run :)

    We visited Florence and I believe that is where the Slow Food school and restaurant is we dined at??? In spite I fell in love with Spain, I will go back to Italy one day, refreshed as a new woman who can take this route and think of you my friend!

  5. November 12, 2010 at 7:46 AM

    I love that you can say “I ran past Galileo’s house.” Just love it. I have been squirrelling your blogs away in my Italian folder for when I finally go next year. Maybe we’ll go in September just for the bread.

  6. November 12, 2010 at 8:59 AM

    Florence sounds and looks wonderful!I hope to visit this beautiful city soon and I will come back to your blog for tips!

  7. November 13, 2010 at 12:26 PM

    Florance sounds so intriguing. I love the idea of running and having espresso in the early morning. It is also the best time to discover a place. And that bread with grapes look so good! Thanks for this informative post.

  8. November 14, 2010 at 4:03 AM

    hmmm, you certainly made me nostalgic with this post! So glad you had a lovely time! The Italians really do know how to make their cakes. And their coffee…yep, just sublime!

  9. November 14, 2010 at 9:50 AM

    Ahh, running through Florence. It sound like a title for a movie! GREG

  10. November 14, 2010 at 5:00 PM

    I need my coffee first thing, too, before I do any exercise in the morning. Now, if only a jaunt around Florence followed that ritual. I wish! 😉

  11. November 14, 2010 at 11:31 PM

    Running…not my thing, but a double espresso with a couple of Italian sweet bakes…isn’t life just delicious? :-))

  12. November 15, 2010 at 1:24 AM

    I think if I were in the streets of Florence, I would be able to run close to a marathon without even realizing it…after a shot of espresso, of course. Oh, and their grape-soaked bread! :-)

  13. OysterCulture
    November 15, 2010 at 8:34 AM

    Lisa – that bread just blew me away – it was so tasty and just perfect for fall.

    Sophie – I wish I had a big piece, I’d offer to share!

    Kitchen M – It was just so unexpected to run by his house – we were in a neighborhood, and bam – there it was.

    Chef E – I’m not as bad as you think I am. The coffee for me is the transition between getting out of bed and going straight for the run – We used to leap from the bed to run and I put my foot down, need to wake up a bit more. I’m not a caffine addict – keep my intake small, and many of those cups have been decal. A future post is about a Slow Food farmers market we found there – so nice! Look forward to hearing about your trip.

    Claudia – I hope they help and there are plenty more to come.

    Erica – Hope they help.

    Zerrin – We were just very lucky to find all we did, and they worked into our schedules.

    Ruth – You nailed it, those cakes and coffees will lead me to an Italian lifestyle.

    Sippity – It did seem like a movie at some points!

    Carolyn – I know, I really do need to switch it up!

    Angie – When offered the alternatives, I could do the coffee and sweets, the running help insure I did not need new clothes too. =)

    Sophia – I’d like to think I could run close to a marathon, but those flagstones wear you down. However I agree upping the ante with the espresso might be the way to go.

  14. November 15, 2010 at 10:50 AM

    I am SOOOOOOO all over that Schiacciata Con L’uva recipe. I recently had a grape cake that rocked my world, but the addition of the syrup with the anise? Dear God, all kinds of heavenly. Love your espresso shot -run-pastry routine too – when in Rome, right?!

  15. November 15, 2010 at 11:44 AM

    A lovely post! Finding a good coffee/espresso is very difficult… What a gorgeous schiacciata.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  16. November 15, 2010 at 1:50 PM

    Oh that grape bread sounds so good. I agree about sharing, it makes what you have so much more special when you have to ration your portion for the other. I’ve always wondered if the coffee at a bar experience would ever take off here. Perhaps it will start in San Francisco. :)

  17. November 15, 2010 at 3:19 PM

    You’re braver than I am to run through a city. I would have been lost the second I step out of where I’m staying. hehehe… But it is a nice way to explore your surroundings.

  18. November 15, 2010 at 8:25 PM

    OK, so I don’t run…but we still have something in common…Morning coffee or espresso-People who know me well have this statement “She does not speak before coffee” :)
    Love these photos especially the gate entering the city…beautiful post all around.
    The bread with grapes sounds delightful :)

  19. November 15, 2010 at 9:08 PM

    Those early morning runs through Florence sound amazing, you saw such cool sights! We have a similar tradition, though with our daughter, we walk all over whatever new city we are visiting, I find that it really gives you a great feel for the city, rather just doing only the touristy things. That grape bread sounds really yummy!

  20. November 16, 2010 at 1:57 PM

    I am not into running…but sure enjoy the pictures that you took…and sure will take an espresso :-) Nice pictures!

  21. November 16, 2010 at 5:59 PM

    I could never tire of visiting Italy. I’ve only had the briefest of visits to Florence and certainly didn’t get to explore the outer reaches of the city, but your post makes me want to do that all the more. And of course I would never say no to good espresso, all the better if accompanied by a slice of schiacciata!

  22. November 16, 2010 at 9:27 PM

    How sweet and nice trip – hope you’ve had beautiful moments there it looks marvelous.
    Only 3 days it seems, at least a week, is necessary to travel all over Florence.

    All the best,

    Gera

  23. November 16, 2010 at 10:43 PM

    running in florence, how stunning..how cool that you ran past Gailieo’s house..oh I am also no good until I have had my first cup of coffee..perfect treat to celebrate your time in Florence..

    sweetlife

  24. November 17, 2010 at 2:49 PM

    Rome was one of our best holidays and I can only imagine the treasures Florence has to offer, or Firenze!!!!!!!!You make me long for a holiday now………

  25. November 17, 2010 at 9:04 PM

    I do believe that drinking incredible Italian coffee requires a baked good. Having one is like an excuse to have the other. :) Running really is the best way to see a new place. We often find places that we head back to and check out a little more closely later in the trip.

  26. November 19, 2010 at 8:23 PM

    I haven’t been to Florence for years and I can smell that coffee! Mmmmm. Love that your touring by running although I remember tripping on uneven sidewalks and tree roots. And I never remember grape bread… thanks for sharing.

  27. November 24, 2010 at 11:49 PM

    Florence has always been on my “To Do” list. And no, I won’t run in Florence or anywhere else in the world, even if it’s past Galileo’s house! I simply don’t enjoy running. I prefer to stay fit by playing some kind of sport which is mostly swimming and tennis in my case. I’d love to try the sweet grape bread.

  28. December 5, 2010 at 7:50 PM

    Your lovely post has me reminiscing about my solo trip to Florence in 2006 – though I didn’t run anywhere :)

  29. OysterCulture
    December 12, 2010 at 2:56 PM

    Sarah – Your version looked amazing.

    Rosa – We had no trouble on our trip – beginners luck?

    Christine – I’d love that coffee tradition to take off in the States but am afraid we’re tooo much of a Starbucks culture

    Jenn – We looked like dwebs with our maps =)

    Magic – I’m with you. Met my hubby pre-coffee its a wonder we hooked up.

    5 Star – I love just getting out to explore and not following a guide book, I think that’s when you get the true sense of a place.

    Juliana – Glad you enjoyed

    Spud – You definitely need to go back, we’re already plotting our return, You’ll be inspired to new levels of spudness.

    Gera – I agree, not nearly enough time to truly appreciate everything.

    Sweetlife – Thanks

    Kitchen Butterfly – You’ll need to add Florence to the list of places to visit.

    Lori – Sounds like we’re kindred spirits in travel.

    Tammy – We were lucky to be there at the time they offer the grape bread. The sidewalks were very uneven and I was in awe of all the girls wearing heels.

    KM – I envy your sports skills, I’m a struggling swimmer, did not grow up with it, and tennis, have not practiced nearly enough so mostly humiliate myself.

    Lynn – You got me thinking when I spotted your grape bread on your site.

  30. December 16, 2010 at 9:33 AM

    Sports skills?? That seriously cracked me up and it’s 1 in the morning here.

    I used to be a fat chick and had no sporting skills whatsoever. I humiliated myself in an effort to lose the excess blubber, which is quite unnecessary here in the broiling tropics. Smaller Asian portions, the absence of all the artificial ingredients found in our foods back home, humid days and that self-humiliation has done wonders to my waistline. I am a much better tennis player now though.
    The Kitchen Masochist recently posted..Loomi Luvin

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