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Gastronomy Through the Backdoor: The Markets of Florence

Posted by Andrea in Florence + Places on 11/Dec/2007
In Canada and the US, going to the market is an event for special occasions, an outing, a break from the supermarket – in other words, an exception. In Italy (and I imagine most other places in the world that filter life less) the market is still special, but for different reasons. Fresh food and eating well is integral to daily life; it is a given that gastronomy begins at the stalls. Granted, the market is a few steps removed from the watering and harvesting, feeding and slaughtering that produces even the average dish, but it is still a better point of departure for truly understanding cuisine than the supermarket.

The flavours for this venture are those of Florence, Italy – that famous Tuscan cooking! If you can go armed with some knowledge or at least a culinary guidebook, you'll be able to spot some of the most savoury and intriguing ingredients, which will aid you in your menu choices later on. Some things to keep an eye out for:

  • In my books, the cured meat finocchiona and the cheese pecorino stagionato merit a special mention, but I wouldn't eat them together: they are too individual to be mixed successfully. Divas of the palate, they each have their own act.
  • October and November see funghi porcini (sometimes served with la nepitella, calamint) and extra-virgin olive oil, green in colour and peppery on the tongue – very literally sensational.
  • I gobbi, cardoons, a vegetable that resembles prickly celery and usually served as a side dish (contorno), is another delight that doesn't venture far out of the municipality of Florence.
  • And then there's stale bread, pane raffermo...this one you have to 'cultivate' yourself, though. It constitutes the base of pappa col pomodoro, sometimes written in English as "bread and tomato soup" which, like so many translations, doesn't do justice to what it describes.

San Lorenzo Market
San Lorenzo Market.
Photo courtesy of Maurício Lopez
The market is also a visual feast. Raw food has never looked so good: produce stalls sell citrus sculptures and tomato carpets; the cheese counter resembles an interior decorator's experiment in neutrals (eggshell, ecru, taupe and ochre); bunches of basil and Italian parsley wrapped in newspaper humbly dot the stalls; and the haunches of affettati (cured meats) hang rustically from the ceiling or sit on shelves waiting to be sliced.

And, of course, there are the butcher's interesting as they are educational. If you really want to get a feel for local cuisine and anatomy, that's where to go. Used to seeing meat nicely sliced and packaged, here at the market, the whole rabbit, coniglio (before it is stuffed and roasted), is there to see along with various other body parts for specialty dishes. What looks like a white rug is tripe, la trippa, a dearly loved secondo piatto of Florence. Then there are le creste, roosters' crests, which are often served with chicken liver on bread or added to ragù. And that is just a taste... Whether or not you have access to a kitchen, the market is a definite destination for anyone with a refined palate or a palate you'd like to refine. If you can't buy the fresh pasta because you have nowhere to cook it, there is always a meal or a great panino available at one of the counters.

In Florence there are two main, easily accessible markets, il Mercato Centrale di San Lorenzo and il Mercato Sant'Ambrogio. The best chefs, along with every other gourmand in the city, go there at the crack of dawn to pick up the ingredients for the day. Why don't you join them? Maybe not at dawn, though.

  • Il Mercato Centrale di San Lorenzo, located in Via dell'Ariento, is open every day except Sunday (and statutory holidays) from 7:00 to 14:00. However, during the winter, it is open Saturdays only, and everyday before Christmas.
  • Il Mercato Sant'Ambrogio, located in Piazza Ghiberti and Piazza Sant'Ambrogio, is open every Saturday from 7:00 to 14:00.
Sant Ambrogio

Sant'Ambrogio Market. Photo courtesy of David Vogel

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