10 March 2013

We’ve eaten way too much. And a fair amount of alcohol has been consumed too. We spent this past weekend in Florence, and everything about it was foody. I feel I should be embarking on a week’s fast. So why do I have potatoes baking in the oven and dahl bubbling on the stove? Sometimes I really don’t understand myself.

We were there, first and foremost, for Taste. If you happen to be in Florence tomorrow (11 March) go; if not, put it in big letters in your diary for March 2014.

0310B0310AI’ve been to so many agglomerations of stalls touting Italy’s gastronomic wonders – of various standards and questionable genuinità – that, without wishing to sound too jaded, I trotted along behind L thinking “oh well, a couple of nights in Florence will be a treat anyway.” But this food and beverage jamboree wowed me, in several ways.

The venue, for a start, is wonderful. The early 19th-century Stazione Leopolda was the terminus of the Florence-Livorno railway – only the second line to be built in what is now Italy. As a station, its life was short. In 1861 it hosted an Expo to celebrate Florence as capital of an almost-united country. Then it became offices, a customs warehouse, and, for many years, a railway storage depot. Now, restored in a very sensitive way leaving much of the structure looking just as it did before, it is used by the Pitti Immagine company (best known as organisers of Florence’s fashion collections) for events including this annual Taste fest. The lofty, airy, industrial-minimalist space – decorated with stylish simplicity for the occasion – is perfect. As this is the eighth edition, we couldn’t believe that we’d never been before.

Then there’s the choice of exhibitors. When we chatted with Pitti boss Raffaele Napoleone, he explained that he had had to resist pressure from some areas to allow producers themselves to become ‘corporative’. The quality control is done by people outside the world of agriculture. And it’s tough. With very few exceptions, the 240-odd exhibitors, from all over the country, are showing things you’d really like to taste.

Of course, I ruled out the meat products which I don’t eat. And there are some things which, when I visited at 9.30 in the morning, I just couldn’t stomach: ice cream, chocolate, alcohol of any kind or strength. (I made up for some lost time when I went back in the afternoon.)

But I did find myself developing a serious passion for serious balsamic vinegar, the kind that oozes out of its tiny bottle and on to your minuscule proffered plastic spoon in a viscous blob – the effect of many decades (literally) of reduction. By that time it’s caramel with an edge, the strangest mix of biting-sweet and hardly sour at all. I think I must have tasted the age-old balsamics of about eight producers. Superb.

There were excellent coffees and superlative cheeses and rices from northern Italy which you know are going to turn into that kind of unctuously creamy risotto with a bite that even the best stuff we buy in our local shops doesn’t even come close to.

There was no rhyme or reason in the arrangements: producers were given stalls with no apparent criteria so you bounced from one food group to another, one region to another (there’s no regional index even in the Taste catalogue which I think is perhaps one of the few things I would criticise about the organisation), forced to make connections and divisions and logical gastronomical loops that you wouldn’t necessarily do otherwise. A very nice man at the Nardini stall said that the same thing was going on on the other side of the stalls, and I think you could feel that. Strange relationships and deals and friendships and partnerships were springing up between the most unlikely combinations of producers. You could feel that energy. The place was buzzing.

I liked, too, the shop as you exited the building. No money changed hands at the sampling stalls. But after having slogged up and down the long long aisles you were funneled into a wide-open space where many of the goods you had just tasted were on sale. At reasonable prices. Normal prices. Some special packages put together for Taste at reduced prices. At the stalls you just sampled and socialised and questioned. In the shop, you didn’t feel a rip-off sting in the tail as happens – unfortunately – all too often in Italy. All in all, a positive experience.

The one thing that struck me forcefully as I ambled about, exploring, was the lack of Umbria. Every other region seemed to be richly represented. Signs of life in Umbria, alas, were sadly lacking. I think I counted the Umbrian stalls on the fingers of one hand. Umbria’s a rich region, a productive region, a region which should have been there in force. Where is the Umbrians’ self-promotional acumen? Nowhere to be seen.

The weekend’s other F&B highlights:

  • Teatro del Sale with wines by L’s old Sicilian friends at Tasca d’Almerita and much of the raw material for the dinner provided by the producers that the Tascas have put together in their Natura in Tasca, this was bound to be good. There was so much food, and so much wine and so much good company that I’m not sure a can remember a thing, except that given the circumstances even the fact that the Teatro serves at a buffet, and eating at all involves a bun fight, didn’t annoy me too much. I remember some stand-out sardines grilled in the best oil and fennel seeds, and some delicious bonito cooked with beans.
  • Gucci Café for some reason (because I like the Ferragamo museum so much and I suspect Gucci can’t compete?) I keep ducking out of opportunities to view Florence’s Gucci museum. But this time at least I got as close as the ground-floor bar and restaurant where there are very good lunch time salads at very reasonable prices. I liked it. Maybe next time I’ll look at the exhibition too.
  • 0310FSe.Sto on Arno as we stomped along the lungarno towards the Westin Excelsior I was fulminating against the horrid modern excrescence on its roof – another assault on the skyline along the river. Once I got inside the excrescence, however, the assault slipped my mind. Because the view across the city is simply spectacular. The brunch was too. Then again, at €65, you would expect it to be.
  • 0310ERiccardo Barthel’s empire continues to explode out of his topsy-turvy laboratory near Porta Romana. Besides the exquisite collection of old and new and reconditioned and reproduced furniture and fittings of all kinds, he also does interiors and fits out boats and consults on just about everything. And to accompany the last few editions of Taste he has allowed his wonderful courtyard to be overrun by local producers selling zero-km, organic goodies in among the tasteful debris in an initiative called Ortobello. Such a lot of good stuff, and so very well done, that you can’t help wondering why on earth he doesn’t do it year-round.
  • In Fabbrica, via del Gelsomino 99, +39 3475145468. The Pampaloni family have been working silver in Florence since 1902 and their shop in via Porta Rossa is an eccentric treasure trove. It’s tame, however, compared to their latest venture. What used to be the cramped company canteen above the workshop where silver is turned into their glorious, idiosyncratic creations has, since last December, become a restaurant where the aristo-Communist bent of the brothers manifests itself in a huge hammer-and-sickle ceiling light above tables decked with candelabra and silverware fit for a royal palace. The food – a limited-choice menu at €30 for women/€35 for men with half-Italian, half-Japanese offerings – is good rather than excellent. But the ambience is totally unique.
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About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden designer, working throughout central Italy. I have lived in Italy for over 30 years – for many years in Rome but now in the wilds of Umbria where I have fixed up one wreck of a house, am working on another, and tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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