The magic of Florence is legendary. The city, with its red-tiled roofs fills the wide valley of the river Arno, straddled by the ponte vecchio, literally paved with gold shops. The enormous cupola of the duomo, also red-tiled, has given Florence one of the most recognized skylines in the world, to rival, Paris, London, New York, but it’s a renaissance skyline—how precious.
Most tourists regard Florence as a hot city, where the art-filled arcade of the Piazza della Signoria provides welcome shade for the consumption of gelato, and where the breezes skipping up the river Arno from the sea offer respite from the ninety-degree heat.
In the winter, however, Florence is a cold city, and at this time, with fewer tourists, and much shorter queues at the Uffizi gallery, it can be a Christmas treat in itself.
Last Saturday morning, I had a wander round the city to see how it was preparing for Christmas. After an obligatory espresso I started off by visiting the mercato centrale, the main food market in Florence.
At first, I thought I had wandered into the Uffizi Gallery, so full was the market of still-life stalls carrying oranges, lemons, clementines, and other seasonal fruit. The scent of bunches of fresh thyme, coupled with chile peppers freshly arrived from the south of Italy, was striking.
Other stalls carried the full weight of candied fruit, citron and orange, destined to be made into panforte but also cherries, apricots, pineapples, even kiwi, all competing to be bought along with dates and nuts.
A Tuscan christmas meal starts off with an antipasto of local produce, followed by a primo of fresh egg pasta. This is often tortellini, which a Chinese friend once appropriately described as ‘Italian wontons’. In fact, these pasta parcels, which originated in Bologna—and are said to have been modeled on a noblewoman’s belly button, no less—are cooked in a broth which they are then served in. An Italian wonton soup.
As usual in an Italian meal, after the pasta comes meat, and in Florence that can mean only one thing: bistecca alla fiorentina. These huge t-bone steaks, come from the local Chianina cattle, are served grilled, with salt, pepper, and olive oil. The name does seem to originate from the English words ‘beef steak’ and it is said to have been favoured by Medieval English mercenaries who would call for it loudly in English. So loudly that the locals gave up the Italian word and joined in.
An Italian fishy delicacy is baccalà or salt-cod. Once the only way of preserving this most northern of fish long enough to get it to Italy, it became a part of many traditional dishes up and down the peninsula, although it’s considered a speciality of the Veneto region.
There were plenty of cheese stalls in the market where the produce hadn’t travelled far. Mostly on offer was pecorino (sheep’s milk cheese) either on its own, or flavoured with peppercorns, truffles, or chile flakes.
And no Tuscan Christmas would be complete without cantucci, known to the world by the generic name of biscotti, which originated in nearby Prato, now almost a conurbation with Florence.
Back outside, and fortified by another espresso, it was time to admire the Christmas decorations such as these striking cardinal-red hats suspended above a busy shopping street.
This restaurant was one of many whose entrances had been made doubly inviting by the addition of foliage and red-ribbon. Appropriately, the name translates as the ‘Red Onion Tavern’,
Although Italian cities have now adopted the Christmas tree as part of festive globalization, the most traditional decoration is the presepe or nativity scene. A tradition started by Saint Francis of Assisi, in nearby Umbria, no Italian town, or church, or house would be complete without one. Many shop windows also carry them, themed to the shop. I recently saw one in a sports shop window, where Subbuteo players, dressed of course in Fiorentina purple, had joined the shepherds in visiting the Christ Child.
Outside Florence cathedral, they had finished building the stable ready for the famous guests, who would soon be taking up residency for the season.
Pinocchio is a Florentine literary classic, its author, Carlo Lorenzini—known by the pseudonym Carlo Collodi—having been born in the city in 1826. Traditional looking pinocchi sport red and green clothes and so make excellent Christmas decorations. You can find them all over the city.
And last but not least, there is panforte which its almost obligatory for Tuscans to eat at Christmas. An elegant place to try it is in one of the cafés around the Piazza della Repubblica such as Gilli’s. Expensive, but a treat.
No post about Florence would be complete without a picture of its most famous resident, the copy of Michelangelo’s David in the Piazza della Signoria, so I will leave you with this image.