By Cinzia Dugo
Natale 1999: questa sera a cena da me o da te?
Once upon a time, the traditional Christmas festivities in Florence were called the feast of the Yule log. Every year, in fact, the huge log of wood burning in the grate became the centre of the attention for children and grownups alike; they gathered closely around it, impatient for the evening to start in order to enjoy their long desired gifts, the more commercial aspect of this recurrent event. An ancient custom that has maintained all the character of the past and persevered unchanged through the centuries. Just as we now continue this same old custom by getting our home ready the arrival of this special moment, full of magic, decorating it with Christmas trees, really a Northern custom, or Nativity scenes, which Neapolitan craftsmen create with such artistry. Christmas, really the nicest festival of all, is almost upon us this year too, reminding us of one of the most significant events in the history of Christianity; in a humble way, it almost seems to whisper in our ears that, just this once, we should spare no expense to make it a joyous occasion for our loved ones by offering gifts or delicious meals. This is easier said than done, for it means that we, or more probably our grandparents, have to work very hard to do justice to the occasion which expects us to dress up as master chefs and produce food that is guaranteed to keep family and friends fixed in their seats for at least three hours, if not more. If you like, this is yet another important cultural heritage that has been passed down over the centuries. We only have to think of the magnificent and spectacular Renaissance meals that are occasionally revived by some Tuscan towns to accompany various medieval festivals, as a reminder and a 'taste' of the glories of the past. Let us therefore imagine it is Christmas Day, 1531 and that we are visiting one of these splendid villages on the invitation of a wealthy friend of ours, Alessandro de' Medici, who was actually a very important man in his day and delighted in a sophisticated and complicated cuisine; in fact he was famous for the extravagance and dissolution of his ways (so it is easy to imagine his passion for fine wines and good food!). Having seated ourselves on the comfortable chairs, we are quite astonished by all the luxury, the abundance and choice of foodstuffs, as well as the incredible variety of ways in which the steaming dishes, flavoured with countless spices, are served at the table. It is impossible to describe the wide assortment of starters or make a list of all the green salads that were eventually to become so popular and later named after another famous personage and gourmet of the16th century, Catherine de' Medici, who apparently adored eating them and was responsible for exporting Italian cooking to France. If you want to try your hand at preparing 'Catherine salad', you need the following ingredients: a mixture of wild salads, Tuscan sheep's cheese, eggs (half for each person), anchovy fillets, capers, vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper.
Going back to our description of the lavish luncheon offered by the "Duke of Florence", the carrot, chickory, caper and endive salads are followed by plates of cured hams, salami, pressed neck of pork, brain, mortadella, fried meat balls and liver and lights. We will just say a word about this last dish which, according to the traditional Tuscan cuisine, is composed of lamb offal (lungs, heart, liver, spleen and trachea) and cooked with tomates, garlic, wine and rosemary or with stock, no tomatoes, and surrounded by artichokes. Verjuice sauce was also very popular (sour grapes, fresh walnuts and breadcrumbs), to which our ancestors attributed strange properties and virtues. It was supposed to be a very good painkiller and disinfectant as well as favour women in labour and amorous sentiments. Let us go on talking about the countless array of dishes proffered during this seemingly endless meal. We have now reached the high point of the evening. Just as in a film, an army of servants carry out a huge tray from the kitchen with all its delicious smells. It contains the much praised and acclaimedmain dish of the evening, a choice of pheasant, peacock or wild boar, served up complete with fur and feathers. Unfortunately, as guests, we can only admire it because the meat is rotten long before the cooks have finished preparing it, though the strong smell that is given off from the animal, is cleverly masked with fragrant essences and spices. Even so, we eat until we are fairly bursting. At the end of the evening, our stomachs are full of delicious and theatrically served food and, at the last minute, when we are about to take leave of our host, we will perhaps express our wish to return his invitation. This is where our game of gastronomic fantasy becomes even more interesting. Let us in fact imagine that we are organising a dinner for the coming Christimas festivities and that we are to be honoured by an illustrious guest like Alessandro de' Medici. What can we cook for him, what can we serve up on the carefully laid table with its traditional Christmas decorations and ornaments? Once our initial enthusiasm is over, we will be assailed by the understandable fear that it will be no easy task to produce as rich and as varied a menu as he offered us. Just the same, we set to work, stimulated by pride and a wish to show off our culinary skills, as well as the best of Tuscan cuisine. Therefore, after having enlisted Mum's, or better still Granny's help, we start the long and tiring job of preparing the traditional Christmas dinner, while also taking care to follow typical Florentine recipes. Our menu does not include any "pasta asciutta" but our guest will not mind, as this dish was unknown in his day. In the company therefore of Alessandro who, embarassed by his rumbling stomach, can hardly wait to begin, we will describe the dishes composing our elaborate menu. The first course is composed of Capon Soup served in a bowl or Soup with "Cappelletti" or "taglierini" (pasta).
Soup is a basic element in Tuscan cooking. The ingredients needed for the perfect soup are as follows: a mixture of cuts of beef, half a hen (this is where the phrase "brodo appollocato", or chicken flavoured stock, comes from), a spongy bone, one onion, 2 carrots, a stick of celery and two small tomatoes. According to documents contained in the Laurentian Library, from the year 1200 onwards, soup was considered an excellent medicine for mothers after giving birth and the sick; it was also used for people who had difficulty in swallowing or who suffered from dry or blocked throats. This is followed by croutons topped with chicken liver paté and a selection of sliced hams, a traditional starter in all the city restaurants and trattorias. The classic and, perhaps the best method of making them is to fry up some onions, anchovy fillets and capers with chopped chicken livers, a little stock and a tablespoon of Vinsanto or Holy Wine, and then spread the mixture while still warm on 6/7 mm thick slices of stale bread that is first toasted and quickly dipped in some stock. After this comes the main course, either a roast Capon or in galantine, a castrated cockerel of about 3 months that has always been considered a luxury food and reserved for feast days. Naturally this would be accompanied by other special dishes like a delicious timbale of "gobbi", a typical winter dish that takes its name from the curved ribs of the main ingredient, the wild globe artichoke; several versions exist of this dish: stewed "gobbi" (boiled and then stewed with garlic, onion, tomatoes and basil), and "fried gobbi" (boiled, dipped in flour and egg and then fried). At this point other dishes are inevitably served such as roast partridge, pork (or "arista"), pig's liver and thrushes. Legend would have it that Patriarch Bessarion, who came to Florence for the ***Ecumenic Council*** in 1430, was responsible for attributing the word arista to loin of pork. After tasting this dish, the Byzantine cleric apparently showed his appreciation by exclaiming "Aristos", which means "the best" in Greek. This story is really most unlikely, especially when we read the words of the well known Humanist, Sacchetti who, a century earlier, mentions a cut of meat called "arista" in one of his novels. It could be an interesting between-course topic of conversation with our guest, who would be bound to know more. Our dinner would conclude with a refreshing bowl of wild salads followed by a dessert: Panforte, cavallucci, ricciarelli and either soft or crunchy Prato biscuits; full of almonds, the latter are also called "cantucci" and delicious if dipped in sweet Vinsanto or in Aleatico dell'Elba, better known as "il Morello". We will drink a last glass of good red wine from Montalcino to bring our culinary feat to an end. Our guest is more than full, his satisfied and somewhat inebriated face fills us with pride. Just in case there has been something lacking in the warm reception we have reserved for him, we take him by surprise, when the time comes for him to take his leave, by presenting him with a packet of fresh pasta fresca and a recipe that bears the name of his celebrated family: the noble Maccheroni alla Medici. This dish is made with half a chicken breast, 4 tablespoons of peas, white truffle, grated parmesan, salt and pepper. After having boiled and then sautéed the chicken in a little butter, add a little hot water and the previously cooked peas. Leave to simmer and, once the pasta is cooked, add it to the sauce, sprinkling some parmesan on top. Leave for a few minutes to stand, then add some paper thin slices of truffle and serve the maccheroni very hot. Alessandro de' Medici would set great store by these indications and, on his return home, excited by the novelty, would probably pretend that he had invented this exquisite dish; it might even become a pièce de résistance for his sumptuous meals. What a shame that the packet only contains 500 gr. of excellent pappardelle!
Translated by Susan Glasspool