Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"Weihnachtsmarkt" - Mercato Tedesco di Natale - Piazza Santa Croce

The "Weihnachtsmarkt", also known as the "Mercato Tedesco di Natale" or "Mercato di Heidelberg", has been setting up in Piazza Santa Croce for 11 years now.  55 wooden vendor stalls set up shop to open on 28 November this year and will be in business until 16 December.

This German Market is probably the most popular Christmas Market in Florence.  Crowds gather each day from 10:00 in the morning until 8:00 at night, milling about the vendors, browsing and purchasing gifts and ornaments from around Europe.

And then there's the food!  Walking toward Piazza Santa Croce, you can start to smell the amazingly wonderful aromas that waft through the streets.  German food abounds.  Some of the offerings include:  pork roasting "whole hog" on a spit, wurstel, pretzels (some as big as your head), sauerkraut, and of course, apple strudel!  To help wash all this delicious food down, they sell beer and warm cups of mulled wine.

Roast pork

Bomboloni - filled donuts.  Perfect for a morning at the market...or anytime!

Apple Strudel.  This version from Northern Italy.

This version of Apple Strudel is from Austria.

At the Austrian Strudel booth, you can find different kinds of strudel...traditional apple, mixed berries, etc.

Stirring the big pot of sauerkraut

Friends and families spend time here eating, drinking, shopping and visiting with each other.  It is a very festive atmosphere, one that the locals really enjoy each year.

Christmas shopping at the market is a very international experience.  The Chamber of Commerce works with the trade associations of participating countries to organize this annual event.  Last year, there were 11 countries that participated and crowds totaled 150,000 over the course of the 20 days that it was open.

Vendors sell a variety of goods, from German foods, Christmas ornaments, clothing, toys, to English tea sets and spices from around the world.

This vendor is selling lavender products from Provence, France.
Dried herbs, teas, and spices are for sale at this booth.
In addition to the food, drink and shopping, the piazza that the market is located in - Piazza Santa Croce - is one of the most beautiful in Florence.  The neo-Gothic facade of the Basilica stands facing the market.  Santa Croce is always a treat to visit, so if you are in the area, perhaps you can visit the church and then head over to the market.  (For more information on Santa Croce, you can read my blog post about it here).

If you happen to find yourself in Florence around the holidays, make a point to visit the Weihnachtsmarkt and some of the other Christmas markets around town.  These events really help to put everyone in the holiday spirit!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Schiacciata all'Olio

Schiacciata is a type of focaccia bread that is made in the Florence area of Tuscany.  There are a variety of schiacciata recipes, but my favorite is schiacciata all'Olio.  It's quite simple to make, like most Tuscan recipes.  I baked a schiacciata this morning to go with the zuppa Toscana that I made  and it was a big hit with my favorite Tuscan when he came home for lunch.  

The bread is usually around an inch or so thick, crispy on the outside and with a slight chew on the inside with plenty of air bubbles.

To make schiacciata, first dissolve 25 grams (1 teaspoon) of dry yeast in a small bowl containing 250 ml (1 cup) of warm water.

Let that sit for 5 minutes or so.  Then in a large bowl, mix together 45 grams (3 cups) of flour), 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt, 70 ml (1/4 cup) of extra-virgin olive oil, and the bowl of dissolved yeast.

When the dough comes together, turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until the dough is smooth.  It should take you around 10 minutes to achieve this.

Place the dough into a large, clean bowl that you oiled with some olive oil.  Turn the dough so that it is covered with oil. 

Cover the dough and set in a warm place to raise for approximately 1 to 1 1/2 hours.  

Oil a wide baking pan with some olive oil.  I used the roasting pan from the oven, covered it with foil and then oiled it.  

Spread out the dough with your fingers so that it fits the pan.  

With your fingertips, make indentations on the surface of the dough and then drizzle the whole thing with more olive oil and sprinkle with some salt.  (I prefer to use sea salt, but any salt will work)

Let the schiacciata rest for 30 minutes while the oven is getting hot.  You'll want to heat the oven to 220°C/425°F.

Bake for approximately 20 minutes, or until it is a nice golden brown.  Pull out of the oven and drizzle with some fresh olive oil.

It's fantastic fresh out of the oven, or later when it's completely cooled.  I personally can't wait that long and normally, I will grab a piece within minutes of pulling it from the oven!  

Buon appetito!

Schiacciata all'Olio

250 ml (1 cup) warm water
25 grams (1 teaspoon) dry yeast
45 grams (3 cups) flour
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
70 ml (1/4 cup) extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra
salt for sprinkling (coarse sea salt is best)

In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in warm water and let sit for about 5 minutes or until activated.  In a large bowl, mix the flour, salt, olive oil, and dissolved yeast.  When dough begins to come together, turn out onto a clean surface dusted with a little flour.  Knead until the dough is smooth, approximately 10 minutes.  Place dough in a clean bowl that you oiled with a little olive oil.  Turn the dough so that both sides are lightly coated with oil.  Let rise in a warm place for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.  
Oil a wide baking pan and spread out the dough using your fingers so that the dough fits the pan.  Make indentations with your fingertips on the surface of the dough, then drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.  Let rest 30 minutes.
In a hot oven (220°C/425°F), bake the schiacciata for approximately 20 minutes or until it is a lovely light golden brown color.  
Drizzle with olive oil as soon as you pull it from the oven.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Il Pitto

Italy is full of history.  You can't visit the country without encountering something historical that is hundreds of years old...perhaps even over a thousand years old.  Ancient history abounds.  However, there is more "modern" history that can be found here as well.    

To the west of Signa, a town located about 20 minutes to the west of Florence, there is Il Pitto.

Il Pitto is a large villa, which can be seen on satellite views with a formal garden and surrounded by forest.  Looking in the forest, you can see what looks to be remnants of buildings from long ago, overgrown by trees and vegetation.

Simone and I were intrigued and curious about this area.  It is gated off and private.  There are security cameras at the gate on Via Santa Barbara.  What is this place?  What was this place?

After doing some research, we discovered that Il Pitto and the large area surrounding it, had been used as an explosives factory.  

In 1912, the property was purchased by Alfred Nobel's company.  The location was a good one for them - located at the confluence of the Ombrone and Arno Rivers in the central part of the country.  It was far enough away from enemy borders, yet close enough to the port at Livorno by rail. 

Nobel then developed the area, erecting buildings on the grounds and hiring hundreds of workers (at its peak, the complex employed around 3000 people).  The main road from Signa to Comeana that had passed through the property was moved and the vineyards that grew on the property were removed, replaced by a man-made forest.  Tall, dense trees were planted in order to camouflage the factory from the possibility of spy planes by enemy air forces.  The factory complex began to take the shape of a mini-city with roads, buildings and tunnels.

During WWI, the factory manufactured high caliber explosives/ammunition for cannons and dynamite.  After the war, in 1925, the factory and land was sold to Montecatini, a chemical and mineral/mining company that also acquired in the mid-1930's a general munitions and explosives company and formed Nobel-SGEM.  

Abandoned chemical laboratory
In the years of peacetime between the two wars, the area was utilized for agricultural experiments and experimental chemical production.  Then, with war once again looming, it resumed its explosives production, increased the amount of buildings on the property (now totaling over 100) and constructed a small rail system to transport materials between the various buildings and ultimately to the main railway.

Tracks of the small rail system
In 1944, the factory fell to the German Army who exploited it for their own use.  After this, the area became a target for sabotage by the resistance.  On 11 June, 1944, a few  members of the Italian Resistance attempted a major sabotage of the area by blowing up some of the wagons that were loaded with dynamite.  The group was successful.  The explosion destroyed the internal railway, created a huge crater near the Arno and destroyed many buildings.  However, four of the saboteurs - Alighiero Buricchi (19 years old), Bogardo Buricchi (23 years old), Ariodante Naldi (20 years old), Bruno Spinelli (42 years old) - were killed by the blast.  These brave men are considered heroes.  Because of their actions, all manufacturing at the compound ceased.

Monument to the fallen heroes
After the war, the factory was once again returned to its rightful owner, but because of peacetime, orders slowed and eventually ceased.  There were massive layoffs.  In a last ditch attempt to remain open, they once again changed their production from explosives to pesticides and plant production.  However, in 1958, the factory complex closed its doors forever.  In 1964, the area was cleaned of all explosive materials.  

Today, the villa "Il Pitto" is being utilized as a nursing home.  The villa and gardens surrounding it are lovely and in great shape.  Not far down a small road, however, the grounds where the factory complex existed are mostly overgrown by vegetation.  Although many of the buildings are crumbling, several buildings are surprisingly in good shape.  There have been discussions over the past few years on how to reclaim this area and the remaining viable buildings.  Everything from moving a University in to letting it be used by movie producers.  However, none of these ideas have yet to come to fruition and what is left of the old Nobel site sits empty and waiting.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

At Home in Italy

I flew back to Italy on Monday.  The flights were uneventful.  Perfect landings on each leg of the trip (thank you Lufthansa pilots!) and we completely avoided tropical storm Sandy by flying over Greenland.  I started to get a little nervous at the start of my journey, since my flight to Chicago was delayed by almost an hour.  Seeing as Chicago is a ginormous airport and before I've had to run from one end of the airport to the other to get to my connecting flight, I was a bit nervous!  As luck would have it, the gate we pulled into upon arrival was only 5 gates down from my departing gate!  I got there in time to stand in line to board!

I didn't get much sleep on the flight over to Europe.  I was amused by the little dog that was under my seat.  The man sitting behind me had his dog as a carry-on & every so often it would let out a "yip".  Poor thing, I know it had to be his ears popping, because every time he "yipped" I noticed a change in pressure.  I do think that I prefer flying with a dog under my seat than a baby anywhere on the plane!

After watching 3 movies (Madagascar 3, Men in Black 3, and Brave) and a television episode (How I Met Your Mother), and maybe an hour and a half nap, I found myself in Frankfurt, Germany.  If you've never been to the Frankfurt airport, let me just say - it's huge.  I mean, REALLY huge.  I think every time I fly into Frankfurt that I end up walking the length of the city to get from one terminal to the other.  The people who work there are friendly though.  The female police officer who padded me down/wanded me at the security checkpoint and I shared a bit of a giggle over the fact that it was early in the morning and neither of us could remember the English word "collar"!

The flight to Florence was wonderful.  It is only about an hour and a half long flight, but the view of the alps is spectacular when there are no clouds.  As we passed over the mountains, they were covered in a blanket of snow and were absolutely magnificent!  Wish I would have gotten a picture of them, but I was too enraptured by them.

I took a short nap and awoke by the announcement that they had begun the descent.  I looked out the window & saw my Italy.  The brilliant green of the hills of Tuscany made me grin from ear to ear.  I felt the familiar feeling of contentment.  I was home!

After a perfect landing, decent bus ride to the terminal, and a short wait for my bags, I walked through the doors and sent Simone a text message that I was at the curb.  Within seconds, I saw him pull around with a big grin on his face.  I knew that I had missed him, but I hadn't realized how much until that moment.  A wonderful greeting accompanied by large grins and gleeful giggles.  Bags in the back and then we were off to the apartment that he found to rent.

The car ride took about 15 minutes or so from the airport to the outskirts of Signa.  The apartment is in a small village out in the countryside, near the Arno.  The owner, Francesco, met us there and discussed things with Simone.  I understood about half of what he was saying, which I thought was pretty good since I was exhausted!  For dinner that night, Simone cooked some riso dell'imperatore (Emperor's rice) with tomato and onion as well as some delicious crostini with onion, garlic and olive oil.

After the best night's sleep that I've had in months, we awoke to the sound of a sweet bird singing in the tree outside of our bedroom window.  The sun was out and it was a perfect morning.  We decided to go out and see the area, so we walked up and down the little street we are on and then hopped in the car for a drive up the mountain.  The views were spectacular.

View of the Arno from halfway up the mountain

View from the top of the mountain, overlooking Poggio a Caiano
My first 24 hours back in Italy were wonderful.  Stay tuned!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Fagioli all'Uccelletto

This is one of my favorite Tuscan recipes.

I hadn't heard of it before my Tuscan mentioned it to me one evening when I told him that I was planning to make Pasta e Fagioli for dinner that night.  He said, "you should try to make Fagioli all'Uccelletto!  I love it!"

Well, if my Tuscan loves it, I'm pretty certain I will love it too.  And since I had all the ingredients on hand, I decided to give it a try.

This is a super easy, healthy recipe.  I tend to eat it as a meal in itself, but you can use it as a side dish.

First, get your ingredients ready.

Peel two cloves of garlic and slice them fairly thin.  Then take the blade of the knife and crush them a bit.

You'll need a few fresh sage leaves.  I usually use 12 to 15 leaves, depending on their size and my mood.  I love sage.  You may decrease the amount of leaves, but I don't suggest going under 8 leaves.  

Wash the leaves, remove the stems and pat them dry.

Peel, de-seed and chop two Roma tomatoes finely.

Place a heavy pot over medium heat and add 1/4 cup (approximately 60 mL) of extra-virgin olive oil.

When the oil gets hot, add the garlic...

...and the sage.

Let it cook for a few minutes, stirring is every so often, until the garlic turns a golden brown and the sage leaves are crisp.

Then, add the tomatoes and let them cook for a couple minutes.


Add the drained and rinsed cannellini beans...

...and then add some water to one of your empty cans of beans (there can still be some bean goop in there when you add the water) and add enough of that water to just cover the beans.

Season with a little sea salt and freshly ground pepper, then let simmer for about 30 minutes.  (The beans will be very soft when it is ready and it will not be as "wet".)

Serve hot alone or as a side dish.  Buon appetito! 

Fagioli all'Uccelletto

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, sliced thin and crushed
8 - 15 fresh sage leaves, stems removed
2 roma tomatoes, peeled, de-seeded, and chopped fine
2 cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a heavy pan over medium heat.  When oil is hot, add the garlic and sage.  Cook until garlic is golden brown and sage leaves are crisp.  Add tomatoes and cook for a couple minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add the beans.  Add enough water to just cover the beans.  Season with salt and pepper.  Let simmer for 30 minutes or until the beans are very soft and the liquid is mostly gone.  Serve hot.