A story about a friend & her Florentine grape focaccia (schiacciata all’uva), in three parts.
Florence, October 2015
‘Firenze Santa Maria Novella,’ said the speaker above my seat. Startled, for I was fast asleep, I grabbed my coat and jumped down. Damn, the umbrella. How can I always forget the umbrella? But no matter, I thought, for I was in Florence, meeting friends I hadn’t seen in a long time, and we were having lunch in a beautiful place, and it wasn’t raining anyway. Everything was going to be fine.
I saw Rachel first. We arrived at the same time, from opposite directions – she from Rome, I from Venice. We met in the book shop (cookbook section) and instinctively, as if guided by the waft of roasted (burnt?) coffee beans, we slowly nudged towards the bar. The counter was flooded by a stream of commuters. We elbowed a little, pretended we didn’t know what a queue was – wait, who’s first? what? Well, I guess us! – and managed to order and inhale a much-needed shot of caffeine. Emiko arrived short after, and together, we adventured out of the station and into the heart of the Renaissance city.
The day was grey but mild. I soon realised, walking at a good pace, that I had overestimated the autumnal chill. My cheeks – I could feel them – were red with heat. Or was it the excitement? For I was talking about favourite things – food, travel, recipes, cooking, writing – with two of my favourite people, who happen to be wonderful cooks and writers and all-around wonderful humans. What I do know for sure is that I was talking and walking without knowing exactly where it was that we were going. But no matter, for being with Emiko, who knows Florence and its food like the back of her hand, I just knew it was going to be good.
This is a tart that came to happen by means of foraged fruits. For figs aren’t the kind of fruits a Venetian countryman or woman would ever buy. You’ll either pick them from the tree in your yard or go out on in the fields and find some there. I have been doing both, reverting to the second option as soon as our young tree was spent. Even now that the season for figs is coming to an end, I managed to gather enough fruits to try this fig tart twice. After the second attempt, having grown quite fond of its aromatic flair, I was keen to share my impressions (and the recipe) here. I hope I’m not too late, and that you can still find figs where you are, no matter whether in the wild or at the market.
The constellation of mosquito bites on my ankles tells me that this has been a good summer after all. A summer of early mornings spent rocking on a chair with a novel in one hand and a cup of coffee that would inevitably go cold in the other. Of Saturdays at the beach, roasting on the scorching sand of a Venetian shore. And of nights eating watermelon under the pergola, seeds and all, sugary juice running down my forearms. Balmy, humid evenings with the scent of corn wafting through the air; with clear skies and bike rides and peachy sunsets that matched the colour of the drinks in our hands.
I haven’t spent a whole summer at home in Veneto in over ten years. I didn’t realise how much I missed it, not until now that it’s almost gone. And although my main reason to be here isn’t leisure, I had to remind myself to soak it all in, all the small details that frame the idea of ‘home’ – the smells, colours, the light, the heat, the flavours – and that make my stay here all the more timely and, in a way, needed.
In the few years before starting the beautiful journey that is writing a cookbook, I have been working for a company that sources excellent fruits and vegetables from the continent. Predictably, what I liked most about my job (which happened to be rather polyhedric in its own right), was the travelling, and that’s because these working trips gave me the chance to visit some very inspiring growers and farms all over Italy.
During one of these rather serendipitous trips, I got to meet an old tomato grower from Liguria. In a market dominated by mass-produced, tasteless tomatoes, seeing that he can still make a living growing heirloom Bull’s Heart tomatoes (outdoors and extensively) was nothing short of enlightening. Even more eye-opening, then, was seeing people willing to pay a premium for them. They all seemed to say they were worth every penny, not just because their flavour was outwardly, but because these wonderful tomatoes reminded them of their trip to the Italian riviera. I could really see their point.
I had almost forgotten how glorious springtime in Veneto can be. How warm the May sun can shine, and how pleasant it is to eat lunch outside with the white roses intertwined around the wooden pergola. How early strawberries ripen here, and how late the sun sets. I had almost forgotten how much I yearned for some proper spring weather in the past four years, despite the blooming magnolias and the dangling wisteria. I am reminded now, here, sitting at my old desk, the window wide open and a sweet scent of orange blossoms blowing from the garden.
Two weeks in my homeland and I’ve already fallen into some good old habits: munching on pan biscotto (some local sort of crunchy bread) while waiting for lunch; circling the house and the garden multiple times throughout the day in search for ideas; going for long walks turned into foraging expeditions; and drinking too much espresso, sometimes with a dash of grappa, too, usually on Sundays.
Whenever we go for walks together, Dad joins me in my foraging efforts, mostly because he loves weeds as much as I do. On our last trip, for instance, we found dandelion, nettle, and bruscandoli (wild hops), the holy trinity of Venetian wild edible plants. We picked two bagfuls in total, then proceeded to wash them and turn them into a huge skillet of stir-fried greens with pancetta, a nettle frittata, and a risotto with wild hops, which were still surprisingly tender and reminiscent of rosemary.
And now that the last of the young shoots and leaves have morphed into tough grown-ups, it’s time to pick edible wildflowers. Late spring is their moment. Florid bushy trees of elderflower (sambuco) and black locust (faux acacia or robinia) grow between parcels of land. Their branches have been heavy with flowers for weeks now – one can smell them before even seeing them. Black locust flowers – dangling clusters of tiny, intensely perfumed white flowers – are slowly coming to an end, though many trees are still in bloom. We have been picking basketfuls of flowers to fill every vase in the house, their beauty and sweetness a fleeting bliss before they fade and wither and bend, spent.