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.
A grape cake has been at the forefront of my mind for a bit. A while back, I found some deeply flavoursome muscat grapes in a little greengrocer in our neighbourhood. Unable to resist – for they are not too easy to come by in London – I bought quite a lot and decided to bake with part of them. This gloriously purple, slightly messy thing you see pictured was the happy outcome.
The cake is lovely, and really quite simple. Even made with spelt flour, it is moist and beautifully perfumed. Perhaps the only less-than-perfect side is that the grapes tend to fall to the bottom – the batter is quite loose – making it more similar to an upside down cake than a, well, a coffee cake. I don’t mind it, but I should warn you in case you care about presentation…it might take some imagination, or, like in this case, hydrangeas.
Finally, a note on the grapes. Unfortunately, seedless grapes wouldn’t do the cake much justice. Best would be to use aromatic red varieties such as Muscat or Fragolino (Concord). White varieties like Chasselas or Sultana would work a charm, too, but they’ll all inevitably have seeds. If you don’t like the idea of crunchy seeds in your cake, perhaps try a different fruit altogether – all sorts of berries make a fine substitution.
September is an exciting time of the year in Italy. The season is turning, the heat is less sweltering, and everywhere you’ll find festivals celebrating all sorts of products. Among these, the festivals of the vendemmia (grape harvest) are the most famous, widespread and fun.
Veneto has a time-honoured winemaking tradition that involves pretty much the entire region. However, in the area where I grew up, which hasn’t a particular vocation for wine, lesser varieties were planted and then turned into simple wines for everyday consumption.
In the past, the grape harvest used to employ large parts of the peasant workforce. Seasonal workers would break their back for little money, but they would at least be able to take home some bunches of grapes, perhaps the damaged ones, to eat and cook. From these grapes, thrifty countryside women (including those in my family) would then pull out a sweet pudding called sugoli – a thick, sugar laden sweet treat that was perfect to boost the energy levels of the vendemmiatori. They were what one would call a poor man’s feast.
The name sùgoli comes from the word sugo (juice). It is, in its essence, nothing more than a grape juice pudding. The recipe is as easy as it sounds: just grapes, flour and, perhaps, some sugar. The only thing you’ll need is a fine masher or, better still, a food mill. The rest will come along in no time.