Sunday, 15 November 2015

Pane de Pèlerinage

Tobias Smollett travelled for the good of his health and left a very entertaining account of what he got up to in his book "Travels through France and Italy".

Franz Liszt went for the scenery as much as anything. He took in Switzerland and Italy and left a musical diary of the places he visited in his Années de Pèlerinage.

The trouble with these otherwise worthy attempts to convey the joys of a trip to Italy is their complete failure to cover one of the most important things -


I have decided to put the world to rights, inspired by Charles Pooter's preface to his "Diary of a Nobody" -

"Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I
have never even heard of, and I fail to see - because I do not happen to be a
Somebody - why my diary should not be interesting. My only regret is that I did
not commence it when I was a youth."
So here's to the joys of Italy, not least...


The most interesting place in Florence for food is undoubtedly the mercato centrale. Not only does it have the best of everything in the downstairs food stalls, it also has a trendy upstairs eating area which is open to midnight, and is really good fun to walk round. You can get all the local delicacies - tripe, massive T-bone steaks, fresh pasta, pizza - you name it. My favourite place up there had a sign up saying "lievitato solo con madre" - everything sourdough. "Everything" included bread, cakes, pizza, the works.

I got a proper arancino here, and was sold it by a young lady who could easily have been Nigella's daughter. It was well worth the 3 euros!

And what could be better for pudding than half a ton of cantuccini?

And for a late supper after a night on the tiles, how about a calzone (deep fried pizza)?

This is an interesting one - charcoal bread. It's approximately 6 g of powdered charcoal added to 500 g of flour, and then made up into a very firm dough, around 50% hydration. Good for flatulence, so they say!

Somebody had a bad day with this "ruota" (Italian for "couronne") on the right: it definitely looks pasty in the middle -

In this next picture you can see the local element in the Italians' pride in their bread. Reading the labels from left to right -

  • general purpose Tuscan wood fired
  • three varieties (white, wholemeal and rustic) of bread from the next town along, Prato
  • Puglian from the south
  • Florentine salt free filone.

Can you imagine going to Milnthorpe market and being offered a choice of traditional Cumbrian, Kendal white, wholemeal and rustic, Somerset, or Milnthorpe? It isn't going to happen any time soon, but amazingly we are starting to have choices - Staff of Life in Kendal, Lovingly Artisan at Plumgarth's, More? at Staveley, Filberts in Lancaster. It's the tradition we are lacking, and that will take some making up for.

Cranky? Or is this the way to go?

This kind of specialist stall might easily be dismissed as cranky in England, but in Italy it is much more of a mainstream thing. Reading the labels from left to right -
  • wholemeal spelt, water, natural levain, salt
  • wholemeal wheat, water, oily seeds, natural levain, salt
  • wholemeal wheat, water, natural levain, salt
  • tipo 2 flour, wild wheat (einkorn), water, natural levain, salt

Duro versus tenero

Here's one you don't see very often in England: "soft flour, stone ground, type 2, obtained from ancient grains, organic, local, direct from the producers". Soft flour is more common across Europe than the "durum" wheat we use.

The key difference between "duro" and "tenero" grain is the protein levels. You can see from this table of soft grains that the protein is significantly lower than the 12-13% we typically see on our bread flour -

Flour typeAsh contentExtraction RateProtein
Type 00< .5%50%7 to 9%
Type 0.51 to .65%72%9 to 10%
Type 1.66 to .80%80%10%
Type 2.81 to .95%85%10%
Integrale1.4 to 1.6%10%
So the flour in the picture above is roughly 10% protein and 85% extraction. And these are the grains involved -
  • verna
  • mec
  • marzotto
  • abbondanza
  • rieti
If your Italian is up to it, here is a learned paper on the development of grain types, including these ones, over the 20th century. They really do take this seriously in Italy!

A bit of art

Here is a pictures of me with Donatello's David in the Bargello. I would have included a similar shot of the David in the Accademia, but my proof reader declared "enough naked men already".

Bridget Riley eat your heart out

And relax

After all the excitement and bustle of our week in Florence, we wound down a little with a couple of day trips to sleepy medieval towns nearby. Italy's trains are great, and you don't get all the nonsense of variable ticket prices that we have to put up with in this country. You pay for the distance you travel, simple as that.


Like most places in Italy, Arezzo has not only a cathedral but also at least one other large and ancient church. Rabbi Lionel Blue told a joke on Desert Island Disks about the Jewish castaway. He spent many years on the island and when he was finally rescued, his rescuers were amazed to find he had singlehandedly built two synagogues. "But why two?" they asked. "Well I don't go to that one!" he replied.

Arezzo's beautiful Chiesa di Santa Maria della Pieve is really old, and has plenty of art inside. The front of the church faces a broad Siena-like piazza. But the most amazing part is this set of columns across the back, the oldest dating back to the 1200s, all of which are subtly different -

What we actually went for were the Piero della Francesca frescoes in the Basilica di San Francesco.

These really were quite something. As Pope Francis was visiting Florence while we were there, the Galleria dell' Accademia in Florence had their best Franciscan art buffed up and prominently on display, so we were certainly not short of Franciscan influences on our holiday.

In the end we didn't go to the Cathedral in Arezzo, where we would have seen this -

Still, you can't do everything, can you? Instead we walked along part of the medieval town walls, and took in the view.


This is a lovely little place half way from Florence to the west coast. The earliest town walls were built in the eighth century. As the town grew, a second larger set of walls was built in the twelfth century. A third set was built in the fourteenth century. Rather shockingly the four old city gates were all knocked down in the early twentieth century to make room for "seemingly better urban development" as described here.

There is a nice little market between the cathedral square and the ancient church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, both of which are worth a look. Here you can see chestnuts, fresh green and black olives, and mushrooms at 40 euros a kilo.

On the same market stall you can see how seriously they take their flour in Italy. This basket of cake flour is celebrated like a new addition to the family -

Surname... Flour
First name... Sweet
Born at... Cuneo (west of Genova)
On... 02/11/2015
Distinguishing features... Very sweet

And then finally let's cut to the chase - fancy flour costs 13 euros a kilo! "Farina dolce" is made from walnuts, so it's no coincidence that they displayed  it next to the walnuts.

Here is some flour Stuart would be proud of - "authentic organic flour stone ground naturally since 1956" and there's a picture of the stones to prove it!

What the Jiggins are these? I'd never heard of testaroli before.

It turns out they are pasta pancakes. These were in a posh food shop in Pistoia, and they are made by Lucchi and Guastalli, a very posh oil producer.

So that's all from Tuscany.

Ciao for now.