We’re ensconced back in Boston now, back amidst the crowded three-home Victorian buildings, the fall leaves grown burnished golden and sparse, and a distinct lack of cappuccinos everywhere you turn. All it took was a 30 hour day, the heavily-accented services of AirFrance (who, by the way, offer Champagne as an aperitif, for free, in coach. I think I need to fly with them more often, though Charles DeGaule is a catastrophe of an airport), and a wonderful and generous friend to pick us up at the airport. Air travel still amazes me.
We slept hard and woke up early yesterday morning with piles of work and places to be already tapping us persistently on the shoulders. But, it’s nice to be home.
However, I feel as if I would be remiss in my duty of being that random person who overshares about her life, and what she eats, if I didn’t at least tell you a little bit about our visit to Florence. Florence, is a wondrous and inspiring place to visit because it has the best gelato in all of Italy. Oh, and a little thing called the Renaissance started there.
Like many of the great old cities, Florence has an energetic, and slightly incongruous feeling, way of weaving together ancient history with hustley bustley, cell phone pervaded modern living. People don’t necessarily live differently there because there are still buildings that are from the middle ages or statues and paintings that were the first to, oh say, rediscover perspective (I’m in awe every time I think about that. Have been since European history with Mr. Jensen in the 11th grade).
And yet, having some of the very deepest foundations of the way we live now visible to you on every street corner must make some difference.
We spent our first day in Florence simply wandering and taking in the city, its energetic feel. And we tried caramelized fig, ricotta and fig, sesame-dark chocolate, and chocolate mousse gelatos. That was important. The next day, we took a walking tour, and my how our view of the city was changed. Or perhaps not changed, but given form, directed, sculpted you could say. We learned about the Medici and the Strozzi, powerful competing banking families that controlled Florence (and then the Papacy) for generations. We saw statues by Donatello that completely revolutionized the way sculpture was used, introducing raw emotion and audacity, painting with marble.
We learned about Brunelleschi’s dome on the cathedral (or Duomo) of Florence, which still no one knows how to recreate, and about a murder of one of the Medici that had taken place inside of the Duomo. We received a tip on the guide’s favorite gelato shop (called Perche Non? Truly awesome. I had two scoops – chocolate rum and coffee with dark chocolate shards.). And, I found out one of the best food factoids I’ve ever heard.
Back in the Middle Ages, the bridge called the Ponte Vecchio, which is now defined by the gold and silver shops lining both sides, used to be the turf of the butcher’s guild. They would carve and sell meats on the bridge, then throw the carcasses and offal into the Arno River to be swept downstream. Unfortunately for Pisa, they were the ones downstream! This, along with some other offenses, escalated into an ongoing conflict between the two cities.
Finally, Pisa was angry enough with Florence that they threatened to cut off the salt supply, which was under their control. Florence stubbornly said, ‘well we don’t actually need any salt.’ ’Ah’ replied Pisa (cities can talk in this story), ‘but you do for your bread.’ ‘No,’ retorted Florence, ‘in fact we don’t.’ And so, they started making their bread without any salt. And to this day, there is still no salt in the traditional bread in Florence.
It’s, ahem, an acquired taste, I think.
This story got me thinking about the food traditions in Italy. Regions are ferociously proud of their traditional dishes, and dishes go beyond being regional even to micro-regional, with subtle differences between neighboring towns that hundreds of years have not managed to wipe out. I wonder if this strength of tradition makes it more difficult to innovate, or perhaps easier.
In some cases, having a strong grounding in tradition gives the needed platform to push boundaries and create unexpected combinations, but in other cases, loyalty to tradition could make it harder even to conceive how one might creatively twist and tweak the cuisine. In my tiny sample of two restaurants where the chefs were billed as being innovative the food was much, much less impressive than that at the restaurants where the chefs were said to make traditional food with extreme care and perfect technique. The former restaurants felt like they had some good ideas, but hadn’t been able to fully see them through to a satisfying conclusion (like a lot of my papers in college), the latter restaurants were those that left us dreaming of coming back as soon as possible.
But, I have almost no basis for comparison. And, I think that both innovation and polishing of tradition can make for excellent food. These are just some idle thoughts. Obviously what it means is that I need to receive a large grant to travel across a sample of countries with differing strengths of food traditions and compare innovative and traditional restaurants amongst all of them …
But not yet. For now, it’s good to be home and settling back into some semblance of a regular routine. And, I have to admit as well, it’s good to have the option of eating not Italian food. When we got back, what I craved desperately was something with almost zero carbohydrates (my focaccia o’meter was still on full) and with lots of spice. So, I made some chili.
Perhaps it was the jet-lag, or perhaps it was my general clutsiness and inadequate attention, but I managed to dump half the bottle of chile powder on top of the sizzling onions in the pot. And wouldn’t you know it, it turned out to be one of the best chiles I’ve ever made. So, lesson learned. Chili is enhanced by an excess of chile. I’m going to leave it at that for now, but I’ll also leave you with the recipe for the chile I whipped up. It hit the spicy, cozy, warm, dark fall night back in New England spot.
Welcome Home Chili (Serves 4-6)
- olive oil
- 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 lbs. ground beef
- 1 large white onion, finely chopped
- 5 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 1 Tbs. ground cumin
- 5-6 Tbs. good quality chile powder
- a big pinch of oregano
- 1/2 Tbs. chile garlic sauce (either Mexican or Asian, like sriracha), plus more to taste if you like spicier things
- 1 28-oz. can of whole tomatoes
- 3-4 inch strip of orange peel, peeled off with a vegetable peeler so there is no white pith
- salt and pepper to taste
- chopped cilantro, chopped avocado, sour cream or Greek yogurt, and lime wedges, for serving
- In a big, heavy bottomed pot, heat a splash of olive oil over high until shimmering. Add the ground beef and a big pinch of salt and cook, breaking apart, until it is browned. Remove from the pot with a slotted spoon, and transfer to a bowl. Set aside. Drain the juices out of the pot.
- Return the pot to the heat. Add another big splash of olive oil (about 1 Tbs.), then add the onion and the garlic. Cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the spices and the chile garlic sauce, stir and let cook for half a minute. Then, add in the tomatoes with the liquid in the can, plus about 3 cups of water and the orange peel.
- Bring to a boil, turn to a simmer and cook covered for about 5 minutes. Then, return the beef to the pot, cover and cook for 10 more minutes. (I can’t eat beans, so I don’t use them. And chili aficcionados will tell you that true chile doesn’t have beans anyway. But, if you’d like, at this point you can add a cup and a half of cooked kidney beans as well.)
- Uncover stir and break apart the tomatoes, smashing them with a wooden spoon. Continue to simmer, partially covered until the liquid has thickened, about 20-30 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Also, add more hot sauce as desired.
- Ladle into bowls. Top with a dollop of Greek yogurt, chopped cilantro and avocado, and a squeeze of fresh lime juice, and serve.