After accompanying Dolores to the airport, and when she was checked in without incident and walking through security for the first of her flights home, I took the shuttle back to Florence. It was barely 6 a.m., and I had several hours to spend in familiar territory before Pat arrived to take me to her home in Santa Brigida for a night there.
Florence was just beginning to awaken. I headed back toward the Duomo, passing by the San Lorenzo church on the way. The vendors who populate the street all day selling leather goods, ceramics, scarves and all sorts of tourist goods were just bringing their carts out of the garages where they are stored for the night.
I decided to head for the Sant’Ambrogio marketplace, one of my favorites and located in the neighborhood of the last apartment I rented in Florence. It was a 15-minute walk from the Duomo, and the way was very familiar, although it was changed somewhat. Many of the familiar shops were vacant, victims of the economic “crisi” here in Italy. It seems there is quite a turnover during the winter months, when the tourists are few, and those just hanging on by a thread finally have to close.
On Via dei Pilastri, near my old address, I passed one of the newer “city cars,” meant to be transport only through the city streets, not on highways. This one was so small that it was parked perpendicular to the curb, and fit easily. The Cooper in the foreground seems huge, by comparison to this little “macchina.”
Passing a bar in the Piazza Sant’Ambrogio, I happened to notice this “breathalyzer” machine in the doorway, stocked with straws for the clientele who were unsure of their blood alcohol after a night of drinking with friends. I understand that the legal limit here is 0.05%, even lower than the 0.08% standard in California, so this was probably a well-used service for the patrons. It costs only a Euro to use, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a machine anywhere before at home in the U.S.
Back in the Sant’Ambrogio market, only a tiny fraction of the size of the big Mercato Centrale I had passed on the way (and had coffee with Benita, my Sicilian friend there), the vendors were all ready for the arrival of their customers. None of the displays seemed to have been touched yet, but were arranged to catch the eye and prompt a sale. There was fresh pasta, including tortellone (HUGE stuffed pasta, much larger than the small tortellini we are accustomed to seeing), and I also noticed some specialties we never see in our supermarkets. The heads and necks of chickens were stuffed and tied shut—ready for cooking. It is rare for us to ever see the face of what we are eating, but here that is not an issue. Chickens and ducks, and sometimes rabbits, are sold with the heads and necks attached to the rest of the body.
One vendor sells all types of rice and beans, as well as couscous, grains, and lentils. In addition, he has anchovies and sardines preserved in salt, packed in metal cans.
I never tire of seeing the colorful displays of the fruit and vegetables outside, where the vendors are under the tents. These segmented tomatoes are ones I have never seen anywhere but Italy, and they always seem to be available, any time of the year. The green beans and zucchini with their blossoms intact were all lined up, still awaiting the first customer to come and make a selection. Even here, in the outdoor marketplace, buyers are not allowed to touch the produce. In supermarkets, there are plastic gloves provided, along with bags, and customers must take a glove to pick out their own produce, and then weigh it and attach a bar code label that is printed by the scale before heading to the cashier. Here in the open market, it’s a pointing system, and the vendor actually puts the produce into the bag—never the customer.
The first time I shopped in Italy (speaking and understanding almost NO Italian) my friends and I could not figure out why the other women shopping for produce were upset with us—apparently for not using the gloves, and touching all the produce. Little did they know that we showed up at the cashier minutes later with none of our bags weighed and tagged with barcode labels, and caused a huge reaction from the cashier that we still didn’t comprehend. There are NO scales at the cash registers—it is the responsibility of the customers to do that part—so the cashier had to take all of our bags back to the produce department, weigh and tag each one, and then return to ring them up for us. We were so embarrassed and apologetic to the others waiting in the long line behind us, that we walked right out the door nearby—the one with the red handle. THAT was apparently the emergency exit, and the alarms all went off. So much for our first experience shopping for produce in Italy! Quite unforgettable!
(For a “live look” at the inside of the Sant’Ambrogio market, here is a YouTube link from 2010, when three opera singers surprised the shoppers and had some fun with them. http://www.youtube.com/watchv=Tp1pbDMt1_ghttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tp1pbDMt1_g)
I stopped at a pastry shop for a coffee and a roll, and was soon met by Pat. We walked around the market together, since this was one she doesn’t see often, and she chose some small, purple artichokes to take home for dinner. We were soon off in her car, after a little tour around the neighborhood for a few errands (including purchasing two new chairs for her kitchen), and on our way to Santa Brigida, in the mountains outside Florence beyond the more familiar town of Fiesole.
After wearing each other out talking and catching up on news, Pat began to clean and prepare the artichokes for a risotto. I would guess about 20% (at best) of the artichoke is left after they are cleaned and prepared, and I think she had 20 in her bag. She sliced them thinly, and they were then sautéed in a pan, waiting for the last stages of the risotto before being added. Risotto takes a while to prepare, since the broth is added to the rice in small amounts, and then more is added when each ladleful is absorbed by the rice. That means standing and stirring for about 30 minutes, until the rice is cooked just to perfection, and the creamy rice is ready for the addition of the artichokes. It was delicious, but I’ll need another lesson before I’m willing to try this one on my own. Pat seemed to be able to do this dish with her eyes closed—but I have to figure out just the right way to clean and prepare those artichokes before I give this a try. Oh—and there is nothing quite like having a sommelier choose the perfect wine to accompany her simple dinner!
The next morning, Pat and I were models for a photo project of Javier’s, trying to create a collage of photos from many different shots of one scene—a scene including the two of us out in the garden, between sprinkles of rain. He tried it several times, changing settings once or twice in his camera, and then settled down with his laptop to work on the images and composite photo. He had some wonderful photos of the Infiorata last year, and sends me some of his albums of photos from Spain, where he visits frequently.
My time with Pat and Javier was soon over, and it was a wonderful turn to be the guest, not the host! I guess I never think about how much I take care of my guests here, and do the cooking, prepare the beds, translate all day, and entertain them. For one night, Pat returned the favor and I got the pampering. Not bad—I’ll be back, Pat!