Friday, June 21, 2013

Ice Cream Man: The Story of Gelato in Florence by M.L. Longworth

Today is the Solstice or Midsummer. Take your pick, but it's the longest day of the year. It's also my favorite day of the year, and I treasure every moment. So for the guest post of the day, M.L. Longworth sent me this great article she wrote about The Story of Gelato in Florence! What could be better? I love Gelato!!

I'm a fan of M.L. Longworth, and her books remind me of those lazy days in France, drinking wine, sitting in the sun, eating bread and chocolate, mostly.. I was a student then. If you haven't read her mysteries, you'll want to. Death in the Vines is the third in her Verlaque and Bonnet Provencal mystery series (Penguin).

Although her mysteries are set in Provence, you'll get a sense of her writing and interest in food by reading this guest post "The Story of Gelato in Florence: Ice Cream Man." Florence is another wonderful summer location for me, since I was there for the summer solstice many, many years ago. I remember the day well because on June 20 so many years ago, I received a telegram. The woman that delivered it to my room at the Tourno Buonaroti (Sarah Lawrence College dorm at that time, now a 4 star hotel) was wringing her hands with worry. Telegrams obviously implied disaster. Not so this time, and in my stumbling Italian, I calmed her fears. Uno bambino! Mia sorella.. uno bambino!  My first nephew was born!  I promptly went out to celebrate with Gelato!  

So here's a fascinating post from M.L. Longworth on The Story of Gelato in Florence. Perhaps Verlaque or Bonnet will need to taste Gelato in Florence in her next mystery?

M.L. Longworth
Ice Cream Man The Story of Gelato in Florence 

Sometime in the late 16th century the Grand Duke of Florence, Cosimo I de'Medici, wanted to hold an opulent banquet to impress visiting Spanish delegates. Cosimo I was one of the first Italians to eat potatoes and tomatoes--Florentines loved them fried--whereas in the rest of Italy they were still being used as decorations. Roast meats would have been offered, perhaps even duck à l'orange, not invented by the French, but in Florence. The dense Tuscan bread soup--ribollita--could have been a first course, for it was enjoyed by peasants and nobles alike. But for this dinner Cosimo wanted something new. He called upon an artist who had been working for the Medici since he was a young boy: Bernardo Buontalenti.

Buontalenti was fortunate: he studied sculpture under Michelangelo, and architecture with Giorgio Vasari. He was a fine miniaturist, and excellent mathematician, but it was his architecture that brought him fame: from fortifications, villas and gardens, and even plans for the new city of Livorno. He was a clever machinist, and somewhat of a pyromaniac: his love of designing and producing fireworks displays earned him the nickname delle Girandole.

For Cosimo's feast, Buontalenti set to work, using another of his engineering passions, this one cooler than fire--ice conservation--to create a dessert made with ice, salt (to lower the temperature), lemon, sugar, egg, honey, milk and a drop of wine. He flavored it with orange and bergamot, and it was a hit. Gelato was born.

There are signs of this Renaissance man all over Florence, but they're more hidden than the reminders of Michelangelo, or Brunelleschi. I think of Buontalenti as I eat a dark gray gelato, sesame nero. What would he think of this nutty-tasting, odd-looking gelato? Or olive oil gelato? or saffron? Or buffalo milk ricotta? All of these flavors, and the more classic ones, can be tasted during the five-day gelato festival in the city's finest piazzas from May 25 to 29. Three separate gelato villages will teach visitors, helping non-experts distinguish between artisan and industrial gelato (I realize that my sole requisite is that the pistachio is brown and not bright green; I could use some teaching).

Bernardo Buontalenti was born in Florence in 1531. I can't find where exactly, but I know that he lived, when he was already well known, at number 37 via Maggio, south of the Arno. The bright yellow building, judging by the names on the door's buzzer, has has been cut up into apartments. Elizabeth Barrett Browning lived (and died) around the corner, in the Casa Guidi, from 1847 to 1861. When Eton boys are not using the house, some of its rooms can be rented from the Landmark Trust.

A block up is the Palazzo Pitti, whose elaborate grotto in the Boboli Gardens Buontalenti designed between 1583-93. I wait in line, which mercifully moves quickly, and buy a combined ticket for the gardens and the Pitti's costume museum. Florence is so busy that it's a joy to wander in the gardens, far from the crowds. At the top of the garden’s principle hill is a porcelain museum and I do a quick tour before taking in the view, across olive orchards, up a hill opposite to San Miniato al Monte, Florence’s Romanesque gem. It reminds me of the great picnic scene from A Room with a View. There are a few villas splattered about on the hills, and I think, how lucky.

On the way down I find the grotto, a riot of carvings--the Mannerist artist's version of cave stalactites. Here are replicas of Michelangelo’s slaves, trying to break free of the rock. The more interesting figures to me are the animals--sheep and goats--expertly carved to blend in with the rough rocky surface. There's so much going on that it leaves the realm of tacky and becomes inspiring, somewhat like Watts Towers in Los Angeles, or Gaudi’s creations in Barcelona.

Hungry after the walk in the park, I crossed the wide slopping piazza and went into a small wine bar on the square, Pitti Gola e Cantina. There are marble-topped tables outside, but it was cold and so I ate in the tiny snug interior, surrounded by bottles of Tuscan wine. I asked for a glass of wine from the Tuscan region of Bolgheri and the sommelier looked shocked. Thinking that I had mispronounced it, I repeated Bolgheri, and he explained that Gola only serves traditional Tuscan wines. "But it is Tuscan," I said. "Yes, but it's only been made for the last thirty years, in a Bordeaux style," he replied, and shivered. So instead I had a white--a heavenly golden Trebbiano made near Florence, and a generous plate of local salamis and cheeses. Perfect.

Buontalenti's first known work, the Palazzo di Bianca Cappello, is also on the via Maggio, near his house, and just behind the wine bar. Most of the palazzo's allure comes from its sumptuously decorated facade, perhaps the finest in all of Florence, completed in 1579 by Bernadino Poccetti. But Buontalenti designed the palace, and his signature--a bat with outspread wings--can be seen under the ground floor windows. He would have known its famous resident, since he lived down the street and worked for Cosimo I, her future father-in-law. Bianca Cappello was a noble Venetian, but at 15 years of age she eloped with an impoverished young Florentine and the couple fled to his native city. Cosimo I was impressed by her stubbornness and turned a blind eye to her family's requests that she return to Venice (the couple were also legally married). But Cosimo's eldest son, Francesco, became infatuated with Bianca, who, in the hilarious words of the French philosopher Montaigne, (he lived near Florence for a year), had ' agreeable and imposing face, and large breasts, the way they like them here...'.

Luckily for Francesco--and perhaps under his orders-- Bianca's young husband was mysteriously stabbed to death, and when Francesco's wife, Joanna of Austria, died in 1579, he promptly married the widowed Bianca. She moved to the house in the via Maggio to be close to Francesco, who played at work in the Palazzo Pitti (a terrible administrator, he shied away from human contact). Cosimo, distraught by the early deaths of his wife Eleonora da Toledo and two of their younger sons (they had eleven children), passed the reigns to Francesco, and the beautiful and buxom Bianca became Duchess of Tuscany.

 Buontalenti was a talented military engineer and his designs, many of them executed under Francesco's reign, can be seen today in the fortifications of Livorno, and in the city walls of Grosseto, Pistoia (near Florence), Portoferraio (Elba), and Naples. He perfected designs for cannons, and devised a new type of incendiary grenade. But all was not war and violence: During the winter of 1585-1586 he built a great court stage in the Uffizi Palace, and extravagant spectacles were held under his production. He designed the costumes, too: actors were dressed as mythological gods and goddesses, or planets.

The costume museum in the Pitti palace is small, but a room designed to hold remnants of Cosimo I de'Medici's burial clothes, and those of Eleonora's, is breathtaking. It took preservationists ten years to recreate the clothes, much of which had disintegrated. The room is climate controlled, and kept dark, and the information panels are interesting and illuminating (rare, I find, in Italy). Only every second or third snap on the back of Eleonora's dress was fastened: she died of fever, possibly malaria, and those who buried her were frightened and in a hurry.

In 1587 Francesco and Bianca died within hours of each other, allegedly from fever, like Eleonora. Francesco's younger brother Ferdinand, who would inherit the title, became suspect number one. Over 400 years later their bodies were exhumed and the mystery was solved: they had indeed died of natural causes. Ferdinand was an excellent and beloved administrator, like his father, Cosimo, who had retired to his villa outside of Florence and went on to father three more children, dying in 1574.

I declined dessert at the wine bar; gelato called, and since I was on my way to the north side of the Arno, stopped at the Gelateria Santa Trinita. The flavor of the day was honey with figs, and I ate it on the bridge, standing in the sun. I thought of Bernardo Buontalenti, Renaissance man par excellence, and silently thanked him for his icy experiments. He died penniless in 1608.

After moving to Aix-en-Provence in 1997, I began writing articles about the region. I couldn’t get enough of Provence. But after a few years I began to grow restless; not with the area, but with the restrictions of writing non-fiction. I began having conversations in my head and realized that if I wrote fiction then my characters could live in, and experience, Provence as I do. Aix is a law town—it has been since the Middle Ages—which seemed to me a good place to situate a mystery, and I imagined my protagonists involved in the law profession.

But above all, I really want the reader to experience Aix-en-Provence the way I do, as if they were beside me.

I hope you enjoy reading these mysteries.

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