Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Falling for Polenta in Florence: Back for Seconds

 (c) Sailko 
Mercato Centrale

I fell hard.  Italy was full of delights for an 18-year-old: gelato, shoes, and handsome men come immediately to mind.  And then there was the history and the art.  Who would guess that cornmeal, a New World food from back home, would be so enticing?

When I was 18, I went on one of those lengthy European trips.  You know the kind, maybe you went on the same adventure?  You took all your money (all $800 of it), a one-way airplane ticket (don't tell my son who's plotting an escape to Chile), and an address book filled with names and addresses of everyone you, your parents, your parents' friends, your piano teacher, and her friends knew. Or had heard of.

Back then  it was a real adventure.  Without email, instead of hitting internet cafes (which also didn't exist) when you arrived in a new city you headed first to the post office, to see if there was any mail awaiting you in General Delivery.  You made friends on the way, traveled together for a while, and then parted, planning on meeting up again at the cafe by the train station in the next town in 3 weeks.  Sometimes it worked out, other times you missed each other, and never met up again. 

Midway through my trip, with my traveler checks (in $10 and $20 denominations) dwindling, I finally made it to Florence.  I stayed at the Locanda Anna, in a room with 4 other young women--for less than $6 a night each.  I still remember Robyn from Adelaide, on her yearlong grand tour; Robin, a struggling actress from New York, and Suze from Maine.  All of us were being careful with our money, though I think we each bought some shoes.  We were in Italy, after all.  I have fond memories of my pair of green leather boots with a gold cuff.

I know, from looking back at my journal, that I went to the Uffizi and the Bargello.  I also know, from my journal, that I managed to eat 4 scoops of gelato at Vivoli's my first night there: Chocolate ("amazingly rich"), zabaione, rice, and chestnut ("I don't know when I've had such a perfect flavor").

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But without my journal as a reminder, what comes back is the Mercato Centrale, with its poultry and butcher stands--piles of tripe, rows of hanging song birds, whole boars and venison.  In mid-November, wafts of truffle scent moved through the air, enveloping me suddenly as I turned a corner or passed an aisle.

(c) Warburg

But it's the fried polenta that comes back to me the most.  We found it one evening after walking through the Mercato.  On the Via dell'Oriuolo we found a stand run by a sweet old woman.  All she sold was bags of fried polenta.  Cut in cubes, about one-inch square, they were deep fried, quickly tossed with salt, and put into paper cones.  The outside was perfectly crisped, the inside still a bit creamy.  So hot they burned your mouth, so good you couldn't wait.  Surely just four ingredients: polenta, water, salt, and the oil that cooked them.  How could they supply so much flavor and texture?  They might not have been the healthiest dinner, but on a cold November night, they were perfect for this gelato-shoe-lover on a tight budget, and without a proper coat. 

Florence was the only place I found fried polenta on my trip.  A few months later, tired of traveling and missing home and family, I called Grandma and borrowed money for the flight home. She was always up for helping us back from our adventures.


Scott said...

The first time I was in Florence (1978!), it was Easter weekend. There was nowhere to stay, anywhere. So I, and some of those temporary friends, went back to the train station and slept on the floor. There were a lot of us there, and the staff let us spend the night peacefully, then gently woke us with their brooms at 6:30 on a beautiful Sunday morning.

I've been back quite a few times since then, but I still vividly remember that first time at Vivoli. An even more vivid memory is of the Mercato Centrale, not for the polenta fritta, but for the bollito misto sandwiches, from a shop in the southwest corner that is still there today.

Thérèse said...

Rome, December, chestnuts roasted over hot coals in a metal drum, served up in a twist of brown paper. That's my favorite street-vendor food memory from trips in those years. Not hard to replicate, we have the perfect grill basket for doing them in the fireplace. Once Indian summer is gone!

Giovanna said...

Oh yes, sleeping in train stations. Of course you never could go in the 1st Class waiting rooms, so had to hang out with the mix of traveling Americans and eccentric locals. But if the reward was a bollito misto sandwich you remember for more than 30 years, it was all worth it.

Funny, I don't remember seeing any roasted chestnuts that winter--that would have been a perfectly reasonable supper. I love finding them now (I had them in Vancouver last winter)--there's something awfully romantic about spotting a roasted chestnut vendor when the wind's whipping around you and the snow/rain/hail is falling.

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