They have very ancient origins, prepared with typical seasonal foods, they are delicious: traditional Florentine sweets for winter days. In Florence, traditional sweets have a long history that gets lost over the centuries, following the rhythm of the seasons. As it happens in every city of the peninsula, the ingredients tell the story of a territorial origin, in fact, in Florence, sweets are prepared with products that come from the countryside, brought to the town by farmers on the occasions of special festivities.
In September, one can already feel the autumn weather. August’s heat and muggy weather are long gone, and the days begin to decrease, the light is beautiful and the Tuscan hills, and especially those not far from Florence, give wonderful fruits. The grape that adorns the vineyards and that will be harvested this month.
Very far processing techniques have transformed this product of nature into a divine nectar, and since the grape harvest is always abundant, the fruits are carried to the city to make the Florentine tables more cheerful. The “Schiacciata” is prepared with a particular grape, the caniola, sweet and cherry colored.
An exclusively Florentine dish that in its simplicity has a taste of fragrant goodness. In September, there is no pastry shop or bakery that does not have the “Schiacciata” with grapes. The classic recipe calls for bread dough to be flattened (schiacciare, in Italian, thus, its name “schiacciata”) and covered with canaiola grapes, strictly with their seeds, sugar, and juice obtained by squeezing the fruits.
Some also like adding some spices, such as aniseed, for example, or use a kind of softer dough that covers the filling creating an upper layer crystallized with sugar and grape juice. A slice of this and immediately centuries of Florentine tradition emerge, and additionally prepare, with its typical autumn taste, to the rigors and short winter days.
Following the natural course of time, we can find another poor food: the chestnut with which rural populations could have had enough food even in the colder and toughest months. The chestnut came to Florence from the mountainous areas, from the Tosco-Romagnolo Appenine. The most sought-after ones, then as it is now, are those of Marradi, a village in the Apennine Mountains that had an economy based on forest products, amongst which were chestnuts, mushrooms and various herbs. Additionally, these products included the wood that, when burnt, produced coal.
Chestnuts arrive in Florence and are transformed into a very tasty flour, which is the main base for the “castagnaccio” (from the Italian word castagna that means chestnut). This is an Autumn and winter sweet that has been considered for years the “poor” dessert that is good and nutritious. Simple. It only requires a batter made with chestnut flour, water and oil well mixed and then enriched with raisins, pine nuts, and rosemary. These are the ingredients accepted by tradition. It is put in the oven and it is taken out when it reaches a solid and golden consistency.
And here’s the most traditional time for sweets: Christmas. Spending the holidays in Florence is a wonderful experience. The streets have a special charm, the lights turn on in the cold December, and in Piazza del Duomo and in Piazza della Repubblica a big fir tree recalls the Nordic tradition.
Concerts and chorales are organized, and in the afternoons preceding Christmas Eve, the City center, and more generally the whole city, is filled by people looking for gifts and sweets in the most characteristic shops. One of the sweets that cannot be missing and that has origins in Siena is the “panforte”.
“Panforte” (literally strong bread) is called so as it has a remarkable consistency. A mixture that comes directly from the Ancient Roman world, maybe even the Etruscan one. During the course of the millennia, it has become richer, maintaining that taste that immediately recalls those Renaissance banquets. The mixture is done with honey and dried fruits: almonds, hazelnuts, and candied fruit, amongst which orange and citron rind.
Then there is the addition of a secret ingredient that for some is a particular pepper and for others cinnamon. All is mixed with vanilla flavoring and vanilla flavored sugar. Panforte’s typical round shape is created and then covered with a great amount of powdered sugar. Christmas holidays in Florence, once the rivalry with Siena has been dismissed, cannot be considered fully festive without panforte. Over the last few years, versions with new ingredients have been created, as for example with powdered chocolate, or a softer dough.
By visiting the many pastry shops, bakeries and shops specializing in delicacies, let yourself be surprised by the colorful wrappings, which are both ancient and original. After opening the sweet, enjoy this Christmas specialty, by making a sweet secret wish.