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Florence, Italy: Gourmet Food Guide- WHAT to Buy When Visiting Tuscany!
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Traditional Balsamic Vinegar
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
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Florence is Known for Art, Leather, Gold, Paper, and FOOD.
As the capital of Tuscany, one can find all kinds of Tuscan delicacies when visiting gourmet shops or better yet, the Mercato Centrale. The question is: WHAT to buy? I have created a list of some of the best gourmet products on the market and many can be taken back home in your suitcase. Keep in mind that fresh produce, seeds, fresh cheeses, any kind of meat (including deli meats) CANNOT be taken out of the country unless you are travelling within the EU. Aged cheeses are acceptable in many countries if they are "sotto vuotto" (vacuum sealed). If you vacuum seal a chunk of Parmesean or Pecorino, for example, it can remain unrefrigerated for several weeks. Once opened, however, the cheese must be placed in the fridge.
The following is a list of my favorite gourmet products, what they are and how to use them:
1. Truffle ANYTHING: Tuscany is well-known for its high quality, aromatic, mouth-watering truffles. These fungi grow beneath the earth and dogs are required to sniff them out (pigs were once used, but they pigs like to eat the truffles, hence the trained dogs). The best truffles are in season in autumn and can fetch a high price, but you can also buy truffle products year round at a reasonable cost. The CONTI Gourmet Shop in the Mercato Centrale offer a variety of fine products such as:
Truffle Salt: great on anything from popcorn to meats, pasta, and sauces.
Truffle Oil: drizzle over pasta or salads
Sliced Truffle: serve over meats, add to pasta or risotto dishes, or serve on toasted bread
Truffle Butter: delicious on bread (toast in oven as you would garlic bread) or on pasta
Truffle Honey: serve with fine cheeses (absolutely divine)
2. Lardo: Aged, spiced, pig lard. Before you wrinkle your nose, you must taste it. Interestingly, lardo has less fat than butter. The tradition of making lardo spans back about 100 years in the tiny town of Colonnata, where they store the lard in marble since it is located near Carrara and have it in abundance. Lardo is made in various parts of Italy, with each place having their own special spice blend, but Colonnata is the only one with a government D.O.P. seal (Denomination of Origin Protected). Lardo can be spread on hot toast, thinly sliced over meats, but my friend Toni loves it over cannellini beans.
3. Pecorino Cheese: Made from the milk of sheep,not cows, and absolutely delicious. The younger pecorino cheeses are mild and creamy, while those that are staggionato (aged) tend to be pungent, flavorful and robust. Pecorino tastes great by itself with honey, fruits (like pear, apple, fig or grapes) or with deli meats. A good deli will offer many kinds of cheeses and also novelties like cheese with pesto, pistachio, pepperoncino or even black truffle.
4. Salame di Cinghiale (Wild Boar Salami): Wild boar is a staple in the Tuscan diet. If you can get wild boar stew in a trattoria, my advice is try it. The Tuscan wild boar spends its life frolicking in the Tuscan countryside, enjoying an organic diet that includes truffles, so its meat is very flavorful and delicious. In Tuscany, one of the specialty deli meats is wild boar salami, which is available with or without black truffle.
5. Traditional Balsamic Vinegar: Aged a minimum of 12 years and stored in a minimum of five different wooden barrels (various kinds of woods renders complexity and tannins to the vinegar), traditional balsamic is one of Italy's most precious food products. Originally made my monks as a medicine during the eleventh century, this delicious vinegar makes a fine accompaniment to grilled meats, fine cheeses, panna cotta, vanilla ice cream, and fresh berries. It is much cheaper to buy it at kilometer zero than outside of Italy, where you can easily pay two to three times the price!
6. Extra Virgin Olive Oil: How do you determine which olive oil to buy? It has nothing to do with being cold pressed, you know. The truth is: the lower the acidity, the better the quality. In Italy, to be labeled "extra virgin" means .8% or LESS acidity (referring to fruit acids since olive is a fruit). Olives in Tuscany are picked green due to cold weather in winter, so the olives never ripen to black on the trees as they do in other parts of the Mediterranean. The result? A spicy, flavorful and high quality olive oil. REMEMBER: Never heat up extra virgin olive oil because it will destroy all of its health benefits. Buy a cheap oil to use in your skillet when cooking and save the good stuff for your salads, dipping bread and drizzle some over ever meal.
7. Assorted Artisan Sauces: Available at many gourmet shops, but CONTI offers affordable sauces with hand made terracotta touches for reasonable prices. These sauces may be eaten on toast or crackers as crostini, or mixed with pasta, gnocchi or even served with meats. There are many flavors to try like Sicilian Pesto, or Mattanza.
8. Dwarf Peaches with Truffle: Last, but certainly not least, is this exotic treat that won the International Fancy Food award. They taste like a cross between a nut, a mushroom and an olive with an undertone of truffle. Very unique, tasty, and worth trying.
NOTE: Most of the products featured are from the CONTI gourmet shop in the Mercato Centrale of Florence. You will fall in love with the shop as well as their products. Founded in 1929, Conti offers excellent olive oils, balsamic vinegar, savory sauces, delicious pesto, silky truffle honey, and the list goes on and on. There are spices, pasta, wine, nuts, and the freshest, most beautiful produce is always on display. CONTI is a mecca for chefs, restaurant owners, food bloggers, gourmet junkies and foodies. People never simply walk past Conti, but rather STOP (as if by some mysterious gravitational pull) and are compelled to take a closer look or snap a photo.
To order CONTI products, please visit: www.tuscanyflavours.com
I hope that this article has helped you become better acquainted with some of the fine products that Tuscany has to offer. Of course, there are many more food items, just not enough room in one article to mention all of them. If you have anything you'd like to share, please leave a comment. As always, thank you for reading!
C. De Melo
Author & Artist