Florence in the XIX Century: French Cooking returns to Florence
After the death of Gian Gastone the Grand Duchy of Tuscany passed to Lorena who in 1799 was forced to abandon the city because of the arrival of the French under Napoleon. Tuscany, until the fall of Napoleon (1814) was part of the French Empire; was then given back to Lorena, of whose dynasty ended with Leopold II nicknamed Canapone, who was driven away in 1860 when Florence became annexed to the Kingdom of Italy.
The French domination, even though it lasted only a few years, added to the language of cooking and gastronomy (and not only) Florentine and Italian - notwithstanding the attempts to “purify” our language above all in the years of the fascist regime - some terminology remains undistrubed and in everyday use; enough to think of - menù, dessert, buffet - to give some examples. Other than the language the French domination added to the history of the art of eating proposing again certain recipes that with us had fallen into disuse, taken to France by Catherine de’Medici and reconstructed as if belonging to the grand French cuisine; citing for example the crespelle reconstructed as crepes suzette, the colletta as bèchamel in honour of a certain De Bechamel who is attributed with the invention of salamoia improperly named salmi (that in French means spezzatino of game whereas our salamoia is really the saumure) etc., etc.
From 1865 to 1871 Florence was the capital of Italy: the centre was leveled to the ground in a process of improvements that - to quote a Tuscan saying - “with the dirty water throw out also the baby” meaning that there were too many monuments destroyed.
The city had a new aspect, consistent with a deep sociological transformation that showed the assertion of the continuous growth of the middle classes: a moment of great fermentation for the best Florentine society busy - with the nobility - in feasts and banquets that became very famous.
In the carnival of 1870 there was given the ultimate feast as the capital Florence, that concluded with a great ball and rich dinner offered on the Monday grasso by Prince Corsini. Followed in the spring by some other lunches, but after the breach of Porta Pia the capital was transferredto Rome, the Florentines applauded the Great Italy and remained with the debts made to make their city a beautiful capital.
Florentine cooking in these years seems to have been forgotten: in the official lunches there were served only French dishes and wines. The permanence for five years of the Savoia and a great number of foreigners that resided in the city, had induced the Florentines to appreciate everything that came from beyond the Alps, language included; and so the credenza became the buffet, the desinare - dèjeuner, the reception - soirèe etc., etc.
The Tuscan dishes were reserved for the people who went hunting and who were taking a walk along the farms where probably these refined lords tasted with some nostalgia the zuppa di magro and the roasts turned by the farmer’s wife. But fashion is fashion and so in the city triumphed the potages, the bonuilli sauce fines herbes, the crepes de volaille en fricassèe and the consommè and it was of little importance that many dishes where returned from France where they were taken, in the Renaissance, by Tuscan cooks. Enough to remember the multitude of cooks and their helpers that Catherine de’Medici, neice of the Magnificent, took to Paris when at only fourteen years of age she married Henry of Orleans, the future Henry II (1533). French cooking certainly added the use of butter to cooking and also of how to serve the wines - rather than Chianti in flasks that had been used for oil with a stopper or the tiraoilo - there were dusty bottles of Chablis and Bordeux lying in their appropriate baskets.
On the occasion of the official visit that King Umberto made to Florence with Queen Margherita in 1878, the year in which he ascended the throne, the Mayor of Florence, on the 10th November offered a banquet in which there was no mention of Fiorentine cooking. There was served: Potage à la Regence -Croustades à la Saint Cloud - Crètes Villeroy - Ombrine garnie sauce normande - Filet de Boeuf à la diplomate - Poulardes à l’impèratrice Domenicains de bècasses à l’ancienne - Artichauts et haricots verts à l’hollandaise - Punch au kirshwasser - Rot de dindes et perdreaux - Salade truffée - Suprème de profiteroles à l’écossaise - Desert de glace créme et chocolat - Abricot à l’allemande. For the wines there was not even a drop of Trebbiano or of Chianti, but: Chateau Yquem - Chateau Larose - Johannisberg - Crement Imperial.
For the banquets and buffets of the balls and for the grand feasts, the Fiorentine cooks prepared great masterpieces and all of Florence could judge their skill at a gastronomic exhibition which was held in the month of March in the year 1886 in the place of the Circle of the Chefs in San Gallo Street. In this exhibition the exquisitness and the perfection of the dishes shown made it very difficult for the judges to give the prizes in choosing, between the many culinary masters, the most worthy.
All the cooks were very busy many of them were hired to organise feasts marking important events of the city. Let us remember the historical ball with a memorable party offered by the Town Hall of Florence the evening of the 14th May 1887 on the occasion of the unveiling of the face of the Duomo, and the other feast that remained famous was that of Prince Strozzi for the wedding of his daugher Luisa to the young deputy Count Francesco Guicciardini. Balls and holiday feasts that, whether offered by the city authorities or by private citizens, aroused admiration, following the sayings of Brillat Savarin (1755-1826), French writer who became notorious for his works on a gastronomic argument written in a conversational way, “The Physiology of Taste”, became in these years a reference point for all the culinary masters that obtained fame and success, so much so that the same Queen Margherita, after having participated in a costume ball, leaving Palazzo Vecchio, did not hesitate to admit, when speaking with the Mayor Piero Torrigiani, that she was convinced that only Florence was capable of creating these feasts.