Italian Table Talk: Breakfast in Florence & Crostatine
Breakfast is such a cultural eye-opener, at no other meal time do you get such a view of a place or a person than through their first meal of the day. For some, it’s a strictly savoury affair, often resembling lunch or even dinner, for others it’s always sweet or perhaps all it consists of is a cup of coffee. We’ve decided this month to make breakfast the topic of Italian Table Talk with Giulia whipping up a fresh batch of cornetti and Valeria going back to her childhood with panini con l’uva, raisin buns. Jasmine does cake for breakfast with a torta margherita, one of my favourite cakes.
Personally, breakfast is the only meal I’ll eat the exact same version of for a week straight before varying the formula. I have long been a muesli girl, toasted (sometimes homemade) rather than bircher, with some fruit, full cream milk and natural yoghurt, often followed by a weak English Breakfast tea. I change it up now and then by doing porridge in the winter, making it just like my grandfather used to make for me, with brown sugar and milk, or eggs on the weekends. I’ve never managed to skip breakfast or eat just toast or pastries – doing either of these things simply results in the need to breakfast properly within the hour.
So I’ve never been able to properly adapt to colazione all’italiana, an Italian breakfast. The aisle of breakfast items in an Italian supermarket is completely lost on me – packets of ever-lasting plumcake, apricot jam-filled cornetti or bone-dry fette biscottate (dried, packaged squares of “toast”) to be dunked in an oversized cup of steaming caffè latte. Full of refined sugars, these options hardly make a balanced meal and wouldn’t get me through the following half hour before craving something real.
While so much care and pride is taken in other meals of the day, with fresh, seasonal fruit or vegetables and things made from scratch, I’m often surprised at what I find for breakfast in a Tuscan home. It seems that this is a more modern approach to breakfast, however, and that it wasn’t always this way – chatting with an older generation of people who work the land for their food, up at the crack of dawn and out in the fields types, breakfast when they were young might have been leftover soup and some meat from the night before, later perhaps followed by a snack of woodfired Tuscan bread dipped in wine. Looking back to Tuscany’s ancestors, the Etruscans ate cereal for breakfast (well, more or less), with milk and farro a vital start to the day. The Ancient Romans went savoury with fettunta-like ientaculum, or bread rubbed with garlic and tinged with wine. A typical medieval breakfast was bread dipped in wine, broth or milk (I’m thinking of simplified versions of pappe here or biancomangiare), or vegetable soup.
By the 19th century things had changed. Coffee, imported from the Americas, had now been around for a couple of centuries and instant coffee and Cornflakes were just about to be invented. Pellegrino Artusi, in Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (1891), touts the benefits of a cup of black coffee on an empty stomach first thing in the morning, and only recommends eating breakfast for those who are “healthy” and don’t have problems with digestion (as he did), being some buttered toast or coffee with milk or chocolate. This was (thankfully) followed by a “second breakfast” of more substance around 11am, which included egg dishes and little sandwiches inspired by English High Tea or even meat dishes such as this or this or polenta with sausages. In terms of sweeter things, there is jam (though it was often just used for dessert) and he also describes a winter breakfast dish of polenta baked with raisins and rosemary (reminiscent of Tuscan castagnaccio). It seems to me that today’s regular household breakfast is similar to a scarce Artusian breakfast, but sweeter and minus the mid-morning trimmings.
Eating breakfast out is no better, nutrition-wise, but it is a ritual that I quickly grew to adore, even with the post-breakfast pangs of hunger for something more substantial. The ritual at an Italian bar is an integral part of the Italian lifestyle, and one that is easy to get hooked on – a pastry or a small panino and a coffee, consumed in a matter of minutes while standing at the counter with powdered sugar falling over your clothes or crema dribbling off your chin. It took me a while to get used to this after so many years of being taught that eating while standing or walking is bad mannered. The truth is most just don’t want to bother with the extra charges that come with sitting at a table. And that’s another plus – breakfast out is not only reliably quick (perfect for when you’re on your way to a meeting or catching a train somewhere) but it’s paid for in mere pocket change.
We moved house practically every year that I lived in Florence (that’s seven different apartments, yikes) and at each different address it meant discovering the “good” bar closest to home. It never took long to make a place your new local and for the barista to memorise your coffee and pastry of choice – bomboloni filled with crema or jam, sticky, flaky, caramelised-bottomed sfoglie, cornetti (sweet and fluffy rather than buttery and flaky croissants) with jam, cream or even nutella, blackberry or apricot jam crostata, cut into large squares or made into mini tarts, bignè filled with whipped cream or crema, powdery millefoglie of puff pastry and crema, the list goes on. It’s enough sugar to make your teeth fall out at just a glance. I usually try to be “good” and get the cornetto integrale – the wholemeal croissant, plain except for a lick of sugar syrup over the top. But on occasion, when it is one of those mornings where a sugar hit is called for, a slice of crostata is just the thing.
Here’s my recipe for a crostata fit for breakfast– the way I see it, if you’re going to eat sweets for breakfast, at least they should be homemade with fresh fruit and eggs. I always use Artusi’s ‘Recipe B’ for sweet short crust pastry, perfect for making crostata (and keeping the tradition of my husband’s grandmother), but instead of jam I’ve made a fresh fruit compote, taking advantage of the natural sweetness of ripe, seasonal fruit – in this case, lusciously sweet dark spring cherries – rather than added sugar. But if you’ve been served dreaded fette biscottate at your hotel and eating breakfast out is your thing, following is a list of some of my favourite bars in the centre of Florence for a typical breakfast:
Cafe Giacosa – Wonderful pastries and very good savoury options, such as little brioche of sliced egg with truffle paste. This is always a good meeting spot and my favourite detour when on the way to the train station. My coffee of choice here is their macchiato, served in a glass with quite a bit of milk and a flourish of melted chocolate. Via della Spada, 10.
Cantinetta Verrazzano – Functioning also as a bakery, they sell more than your regular array of bread and they also do wonderful little focacce here for those who prefer savoury. The cornetti are flakier than usual and their crostata is one of those ones I’d happily succumb to. My coffee of choice here is espresso, which is always well-made on their beautiful copper machine. Via dei Tavolini, 20.
Cafe Paszkowski – Of the historical cafes in Piazza della Repubblica, this is the one I find most simpatico and least touristy. The coffee is consistently good (in the summer, try a caffe shakerato – espresso and sugar syrup shaken with lots of ice) and the sweet pastries are top notch. The savoury panini are a little more expensive for what they are compared to other places. Piazza della Repubblica, 35.
Pasticceria Nencioni – Handy if you’re on your way to the Sant’Ambrogio markets, this little pastry shop make a lovely little selection of sweets and pastries, including delicious savoury puff pastries. Many a cappuccino to warm up on cold mornings have been had here. My husband (a savoury breakfast man) prefers the efficient tabacchi/bar a few doors down at no. 12r, Caffetteria La Loggia, for their variety of very good and cheap little panini but it lacks the warmth of Nencioni, which is just a nice way of saying it has zero atmosphere. Via Pietrapiana, 24r.
Note, an ‘r’ in the address stands for ‘rosso’ or red, which denote red numbers rather than black or blue – yes, confusing, but you’ll get the hang of it.
Crostatine di ciligie
Little cherry tarts
You could use a nice cherry jam in this recipe to make it in a pinch (and if fresh cherries are out of season), but otherwise, this cherry compote makes for a guilt free, tart-filled breakfast. Have these with a smooth cappuccino for breakfast or a mid-morning snack. You don’t need any fancy equipment to make these little tarts, just a muffin tray and a cookie cutter.
Makes 8-10 crostatine
For Artusi’s short pastry:
- 125 gr cold butter
- 250 gr flour
- 50 gr caster sugar
- lemon zest
- 1 large beaten egg
For the cherry compote:
- 500 gr dark cherries
- some water
To make the pastry, chop the cold butter into small pieces and add to the flour and sugar. You can do this quickly in a food processor, otherwise, with your fingers, rub the butter into the flour until you get a crumbly mixture and there are no more visible pieces of butter. Mix in the lemon zest and beaten egg until the pastry comes together to form a smooth, elastic ball. Let rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes, even the day before.
In the meantime, prepare the cherry compote by pitting the fresh cherries and placing in a pot with a little water (about an inch or so deep). Heat gently and allow to simmer until the cherries are soft and have made a ‘juice’ – you want it jammy not watery, but you will want to watch the pot carefully so as not to reduce this juice too much and lose it or burn it! Set aside to cool.
After resting, roll out about ¾ of the pastry and with a round cookie cutter or egg ring, cut out circles to fit into a muffin tray. Roll out the rest of the pastry to make strips, about 1cm wide to create a lattice for the top of your tarts. Fill the tarts with the cherry compote and place your lattice strips over the top. If you want to be fancy, brush some egg yolk over the lattice for some shine. Bake at 180ºC for about 15 minutes or until golden brown on top.
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