It goes without saying that Florence is a city that lives in its past. In every nook and cranny, history – a fantastic, unique history that influenced the way the entire world saw things – seeps out onto the well-trodden stone streets and into the every day.
On some occasions all it takes is walking right through the centre of town, passing over literal layers of history in a square like Piazza della Reppublica, the spot where the medieval mercato vecchio, the ‘Old Markets’, of Florence were once the beating heart of the city. Razed down in the nineteenth century and rebuilt as the piazza you see today, what’s left are street names like Via degli Speziali, street of the spice traders, hints of the market traders and food traditions of another time.
A few minutes walk away in the tangle of medieval streets off Via Calzaiuoli, is a modern day speziale – for want of a better word, an apothecary. Bizzarri is my go-to shop for spices and artisan candied fruit in particular, displayed in large glass jars on nineteenth century dark wood cabinets. The aroma of the shop itself, along with the curious jars and bottles holding curious items, is enough for me to find an excuse to visit. In this case, it’s to buy a few spoonfuls of chiodi di garofano, cloves. Ground and pungent, this heady spice has partly inspired this most unusual pasta dish that I came across in Artusi’s cookbook that sounds like something out of the Renaissance.
Spices such as cloves, nutmeg, saffron and pepper played an incredibly important part of the historical kitchens throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, where they were used in abundance. They boosted the flavour of otherwise bland dishes where salt was too expensive (still today those hard-headed Tuscans make their bread without salt) – cinnamon and sugar was a popular Renaissance condiment for many dishes, savoury in particular. Spices also masked otherwise not so fresh smells of meat or difficult to conserve ingredients and they helped balance out dishes in a typically Renaissance way: by adding warmth and therefore ‘fire’, the most revered of the four elements.
Fire, air, water and earth were represented by vegetables, fruit, nuts and meat alike, not only creating a balance on your plate but also in Renaissance society, where nobles and peasants ate according to a hierarchy of the elements. In order, fire was the most noble element, not linked as such to ingredients except for the use of spices. Air ingredients included birds of all sorts, which the nobility relished, from swans to peacocks, and also included fresh fruit, picked straight off the tree for nobles, while peasants had to wait for the fruit to drop to earth, over ripe, even rotten. Water’s main ingredient, fish, was available for all, while earth – lowly earth – nourished peasants with its root vegetables, fallen walnuts or chestnuts and pigs playing in the mud.
It’s a very Renaissance concept that I couldn’t help thinking about as I read the recipe for Artusi’s “Spaghetti da Quaresima” (Lent spaghetti). It’s main ingredients are walnuts and spices – earth and fire – in an unusual but simple and humble peasant dish with that Renaissance penchant for sweet and savoury.
Artusi’s Spaghetti da Quaresima
Spiced walnut Spaghetti (or in this case, linguine)
The recipe couldn’t be easier: walnuts are pounded with breadcrumbs, then combined with sugar and ground spices (he doesn’t specify which exactly but knowing Artusi I’ve made an educated guess: cloves, coriander seed, cinnamon) and tossed through freshly cooked and drained pasta. The result is a surprising, delicious pasta which is likely to confuse many of our tastebuds today, so I have a few suggestions for those curious enough to try this dish: some freshly grated Parmesan cheese is a must for balancing out this sweet-savoury dish, as is using much less sugar than Artusi calls for (I have a feeling that our icing sugar today is sweeter than a nineteenth century version) and perhaps raw sugar instead of icing sugar. Cinnamon may be too “sweet” for some; why not try a warming, peppery spice like ground ginger? As an aside, the original recipe is for spaghetti; I’ve used linguine but any long pasta would be fine.
- 400 gr spaghetti
- 60 gr of shelled walnuts
- 60 gr of breadcrumbs
- 30 gr of icing (confectioner’s sugar)
- 1 spoonful of ground spices (cloves, coriander, cinnamon)
- A healthy splash of extra virgin olive oil
- Freshly ground black pepper
Pound the walnuts together with the breadcrumbs in a mortar and pestle. Add the sugar and spices. Cook pasta in boiling salted water until al dente, drain and toss first with olive oil and pepper until coated, then with the walnut mixture.