Friday, 15 February 2013

The Edible Spoon

Sometimes” sang Neil Young, “old ways can drag you down”. Tradition is a double-edged sword. Thankfully for veggies and vegans there's enough to choose from on the average menu in Tuscany.

Original Veggie Restaurant in Florence
Pizza Marinara. Suggestive of fish? The ubiquitous anchovy perhaps? It often gets top billing because it's the simplest and therefore the cheapest. Tomato sauce, a good hit of garlic and a soupçon of oregano. That's all folks. It's only a great sludge of flavour neutralising rubbery mozzarella away from the Margherita – usually next on the list - but totally vegan. The best have garlic enough to kill a beginner (IMHO). Not so much a hit, but complete taste bud assault and battery. Vampire repellent. Vegan and fancy pizza? Start here. Then add whatever other ingredients you see elsewhere on the menu. For me a slug of salty capers (più caperi – pron. “pee-oo”. So it's “pee-oo” then whatever pleases you) does it. Finish with a generous drizzle of chilli oil (no Italian required since it'll be part of the furniture in any pizzeria worth its salt).

But every silver lining has a cloud. Vegans invoking the Paris exemption1, or veggie Calvinists note: the cheese you're tucking into is probably made using animal rennet. Even some notable vegetarian establishments will charge you more if you want cheese made with non-animal rennet. Fair enough; it's harder to get and it costs more. Then again they're not singing very loudly about their non-veggie cheese.

But get a grip, stop whining and have a word with yourselves. Loads of Italian dishes are traditionally vegan or easily veganisable. Penne al arrabiata, Spaghetti agli'olio, Bruschette, Panzanella, Risotto, Macedonia (it's fruit salad!) to name a few. Even within traditional Tuscan/Umbrian cuisine there's a fair number of choices. The rest of Italy call Tuscans the 'bean eaters' for reasons other than the pejorative suggestion that they're simple. Zuppa di fagioli, (bean soup), Zuppa di farro (spelt soup) and Ribollita (anything goes whatever left over veg and beans there are with a bit of pasta thrown in, soup) are heavenly and satisfying when done well and served in big portions. I love a plate of Ceci con Rosmarino, (chick peas with rosemary). Mash them down on thick slices of bread with the back of your fork so that the unctuous garlicky (spot a theme) juices drizzle down fingers and chin. It's why you have a napkin!

Ham bones in the stock? I've never come across them. I don't think anyone has tried to pull the wool over my eyes. I can usually sniff out an anchovy in a gallon of mayonnaise and the congealing mouth-feel of animal fats is an instant give away... so don't even try! Parmesan or Grana Padana are usually served separately for these dishes. Watch what's happening with other diners and then decide if the issue needs tackling. Once I ordered the chick peas to find a huge chunk of butter melting in the middle that wasn't mentioned on the menu. I removed it and continued as normal. If it had been meat or fish I'd have sent it back. It's your call.
Eat whatever you please from the menu. Nobody sticks rigidly to the traditional five courses. Anyway, if you are foreign a level of weirdness is de rigeur! You're more likely to find acceptable dishes in the 'antipasti', 'primi' and 'contorni' sections. Be warned: antipasti suggests a little something before the meal but they can be quite substantial offerings. Cheese and fish often creep into antipasti called 'vegetariano', so it's best to look at the ingredients of all the antipasti and then invent your own combination. Most places will sell you a plate of mixed antipasti for a whole party. Artichokes, grilled peppers, aubergines and zucchini are delicious; especially if they've been stored under oil. Again, squashed onto a chunk of bread and eaten with some beans they're a meal themselves. Primi tend to be all the pasta, rice and soup dishes. Contorni are vegetables or side dishes and always disproportionately expensive. You can pay €5 plus for a dollop of spinach! Salads are in this section too and in spite of the variety of good fruit and vegetables you see on markets they are usually nothing to write home about. Moreover, your only dressing will be olive oil and either white wine or balsamic vinegar. There are few places that do salad well. When you find one, relish it.

Honey is the food of Beelzebub, and not for reasons vegan. Bee-keeping versus the industrial scale suffering of farmed animals with anatomy and physiology just like mine? Frankly, comparisons are barmy. It's hard times for the humble honey bee as populations diminish and I wonder if we shouldn't be thankful to bee-keepers trying to preserve and nurture a cornerstone of the ecology. But you need to be aware that honey is used a lot if it offends your taste or ethics.

Foccacia, dripping with olive oil and encrusted with flaked salt is as rare as rocking horse excrement. Do Tuscans believe it's for sissies? Bread here emerges from the oven as tough as coconut matting: only with less flavour. There's no salt! Granted, the locals seem to like it. (I once watched someone tear the middle out of a loaf and I imagined it was so she could eat the softest bit. No, she threw it away and chowed down on the balsa crust) But press the chickpeas or the antipasti into it and suddenly a light comes on. It's an edible spoon. Or turn it into Panzanella with lemon juice and a good olive oil and suddenly you're onto something.

Hearty Zuppa di Farro (Spelt Soup)
The no salt rule they say, is an anachronism. Apparently salt was once excessively taxed. But why keep on doing it? It's just the way it is and ipso facto must forever be. Funghi must always be married with sage and no other herb. You didn't know that?! Culinary stick in the muds. I once spotted an Indian restaurant in altrarno Florence. My excitement was somewhat diminished when the first two items on the menu were Lasagne and (more weirdly) Doner Kebab. If they made lasagne why why couldn't they stretch to Mousaka? The raw material is there! Would it be just too weird? It's only a step away from Melanzane Parmigiano for goodness sake. Straying too far is commercial suicide maybe? Perhaps it's the imperative that makes the Japanese restaurants (a rarity, by the way) bill the glass noodles as 'spaghetti' and serve Tiramisu for dessert! Doesn't frighten the horses.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking traditions, but dogmatism. I don't propose throwing the bimbo out with the bathwater. Art didn't end with the renaissance and the idea that it's either McDonalds or Wild Boar stew is just as potty (listen and learn Slow Food conservatives!). But where traditions are extended and where other influences thrive so usually do the options for veg*ns. Inside the box thinking among Italian veg*ns is evident in the over-reliance on the hideous sietan as a meat substitute. Thankfully, for those of us who prefer our main course unvulcanised this too is gradually being broken down and Italian veggie food blogs and cook books are beginning to pull in other influences.

On a practical note Happy Cow is a great resource for visiting veggies. Check it out. The places I'd recommend if you're in Florence are the long established scrubbed table canteen of Il Vegetariano. 2 I'm happy to report that the salads here are fabulous and the system for ordering food entertainingly arcane. Outside the box, but very central and near the river is Libreria Brac3. As the name suggests it's housed in a bookshop. Indeed, you dine among the bookshelves filled with tomes on architecture and design. Their penne comes with (cue fanfare) a curry sauce and their fennel, orange and almond salad is more than the sum of it's parts and in gut-busting portions!

  1. The 'Paris exemption' was coined by  Peter Singer of philosophy fame and advocates defaulting to vegetarianism where no vegan options are available. 'Paris' because France is notoriously unadaptable to vegetarianism. 
  2. Il Vegetariano
  3. Liberia Brac

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