Sunday, October 26, 2014

Florence's Slow Food Hall

il Mercato Centrale
- an historic market revisited

Florence's central market, located near San Lorenzo and the touristy outdoor market, is a piece of Florentine's domestic history. There are those of us who visited it as young tourists, to buy peaches for our picnic lunches in the Boboli gardens, or who recall 'the market gardeners and wild herb foragers who would sell their pickings much as in the Mayan markets of yore', to quote a friend. 
Nowadays even the ground floor stalls, shown above, look more like upmarket shops than market stalls.
This does not appear to detract from the quality of their ware although it probably affects the prices. All they same, they seemed to be humming when we visited on a weekday morning.
Yet this post focuses on the first floor of the market which has been transformed from the gritty, colourful, rustic reality of the past into a stylish, cheerful, (upmarket in quality but not, it appears, in price), food hall crammed with goodies. Since spring 2014, this is where the hungry working Florentine or the tourist who is unable to deal with all the raw produce downstairs, can come to savour the finished products. 
As you climb the stairs (or take an escalator) to the first floor the first thing you see is the attractive architecture of the old market: cast iron neo-classical pillars, pietra serena columns, overarching wrought iron girding and tall arched windows which let in considerable natural light. 

The market was designed and built in the late 19th century while Florence was briefly Italy's capital, during the period of Risanamento,(reorganisation) when the old market was demolished to make way for Piazza della Repubblica. The architect, Giovanni Mengoni, also designed the famous Galleria Vittoria Emanuele II in Milan. It is said he was inspired by the Parisian Les Halles.
The next thing you notice, apart from the buzz of activity, good aromas and a cheery atmosphere, are some enormous basketry lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Looking African in origin they are a striking decorative touch.
The walls are covered with written explanations, a few jokes, posters of exhibits and upcoming festivals, menus and descriptions. There is an attractive set of Picasso-like designs advertising each bottega and the general atmosphere is welcoming, bright and attractive. A friend commented that, what with all the murals, chalkboard menus and so forth it looked something like a kindergarten-canteen; perhaps that is why it is so appealing!

Twelve botteghe or shops, (the word bottega evokes workshops from another era), serve various specialities, a little like Eataly, for those who are familiar with that phenomenon. Unlike Eataly, however, each bottega is run by artisans 'passionate about their profession' already engaged in producing their specialties elsewhere.

The options are to shop and/or to eat here. There is a bottega for all tastes, from classic sandwiches made on the spot or the traditional panini al lampredotto, a Florentine specialty (rolls filled with tasty cooked tripe); the famous fiorentina t-bone steak selected by the diner and cooked to taste; a delicatessen hung with Tuscan hams; a fresh fish counter; bread and pasticceria (pastries and cakes); fresh mozzarella and other products from the south; home-made pasta of all sorts; deep-fried treats and myriad rissoles; fruit and vegetables including an interesting vegetarian menu; a coffee-roasting facility; the requisite gelateria and a super-duper cheese counter. Bar and coffee shop, wineshop and alehouse as well as Eataly grocery and homecare stores complete the tour. There is also a conventional restaurant for those who prefer to eat away from the madding crowd.

The organisers say that all the raw materials come from the market downstairs, which seems a practical and reliable choice. And there is a counter where shoppers can arrange for home delivery advertised as 'green', which I imagine means they deliver using electric or hybrid vehicles - or maybe bikes?

With free wi-fi available, a bookshop retailing books by the (good) Florentine publisher Giunti and - dulcis in fundo (as they say jokingly here in pseudo-Latin, which means the best comes at the end), there is even a cooking school called Lorenzo de Medici - who, I suspect, would not have deigned to set foot in a mere kitchen! The school was not operating while we were there, but looks terribly sleek, professional and well-organized even for large groups of apprentice chefs. Courses can be one-off, for groups or privately arranged and there is an option of show-cooking followed by a meal of the results. For more information on courses look here.

The entire first floor of the Mercato can seat 500 diners and although it was pretty busy when we were there the high ceilings seemed to absorb the noise well and there were no unpleasant cooking odours.

The founders of the Mercato Centrale are very clear about their goals. They emphasise a focus on quality: 'At the Mercato Centrale Firenze we have set out some rules to ensure that healthy, good, tasty food is provided. The rules, which apply to everything that is produced and sold, are shared by all the artisans in the Mercato and are printed on the Quality Passport.' The organisers assert that 'if all the artisans can guarantee their products, their products will be a guarantee of goodness.'

Open from 10am until midnight every day of the year the Market could potentially become an eating and meeting place for anyone visiting or staying in central Florence, as well as for locals. 
I have only one bone to pick with the Mercato. We ate at one of the botteghe and were disappointed to find that our meal was cold. It was served from large bowls at the counter and presumably the heating apparatus was insufficient even though their turnover seemed to be excellent. The person at the counter was not receptive to our complaint and we were left with a cold meal to eat. This was something of a shock; however, a letter later to the management elicited heartfelt apologies and we feel certain that such an occurrence is rare. We are very willing to try again as the concept - and operation - of the Mercato Centrale is appealing and ought to be a great success. 

For further information, maps, contacts and news of events check the Mercato Centrale site.

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