Travel and Culture

Alf in Italy – Pranzo al mercato di Sant’Ambrogio

Jun 17, 2020

I am in the Mercato Sant’Ambrogio in Florence with a paper bag in my hand. Inside the paper bag is a plastic bag so that none of the contents can ooze out and flow down my shirt front. This double bag arrangement holds a panino stuffed with a huge spoonful of unctuous, flavourful deliciousness.

Some come to Florence for the art and the renaissance magnificence of the architecture. This can become overwhelming and after a morning processing this my brain needs a rest and can only deal with simple things, hunger for instance. In this covered section of the market Florentines are shopping for meat, cheese, fish and thoughtfully making a selection from a huge variety of salumi. I am famished. The sight of all this food is beginning to make me drool.

There are places to sit and eat that we reject because we know are looking for, and there it is right at the end of the market hall. By an entrance to this 140-year-old iron structure is a group of building workers wearing plaster and paint spattered overalls. They are on their pausa pranzo, their lunch break, sitting on mismatched chairs leaning forward, elbows on the shabby table with their muzzles pushed into a paper bag the same as the one I hold. They are munching panini with contented purposefulness, like a herd of ruminants chewing their cud. This is a very encouraging scene because when it comes to lunch the workers know. We have come to the right place. This particular right place is Il Trippaio di Sant’Ambrogio a market stall, which specialises in tripe dishes. Of course, lampredotto is their thing.

 

Lampredotto is a traditional, essentially Florentine street food, a dish that belongs to the quinto quarto the fifth quarter, the parts of the animal left over after all the prime cuts have been taken. The prime cuts went to the prime people of course, leaving the lesser cuts and the offal for the workers. Lampredotto is made with the cow’s fourth stomach which is slowly cooked together with water, onion, tomato, carrot, celery and parsley for many hours. This is worker’s food sold in the street throughout the city. Lampredotto memorialises the past. It is edible history that recalls long gone social structures and culinary traditions that grew out of necessity. We are eating an ancient food that connects the past to the present and is exclusively Florentine. We have joined the hungry workers to have the same lunch as them. This is our pausa pranzo as well. Lampredotto, cheap, sustaining and humble but deeply satisfying is a perfect example of the Italian genius for taking simple ingredients and creating wonderful food. I don’t think a full understanding of Italian cuisine is possible unless you experience food like this.

The Trippaio is not pretending to be anything other than its simple self. This is not a place tricked up for the tourist hordes to descend on for a nice lunch before their guide rushes them off to see the next renaissance wonder on the list. This is one of the places where if you observe and question you learn more about real, everyday Italy than from any guided tour. For decoration there are football banners, Fiorentina of course, some clues to the conflicts in Italian society, racist and misogynist post cards and Antifascist stickers for balance and a Fiorentina Ultra’s Banner. Ultras are very enthusiastic, intensely loyal bands of football fans who are often racist, misogynist, violent and associated with far-right politics. The walls here illustrate many of the divisions, contradictions, the good and the ugly that make Italy so fascinating.

As a bonus there is free entertainment. First there is a cross dressing woman clothed like a down at heal man of a certain age, baggy trousers, ill-fitting jacket, both in the shades of brown preferred by a certain type of middle-aged man. Looking closer at the detail there is an incongruous touch. Middle aged men don’t usually have piercings like she does, pierced chin and very enthusiastically pierced ear. An English couple with a superior air rare conducting a market inspection tour and are intently looking at the food on offer at the Trippaio with puzzled expressions. They take a step back and stare disapprovingly at two louche looking men who are having a very intense conversation over their panini. One of the butchers begins to sing. Not even music can please them. The market inspectors do not say a word to each other. Their look down the nose, lip-curled expressions of distaste are far more eloquent than anything they could say. They walk off through the market, I suppose to look for somewhere else for lunch. Somewhere with less challenging food and no working-class riffraff stuffing themselves with cow innards. A black beggar is searching for likely donors. ‘I’m hungry. Bread!’ is his pitch to very fair me and a blond worker. He is doing his own profiling. Fair equals tourist equals fair game. The workers brush him off and so do the fair skinned. A young Italian couple arrive and carefully read what is available. They go into conference about what to eat and playing rather safe decide on polpette di bollito, boiled beef meat balls. Not too proud to associate with the labouring classes they find a seat among the workers.

The wine offering is brilliantly designed for the indecisive. The confusion that can occur if the drinker is given a huge choice of bottles to select from has been eliminated. There are two wines, one white and one red sitting on the counter in two litre traditional Chianti fiaschi, no doubt refilled from a large bag-in-a-box container kept somewhere out the back. This is drinking on an honesty system. Help yourself to a plastic tumbler full and pay as you leave. We order our lunch making sure we get a taste of most of what’s on offer. We are here to eat lampredotto, the most famous Florentine street food but we can’t help but be tempted by the polpette and the Trippa alla Fiorentina, tripe Florence style. Sandra asks if we should try the porchetta as well. Of course, it’s only one more plate.

As we walk by the outside fruit and vegetable stalls after lunch, I see a very smug looking, blanket wrapped poodle sitting on an elderly woman’s knee. They are riding in a wheelchair pushed by an old man very neatly dressed in a fawn jacket and trousers set off by a blue shirt and black cravat. Nifty. The poodle and woman have their white hair identically styled. I imagine them sitting in chairs side by side at the hairdressers, I would not be surprised to discover that the wheelchair is really for the dog. Italians have a well-deserved reputation for being very style conscious and, it would seem, their dogs have the same mind set.

A woolly-headed plump man is sitting by an Ape, that three wheeled mini-truck that appears in every fourth cliched Instagram post about Italy. He is having a lunchtime coffee in a plastic cup but he knows how to do it in style. He is sitting beside a small, round cafe table draped with a gold metallic table cloth. Not over the top at all, nor out of place in a workaday market but just the thing to perfectly set off a plastic espresso cup as he sits and watches the market activity. In front of a stall selling typical cheap market clothing there is another market character. He has long black shoulder length hair dankly hanging in loose curls, centre parted this gives him a pirate look. Only the reading glasses perched on top of his head spoil the look or perhaps he is not a pirate but a retired rocker from an ’80s band. The pirate rocker, is having one of the simplest lunches. He is popping broad beans from the pod and eating them just as they are. This is popular in Italy and relies on the beans being the best quality. This snack is much more satisfying with a piece of pecorino cheese and a friendly glass of white wine. Absolutely simple and absolutely delicious. He is also sitting at a small table complete with a neat table cloth. There is a sense of propriety in this market.

We wander away through the streets but only slowly after that lunch. After a lunch like that a stroll is just what is needed. Shortly we realise we have left without paying because we were too busy talking about our lunch so we return to pay. Not in the least concerned, they have no idea what we had so we tell them and they guess a figure. A casual relaxed end to a casual relaxed lunch.

Written by Alf

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