Even though I was tempted to sleep in Friday morning, I am glad I got up early to go on a two-hour food and tasting tour at the Central Market before I went off to work. I am not usually a chipper person in the mornings, but there was so much to see and taste that even I had a smile on my face by the time we were done and I headed off to work on a very brisk but sunny morning.
Florence is really at its best in the early morning before all the tourists are out and when the city wakes up and bread, wine and water, cheese, table linens and more are delivered to stores and restaurants. The Central Market, Mercato Centrale, is north of the Duomo in the San Larenzo neighborhood, which also meant another gorgeous view of the Duomo’s cupola glistening in the morning sun on the way to the market.
Mercato Centrale, built in 1874, is packed with stalls selling fish, meat, cheese, olive oil, wine, fruits and vegetables, bread and sweets and more. The top floor used to be reserved for fruit and vegetable stands but is now full of little restaurants that serve the Italian version of “fast food” which is still wood-fired pizza and fresh pasta or fresh fish.
Our tour allowed us to stop at some stalls and taste the ware. For example, we stopped at a bakery and tried different pastries. I loved the fried rice balls called “frittelle” that are a specialty for Father’s Day on March 17 and are thus also literally called “St. Jospeh’s Balls.”
The fish stands highlight that Florence is not far from the coast and that fresh fish is an important staple.
Of course, there is also olive oil and balsamico. We got to try unfiltered olive oil as well as balsamico of a variety of ages: ten, 15, 18, 20, and 25 years old. The 25-year-old balsamico was thick and syrupy and it was recommended to put it over large shavings of cheese and just enjoy. We did not get to taste the 40-year-old balsamico but it was interesting to know it even existed – I always thought age was just important for whiskey and wine.
The fresh pasta was really made fresh just in front of our eyes:
The butchers offered not only the typical cuts but different parts of the cow’s stomach, including tripe, which is a local favorite and at every butcher stall. Most offer organ meat including brain but also bull testicles and penises.
Since it was still barely above freezing this morning, we also stopped for coffee and hot chocolate at a stall in the market. I am usually not a fan of either; hot chocolate is either too milky tasting or too watery, but this one was rich and thick and decadent. It tasted and had the consistency of a molten expensive European chocolate bar. I hate getting up early but this hot chocolate could turn me into a morning person – it is that good! Good thing it is served all day long.
I enjoy shopping for food at the little supermarket around the corner, but I look forward to coming back to the market and do more shopping here. The tour guide also taught us some basic phrases to ask for specific amounts and to interact with the vendors, which definitely helped ease any apprehension we may have had to shop at the market and actually have to talk in Italian (I am sure plenty of the sellers do speak English).