One of the things I love about living in Florence, Italy is the ability to eat local food. Where I grew up in Canada, you could eat things grown nearby for all of 2 weeks in August. The rest of the time, it’s golf-ball tomatoes from happier places and Spanish-speaking fruit that made the long voyage by truck to our country. I think 1997 was the first time I learned what a tomato should taste like. Italians tend to eat locally and seasonally, and this key both to their good health and their excellent food.
When in Florence, there are various ways to eat “farm to table” – the topic of this month’s Italy Blogging Roundtable. From bio boxes delivered to your house to conscious restaurants with kitchen gardens (skip to the end of this article if you want just this list), here are some ideas on how to eat local in Florence.
In Italy, the term “KM0” or chilometro zero is what Americans might call the “hundred mile diet” – the idea that you should eat things grown within a reasonable distance range. The Italian term most of the time is not literal – if the food comes from your same region, you’re already doing well. Though there are plenty of restaurants, especially in the countryside, where the ingredients literally never travel by car (see below).
The concept of KM0 tries to diminish time spent in the distribution chain, meaning less carbon dioxide emissions and fresher food sooner. Large distribution chains use centralized warehouses, meaning that it’s possible for a vegetable to be grown and sold in Tuscany, but first travel 150 kilometers to a cold warehouse before ending up at a store that may be 25 kilometers from the initial farm.
Buying directly from a farm, if you can do it, supports the farmer by eliminating the middleman, as well as institutes a direct social relationship that can bring pleasure to all involved. I often spend weekends at our home in Maremma, where we enjoy making the rounds of a few local farms to get vegetables, peaches, and even goats’ cheese and wine. But this takes all morning, and we’re driving around in a car! Technically this would be more efficient if a few friends were getting in on the deal.
Bio box options
If you live in Florence, you know that even your local Coop supermarket tends to stock on a rather seasonal basis (more so than Esselunga). Even more than fruit, I get very excited about seasonal vegetables, and have discovered new recipe horizons thanks to these. One way to make sure you eat whatever grows locally and seasonally is to sign up for a “bio box” service, i.e. a box delivered from a nearby farm.
There are numerous bio box companies that service the city of Florence, and you should do some research to find the one that suits you best. Your decision should be based on if you need to make alterations to the contents (for allergies or preferences), if you want to sign up long term or short term, if you are around on the delivery time/day, etc. If you drive to the office, a good option might be to have a large box delivered to work, where you can either split it with colleagues, or more easily bring it home. For me, working downtown and taking the always-crowded bus means delivery is sadly not an option.
Here are some of the most popular bio boxes available to Florence residents:
- Il Ceppo gathers products from small farmers in Tuscany who make their vegetables, and has a Sicilian partner for citrus fruit. Their products are not necessarily certified organic, but sometimes simply “natural” (i.e. as if it were organic, but they have not paid for the full certification, which is lengthy and pricey). Prices start at 15 euros plus delivery (€5) for the base box of vegetables and fruit, and there is a weekly list of other products that you can add to the basket (and eliminate shipping costs), including yogurt, wine, pasta, etc. It’s a subscription service every 7 or 14 days, and can be canceled at any time. This is a good option if you have a larger family as you can customize the orders best with the larger boxes.
- Simone Barbieri is a farmer who started Bio a modo mio, a pick up or delivery box service in Antella (Bagno a Ripoli). Pick up is Saturday mornings, or delivery is available for €6, while boxes start at €20. This looks like a good option if you can’t wait for a delivery at home.
- OrtodelBorro is the bio box project of the Ferragamo estate Il Borro in the Valdarno area. 5 kilos of vegetables and 6 fresh eggs, all organic, are purchased in installments of 4, and delivered weekly, for €24 per box (delivery included). I’ve personally visited this farm and appreciate in particular how it is naturally irrigated with water pumped from a nearby stream.
- Agrimè‘s Tuscan organic vegetables and other products are available for online order with pick-up (by individuals) at their warehouse or in various locations around the city in certain parking lots or pick up points at certain times (a rather complex timetable found here). Assorted boxes are available, but what’s nice is that their website lets you choose vegetable by vegetable, and integrate with other products including meat, fruit, nuts, beer and more! This is a good flexible option without transportation costs.
GAS (Gruppo Acquisto)
The Gruppo di Acquisto Solidale is a way for a group of people to put in larger orders of products, often from local producers, in order to get bulk prices and save on distribution. In the USA the term exists as “group purchasing organization” but it tends to be a large scale business, though you might also look up “buying groups” or cooperatives. Here in Italy, the GAS is a pretty common thing, and it tends to be pretty small scale – the groups that work best contain 10-20 people. There is a national organization that keeps track of news and initiatives, and local lists like this one for Florence (GAS Fiorentini) where you can find a GAS to join.
Each GAS functions in its own way, based on the needs and political leanings of its members. Yes, politics. Because food is rather more political than you’d think in Italy – even certain supermarkets are considered more lefty or more right wing. The concept of “solidarity” and the leaning towards organic food makes most GAS organizations left-leaning. This may or may not affect your experience with them. Some years back, Tommaso and I joined a local GAS that had monthly meetings, and everyone had to bring in a contact or participate in some way (like picking up food somewhere, or manning the pick-up point). These meetings had an AA kind of feel to them, in which non-organic and standard consumer practices were frowned upon. After a particularly consumerist bout in the USA, we didn’t feel that we could show our faces there any more.
But in general, a truly community-led GAS is a great thing because you can choose what products you want to bring in, and what businesses to support. If your group agrees that stocking locally-made recycled toilet-paper is important to them, you can do it, and at a discount. These groups might be a way to get a hold of mozzarella from Caserta or speck from Alto Adige, not just Tuscan vegetables. GAS is a way of life, not a money-saver. Hence, it’s something you need to be dedicated to (IMO) and find time for, if you’re going to do it.
The best way to end up in a GAS is through word of mouth from friends.
If you can’t find time to participate in a GAS, and bio box delivery or pickup times don’t work for you, you can seek out some of the best produce, cheeses and more at a farmers market. Nota bene, the regular markets like the daily ones in Sant’Ambrogio or Le Cure are not necessarily farmers markets. Some of the vendors may be farmers bringing their own produce – gravitate to the smaller tables with not much variety and you’ll find them. But many of the vendors are just resellers of stock purchased at the city’s main b-to-b market (Mercafir).
Less frequent organic markets are one way to go – look out for the “mercatino biologico”. The main ones are: the Fierucolina in piazza Santo Spirito the third Sunday of the month, Bioquartiere in piazza Alberti (end of via Gioberti) the second Sunday of the month, and at the Parterre in piazza Liberta every Friday morning.
Restaurants with kitchen gardens or farm contacts
For the past decade I’ve been a member of De Gustibus, an eno-gastronomical association (they also offer tours!) that has created a network of farmers that you can buy from, or visit through the lovely events they hold monthly (like this one). They recently opened up a restaurant called Culinaria in Piazza Tasso, where their producers feature in many of the dishes, and some items are also available for purchase.
There are other restaurants in Florence that partner with a farm or biobox service, though you’ll find, of course, more garden to table dining just outside of the city. In Florence, there’s San Michele all’Arco, located centrally in Florence in via dell’Oriuolo n.3/r, who cook up traditional Tuscan dishes using produce grown at their organic Fattoria San Michele a Torri. La Raccolta, in the Piazza Beccaria area, partners with Agrimè biobox service for organic shopping, take-out lunches or their eat-in restaurant. Il Borro has a Florentine branch on Lungarno Accaiuoli (at via Tornabuoni) called Il Borro Tuscan Bistro where the vegetables come from the Orto del Borro, whenever possible.
If you want to go higher end, look no further than the Leggenda dei Frati, a restaurant that moved from Castellina in Chianti to Florence in 2014, setting up shot inside the museum complex of Villa Bardini on costa San Giorgio. The gourmet food is directed by chef Filippo Saporito, Michelin-star-worthy lightness that is a feast for the eyes and all the senses.
Out of town, in the Valdarno area I love Canto del Maggio, where everything is grown or raised on the propery (even the rabbits and chickens). Above Bagno a Ripoli, young chef Andrea Perini creates gourmet dishes (at accessible prices) from his kitchen garden at their family resort, Borgo i Vicelli; the restaurant Al 588 is open upon reservation (they often have weddings). In the other direction, outside of Prato in the hills of Carmignano, La Vinsantaia di Cappezzana is a charming rustic restaurant with refined flavours developed by the younger generation of this winemaking family. Both the superb wine and the very fresh food derive from what’s grown on the property.
Italy blogging roundtable
Every month for the past five years (give or take a break or two), a group of female bloggers who love Italy have been sharing an assigned topic. This month we’re talking “from farm to table”. Check out what they have to say.