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Food tour of Medieval Florence

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The chance to embark on a medieval food & perfume tour in historical Florence, this past May I had the pleasure to join in a special visit to several important landmarks in Florence with awesome guide Molly McIlwrath and food blogger Emiko Davies and a wonderful group of interesting people living or visiting Florence.

There is nothing quite like opening a tour with tales from the plague! 

Living in a city best known for its vibrant Renaissance period, often the medieval era of Florence is left behind. A time of political conflict and rise of powers, with various struggles for control in the city and the introduction of the florin, coin, which became the dominant trade coin of Western Europe. The black death hit Florence around 1348, and in just a few years, the population was quite literally reduced to half.

Depressing to imagine, but the realities of the time – which is why it felt fitting that we started our day in front of the Santa Maria Novella church, Molly reciting from Giovanni Boccaccio’s famous book, TheDecameron (highly recommend reading) which touches on the black death in Florence. This book being a series of stories told by a group of wealthy young nobles retreating to the countryside for ten days to escape the horrors of the plague. This was a time when people were dropping like flies and did all sorts of things to futilely ‘combat’ a sure-death, attach perfume to their belts and earrings, flagellate themselves, consume certain food & drink.

Medieval medicine had no effect on what was a mysterious, and often thought of as a ‘punishment’ of society at the time. Products like ‘Virgins milk’ a lead acetate used to ‘purify’ the skin were popular during these times. Powdered eggshells for whiteness, snails to make the skin shiny – all medieval cosmetic relics.

DSCF0349After starting off on let’s say, a darker note and I will say though It’s kind of embarrassing to admit, as a child I poured over books talking about the black death in Europe because I just couldn’t imagine that something like that actually happening. Ultimately survivors of the plague were left asking a lot of questions, namely – Why did they survive? What happened – Why was society being punished this way? It’s an interesting topic to explore to say the least and even to this day I find myself getting lost in novel passages about this era yet again.

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Perfumes at Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, try the ‘Catherine de’ Medici’!

Moving on to our first stop,which happened to be the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella with over 400 years of history and still selling high-quality products, from lady-bird elixirs to unique Medici inspired perfumes. A place where the apothecary fathers’ artisanal procedures are still used and you can find the famous rose tonic water, and ‘hysterical woman’ tonic {it smells of mint and I can personally think of a few people I would love to try this on}. An apothecary is a historical name for a medical professional who formulates and dispenses materia medica to physicians, surgeons and patients which was very important in Italy’s history. Even now, if you liken an apothecary to a modern pharmacist you can see how many exist ony given street corner in an Italian town.

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Perfume & smelling some amazing tea, fresh from a terracotta container in hidden corner

The Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence that I absolutely adore, a must-visit for anyone – for the history and variety of products alone. I often buy presents here and the quality is top-notch. Think perfumes, tonics, creams, honey, tea and much more! We also got the chance to see some of the old machinery used to create the products and even an inside look at the top of the pharmacy itself, namely the ceiling above the biggest room which has been fortified to prevent erosion if there are any earthquakes.

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An insider’s look at the top of the ceiling of the ‘grande salone’ great room! Super awesome

Birth trays & tragic love tales 

Moving on, it was hard to leave this pharmacy behind but we had an appointment at the house-museum Palazzo Davanzati to see the inside of medieval kitchen and more. This museum is an absolute gem and has remained in pristine condition after so many hundreds of years. A fun place to visit for both adults & kids who want to see how people really lived during the Middle Ages in Florence.

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No pictures are allowed here but this is the inside courtyard of Palazzo Davanzati

We visited the top kitchen floor and the second floor main bedroom which is worth noting are only available to see via appointment. Molly explained that the fresco on the top of the bedroom depicted a French moralistic tale of love & death called Chastelaine de Vergy. Fascinating that they would have wanted that sort of tragic ending lining the most intimate room of their house, the bedroom! We also for the chance to spot the beautiful birth tray, used to serve the famous ‘biancomangiare’ that Emiko had told us about earlier, a famous ‘purity’ dish often served after childbirth with each element (chicken, sugar, blanched almonds) made to be as white as possible.

Next up was the kitchen, an important place in any medieval house, this was a hub of activity and movement at any given time of the day. You might be surprised to note that during the middle ages, salaries were higher than you might have thought, especially for cooks. It actually makes perfect sense since they were responsible for the health of the household.

The four elements were very important in cuisine at this time, earth, wind, fire & water (no I am not citing Captain America ;-). The key was balancing these 4 elements to not get sick, a practice that lasted until the 16th/17th century. Example: because fish is wet and cold, it was to be prepared fried and dry, beef (and many meats) on the other hand were boiled or roasted.

  • Palazzo Davanzati, Via Porta Rossa, 13, 50123 Firenze, Italy.  Open 8.15-13.50. The museum is closed on the second and fourth Sundays of the month and the first, third and fifth Mondays of the month. Entrance is two euros.

A Harry Potter style shop in the center of Florence

Next stop was a really neat place that I have walked by a million times but never stopped at, the shop Bizzarri which is an old “spezzeria” that serves, pigments, herbs, cosmetics, powders and something scarily called the ‘erbe della paura’ which apparently you mix with water to help children conquer their fears. Harry Potter fans will adore this shop, it literally looks straight out of one of their famous films.

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  • Bizzarri shop, Via della Condotta, 32, 50122 Firenze, Italy.

We also stopped by a small ancient window located near one of the cutest-named streets in town, via delle belle donne (street of the beautiful women). I have seen these a few different places and apparently they used to sell wine and snacks out of these places at specific hours of the day which you can see still on the plaque, think of it as a sort of goodwill for the common folk. I wish they would have remained open ;-).

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At this point we worked up quite the appetite so Molly & Emiko took us to La Pentola dell’Oro restaurant which specializes in a special historical menu (if requested). Think linguini with a sweet walnut sauce or a sort of salty/sweet quiche. The dishes were very interesting to the palate even if personally I’ve never been a fan of these kinds of meals, I actually really enjoyed this one more than I would have expected!

The dishes served include (in Italian): Escabecio trecentesco di Galletto : marinata agrodolce con cipolle anice e finocchietto, La porrea dei Frati Di S. Lorenzo : torta di pasta frolla di origine Medievale con Porri e formaggi speziati, Le Lasagnole al savor di noci dei Gesuiti del 600’, con zucchero di canna, ginger noci e miele di castagno. Vermicelli di patate di Cetica all’antica maniera su intingolo di pomodoro al prosciutto e formaggi (ricetta dell’accademia dei Georgofili 1700′) and Biancomangiare Trecentesco con mele mandorle e melograne

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Last but not least, we stopped at the beautiful Four Seasons hotel in Florence to sample some Santa Maria Novella pharmacy liquors in the fabulous Gherardesca garden. I was especially excited to try the Alkermes version, this lady bug liquor is one of their most popular elixirs. The perfect way to end a beautiful and very educational day in such a spectacular setting!

DSCF0407 DSCF0410For me, this was a perfect example of a tour interesting for both a local and a tourist, plus it meant that I had the chance to hang out with some bloggers that I absolutely adore and meet some new people at the same time.

Traveling through the history of food, perfume and more with Molly and Emiko was more than I could have ever expected, more than just your average tour guides spouting history, for me they are storytellers themselves. Sharing their passion with us for a few hours on a nice Florentine afternoon.

*** There are similar tours that you can do on yourself through the Tuscan Wine School that Molly recommends, and please also check out these great posts by Emiko who touches on Medieval and renaissance fare that I might actually attempt myself one of these days :).

****When Emiko is in town she is usually one busy bee but if you can get the chance to visit one of her foodie workshops, trust me, you will thank me later! In October she will be heading to Tuscan paradise at Villa Campestri Olive Oil Resort in the Mugello Valley for a week-long ‘art of eating well’ workshop, more details here. 
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  1. Gil

    Finally got to Santa Maria Novella. I was always too lazy to go when we were in Florence. I stayed at a bar near Santa Croce and let my wife and daughter head over there.


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