Susan found a seasonal celebration in a Florence tourist brochure that is the consummation of her fantasy – a week-long chocolate celebration in the Piazza di Santa Maria Novella just a couple of blocks from our apartment. We walked over in the drizzle and found a row of big white tents set up. There were dozens of chocolate purveyors showing chocolate truffles, chocolate bark, chocolate covered candied fruits, chocolate covered waffles, chocolate covered strawberry shish-kebobs, every flavor of chocolate bar, and cubes of gianduia, frutti di Bosco, and every other kind of chocolate.
- Hazelnut Truffles
- Chocolate Shish Kebabs
- Chocolate Tools
- Valentine’s Day
Even better, every one of the merchants forced us to try samples. A woman from Venice assured us that she made the candies in her “laboratorio” and never sold other makers products, like some other dealers. She had a block of a candy called cremino. In New York, in Morningside Heights, we used to buy this candy from the wonderful local chocolate shop called Mondel’s. They called it Figaro Truffles. This cremino was like the mother lode of Figaro Truffle. It is made of alternating stripes of hazelnut cream chocolate and creamy chocolate truffle. This combination is called gianduia in Italy and is better than anything.
- Chocolate Festival
- Candied Fruit
We also bought four jars of fruit conserves from a family called Stringhetto. They had every imaginable flavor and several unimaginable. Once again they forced samples on us. The first was apple and lemon, which was splendid. The second was blackberry, which was overwhelmingly berry-like. The third was amarena, which is Italian for sour cherry, and apricot, which is a perennial favorite of mine. We bought every one that we tasted. Only afterward did I find out that Suzie was thinking of them as gifts, whereas I assume that we’ll eat them all.
No, there are no vegans in Spain. It’s the ham.
It’s a good thing that I’m not a vegan, at least in Spain. Or a Moslem or an observant Jew (I’m a non-observant Jew) They have absolutely no idea what it means to leave the pork out of a dish. If you order green beans, say, it will come with a sprinkling of Serrano ham on top. They eat cones filled with ham cubes the way Americans eat ice-cream cones – in the street.
If you go to a big food market, there will be a huge display of pig legs, varying in age (age is good, like wine), in quality (you want the piggies to be fed on acorns), and in price. We visited the supermarket in the basement of the big department store (For some reason, the big department store chain in Spain is called El Corte Ingles – The English Court) to pick up some cheese and salami for a little dinner, and we found a festival, a celebration, an orgy of ham. The housewares department also had a wide selection of pig-leg holders. One end is a stainless steel cradle, the other end is a collar with a wing-nut to tighten onto the ankle of the ham. Both parts are anchored to a heavy base so the ham doesn’t move while you are carving paper-thin slices. Portugal has presunto and Italy has prosciutto, but nobody has the same obsession as Spain.
Pasteis de Nata – the best pastry in Portugal
The Portuguese are not picky eaters. They are hearty trenchermen. They also don’t avoid sweets. But the best pastry in Portugal is unquestionably the Pastel de Nata. Pasteis de Nata are little cream tarts in a flaky pastry crust.
The line at the Antiga Confeiteria de Belem
They are rich and wonderful and avoid the too-eggy and too-heavy affliction which affects many Portuguese pastries that originated in nunneries.
The original purveyor of these morsels of deliciousness is the Antiga Confeiteria de Belem. It is an 18th century bakery that still churns out the pasteis for lines of ravenous customers snaking down the block. Belem is one of our favorite neighborhoods in Lisbon, and we’ll post about its other attractions later, but first things first.