Firenze Files: Food Presentation

Certain dishes and foods lend themselves well to grand and beautiful presentations. Things like sausage and bean stew on the other hand, do not. Or at least I haven’t found a way yet to make it as enticing on the plate or in a bowl as it is in the mouth, which is why I didn’t photograph the hearty but warming and succulent pot of stew when I made it for my roommates in Florence last week. Ironically, it offered the taste of comfort food from home despite being a dish that is quite Italian in origin. It’s a recipe of my mom’s that features traditional Italian sausage, cannelini beans, tomatoes, and garlic–quite the array of classic Italian ingredients. It’s the first thing I made spontaneously, without direction or consulting a recipe, for myself when I first lived alone in my own apartment two years ago. Perhaps it was the meal that spurred my love of cooking! It had that rich, slow-cooked charm despite being a fairly quick and very easy dish to prepare (and it can all be made in a single pot). It emerges from that pot, though, looking like islands of angular sausage pieces and pebbles of beans submerged in a cloudy khaki paste. I therefore thought it best to leave the sight and the taste to live only in memory and in this brief mentioning, rather than tarnishing its reputation for those who have not yet had the pleasure of tasting it.

Meat CloseupI bring up the topic of presentation to introduce a particular plate of food that I think is almost nothing without its presentation. It’s something we all have the ability to prepare at home with ease but that is somehow so much more appealing arranged just so in a ristorante or cafe, ultimately containing less food for a greatly exaggerated price. Only part of its appeal is its actual taste and physical content, and the rest is the pomp and circumstance and refinement that comes from being able to consume such relatively simple foods in such an elaborate and sophisticated way. It’s a way of saying that this barely constitutes a sufficient meal, but my palate and tastes are sophisticated enough to appreciate the disparate elements on their own simply for the experience of tasting them. The presentation makes you stop and savor every flavor, every mouth full and really contemplate the complexity and uniqueness of each item. And these items happen to be the normally humble and inessential cheese. Cheese disappears into the background of so many foods: sandwiches, omlettes, risotto, souffle, pizza, and hamburgers. On a cheese plate, however, it finally has the chance to stand on its own, independent and the center of attention at last. Something about the purposeful simplicity of such a plate makes you slow down and meditate on each bite. You’re paying for the restraint, the sparseness, the impression of quality and need for thoughtful consumption. The tasting experience comes simply as a feature of the presentation and not because the foods themselves or the (nonexistent) cooking techniques are particularly spectacular or unique.

I have had two cheese plate experiences since coming to Florence, and one was plain-looking yet tasty, while my most recent was fantastic to behold and to taste. I had the first while out to dinner with a fellow American who was spending a few weeks in Florence. It was a cheese plate with honey, and the plain, pale slices of cheese arrived on a similarly white plate, having been placed randomly around a small bowl of honey which sat atop a mere five tiny leaves of undressed lettuce. It was the first time I had eaten cheese and honey together, so it was quite tasty and novel, sweet and pungent, but not quite the extravagant celebration of cheese that was to come.

Wine GlassesI sought out a funky little wine bar called MangiaFuoco in a less-traveled street in Florence, having the intention to try out a few new Italian wines while in search of a favorite to claim as my own. I wanted for there to be a specific element of Italian food culture that I could continue to practice when I returned home. I was prepared to sit for a few hours with a good book in order to make my way through two or three different glasses, so I was thrilled to learn that the wine bar offered a tasting of three wines as an option. When the waitress suggested an assortment of cheeses and Tuscan meats along with it, I happily followed her recommendation and was not disappointed.

Vertical Cheese PlateThe platter that arrived made eating cheese feel truly special. There were five or so cheeses arranged on a small wooden cutting board with accompaniments such as a jam made with chianti wine, smoked hams, and different salamis. The presentation was given height by a tiny glass ramekin filled with a fresh radicchio and leaf lettuce salad topped with pearls of goat cheese and a balsamic reduction. There were no more than two dainty slices of each cheese, inviting a careful consideration of each one: a mild but crumbly pecorino (which I enjoyed so much I bought a hunk for later), meltingly soft and savory goat cheese, and another goat cheese sweetened with dried cubes of passion fruit. I enjoyed alternately pairing the different cheeses with different wines, with the sweet but pungent jam, and with the different meats. The whole gourmet experience was enhanced by the fact that I was nestled in a corner booth softened with pillows in the brightly-colored, cozy shop with other Italians who sat enjoying lunch or perhaps who strolled in to get a quick jolt from a late afternoon glass of wine or espresso. It seemed that I had discovered a gem of a shop, which works with a local producer to create their own custom blend of red chianti wine and a rose. It’s a good sign when the waiters bring you more glasses then necessary to try all the wines that you’re curious about and when they don’t let you bring home a bottle of wine that they consider too good to cook with. (They did let me buy a different, less expensive Chianti that they considered a more suitable compliment for braising osso bucco, which I intend to make soon.) I reluctantly vacated my booth after a delightfully long lunch with many Italian goodies in tow and a new-found knowledge of my preferences for Italian wines. I promised to return soon (and I have returned multiple times since) in hopes of discovering new and wonderful wines and cheeses. More stories and photos to come soon.

2 Responses to “Firenze Files: Food Presentation”
  1. Paul says:

    Makes me want to hop on a plane for a quick recharge of my batteries.

  2. bellridgegal says:

    I agree with Uncle Paul. Hope you are having fun in Italy with the family!

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