Glue sauce, the crêpes debate, and Catherine de’ Medici

The origins of foods and recipes are often the subject of heated nationalistic argument. I won’t go as far as to say that wars have been fought over who has the right to call puff pastry their own, but who knows? Swarthy men with fiery tempers, working long hours on their feet, wielding knives–the concept probably isn’t too farfetched.

Sometimes benign and good-natured, sometimes bloody and fomented, the rivalry between Italy and France has been going on for centuries. So when an alliance was born between the two by way of the marriage of Florentine lass Caterina de’ Medici and teenage King Henry II of France in 1533, it proved a fertile field for cross-cultural pollination.

Compared to Medici-bankrolled Florence, 16th century France was practically a backwater. Or so it seemed to young Catherine who had a sophisticated palate and, eyeing the natives’ trencher-and-shank cookery askance, brought her own culinary posse to the French court (these included several pastry chefs, a gelato-maestro, three cooks from the Mugello region of Tuscany, among others). She brought the fork with her, too, no doubt having been scandalized at the French mode of hacking at victuals with knives or tearing at them with hands or incisors.

One of the delicacies she introduced to the French was the Tuscan salsa colla or colletta (‘colla’ = glue), which was a sauce of milk tinged with meat broth and spices and used to bind flavors together in various dishes. This sauce essentially became the Frenchified velouté  and later dropped its carnivorous guise altogether, becoming the creamy white marvel of chemistry that was re-christened béchamel in honor of one marquis Louis de Béchameil–by all appearances a useless fop who didn’t know a ladle from a riding crop or a scullery from a hole in the ground. By the strange, circuitous routes of history, this delicate, delightful sauce has long since made its way back to the Bel Paese–sporting a French accent, as it were–and is called besciamella. It’s the glorious glue that snakes between layers of lasagne in Emilia-Romagna, and locks spinach-flushed crêpes in a lover’s embrace in Florence’s own crespelle alla fiorentina.

And speaking of crêpes (or, ahem, more properly: crespelle), it seems Catherine brought those to the great Gallic palooza, too. French or Italian, the word’s origins come from the Latin crispus, meaning rolled or curled, and from the more modern Italian crespo (kinked, creased–a word with which I was unfortunately made all too familiar by my Italian hairdresser). Now, I know you’re probably thinking that crêpes are as French as Louis Malle and a bright blue pack of Gauloises, but ask any Italian and he’ll tell you evenly and with no trace of rancor whatsoever that the French are full of m**da and crespelle belong to the Boot. In the 5th century–long before Caterina threw off her stays in the Louvre and contemplated her new home–legend has it that an alarmed Pope Gelasius, seeing the thronged French pilgrims newly-arrived in Rome and hungry for both bread and redemption, had cartloads of flour and eggs brought in and voilà! A future vehicle for Nutella was born.

But regardless of which flag you care to fly over this piece of culinary terroir, we can probably all agree that a crêpe crespella by any other name would taste as sweet.

–by Elizabeth Petrosian

Come try our crespelle alla fiorentina and chew on the issue with Paolo…. Ti aspettiamo!

Backstory: inzimino

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The origin of the word zimino (in + zimino signifying “in ‘zimino’ sauce”), as with that of so many foods, lies somewhere far back in the dusty recesses of history. Under murky layers that evoke the not-so-far-away Arab world, the exotic scent of cumin (cimino in outmoded parlance), or even the unleavened (azzimo) bread of the Jews–the word’s etymology has been the subject of some debate. The most general consensus is that the word is of Arabic origin: samin or zamin, which means fat, fleshy and seems linked to the concept of a fatty or rich condiment or sauce. Moreover, the traditional liberal use of spinach in this dish would also seem to point east, to Persia: wherein lies the august ancestry of this inky-green vegetable.

Though the precise etymology may evade our grasp, we know that the recipe is very old, traces of which go back at least as far as 1300. It was a classic piatto povero, or poor-man’s dish, making up for its lack of silk-purse ingredients by beefing up with vegetables and bread. Originally, the dish was strewn with bits of salted, dried fish such as baccalà (Florence being land-locked, after all)–a cheap ingredient that packed a flavor punch and stretched to help fill many bellies at a time. It is believed that the strong flavor of the fish demanded an equally muscular, spicy sauce in order to achieve the proper balance–clearly something even the most impoverished medieval Florentine was unwilling to forego. And so, with characteristic Italian ingenuity, a rich, zesty sauce was born–for which the Arab word zamin was most likely adopted and italianized over time.

Other versions in other regions have since evolved: in Liguria, Sardinia and even Corsica, some with chick peas instead of calamari (or totani or seppie), or swiss chard instead of spinach, and they are all worthy of our praise. But the classic, über-Florentine recipe remains that of squid simmered at length in a rich stew (or umido) of spinach, tomato and red wine, to be accompanied by garlic-rubbed toasted bread and–hopefully, ideally–shared in good company. It’s a bold, inky dish–as wine-dark as Homer’s Aegean–lusty and redolent of both earth and sea. It’s exactly the kind of thing a famished, humble laborer in the age of Petrarch would tuck into, and feel a richer man for having eaten it.

–by Elizabeth Petrosian

Come and try our version of this Florentine classic–ti aspettiamo!