Food & Wine

A period of plenty

Words by Samuel Muston

As with most of the finer things in History, no one knew they were living through the Renaissance until it was over. It is one of history’s greatest jokes: while wars and tyrannies are lived through, bookended and recorded, artistic movements, flows of human knowledge and understanding, are left to the cultural archaeologist to excavate ex post facto.

Giuseppe, the maitre d' at Ristorante Frescobaldi, London

So it is that the 15th-century Florentine Renaissance began in 1860. It was then that the Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt published his great treatise, The Civilisation of the renaissance in Italy, and it was from this work that the whole corpus of what we know as the Renaissance was born. It is an intriguing book, not least because it couldn’t be further from the frock-coated, dry-as-saw-dust work most people expect. It has, in fact, some elements of the rollicker to it.

Burckhardt argues that Italy never really suffered under the dead hand of feudalism. The collection of city states that once made up what we now think of as Italy skipped a step and therefore didn’t experience the communal, corporatised, life of the mediaeval period. “The Development of the Individual” is the second part of Burckhardt’s book, and the mainstay of his argument. The ego, he claims here – that bloom of self-esteem we see in the Uffizi, in the churches of Rome, in the palazzos standing century on the waterways of Venice – was born in Renaissance Florence. But you find it somewhere else too: Tuscany’s culinary history.

A second rebirth is now starting to take hold in Italy: the rebirth of haute cuisine.

When we think of Florentine food, one word invariably pops up: hearty. Wander a little from the Ponte Vecchio and you find the mainstay of the city’s gastronomy: the wild boar sausages, the delicious ribollitas, the crostini swathed in diaphanous slices of lard. It is good food, it is delicious food – but it does not strain the bounds of the imagination. And yet once this city was at the beating heart of culinary invention.

To be invited to dine with the Medici at their peak was to be pulled into a world of then-unknown hedonism. Polished hedonism, for sure – but hedonism all the same. When Marie de Medici married Henry IV of France, a banquet for 300 guests was held at the Palazzo Vecchio. The artist Bernardo Buontalenti was engaged to design the festivities, which began when the guests unfolded their napkin ­– a songbird flew out – and culminated, 50-courses later, with milk sherbets, the recipes for which had been brought from France specially. The only historical rival to the event was the 1520 ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’ meeting between Henry VIII and King Francis I of France – which is saying something.

Such largesse was not confined to celebrations. The black marble jugs used by the Medici to hold water at the table still survive, as do renderings of some of the dishes they served: there are larks, thrushes, all manner of bird. This was delicate food, clever food that pushed boundaries as much as their invention of napkins and flowers for the table did. The Renaissance palette, at least in the upper reaches of society, was a sophisticated one. The notion that Italian food begins and ends with mamma stirring polenta and endless fussing over an Arabica sauce is a compelling one – but it is only a single thread of a complicated truth.

A second rebirth is now starting to take hold in Italy: the rebirth of haute cuisine. When the San Pellegrino 50 best restaurant list was unveiled at London’s Guildhall, the second spot went to Massimo Bottura and his restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena. No one was surprised. His food is a paean to the food of Italy, but it is not hidebound by its traditions. Bottura has the flair of the artist. For one of his most famous dishes, “Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano”, he takes the cheese of his region and works it into a cornucopia of mind-melting textures. There are rabbit macarons, too; there is eel pasta, suckling pig with balsamic vinegar. It is about pushing local, seasonal ingredients as far as they will go.

You see it elsewhere, too. Food is becoming the new frontier in luxury: the Ferragamo family, the modern-day Medici of fashion, now produce Il Borro and Castiglion del Bosco wines. Massimo Ferragamo, youngest son of Salvatore and CEO of Ferragamo in the USA, bought the del Bosco estate in 2003. He had been searching for a “moderately sized” house for his family and friends in Tuscany.  In the process he chanced across the Castiglion del Bosco, a 4,000-acre estate and 23-bedroom castle with a lineage stretching across eight centuries. He bought it and, recognising that a house the size of a small village was a little beyond even his needs, he decided to rework his plans. “The only way to make Castiglion del Bosco come back to life was to make all the elements that exist there work together,” he says. “We decided to renovate all the buildings and create an experience.”

What that has meant in practice is converting the castle into a resort whose near entire focus is around superlative food and wine. And it has paid off: not only is the place constantly fully booked, but the estate is now the fifth-largest producer of Brunello di Montalcino in the world. Ferragamo did just what Bottura is doing and what the Medici did: he took a piece of Italian culture, refined it, invested in it, and help it along the way to a brighter future.

He is not alone, either. Renzo Rosso of Diesel recently bought BioNatura; Bernard Arnault of LVMH has purchased the Milanese pasticceria, Cova; in London, Angela Hartnett’s Murano restaurant has just opened a second site; Frescobaldi continues to dole out La Dolce Vita by the plateful in Mayfair.

Each, in its way, is selling an idealised version of Italy – but it is not a museum piece they are selling. The culinary muse, so long hovering high over the Scandinavian countries, has come south for the summer – and Italy has never looked better as a result.

Curator’s Club
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David Gandy