Something funny happened while I was in Florence. I was at Le Fate, a vegetarian restaurant on Borgo Allegri, talking with the chef and he mentioned something to the effect that it must be hard to be vegan in the States because Americans ate egregious amounts of meat. It took me aback, because while it’s true that the typical American does eat quite a bit of meat, consumption of it in the US has actually been decreasing while access to quality vegan food and the very ease of being vegan has been increasing at a rapid pace. Ironically, when I talk to most people about being vegan in Italy, they say the same thing my Italian colleague said about the US! In both cases, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Italy has been one of the most vegan friendly countries I have been to.
Perhaps that is because what we see in many Italian restaurants in the States are meat heavy dishes or meals smothered in cheese. However, in a land with some of the best soil in the world, it should come as no surprise that vegetables are front and center of most meals. Just check out the picture of the local farmers’ market in Florence and you’ll see rows upon rows of fresh, high-quality produce. In fact, only one stall was selling cured meats and a few cheeses and one more stall was selling cheeses (neither of them shown in the picture; I wouldn’t do that to you). The remainder was comprised of fruits, veggies, nuts, and beans…and porcini mushrooms. Oh, the porcini mushrooms. Mushrooms the size of my fist for only a couple euro, waiting in huge boxes to be picked and taken home for a meal. I bought one every single day. Dried whole porcini were also there for the taking, at about a quarter of the price they are in the US. While I love to explore new places to eat when I travel, I spent every day at the market and made half my meals in my apartment. I would simply buy what looked the best and figure out what to do with it later. That’s how I ended up developing my recipe for Porcini Borlotti Bean Stew, a simple stew packed with hearty flavor from a giant porcini. I also made a nice pasta dish with an apricot sauce, a zucchini and mushroom stir fry, another pasta dish with zucchini flowers, lentils with Sicilian sundried tomatoes, stuffed figs, apples in a wine and caramel sauce, zucchini in blood orange juice and balsamic vinegar, porcini and fingerling potatoes with fresh rosemary, and plenty of nuts, fresh fruit, and bread to snack upon.
Just the farmers’ market in Florence alone made it eminently easy to be vegan there (and that’s not even touching upon the gigantic tourist-oriented farmers’ market elsewhere in the city), but even without access to a market and a kitchen, there were plenty of vegan and vegetarian restaurants and even more restaurants that called out specifically vegan options. There were three restaurants in particular that I frequented during my week in Florence. The first was Le Fate, a vegetarian restaurant with an astrological theme (hence the name of the restaurant). In truth, finding this place was purely accidental (or was fortune guiding me?) as my mission was wandering down to the Arno river at sunset to see the bridges, food barely a thought on my mind. For me, that is. Food is always on my mind. Still, what a wonderful find! My first vegetarian restaurant in Florence! I was extra excited. Then I discovered they were having a book signing and event that night that required reservations. Fortunately (callback points for me!), the owners were incredibly nice and found a seat for me. Not only did they find a seat for me, they paired me with a group of people who spoke English so I wouldn’t be lost. It turns out that one of them was a vegan chef and not the one I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. Did I mention that Florence is vegan friendly, yet? Then the meal came, and it kept coming. You see, this was a book signing and tasting, but it was an Italian-style tasting. I tried six different recipes, including a delicious small pocket with a dough made from black sesame seeds, plus three humongous desserts and every single dish was outstanding. Much wine was served and my new friends were incredibly gracious for speaking English with me and putting up with me fumbling through Italian. Afterwards, I purchased a copy of the book, mostly for the recipes, but also because reading through cookbooks is how I learn other languages, and I went on my way. Grazie Gabriele e Serena!
Borlotti Porcini Stew
¾ cup of dried borlotti beans (use red beans if you can’t get these), soaked for at least 6 hours
1 onion, chopped
6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 large red bell pepper, chopped
1 teaspoon of minced fresh sage
½ teaspoon of ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon of crushed red chile flakes
4 cups of water
2 small zucchini, chopped
1 Yukon gold potato, diced
1 large fresh porcini, chopped or ½ cup of dried porcini
¾ teaspoon of salt
¼ cup of olive oil
Once the borlotti beans have soaked, drain them, then transfer them to the soup pot. Simmer the beans, onion, garlic, bell pepper, sage, black pepper, and chile flakes in the water for about 1 hour. Replenish the water if it cooks down below the level of the beans. You should add enough water so that you end up with about 1 ½ cups of liquid left in the pot.
Add the zucchini, potato, porcini, and salt. Simmer this for about 8 minutes, until the potato is just tender.
Remove the soup from the heat, stir the olive oil into it, and serve.
Low-fat Option: Simply omit the olive oil from the soup.
The food here was also great, reasonably priced, and there was a small vegan shop adjacent to the restaurant. Bonus! I ate at each of these restaurants a couple times during the week and I’m not even listing the juice and smoothie bar that prominently advertised their vegan options, the café near the train station that did the same, the plethora of pizza joints and cafes that noted their vegan offerings, or the places that I missed like the vegan crepe restaurant Crepapelle, the organic restaurant Bioveggy, the vegan farm and restaurant La Fonte, and even my friend Gabriele’s vegan personal chef business. I could have stayed another week in Florence just trying the vegan offerings and playing with the fresh produce I brought back from the market.
Ironically, Florence has a reputation for being meat heavy and is famous for its steaks, but I never wanted for being vegan no matter what part of the city I was in. It was easy, delicious, and totally fun exploring the vegan side of the city. If you travel there, be aware that most people in the service industry speak English, but if you head to the market, you would do well to learn the question, “Quanto costa?” which is “how much does this cost?” and to learn at least the numbers from one to twenty. That will easily be enough to get by at the market.
The Gateway to Your Florentine Vegan Experience
I could write pages more about the amazing architecture, the river, the bridges, the art, the Renaissance vibe of the city, but I’m eager to get writing about my vegan adventure in Rome in part two of this series, so I leave you with some pictures of the places I visited.