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Frying, generally with vegetable oils, is a common feature of Tuscan and especially Florentine cooking.
To cite a popular saying, “you don’t fry with water”, but in Florence nor do you with butter, which used to be something of a rare luxury item in these parts.
Extra virgin olive oil, as is well known, is excellent for cooking because it has a very high smoke point and is extremely stable at high temperatures, indispensable for textbook frying. There is one proviso, however: although perfect for frying vegetables, tubers and meat, which are enhanced by the distinct taste of the condiment, olive oil is not so good for frying fruit and sweets, which require a fat with a less marked flavour that does not mask their delicate fragrance.
It is common nowadays to use vegetable oils, particular peanut oil, which stands up well to heat, has a neutral flavour and is virtually odour-free. In the past it was customary practice to use lard, an animal fat that is now quite hard to come by and is viewed with a certain suspicion because it is considered too “fatty” and perhaps even a little politically incorrect. But frying with pig lard, if it is done right, produces extremely fil fritto mistoinetasting results and is easy to digest.
People fry pretty much anything in Florence: first of all, vegetables – which must of course be very fresh – like artichokes, cauliflowers, courgettes, sublime marrow flowers and slightly unripe tomatoes; potatoes of course, and porcini mushrooms, which are an autumn delicacy; chicken and rabbit, which reigned supreme in rustic country cooking when not everyone could afford red meat; and lamb chops, excellent with artichokes.
Frying is also a way of making “difficult” foods more enjoyable, for instance cardoons, tougher varieties of celery, and baccalà (stockfish), which are then recooked, usually in a tomato sauce.
Anything can be fried and anything can be recooked. And the proof that everything is good fried lies in the habit of frying up staple foods like bread or polenta from the day before, transforming them from an accompaniment into a tasty dish in their own right. At home, it is common practice to use up the last spoonfuls of batter mix to make tasty little fried balls. In Florence it was even customary to fry small pieces of bread dough to produce the wellknown còccoli, a great favourite with children and now quite hard to find. Sprinkled with salt or sugar, they used to be served by friggitorie in yellow paper.
And finally there are the sweets, particularly those produced at Carnival, like cenci, strips of sweet dough fried and sprinkled with sugar, which have some equivalent in most parts of Italy.
Then there are frittelle of all kinds, ranging from the rice ones prepared for the feast day of St Joseph on 19 March, to ones made from apple or even from acacia flowers.
Nor must we forget bomboloni – doughnuts – made with flour or boiled potato, which are fried, sugared and often filled with jam or custard. These doughnuts are a real speciality in many pastry shops, where they are served hot in midafternoon to customers looking for a calorie fix, a kind of mini private carnival.


Published: 27/9/2014

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