It’s artichoke season and artichokes are everywhere in Sant’Ambrogio, the most beloved market in Florence. I can’t wait to get my hands on them. I take a walk and look all over for the ones that look the freshest to me. I want the leaves tight and compact, so that when I peel them back to expose the delicate interior, I want to slice into a crisp heart. They will also have the best flavor. I will sauté them lightly for a moment with olive oil, garlic and peperoncino and toss with spaghetti. It’s my favorite spring dish. I’ve chosen the organic stand of Maria Meo. She is quite reserved. You have to take a ticket and wait a fairly long time. She has signs everywhere saying “Non Toccare”. Don’t touch. There is no other organic stand, certainly not one with a take-a-ticket box, or signs that say don’t touch- in the entire market. It’s serious business. I personally have never seen such a tough organic female farmer, but I appreciate what she’s doing. I am also eyeing the wild fennel fronds; finocchietto selvatico. I know something about wild fennel from spending time in Sicily. But I am not in Sicily and the idea of making a pesto with the fronds, with almonds, garlic and olive oil has caused my imagination to flare. I wait and wait my turn and think of other things I might take home other that the coveted artichokes and the fronds. Lemons, yes. A few apples, yes. When all of sudden I feel two ladies standing nearby staring at me.
They both go into a swoon over my hat. I haven’t worn this particular finely woven straw hat in a very long time. It’s a pillbox that I got in Siena more than 20 years ago. I paid a fortune for it. I thought they were together but they were two ladies waiting just like me. We spoke in Italian, they asked me questions and wanted to see my hat and touch it. We struck up a conversation about the finocchietto. I was pleased that I had a number in hand because it was clear that what was in the box was going to disappear. When Maria came ‘round to ask who was next I had my number. One of the ladies said, I was in such a swoon over this woman’s elegance and her hat that I forgot to get a number! In that moment I said to Maria, please let me take all three bunches and I will give the other two to each lady. All of them were taken aback. I was so happy to do it, not that they had complimented me but it was an act of random generosity that felt good.
So many people beg at the market and I know they consider us their patrons but it’s gets old and I find my attitude not always gentile. This felt like it was authentic and made them so happy because it was unexpected. Even Maria smiled for once.
They started speaking to me in French and I wasn’t responding and they said you aren’t French? I said “no, sono Americana”. They were taken aback and said in English, even though I speak Italian, we thought you were French, your style, your hat, your elegance. I blushed. Then I smiled thinking, I couldn’t be more American, my ancestry from deep south Clay Country. I had to laugh. I’ve never been mistaken for French. It’s every woman’s dream as supposedly they have things figured out no matter what age.
I also thought, poor America, we are getting such a bad rap these days. But I also thought, one more compliment like that and I would have given them my artichokes too.
Recipe: Pesto of Finochietto Selvatico
One large bunch of wild fennel fronds
1/2 cup of chopped blanched almonds, or with skins
2 cloves of finely chopped garlic
1 cup of extra virgin olive oil
Crunchy salt to taste
Rinse the fennel fronds and blanche them in boiling salted water until bright green and you can bite through easily. Let them cool.
Meanwhile, finely chop almonds and garlic. Finely chop fennel fronds as well. Mix together with olive oil and salt to taste. It has that slight taste of licorice and spring greens at the same time. Use over pasta, on top of a soup, or on top of toasted bruschetta with fresh ricotta.