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Why Italians Puzzle Over Dishes Marked “à la Florentine”

Eggs Florentine, Sole Florentine, Quiche Florentine, even Florentine cookies—they all have one thing in common: They do not come from Florence. It’s rather misleading, but so often you see these recipes mistakenly described as Italian, when in fact, they are French dishes simply named after someone Italian—one Florentine in particular.

The fourteen-year-old Catherine de’ Medici, great-granddaughter of Florence’s influential Renaissance ruler, Lorenzo the Magnificent, became the wife of France’s Henry II in 1533. Legend has it that she brought her entourage of Florentine cooks with her to Paris, and in The Art of French Cooking (1945), Ernest Flammarion goes as far as to claim that these Florentine cooks are the creators of French cuisine. Notable dishes, from crêpes to onion soup to sorbet, have been linked to the kitchens of the Florentine noblewoman.

But the term “Florentine” is especially used in the presence of spinach. The dark leafy vegetable was grown in gardens all around the Tuscan capital during her time. It is said that it was her favorite vegetable, and she brought some with her to Paris, along with other Tuscan produce such as olive oil, white beans, artichokes, and figs. One (Italian) story claims that she insisted on spinach being included in every one of her meals. Whether it’s true or not, this vegetable is so connected to the Florentine queen that any dish with spinach in it is still known to the French as “Florentine-style.”
Eggs Florentine, a variant of eggs benedict where spinach takes the place of the bacon, is a classic example, as is Sole Florentine—a French dish in the meunière style, French for the miller’s wife, as the sole fillets are dusted in flour before being placed on a bed of spinach.

I asked my Francophile friend, Ann Mah (author of Mastering the Art of French Eating) about eating à la Florentine in France, and she said when she sees it on a menu she automatically thinks of a dish with spinach and a creamy sauce. She pointed me towards the important culinary encyclopedia Larousse Gastronomique, which agrees. Under the entry for à la Florentine, it states: “A method of preparation used mainly for fish, white meat, or eggs in which spinach (and usually Mornay sauce) are included.” However, it does go on to say the connection between the city of Florence and spinach are not known—before describing recipes like chicken supremes à la Florentine and a gratin of “Florentine” artichoke hearts stuffed with spinach. Sigh.

Florentine cookies—those thin, lacy, caramelized, teatime cookies studded with nuts or candied fruit and sometimes layered in chocolate—could not be less Tuscan. Tuscan baked goods are rustic, at best, and created to be durable and portable and not too sweet; think jawbreaking biscotti and yeasted bread enriched with lard. They’re not delicate and pretty, or made with large amounts of cream or techniques such a roux. So let’s get this straight: Florentine cookies are French. Again, they were likely created for and hence named in honor of some Florentine nobles visiting in the late seventeenth century.

To paraphrase Jean Orieux in his biography of the Florentine queen of France, “the saucepans were overturned” when Catherine de’ Medici arrived in Paris—so a few dishes named in her honor are not out of place. But the true cuisine of Florence is more austere than fancy. Start with making steaks the Florentine way and try eating panini like a Florentine, and you’ll see what it really means when something is à la Florentine: pared down and rustic.

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