Francine Segan is a celebrated food historian and one of America’s greatest connoisseurs of Italian cuisine. She regularly appears on TV, lectures across the world, and writes for several publications and magazines. Six of her books have been nominated for James Beard awards.
When Foods of Florence asked Francine about her career, she said her passion for food began more as an interest in the details of Renaissance everyday life than as a preoccupation with today’s food. Her first book, Shakespeare’s Kitchen: Renaissance Recipes for the Contemporary Cook, published in 2004 by Random House, was a valuable contribution to the culinary heritage of the Renaissance. Although a historical approach to food is an essential component of her style, Francine now describes herself as an archeologist of contemporary Italy, not of the past.
Several of her cookbooks, including Pasta Modern. New and Inspired Recipes from Italy and Dolci: Italy’s Sweets, focus on Italian regional cooking and are packed with flavorful facts about the history of Italian food. As she told Foods of Florence, “I not only love the amazing flavors and variety of Italian food, but I adore that there is a long, profound and deep history behind so many Italian dishes.”
Francine first came to Florence twenty years ago, when her family rented a house on the Tuscan Riviera. She now makes frequent visits to Tuscany and visits Florence at least twice a year. “A perfect blend of the traditional with innovative, inspired, new explorations of classic dishes” is how she portrays the current culinary scene in Tuscany. When in Florence, Francine never fails to visit Teatro del Sale – “especially if Maria Cassi is performing,” she adds. Then says, “It’s the best bargain in town and a delightful evening combining fabulous food and entertainment. I have so many favorite dishes that Chef Fabio Picchi prepares and included one of his pasta dishes in Pasta Modern, but I especially love his polenta with a hint of cinnamon.” Francine’s Florence favorites also include coffee house Ditta Artigianale, Rivoire Caffè, and a few paninoteche (“panino shops”) such as All’Antico Vinaio, Semel, and Trippa Pollini.
We were curious to know how her perception of Italian cuisine changed with time, and Francine said, “My respect and admiration for Italian cooking has magnified over the years. Italian food is the hands-down most popular cuisine in the United States. There are more Italian restaurants than any other cuisine. Americans adore Italian food. It’s often said in the U.S. that one could eat Italian food every day for a year and never get bored or repeat the same dish twice.”
Francine shared with Foods of Florence her recipe for Schiacciata all’Uva (“grape focaccia”), a dish she tasted her first time in Florence. She chose it because “it is something that although you can make at home you MUST experience in Florence in autumn, after the vendemmia (“grape harvest”).” Her focaccia is moist and bursting with flavor, “sophisticated and rustic at the same time.” In her mouthwatering cookbook Dolci: Italy’s Sweets, she explains that, “This dessert is actually two focaccias, one baked right over the other, topped and stuffed with plump grapes. The bottom crust bakes thin and crisp while the top puffs up tender and cakey. Some of the grapes collapse a little and release pools of pretty purple juice, while others stay whole.” Francine recommends to serve it warm, with a dessert, cheese or a glass of red wine.
Grape and Rosemary Focaccia (Schiacciata all’Uva)
From: Dolci: Italy’s Sweets
By Francine Segan
10 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons finely minced fresh rosemary
1 packet, 1/4 ounce, fast acting yeast
10 1/2 ounces, about 2 cups all-purpose flour
11 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 pounds black seedless grapes, stems removed
2 teaspoons anise seeds
In a small saucepan, heat 4 tablespoons of the oil and rosemary until warm. Allow to cool. Reserve.
Sprinkle the yeast in 1/2 cup of warm water and let rest until it bubbles, about 2 minutes. Sift the flour onto a clean work surface or in a large bowl. Make a hallow well in the center and fill with the yeast water, reserved rosemary oil, 3 tablespoons of the sugar and salt, and slowly begin to incorporate the flour into the center hallow, until dough forms. Knead the dough until smooth and rest it in a lightly oiled bowl until it doubles, about 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Pour 2 tablespoons of the olive oil into a rectangular baking pan, about 9 by 13-inches or 14 by 10 inches.
Put the grapes into a bowl and using a large fork or potato masher, gently mash about half of the grapes, leaving half of them whole. Don’t mash them to a pulp! Just gently break the skin.
Take slightly more than half of the dough and roll it out to fit the baking pan. Put the dough into the pan and brush with the 2 tablespoons of remaining olive oil (if you like, you can use a branch of rosemary to brush on the oil). Top with 1/2 of the grapes. Sprinkle with 4 tablespoons of the sugar and 1 teaspoon of the anise seeds.
Roll out and hand stretch the remaining dough to fit the pan. It will be thin. Put the dough over the grape layer. It’s okay if it doesn’t fully cover the bottom layer. Spread with the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, remaining grapes, sugar, and anise seeds. It’s okay if the grapes roll off onto the sides of the pan. It all comes together nicely as it bakes.
Allow to rest for 20 minutes before putting it into the oven so the ingredients can absorb and the dough settle. Bake for about 1 hour until golden brown on top and cooked through.
Allow to rest at room temperature, in the baking pan so the focaccia can absorb the grape’s juices. Serve at room temperature.
Use all 3 pounds of the grapes. I almost couldn’t believe it when I saw all those grapes and that little bit of dough. No worries. It’s been tested, retested, and tested again. The grapes magically absorb into the dough.
Lost in translation:
Schiacciata— meaning, “flattened or squashed”—- is the term they use in Florence for foccacia. In Florence, schiacciata coll’uva is sold in bread and pastry shops during the fall wine grape harvest season, vendemmia. It’s a common mid-morning snack, eaten there on the spot, after the day’s grocery shopping.