A few weeks ago, Kate McDonough - author of The City Cook: Big City, Small Kitchen, Limitless Ingredients, No Time (Simon & Schuster, 2010) and creator of the wonderful site The City Cook -- wrote a feature in her City Cook newsletter called 'Choosing Olive Oil,' which detailed a visit to the Baroni Alimentari counter in Florence's Mercato Centrale (she and her husband spent two glorious weeks in Florence, where they rented an apartment about halfway between the Duomo and the train station). I am already a Baroni fan (as you can see from the photos above, taken by the talented Peggy Harrison) but if I wasn't yet, I would be immediately after reading Kate's piece because I know that whatever Kate recommends is going to be worthwhile. I followed her on her site for months and actually sent her an e-mail note suggesting she think about writing a book, and I was happy to learn that in fact an editor at Simon & Schuster had already approached her. Later, I read something she wrote about radishes in a post entitled 'Spring Cooking,' and she kindly granted me permission to include it in my upcoming Paris book (publication date: July 12th).
As I included Baroni under the letter B in the Tuscan and Umbrian Miscellany of my book, I won't repeat everything I wrote; but Kate's posting made me unable to resist enthusing once again about this wonderful purveyor of Italian culinary specialties and a great spot for picking up gifts (for others and yourself). I first learned of Baroni from food guru and cookbook author Faith Willinger, but Baroni isn't exactly a secret -- anyone who walks around the interior of the Mercato will eventually find the counter. It's quite large and is on a corner so it's hard to miss. Baroni sells some of the same culinary items as you'll find elsewhere in Florence, but the real reasons to shop here are the smiling, helpful, and knowledgeable staff (who are family members; that's Paola in the photo above), the opportunity to taste olive oils, vinegars, cheeses, and hams, and the items under its own label. In particular, Baroni offers a selection of true balsamic vinegars at good prices, including a set of four tiny bottles of differing ages that are lightweight and easy to pack.
In Kate's piece on tasting olive oils, she covers olive oil basics; notes on the tasting she did with Paola; and afterthoughts on buying olive oil in New York (but which apply to anywhere in North America). I urge you to subscribe to The City Cook's newsletter -- which I think you will really like -- so I don't want to quote too much from it; but I do think some points are worth repeating, like "lesser grades of olive oil, including plain "olive oil" may have been extracted with the addition of chemicals"; and "the color of an olive oil -- from pale gold to vibrant green -- is due to the climate in which the olives were grown and how mature the olives when they were picked"; and, as to why there is such a range in price between one bottle of oil and another ($7 to $42, for example), "mostly the difference has to do with lower priced oils being blends and higher priced ones being artisanal oils grown, produced and shipped by a small producer that carefully cultivates, harvests, and presses its own olives and then packages and carefully ships the oil. But some of the difference is just a triumph of marketing. Another reason we need to taste."
Here's to Baroni and The City Cook!