March 4, 2024

The Bistecca alla Fiorentina It is a traditional dish of Tuscan cuisine. Specifically, and as its last name indicates, it is a typical recipe from Florence. The main ingredient is a cut of beef loin with its bone, generally from the Chianina breed, with a minimum thickness of four centimeters and a weight of at least 800 grams. It is cooked on the grill, in coal embers, leaving the interior raw. Salt and pepper are served at the table and accompanied by a Chianti, one of the most renowned and famous reds of the Italian region. About its origin, as with any typical dish, there is a lot of legend. One of them relates the recipe to the Medici themselves, who to celebrate the feast of San Lorenzo every August 10 made bonfires and served this cut of meat to the inhabitants of the city. Today, if we take a walk through the historic center of Florence, we will find a whole series of old-looking restaurants, often called osteria, which display huge T-bone steaks hanging in their shop window with the pride of offering tourists a good portion of Italian tradition in the form of a gastronomic experience. The only problem? That, in reality, the Florentines did not eat steak.

“It is true that the steak it is part of the tradition of Florence, but here very little was eaten steak”, tells EL PAÍS Mirella Loda, professor of Geography at the University of Florence and expert in social geography, author of the study History to eat. The foodification of the historic center of Florence (History to eat: The ‘foodification’ of the historic center of Florence). Mainly, because the steak It was an expensive cut, unaffordable for most pockets: “In the past, not so much meat was eaten and, when it was eaten, it used to be well-done because there was no assurance that it was fresh and of good quality.” is the steak that bites its own tail: the interest that tourists show in this dish because they have the false belief that it represents traditional food ends up generating a kind of intangible cultural heritage where the entire city worships the ribeye. “But it is an invented cultural heritage that, however, has taken over the main streets of the historic center,” says Loda.

The Bistecca alla Fiorentina perfectly illustrates a phenomenon called foodification either foodification, a label that aims to explain how city centers are transformed through food, bars and restaurants, shaped in turn by tourism. “We have observed a profound and functional change in the historic center of Florence that can be extrapolated to most cities”, explains the Geography teacher. In Spain, one could think of all those paella restaurants served to tourists outside the Valencian Community or in the traditional-looking tapas bars located in the centers of the municipalities that serve the same pintxos basques or patatas bravas than oxtail or shrimp tortillas. The tourist is unaware of the true tradition, but he imagines it and the market materializes it on a plate.

On one hand, the foodification it is a simple response to the demand of the tourists: “There are more and more and they all need to eat”, explains Loda. And, on the other hand, it is a response to the new forms of tourism, where visitors seek the authentic, traditional experience, called to do what they think no one else does in a city they are visiting. In the Italian city, a visit to the Uffizi Gallery or the Cathedral of Santa Maria Del Fiore is no longer enough: “Food has become a fundamental part of the tourist experience.” These two factors produce a change that turns urban centers into spaces for leisure and consumption. “The historic center of the city has lost its residential, commercial and productive function, and tourism has occupied those spaces”, adds Loda.

The interior of the San Miguel market in Madrid, one of the examples that the authors of the essay on 'foodication' use to illustrate how food ate the city.
The interior of the San Miguel market in Madrid, one of the examples that the authors of the essay on ‘foodication’ use to illustrate how food ate the city.

What at first glance may seem like a return to origins or a claim to what is local and unique is also a response to the demands of tourism: “Now, in Italy, restaurants are once again called osteria, a word that evokes something old and traditional, but that we Italians no longer use”, explains the teacher. In Spain we find again inns, eateries with first names in honor of an owner who never existed or taverns adorned with ceramic tile facades and white marble bars that give the appearance of tradition, even if the premises are new. A lifelong bar aesthetic where the neighbors no longer live, but tourists from inside and outside the city.

It’s called gentrification, dude.

430 kilometers from the city of Florence, in Turin, friends Paolo tex Tessarin, a political journalist, and Marco Perucca, a writer and musician, were having a few beers in their neighborhood when Perucca asked: “Hey, have you noticed that there are only places to eat and drink around here?” Paolo responded: “It’s called gentrification, dude.” Together, they began working on an essay that came to light last February entitled Foodification. Eat the cibo if it’s mangiato the city (Foodification. How food has eaten the city). “Our goal is to explain what has happened in Turin,” they explain to this outlet, “the former city of the FIAT company that, after its departure, is trying to become an elegant and tourist city.” They say that the transformation process began with the Winter Olympic Games in 2006: “Now everyone, and no one is excluded here, we consider ourselves experts gourmets thanks to television formats such as masterchef and we like to tell our friends about our last vacation based on the essential places that the Lonely Planet. But how does our district change when the local economy is based on tourism?” they wonder.

They call it gentrification gourmet and they illustrate it through what happens in the markets: “Think of a walk through the local market in your neighborhood where you usually buy fruits and vegetables. Suddenly, very slowly, tourists appear in search of ‘the authentic’, the exotic experience. Then, the communication also changes: what for you is usual food now becomes ‘traditional food’ (written on a blackboard with a smile) that is sold to foreigners”. As a consequence, they explain, prices increase and locals suffer this increase. Little by little, they are replaced by a growing number of tourists who now need new services: the market stall adds a couple of tables so that the tourist can eat there, so the stall becomes a restaurant. The latest evolution is the transformation of the menu of the day into an experience gourmet, “perfectly fit for an Instagram photo.” In Spain, they give as an example of gentrification gourmet the San Miguel market in Madrid or the Boquería market in Barcelona. Very few local people go to them to fill their shopping cart.

City centers as theme parks

“The impact of this phenomenon occurs at many levels,” explains Mirella Loda from Florencia. The first is the most obvious: “There is an accelerated change in the city in favor of tourism and, above all, what tourists expect to find.” Bars, restaurants and outdoor terraces: “From 2008 to 2018, the number of terraces in the historic center of Florence has increased by 67%, this translates into a commercialization and erosion of public space, which is no longer free, since to inhabit it you have to sit at a table and consume”.

A night view of the Florence Cathedral.  From 2008 to 2018, the terraces in its historic center have increased by 67%.
A night view of the Florence Cathedral. From 2008 to 2018, the terraces in its historic center have increased by 67%.Richard Gray (EMPICS Entertainment / Cordon Press)

On a second level, and as the individual experience is sought more and more, generating this false idea of ​​being “savoring the true tradition”, the cultural tradition of the city is shaped. “And, in a third level, when it reaches an exaggerated point, it completely destroys the city. It ends up turned into Las Vegas or a theme park full of tourist stereotypes.” Loda emphasizes that tourism is something natural, even positive as long as measures are put in place: “The administration has to find a balance between tourism and other functions of the city that are equally fundamental, such as residence.”

However, the local administration often sees this change in the neighborhoods as something beneficial: “Now it is happening in the districts close to the historic center,” explain the authors of the essay on foodification, “developers and the mayor decide that a certain district needs development. It needs to become stylish, new and attractive to tourists and the local middle class.” The neighborhood begins to become fashionable. “Shops start hosting small art shows, the media start talking about these places as ‘bubbling with life’ (ignoring how hard it was to live there a few years ago), and all of a sudden you’re surrounded by cocktail bars, craft beer bars and modern restaurants. The process is gradual, and at first it doesn’t seem so bad: “Until your hardware store has turned into an industrial-style restaurant and there’s no store where you can buy screws.” Due to the elegance and beauty of the district, the rental price increases and the old residents have to move to more popular neighborhoods.

In this endless cycle, the tourist is not the only one to blame: “If I go to the nearest neighborhood, cool from the city and eat in the trendy restaurant, choosing a special, sustainable and exotic dish, what I am doing is showing everyone that I have a certain cultural and economic level: I am part of the middle class, I am above everything and I show it to you through the photos on social networks”, explain the authors of the essay on foodification in Turin. Already in 1998, the American sociologist Sharon Zukin called this gentrifying process “domestication by a capuchin”. She was referring to the moment in which the creative and bourgeois classes transformed a humble neighborhood after their arrival and that was made perceptible through the new cafeterias cool which were beginning to open. In the age of social media, it’s much easier to show that a neighborhood is hip, cool, and therefore safe for people of similar socioeconomic status, through a photo uploaded to Instagram.

“It is important to observe the phenomenon in a critical way, but not in an ideological way because, in the end, we all participate in the same phenomenon and act in the same way,” explains Mirella Loda, who admits that she is the first to get angry when see a new restaurant, u osteria, with ribeyes in the storefront in his city. “In the end, anger never brings practical or concrete solutions.” One of these solutions involves increasing social and cultural activities in the historic centers and their surroundings, to ensure that the city is not completely in the hands of the tourist economy and, as Tex Tessarin and Marco Perucca point out, “that these activities are not always related to consumption”. If something does not change, they are pessimistic: “Margaret Thatcher already said it… there is no alternative if we insist on continuing to live in cities within a neoliberal model.”

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