As a food tradition in Florence, Italy, ‘alla fiorentia‘ runs the gamut of local cuisine, and includes biscetta, lampredotto, wild boar ragú and locally-produced porcini. However, move that idea of ‘à la florentine‘ to Paris, and we see but one thing: some or other foodstuff sitting on a pile of spinach and covered over with a thick, white sauce.
Where do the French get the idea that spinach and béchamel is somehow evocative of Florence?
The answer lies with the all-powerful Medici dynasty. Catherine de’ Medici was the daughter of daughter of Lorenzo II de’ Medici and Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne. In 1533, at the age of 14 years, she was married off to King Henry II of France and became Queen of France. Henry was succeeded by three of his sons – all of whom were offspring of Catherine. The sons were so young on their accession (particularly the feeble Francis II) that Catherine essentially ran France for years.
When Catherine made her Hannibalesque journey over the Alps from Italy to France to take her place at the side of her new King, she brought with her a massive entourage of courtiers, valets, ladies in waiting, footmen and … chefs. Those chefs were carrying with them both the recipe for ‘glue sauce,’ which later became ‘béchamel,’ and a stash of spinach seeds. The seeds are said to have been cultivated in their new Parisian home (but probably grew natively in the south of France anyway). Catherine was a big fan of spinach, having it with many of her meals.
And that is how we end up with ‘à la florentine‘ – ‘like the girl from Florence.’
The dish given here is oeufs mollets à la florentine, which is softly-boiled eggs finished florentine style. The recipe is from Jacques Pepin, and is derived from a 1907 dish given in Auguste Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire as ‘oeufs à la florentine’ (recipe 1365 in the 5th English Edition I have).
You can watch Chef Pepin make the dish here:
Should you wish to pay Catherine de’ Medici a visit, she is interred with Henry II in Basilica Cathedral of Saint Denis, 1 Rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 93200 Saint-Denis, France.
Oeufs mollets à la florentine
- 8 eggs
- For the spinach:
- 1kg spinach
- 3 tbsp unsalted butter
- Sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and freshly grated nutmeg
- 3 tbsp Gruyère cheese, grated
- For the enriched béchamel sauce:
- 1 tbsp unsalted butter
- 1 tbsp plain flour
- 250ml milk
- Freshly ground white pepper and salt
- 1 egg yolk
- To assemble:
- 2 tbsp Parmesan cheese, finely grated (more if liked)
To prepare the eggs: Bring a shallow saucepan or sauté pan of water to a boil in a shallow saucepan. Prick a small hole in the rounder end of each egg with a pin – this will help prevent the shells from cracking during cooking. Using a small spoon, gently lower the eggs into the boiling water, and let it come back to a simmer. Cook for about 6 minutes. Pour the water out and shake the pan to crack the eggshells. Cool the eggs thoroughly in a bowl of iced water. Gently shell the eggs (to prevent breaking them) under cold running water. Start from the round end where the air pocket is, and use the running water to help separate the membrane. These eggs are soft-boiled, so way more care is needed than for a hard-boiled egg.
For the spinach: Wash the spinach, and throw it wet into a large pain, cover and wilt. Drain the spinach in a colander and immediately refresh under cold running water to stop the cooking and keep the color. Drain again, pressing on the spinach a bit to extract as much water as possible.
Put the spinach on a chopping block and coarsely chop. Melt the butter in the spinach pan over high heat and cook until it turns brown. Season and add nutmeg to taste. Mix well with a fork, and cook for 2 minutes. Keep warm.
For the sauce: Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan. Stir in the flour until smooth and cook, stirring constantly, for about 1 minute, until the mixture froths, without browning. Add the milk, stirring constantly, and bring to a boil. Add seasoning to taste and continue cooking over low heat for 1 minute, stirring constantly with the whisk. Cool for 5 minutes. Add the egg yolk to the sauce, whisking very fast and hard to avoid scrambling.
To assemble the dish: Pre-heat your grill. Arrange the spinach in the bottom of an gratin dish large enough to accommodate the eggs. Arrange the cold eggs on the spinach, with a little space between them, and sprinkle the cheese on top. Coat the eggs with the sauce and sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese. Place under the hot broiler (not too close, so the eggs have a chance to get hot inside) for 5 minutes, or until the sauce is nicely browned. Serve immediately.
The amount of Parmesan sprinkled over significantly alters the look for the dish. We used a lot because we like cheese, so we get an orange, gratin look. Less Parmesan will give you a blonder, more mottled appearance.