Ten years ago, I moved to Florence by accident. My adventure started with a chance meeting and an intriguing suggestion. This was swiftly followed by an unexpected redundancy from a high-flying job and some months later, I was queuing for a taxi outside Florence’s train station with the address to a friend’s apartment crumpled in my hand. For the first time in my adult life, I was without a fixed income or a home of my own. I felt like a piece of flotsam washed up in the Renaissance gutters.
All these years later, I am still in Florence. The combination of the golden Tuscan light, the beauty of the Renaissance town, the voluble character of the people and the colours and noises of the market seduced me and healed me of the burn-out, inexplicable weight-gain and digestive problems of my ‘successful’ London life. My stress drained away, depression was cured by the daily practices that I learnt from my neighbours and joy in the simple rituals transformed my body and my spirit.
What struck me most was the way the Italians lived. They stopped to say hello on the street. They chatted with the greengrocer as they shopped. They didn’t drink from plastic bottles of water on the street, nor did I ever spot a takeaway coffee cup: they popped into a café and drank standing at the bar, talking to other customers. It affected the whole rhythm of their days. They took their time. They looked their best for every occasion. They were, I learnt, making la bella figura – a concept that demands that everything be as beautiful as possible, permeating every aspect of life. So I emulated them, measuring out my steps to force myself to abandon my big-city habit of rushing. I learnt to enjoy street-corner chats. I stood tall and looked up. I ate without counting calories and rediscovered fresh seasonal produce. And the enthusiasm and joy, which characterises the Italian attitude to life, started to seep into me, as surely as the weight and misery fell off.
The visits to my local fruit and veg market were a revelation. The produce was local and still speckled with earth. It had been years since I had felt that earthy connection with food. The first time I brought home a tomato from the market and sunshine exploded in my mouth, I fell giddily back in love with the simple pleasure of eating.
Dates with delightful and dastardly Italian men took me around the cave-like traditional eateries of Florence and the country trattorias of Chianti. There I learnt the benefits of the Italian style of eating: many courses of small helpings of the freshest local ingredients. The combination of excellent produce, respect for culinary tradition and plenty of extra-virgin olive oil made simple meals an epicurean delight. I studied the real Italian diet and was surprised to find out that extra-virgin olive oil fights dangerous stomach fat and reduces risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and insulin sensitivity. As a dedicated lover of coffee, I was gratified to learn that real coffee from good beans has more antioxidants than green tea, and the simple combination of pasta with home-made tomato sauce gives the exact right combination of good fats (from olive oil) and lycopene (from cooked/tinned tomatoes) to make it a superfood! Add a dusting of Parmesan – the cheese with the highest calcium content, with hardly any lactose and full of linoleic acid which amps the metabolism – and you really need to invent a whole new category – uberfood? – to measure this simple dish’s goodness.
What I learnt about living, eating and loving in Florence I call the Bella Figura method – a nod to the Italian philosophy of making everything as beautiful as it can be, just for its own sake. My take on the Bella Figura, my own unique method, is a sort of Mediterranean mindfulness, governing everything from how you walk down the street (with your head held high not buried in a smartphone), to how you dress (with style rather than fashion), to how to manage your love life (with passion). It encompasses how to shop, and what to eat, as well as showing how you can stay as slim as Italian women (statistically one of the slimmest in Europe) while enjoying a glass of red wine and scoop of gelato. Living by the Bella Figura method, it comes as no surprise to me that the Bloomberg Global Health Index recently ranked Italy as the top world’s healthiest country.
Here are some Bella Figura hacks to take home with you:
Make like Sophia Loren and drink excellent quality extra-virgin olive oil
Loren uses nothing else to cook with but also on her skin and hair; she even puts it in the bath. Scientists found that in just four weeks of replacing other fats with extra-virgin olive oil, both visceral and deep belly fat was reduced.
What and how to eat
The Italians take pleasure in their food. Eating mindlessly in front of the computer or television gives not only less pleasure, but makes it easier to overeat.
Everyday Italian ‘super’ foods
Extra-virgin olive oil: Fights dangerous stomach fat and reduces risk of cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes. Make like Sophia Loren who uses EVOO to cook with and also on her skin and hair, even in the bath.
Cappuccino: Real coffee made from good beans (without the syrups and extras) has more antioxidants than green tea.
Pasta al pomodoro: Pasta with home-made tomato sauce has the exact mix of good fats (from olive oil) and lycopene (from cooked/tinned tomatoes) to make it a superfood!
Parmesan: The cheese with the highest calcium content, hardly any lactose and linoleic acid which amps the metabolism.
Gelato: traditional homemade gelato has 30% less fat than regular ice creams
How to drink
A small glass of wine with dinner is the guide. In Tuscany, wine is thought of as a food and so only taken with a meal.
Festina lente: in haste slowness
There’s practically nothing that can’t be improved by slowing down – even climbing the stairs deliberately instead of running has been proven to lose you an extra pound a month. Consciously contemplate beauty be it a painting, an urban corner you love, a wide blue sky or the most exquisite shoes. Do this without any purpose other than your pleasure. When I first arrived in Florence and my unhappiness was palpable, I was advised to ‘let the beauty heal you’. I think it did. And if you follow the simple tips of Bella Figura, and learn to live the beautiful and slow life enjoyed by the Italians, it will do the same for you.
Bella Figura: How to Live, Love and Eat the Italian Way is out now, published by Bloomsbury in the UK, Knopf in US, Appetite Random House in Canada