For those who don't take an interest in hunting, it is easy to forget that the transition from autumn to winter also marks the hunting season and the delicious promise of la caccia. Although not always readily available in supermarkets, most good Florentine butchers stock a variety of fresh local game from October to December.
There are several ways to prepare wild game, but the dish that usually comes to mind before many others is perhaps the world-famous French classic canard à l'orange (duck with orange). But just how traditionally French is this dish? It most likely has origins in Florence. Originally known as papero alla melarancia, it was invented in the Middle Ages, when it became popular in noble kitchens to use citrus fruits as a way to preserve meat. It was in this era that the powerful Medici family subsequently ordered the construction of limonaie (orangeries) in many of their villas, where they mainly cultivated lemons and oranges in large terracotta pots. Even today, these limonaie are important features of most Medici villas.
Papero alla melarancia was exported to France in 1529, when the 14-year-old Caterina de' Medici, daughter of Lorenzo II de' Medici, ruler of Florence, married the future king of France, Henry II. Forty chefs from Siena and Florence accompanied her to Paris, bringing some of their best recipes, many of which were later claimed by the French. Among these are crespelle (crepes; see TF 146), balsamella (béchamel sauce), carabaccia (onion soup; see TF 141) and, of course, papero alla melarancia, soon renamed canard à l'orange.
Along with her cooks and their recipes, Caterina de' Medici is also reported to have imported to France the fork (see TF 161), porcelain dishes, Venetian glassware, the Italian banking system, theatrical comedy and ballet, as well as the expectation that ladies would be present at dinner (previously they had been excluded, except for special occasions).
While Italians fiercely defend the theory that canard à l'orange originated in Florence, other nations, including France, have also claimed to be the source. In The Oxford Companion to Italian Food, Gillian Riley says that French recipes for duck with orange sauce existed as far back as the fourteenth century. However, the majority of food historians credit Caterina de' Medici, a veritable culinary trendsetter who brought more to France than any other noble, for this dish.