There is a great trick to get your kids to eat spinach: cook it into scrambled eggs. This is how my folks got me to eat it, as passed down by my grandmother from her mother before her. I actually loved this scrambled eggs with spinach mixture as a child. But, I had a curious name for it. See, my grandmother called it Eggs Benedict. Weird, no? Most of us, today, being so food savvy, know that Eggs Benedict is a poached egg with ham and Hollandaise sauce, served on an English muffin. The original dish may well have included bacon (or even fish?), and most of the time, of course, the “ham” used is Canadian bacon.
So, why did I think that eggs Benedict was scrambled eggs and spinach for so long? Well, because, in French cooking, dishes served on a bed of spinach are called à la Florentine.
Of course, eggs Benedict is not actually French. The two common origin stories have it originating in New York but neither of these is likely correct as you can read in the article linked above. However, most professional chefs are well versed in French cooking terms, and so when the ham was replaced with a bed of spinach, it was called eggs Florentine. To be clear, placing entree’s on a bed of spinach is a traditional practice, and anytime you put eggs on top of spinach you can call it eggs Florentine, regardless of whether it is served with Hollandaise sauce. Serving entrees on a bed of spinach is so traditional, in fact, that I have grown disgusted by how many wannabe fine dining restaurants seem to think that anything becomes gourmet if you put greens underneath it. Others, of the rustic swank variety, seem to think that Eggs Benedict must always have spinach scattered around the plate. But I digress.
Incidentally, there is another way of serving eggs and spinach, whereby scrambled eggs are placed on top of a bed of spinach (usually fresh or lightly blanched) and served on top of toast. It is hard to say if my association of spinach and scrambled eggs could have come from this practice, but probably not, as this seems to be just one of endless egg and spinach dishes that may be called Florentine, and is likely a version of the Eggs Benedict style dish. We also see omelets with spinach being called Florentine, and let’s not forget Quiche Florentine. Most modern renditions of Eggs Florentine à la Benedict are really just Eggs Benedict with a layer of spinach added, often with tomatoes, chives, or other ingredients as well.
My Grandmother, once a professional cook, although not a trained chef, must have derived this association between eggs Benedict and spinach from this variation of the dish. She was obviously unaware of what Eggs Benedict was, and had no idea that dishes served with spinach were called Florentine by fancy-pants chefs, although this Southern cook could undoubtedly teach some of them a thing or two. Anyway, we see the connection between Eggs Benedict and spinach, but what does it have to do with Florentine?
Where did the name Florentine Come From?
Florentine refers to Florence, Italy, and the term would translate into something like “in the manner of Florence.” The origin of the term comes from a French queen named Catherine de Médicis, who was born in Florence and, in 1533, married Henri (Henry), the second son of King Francois I. Henry was the heir-apparent to the French throne, known as the dauphin in those days. When Francois I died in 1547, Catherine became the Queen of France. Quite ruthless, and justifiably paranoid, she imported her own cooks from Florence, and also is said to have brought along spinach seeds to grow. Se had her cooks make dishes with spinach, and this practice became popular enough that it came to be known as spinach à la Florentine, to denote the origin of the vegetable, and then eventually simply Florentine. Catherine is also claimed to have introduced many aspects of table etiquette to France, and to have introduced the fork to that country.
Spinach itself (Spinacea oleracea), gets its name from the old Persian word aspanakh. Spinach is believed to have originated in Persia and, in fact, still grows wild in Iran. It has been cultivated for over 2000 years. It was introduced into China as early as 647 BCE, but it did not reach Europe until the ninth century, when the Saracens invaded Sicily. Arabs alse brought it to Spain in the eleventh century, and it reached England by the mid-1500’s. In those days, it was called variously spinech, spinage, spinnedge, or even spynoches.
Other Use Of Florentine
Florentine has also been used to name a nut and candied fruit biscuit with a layer of chocolate on one side. Up until the 1800’s, this was a meat pie or tart with minced meat, currants, species, eggs, and other ingredients baked together. Similar to mince-meat pies or “mince pies”, it is hard to say what this dish had to do with Florence, Italy.