Food & Wine in Tuscany
The legendary and extremely simple food of Tuscany is the result of centuries of poverty and therefore has been based on salads, legumes, cereals and meat since the Middle Ages.
The legendary and extremely simple food of Tuscany is the result of centuries of poverty and therefore has been based on salads, legumes, cereals and meat since the Middle Ages. Olive oil is almost always used rather than lard, and vegetable soups rather than pasta. All the food is bread related and of course the main drink is wine that lends colour to every glass.
Although the modern trends in food have practically swept away many regional culinary traditions, Tuscany can still boast of an incredible historic continuity in traditional cooking and therefore has managed to preserve dishes that the present research into genuine foods is once more bringing back into the limelight, to the joy of all tastebuds, including those of its foreign visitors. We should also remember that most typical Tuscan dishes are linked to particular areas or the various seasons of the year.
Florence, for instance, is famed for its steaks and "ribollita" (thick bread and vegetable soup), tripe, doughnuts, flat bead with grapes and for "cenci", twists of fried pastry dusted with icing suger, prepared for the period of Carnival,
Nearby Prato instead can boast the characteristic "cantuccini" (almond biscuits) for dipping in Holy Wine, while the local dishes of the district of Pistoia are giblets soup (known as "the prisoner" because it was given to convicts in jail), "briachina", a red and green salad, and "bertoli", tasty slices of apple dried in the sun on reed matting.
The Nievole Valley is specialised in exquisite menus based on fried frogs and the famous Sorana beans. The delicious "necci" from the mountains above Pistoia (flat bread made with chestnut flour and cooked between two hot metal plates), is even better served with ricotta (sheep's curd). We can instead find the "brigidino", an aniseed flavoured biscuit made of puff pastry, defined by Artusi as "Tuscany's special delight", at Lamporecchio on the plain below.
Lucca's local speciality is the "buccellato", a cake made from a mixture of water, risen flour, sugar, aniseed and raisins, while the Garfagnana area is famous for its spelt, a cereal used by the ancient Romans, and the resulting thick soup today graces even the most sophisticated tables.
The old Roman village of Colonnata in the province of Carrara gave birth and well as its name to its pork lard, which is matured in marble containers and flavoured with salt, pepper, cinnamon, garlic and rosemary.
Versilia boasts several recipes with Tuscan "pesto" (pestled basil and pine nuts), which is more delicate than the original version from Genoa. Other local favourites are the crunchy "befanini", strangely shaped biscuits made from butter, milk, sugar, flour and grated orange peel and the even better known "cecina", thin flat bread made from the flour of chick peas.
Specialities in the Pisa area include tasty black and white truffles, eels with peas, dried cod with potatoes and, for All Saints Day, the savoury "bischeri" cake, based on mountain spinach, cheese, nutmeg, softened stale bread, rice and eggs.
Nearby Livorno's most famous dish, the "cacciucco", a fish soup, which requires real art to make, is an absolute must for the palate. There are various schools of thought as to the way it should be prepared, though the most traditional recipe is made by frying up red onion with garlic, parsley, a pinch of red pepper and a little Tuscan wine. Some tomato and various types of fish are then added, according to the length of cooking required: first cuttlefish, hound, and octopus, followed by spotted dogfish, scorpion fish and pullets, and then, last of all, salema, small mullet and horse mackerel. The soup is simmered on a low flame until cooked and then served on top of large slices of toasted bread.
The oldest dish in the Maremma is the so-called "acquacotta" (cooked water), a complete meal that was originally made from next to nothing (thus its ironic name), invented to feed the local cowboys and charcoal burners. It gradually became richer and richer and now it is a tasty soup served in all the local restaurants. It is made with water, salt, bread, a little oil, seasonal salads, eggs or mushrooms and a grating of sheep's cheese. People who prefer something more filling should try the local wild boar, roasted or stewed, and flavoured with red wine, bay leaves and rosemary. Typical sweets include "birilli", a sort of small ring-shaped cake made with honey, "sospiri", made with whipped sugar and white of egg, and the "zuccata", an energising marrow jam.
Our parade of Tuscan flavours continues in the Casentino area, where the traditional dish is known as the "scottiglia", a meat soup made with pieces of beef, pork, chicken, duck and pigeon cooked with red pepper in red wine and a sauce. The area offers many other culinary specialities, like the "frugiate" (roast chestnuts), snails in a sauce, "panina" (bread flavoured with spices and raisins), and "sbriciolona", a pork salami, known elsewhere as "finocchiona".
"Pici", thick home-made spaghetti that vary in length and can be served with a hare or meat sauce or simply with sheep's cheese, are only one of the delicious specialities to be found on Sienese tables. Of course the real pride of Siena is its cakes, like "panforte" (in ancient times known as "panpepato" or peppered bread), "ricciarelli" and "cavallucci", as well as the "copate" (Sienese nougat), traditionally said to be the result of the industrious creativity of the nuns who once lived in the enclosed convents.
However one of the things that almost all the regional cooking has in common is bread or, at least, one of the many types of bread to be found in Tuscany, all without salt and preferably cooked in a wood burning oven. This is partly to avoid spoiling the flavour of the food the bread accompanies and also because salt was a very expensive product in the past. Tuscan bread comes in all shapes and sizes, each with its own specific name, and ranges from the ordinary loaf to round loaves, canapes and flat buns to unleavened bread with oil and the delicious rosemary buns flavoured with saltanas and rosemary. The suggestive little town of Buonconvento even boasts a small but very interesting Bread Museum, for those who find themselves in the area.
In conclusion, you can find vegetable and bread soups almost everywhere, their main ingredient being precisely stale bread.