The secrets of Tuscany's cuisine
Bistecca fiorentina, panzanella, ribollita and pappa col pomodoro among its signature dishes
Splendid cities of art, at the heart of the Italian Renaissance. Rolling green hills and mountains. Fine sandy beaches and excellent tourist facilities. A great gastronomic tradition, a rich array of typical products, representing the raw materials of a cuisine with echoes of the past and rural influences, today rediscovered in the search for high quality, unadulterated foods. Last but not least, the wines: Tuscany is home to some of the best wines in the world, which are marvellous accompaniment to a cuisine which it is well worth getting discovered.
Bite into a slice of Tuscan bread drenched in olive oil and you will have captured in a mouthful the essence of this region's cookery, since bread and oil reflect its sober tradition, simple but extraordinarily unique. Tuscan bread is even mentioned in the lines of the Divina Commedia, where Dante Alighieri highlights its essential quality when he complains in exile about how salty he finds il pani altrui (other people's bread). Tuscan bread, with its hard crust and compact crumb, is in fact made without the addition of salt, making it the ideal foil for intense flavors, such as that of oil from the Lucca hills, one of Italy's finest.
The cookery of Tuscany may be simple, but has an important strength: the raw materials are all of the highest quality. A perfect example can be found in one of the region's hallmark dishes, bistecca alla florentina (Florentine steak), which to be "original" must be taken from the highly prized Chianina breed of cattle, bred in Val di Chiana, on the border with Umbria. Like bread and oil, it has become a symbol Tuscan cookery. It consists of a whole loin, cut thick, which should not weight over 700 grams and should be grilled with the absolute minimum interference: it should not be turned over frequently, nor should it be forked, because it would lose its tasty juices. Once cooked, it can be seasoned with salt and served with oil, pepper and lemon wedges.
The whole gastronomic tradition of inland Tuscany is influenced by country life. There are sausages, salami and hams (such as the typical prosciutto with its intense and penetrating flavor); antipasti such as panzanella, a salad of dried bread softened in water and served with tomato, onion, basil and vinegar; and unusual first courses, such as pappa col pomodoro, based on tomatoes cooked with oil, garlic, basil and pepper. Then there are vegetables soups cooked for hours, adding a drizzle of oil just before being served, such as the famous ribollita fiorentina.
There are of course also pulses, and in particular beans, which are cooked all'uccelletto, according to a traditional Florentine recipe, or al fiasco, using a technique widespread into the province of Pisa, where the beans are placed in a flask with water, oil, rosemary and other herbs and then cooked in hot embers. These delicious dishes are best enjoyed in the region's exceptional agriturismo.
In Siena, the city of the Palio, the traditional Christmas specialty is the delicious panforte, a cake made with almonds, flour, hazelnuts, cocoa, cinnamon, spices and candied peel. From the Apuan Alps, in the north of the region, comes lardo di Colonnata (cured belly pork), which was once eaten by marble quarry workers as an accompaniment to bread, and has now become a delicacy much sought after by connoisseurs.
The cuisine of the coast is completely different. The most famous dish is cacciucco, a fish soup from Livorno, which includes whichever fish takes the cook's fancy, ranging from shellfish and crustaceans, eels and flying squid, to mantis shrimp, moray eel, mullet, cod, lobster, octopus and cuttlefish. The result is a fantastic spicy dish, a sort of hot red soup with tasty ingredients poured on top of a slice of bread, seasoned with garlic and fried tomatoes and red hot chilli peppers. Tuscany also boasts an excellent mixed dish of fried seafood, based on red mullet and so-called cieche (blind), newly born elvers which owe their name to the fact they cannot yet see, and which are therefore easily caught.
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