Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.
What Is It About Tuscany?
In 1997, Frances Mayes (published poet, gourmet cook, and travel journalist) wrote Under the Tuscan Sun, her memoir of impulsively moving to Italy and purchasing an abandoned villa in the spectacular Tuscan countryside. Her story was retold, (although in a more formulaic, predictable, and clichéd format) in the movie of the same name by Touchstone Pictures in 2003.
Obviously, I'm not a big fan of the movie—but truth be told, food, drink, and scenery were the real stars of the show.
Ms. Mayes fell in love with the wonderful food and landscapes of this idyllic corner of Italy. In beautifully descriptive language, she ushered her readers through the discovery of the beauty and simplicity of life in Tuscany. It’s a story we can easily identify with because, let’s be honest, moving to Tuscany is what everybody wants to do.
So Where Exactly Is Tuscany?
Is it a country? A province? A city? Tuscany is Italy's fifth-largest region and one of its wealthiest. The regional capital, Florence, was the nerve center of the Renaissance and later the capital of the newly formed Kingdom of Italy from 1865 to 1871. This triangular-shaped region in the northwestern portion of Italy is comprised of ten individual provinces, each with their own unique identity and charm.
That's the "geography" of Tuscany, but I believe that it is not so much a place as a feeling, a philosophy, a way of being. For me, Tuscany is a little bit of Heaven on Earth.
The Provinces of Tuscany
- Massa e Carrara: Over 160 castles and castle ruins dot the quiet countryside. Here centuries-old traditions of making one’s own food and wine still exist.
- Lucca: A green valley northwest of Florence which contains almost perfectly preserved medieval architecture.
- Pistoia: A famous tourist destination for skiers.
- Prato: Center for textile production since the 12th century.
- Firenze (Florence): Rich history, architecture, and art treasures.
- Pisa: The tower, and so much more. Over 20 historic churches, medieval palaces, and the University of Pisa which was established in the 12th century.
- Arezzo: One of the wealthiest areas in Tuscany due to its tradition of goldsmithing.
- Siena: Famous for its cuisine, art, museums, medieval cityscape, and the palio, a horse race held twice a year.
- Grosseto: Home of the CIMA (Concerti in Monte Argentario) Festival, an Italian classical music festival.
- Livorno: A coastal province which includes several islands of the Italian Archipelago, including Elba and Capraia.
What Is Tuscan Cuisine?
The food of Tuscany has been called cucina povera, or “poor cooking.” Simply put, traditional Tuscan meals are based on inexpensive ingredients. Forget about complicated seasonings or elaborate preparations. The beauty of the of Tuscan cuisine is in its simplicity.
Fresh, locally available ingredients are hearty and full of flavor because they are selected at their peak and lovingly prepared using time-tested methods. Whether foraging for mushrooms, participating in the grape harvest or sampling a genuine bottle of Tuscan olive oil, local and homegrown is a lifestyle!
Please note that although I list four separate courses here, the intent is not for you to prepare all four courses. Pick and choose the items that suit your tastes, your time, pocketbook, and your waistline.
Antipasti is literally "before the pasta." This is the appetizer or hors-d'oeuvre course, some savory, salty tidbits to awaken your taste buds. Think not only about the taste of these pre-meal offerings but also the textures and colors. Your display need not be expensive (keep in mind that this is poor cooking), but strive for something crisp, something soft, salty, briny, and vibrant colors. Typical antipasti (the plural of antipasto) from a Tuscan kitchen are
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- salami and cheese (the Tuscan's will be homemade of course)
- Tuscan bread--served fresh or lightly grilled/toasted.
- olives, and
- perhaps some marinated vegetables.
Here's my recipe for carrots:
- 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into matchstick pieces or coarsely grated
- In a large bowl, combine mustard and vinegar. Whisk to blend.
- Gradually whisk in olive oil.
- Add carrots and toss to coat with dressing.
- Marinate at room temperature, tossing occasionally, for 2 hours.
The primo is the first course. A typical Tuscan starter would be:
- or soup (my "almost world famous" ribollita recipe is here)
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 2 stalks celery, finely chopped
- 3 medium carrots, finely chopped
- 1/3 cup plus 2 teaspoons olive oil, divided
- 1 large red tomato, diced
- 2 (14-ounce) cans cannellini beans (do not drain)
- 2 cups vegetable broth
- 7 ounces Tuscan kale, tough rib removed and leaves chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme
- *8 slices artisanal French of Italian bread, diced (see note below)
- pinch red pepper flakes
- salt and pepper, to taste
- Sauté the onion, celery, and carrots in 1/3 cup olive oil in a stockpot or large cooking pot until softened—about 5 minutes. Add the chopped tomato and sauté a few minutes more.
- Add one can of the beans and 1 cup of the vegetable broth. Puree the other can of beans plus remaining 1 cup of vegetable broth in blender or food processor. Pour pureed beans into the stockpot.
- Add the garlic, thyme, and remaining 2 teaspoons olive oil to the stock pot; simmer a few minutes. Stir in the kale and continue to cook a few minutes more, until the kale begins to wilt.
- Stir in the blended beans and broth. Bring all to a simmer over low heat. Simmer for 30 minutes.
- Stir the bread into the soup. Continue cooking for another 30 minutes, mixing occasionally. This is a good time to check the salt and pepper too.
- Add the rest of the beans and broth and a pinch of red hot pepper. Mix in well.
- Serve warm with a bit of olive oil.
*NOTE: If your bread is not dry, you can slice it and bake it in the oven at low heat to dry it quickly.
A Note on Ingredients: Homemade Pasta and Wild Boar
Tuscan cooks are also proud of their skills in preparing homemade pasta. I love pappardelle, wide thick ribbons of pasta cloaked with a rich meat sauce.
Wild boar is the usual protein of choice in the Tuscan kitchen. The $35 per pound price tag prevents me from using it (this is frugal cooking, right?), but if it is readily available to you, please use it. Wild boar is lean, rich and gamey. I will not pretend that pork is a reasonable substitute, or even a second cousin, but it will have to suffice.
Wild Boar Ragu
- 1 pound wild boar, cut in half-inch dice (or substitute pork shoulder)
- 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small onion, finely diced
- 5 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup carrots, finely diced
- 1/3 cup celery, finely diced
- 1/4 cup brandy
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1 cup red wine (Chianti would be perfect for this)
- coarsely ground black pepper
- a pinch of red pepper flakes
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the olive oil, then garlic, onion, carrots, and celery. Cook, stirring occasionally until the vegetables begin to soften, about 8 to 10 minutes.
- Add the boar or pork and sauté another 5 minutes or until the meat begins to brown.
- Add the brandy and cook for 5 to 7 minutes or until the brandy has evaporated.
- Pour in the chicken stock, cover, and simmer 1 hour.
- Add the red wine, cover, and simmer another hour.
- Taste and season with salt and pepper as desired.
- Five minutes before serving, stir in the tomato paste.
If you are feeling particularly hungry (and ambitious) polenta is a wonderful platform for the wild boar ragu. Instant polenta is available, but I prefer the flavor and texture of this traditional one:
- 3 cups water or unsalted chicken broth
- 1 cup milk
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1 cup polenta
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Bring water, milk, and salt to boil over high heat in a large saucepan. Reduce heat to medium and stir constantly as pour in the polenta in a slow steady stream. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, 15 minutes.
- Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring frequently, for 30 minutes. It will be very thick and will sputter, so be careful. When the polenta is the thickness of cooked cereal and the grains are no longer gritty, stir in the butter and Parmesan cheese.
The secondo, or second course, is usually meat, poultry, or fish, roasted or grilled with fresh herbs.
Rosemary Roasted Chicken
- 1 whole chicken, about 3 pounds
- 1 small lemon
- 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped plus 1 large sprig
- 1/2 small onion
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 cup dry white wine
- Preheat oven to 375°F. Rinse chicken and pat dry inside and out.
- Cut the lemon into 4 pieces—discard the pits and ends.
- Place the cut lemon, the onion, and the rosemary sprig in the cavity of the chicken.
- Rub the skin of the chicken liberally with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle on the chopped rosemary.
- Place chicken in small roasting pan. Pour in the white wine.
- Bake uncovered 1 hour and 30 minutes in the preheated oven, to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F. Remove from heat, and baste with the juices and drippings. Cover with aluminum foil, and allow to rest about 10 minutes before serving.
Each second course is accompanied by vegetables, a side dish—whatever is in season. You could simply offer roast potatoes (especially if you are roasting a chicken), fresh spring peas, artichokes, or spinach. Salads might also be offered along with or instead of the meat course.
Tuscan cooks are thrifty cooks; a common and refreshing salad (panzanella) is composed of fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, and day-old bread.
Panzanella (Bread Salad)
- day-old bread
- cucumber, peeled and diced
- tomatoes, Roma, beefsteak, heirloom, or tomato of your choice
- red onion, thinly sliced
- basil leaves
- olive oil
- salt and pepper
- Suggestions for serving two people: 4–5 slices of day-old bread (1/2 loaf), 1 cucumber, 4 (Roma/small) tomatoes (or 1–2 large), 5–10 basil leaves, 1/4 red onion.
- Take the day-old bread, and lightly moisten it under the faucet. It should be moistened all the way through. If it’s too wet, gently squeeze excess water from the bread with your hands and set aside while chopping vegetables. The bread should crumble, not clump/collapse or get soggy.
- Shred the bread into a large salad bowl. I like to keep some larger pieces of bread in my panzanella, but you can crumble the bread down until there are very fine pieces, or “breadcrumbs” that resemble couscous.
- Cut the cucumbers and tomatoes into pieces and add them to the bowl. Thinly slice a red onion and chiffonade the basil. Chiffonade means that you place all of the basil leaves in one layer, roll them up like a jelly roll, and then use a sharp knife to make very thin slices).
- Add vinegar and olive oil and mix completely (start with a small amount of each, like 1 tablespoon of vinegar and 3 tablespoons of olive oil) and add more to taste. Taste before adding salt and pepper.
- The salad can be served immediately or chilled for 30 minutes in the refrigerator before serving.
Set the Tone When You Set the Table
The Tuscan table is not about formal bone china and crisply starched napkins. This is the table where comfort, conversation, fun, and food cooked with love are enjoyed by all. For my Tuscan table, I shop at the thrift stores. Colorful plates (they don't have to match), bright napkins and some candles are all that you need.
And one splurge—fresh flowers. Please put flowers on or near your table. Not expensive long-stemmed roses. Daisies, zinnias, big floppy sunflowers. Sunflowers—of the hundreds of memories I cherish from travel in Italy, the sunflowers are near the top of my list. Fields of gold covered the landscape as I road the train to San Gimignano.
Whenever I see sunflowers, I think of Tuscany.
© 2015 Linda Lum