02 February 2011
A Taste of Tuscany
Tuscany is a region of rolling hills, medieval towers - and some of the most delicious cooking in the world.
In a country famous for its great cuisine, Tuscany ploughs its own furrow to create dishes that are both distinctively Italian and yet singularly regional. The symbol of Tuscan cooking - seen on every table - is olive oil. The ancient trees that produce it grow here in abundance, producing its characteristically 'green' flavour, rich with fruit and pepper.
Traditional Tuscan food has very few risotto and only a handful of pasta dishes, making it stand out in a country where, on the whole, the former is found in the north and the latter in the south. Instead, bread is a highlight here, infused with wonderful local ingredients from fragrant herbs to the ubiquitous olive oil. It may be packed with pine nuts or raisins, rolled out thin or baked as loaves.
Tuscany's typical bread is a flatbread known as schiacciata made of flour, potatoes and traditionally rendered pork fat. Scant salt is used as, during the 12th century, it was prohibitively expensive. This makes Tuscan bread the perfect adjunct to the region's great delicatessen specialties such as cured meats, salamis and tangy sheep's milk pecorino cheese. The perfect end to any Tuscan meal is pecorino with pears in season and a twice-baked almond biscuit called cantucci dipped in vinsanto, an aromatic dessert wine.
Chestnut flour is often used in dishes such pappardelle and castagnaccio, a cake flavoured with pine nuts and rosemary. One Tuscan wheat flour pasta is called pici, a sort of thick hand-made spaghetti, often dressed with a wild mushroom sauce.
Soup is a traditional Tuscan treat. Ribollita, a hearty winter dish, is made from vegetables including black cabbage and celery, and pappa col pomodoro is a fresh, summery soup of fragrant local tomatoes.
Pulses are of great significance in Tuscany. Indeed the locals are called "mangia fagioli" - bean eaters. Dishes are infused with aromatic herbs such as wild fennel, rosemary or thyme. Broad beans might be eaten raw with a young pecorino cheese while cooked dishes include cannellini steeped in garlic, olive oil and sage. They are the perfect accompaniment to the region's cornucopia of meat dishes, from bistecca alla Fiorentina (grilled T-bone steak served with lemon juice) or arista alla Fiorentina, a glorious dish of roast pork with garlic and rosemary.
And of course with a long coastline, fish is of huge importance. Just as Provence is famous for bouillabaisse, so Tuscany has its local speciality - cacciucco, a fish soup not dissimilar to its Provençal cousin, but flavoured with chilli instead of saffron.
By Sue Lawrence, award-winning author of many books on food, and presenter for television and radio.