Saturday, 15 December 2012


For hundreds of years the beauties of Tuscany have been extolled by travellers who took the "Grand Tour". The term "Grand Tour" was first adopted by travel writer Richard Lewis in the seventeenth century. The main objective of the tour was to visit the excavations in Rome, Sicily and Naples, and to see the great renaissance art of Florence, Venice and Tuscany.

Travellers to Tuscany arrived from Romagna which back then was a poor and depressed part of the papal state and the people there were living in abject poverty. When travellers entered Tuscany they saw a region of great beauty and people who's creativity was actively encouraged and displayed. As they descended into Tuscany from the Apennines, the travellers noticed the region was much less oppressive and dark than the poverty stricken Romagna.

Everything in Tuscany is simple, precise, robust and linear. You only have to look at Tuscan dishes to see the Tuscan no nonsense approach to life, soups so thick you can stand your spoon up in it called Acquacotta (cooked water). Tuscan food is born of necessity and many dishes show the regions impoverished history. Tuscan banquets dispense all formality, possibly because Tuscany never experienced the historical social hierarchies of other countries which where often based on favouritism and elitism. Tuscan dishes are easy to prepare and take lowly ingredients, such as beans, cold meats, turnips, stale bread, apples and pears, and elevate them into gloriously hearty and delicious dishes. These simplistic dishes are the pride and joy of the region, dishes such as the pollo alla diavola, a simple butterflied, roasted chicken removed from the oven half way through cooking and glazed with a paste made of chillies, pepper and olive oil, which is eaten every October 18th during the traditional feast of St. Luke, the local patron saint.


The cuisine of Tuscany is simple and rustic, but highly demanding in terms of the quality of its ingredients. Cooking is done primarily over a live, open fire where each different dish requires a different wood to be burnt imparting its aromatic and distinctive flavouring and providing different heats when burning, high heat or low heat. Thin flour flatbreads are made with burning hazelnut branches, meat is smoked over beechwood or roasted over olive branches, while the regions many breads are baked using oak. The second favourite cooking method is grilling over coals, Tuscans love cooking many dishes over hot coals, dishes such as Florentine-style steak (bistecca alla fiorentina), to porcini mushroom caps, stuffed game and Arno fished eels. Bread is also an essential part of Cacciucco, a fish soup from Livorno and grated bread is also sprinkled over pasta dishes, cabbage and bean dishes. At the end of meals slivers of goats cheese, dried figs, walnuts and grapes are arranged on slices of bread. A special Tuscan afternoon treat is bad and butter sprinkled with sugar and a few drops of sweet wine.

Tuscan's also love all things aromatic, wild herbs, things that come direct from farm to plate and still fish and crisp. The principal condiment for all dishes in Tuscany is, as you would expect, olive oil. The olive oils of Tuscany have been praised for hundreds of years, during the Medici reign it was made law that each land owner must plant an olive grove on their land. Some Tuscan olive trees have lived for four or five hundred years and even today are providing high quality olive oils, so some of the Tuscan oil on the shelves today may have been from the Medici's own favourite olive types, the Frantoio, Leccino, Moraiolo and Pendolino varieties (click here to find out more about Tuscan Olive Oil .)

Another celebrated dish is pinzimonio, a combination of olive oil and vegetables, which is loved by Tuscans. Pinzimonio is very similar in essence o the Piedmontese dish Bagna Cauda, the difference being that the oil in pinzimonio is not heated, but rather mixed cold with vinegar and adding black pepper and salt. Raw vegetables. Such as artichokes, tomatoes, celery, endive, asparagus, carrots, peppers and radishes, are cut into pieces and then dipped into the oil and eaten.


Tuscan cuisine is the complete opposite to the food of its neighbouring region Emilia Romagna. The Emilian's love complex preparation, the Tuscans prefer to eat things raw or barely cooked. Tuscans rarely stuff things, the Tuscan idea of spicy is a good twist of black pepper and sauces are almost unheard of. Even Tuscan bread contains no salt and the regions favourite fiorentina is merely seasoned with olive oil. Tuscans see bread as a method of carrying other flavours, not as a flavour itself, their flavourless breads set off marvellously the excellent salami, cheese and prosciutto. Bread in Tuscany has always been seen as the foundation of a meal. In ancient Roman times the distribution of bread to the population was a government sponsored process. In the villages of Tuscany, and the cities to that fact, the preparation of bread has always been left to trained specialists as opposed to housewives. Tuscans eat bread for breakfast, dunking it in their caffelatte and before lunch they often fend off hunger with a simple bruschetta or crostini topped with something tasty, tomatoes, liver, olive paste, diced chicken gizzards, entrails, or simply toasted bread drizzled with local olive oil, when instead of bruschetta or crostini it is known as panunto or fettunta (oiled bread or slice). In the area around Pistoria they make necci, a focaccia bread made with chestnut flour and also crispy biscuits, such as, brigidini and berlingozzi, that are soft on the inside. Panforte is a traditional bread from Sienna, the name Panforte means "strong bread" which is round and spicy, full of raisins, honey, almonds, pumpkin and candied fruits. In the beginning, panforte was a typically Sienese dish, but later became nationwide.


Even today Tuscany maintains its image of rustic simplicity that it has earned over the years. In the restaurants of the regions modern gastronomy takes second place to classic regional dishes such as Ribollia ( a soup made from twice boiled beans and cabbage) and Pappa alla Pomodoro ( soup made from stale bread and tomatoes).


The pride and joy of Tuscany is famous throughout the world, the enormous bistecca alla fiorentina, florentine steak. The steak cut is obtained exclusively from the loin of the Chianina breed of cattle (local breed native to Tuscany), each steak portion must weigh no less than 450 grams. The steak is cooked directly over the hot coals with no spices. In 1953 an Italian eccentric called Corrado Tedeschi established the National Florentine Steak Party. The party had one policy - to fight for "450 grams of steaks per capita assured to the people". This is how Article 4of the parties manifesto read -

"To be truly such, a beefsteak must weigh at least 450 grams. If it weighs a kilo, so much better. But no less than 450 grams, because otherwise it becomes a cutlet and then my party would no longer be the beefsteak party".

In the 1953 election, the party obtained 1,201 votes in Milan, 347 votes in Florence and several votes in Verona. The parties slogans "Better a steak today than an empire tomorrow" and " a pension and a cup of hot chocolate for all Italians indiscriminately". The party also held a ceremonial lottery with dinner and dancing and even once a year selected a Miss Beefsteak every year.


Given the Tuscan's tastes for simplicity, they have elevated their ancient traditional methods of farming and cattle breeding. The writer Goethe, who visited Tuscany on his travels, found these "archaeological" methods of farming quite bizarre -

"The peasants plough deep furrows, but still in an old-fashioned manner. Their plough has no wheels and the share is not movable. Hunched behind his oxen, the peasant pushes his plough int the earth to break it up. They plough up to five times a year and use only a little light manure which they scatter with their hands. At sowing time they heap up small, narrow ridges with deep furrows between them in which rainwater can run off. The wheat grows on top of the ridges, so that they can walk up and down the furrows when they weed. In a region where there is a danger of too much rain, this method would be very sensible, but why do they do it in such a wonderful climate, I cannot understand. I saw them doing it near Arezzo. It would be difficult to fine cleaner fields anywhere; one cannot see a single smallest clod of earth; the soil is so clean it looks as if it's been sifted. Wheat seems to find here all the conditions most favourable to its growth and does very well."

Another piece of Tuscany's farming breeding traditions is the Zeri lamb, which is a result of specialised Tuscan breeding methods, it is not easy to find a lamb (or spring lamb) and mutton to satisfy the demands of the quality obsessed Tuscans. It should be noted that in the region despite the many Zeri sheep, Pecorino (sheep milk cheese) does not exist in the region, all the milk is used to nourish the lambs. The delicate meat of the meat-fed lamb and mutton is slow roasted in earthenware bowls, often still on the bone. In the scrub lands of Maremma, near Grosseto, have a wonderful speciality of pheasant cooked in Acquacotta. Despite is name, Acquacotta (crazy water), contains no water. A pot is filled with tomatoes and roasted mushrooms, drizzled with beaten egg and Parmesan, each separated with a layer of bread and is baked. Boned pigeons covered with rosemary and served with white beans "alla purgatori" (similar to the great Tuscan fagioli nella fiasca, white bean in a flask) have been cooked in Tuscany since Etruscan times, as to have porcini mushroom caps wrapped in grape leaves and grilled over coals.


The Tuscans love mushrooms, the woods of the region are full of porcini, chanterelles, morels, miter mushrooms and honey mushrooms and many Tuscans are competent mushroom foragers, passing down their knowledge through the generations. In San Miniato, in November and December, expert truffle hunters search for the regions elusive white truffles, which are often believed of match the great truffles of Alba.

Tuscany also has a coastline, much of it is rocky and prone to storms but part of it is protected by the Argentario Peninsula, which creates a quiet, placid lagoon. On the exposed part of the coastline stands the port of Livorno, which between the sixteenth and nineteenth century was a kind of Italian equivalent of New York. When the city was governed by the great Medici, they probably intended to create an ideal city, which many people believe to be the forerunner of today's United States. The city was populated with energetic people, adventurers, former criminals and individuals with a past to hide which Livorno welcomes with open arms. Livorno's tolerance of the unusual and the different, whether those differences where ethnic or religious, everyone was welcome in Livorno, as a result of this open tolerance Livorno established a large Jewish community, as sizable as those of Venice and Rome. However, Livorno didn't confine the Jews to a "ghetto" therefore culturally Livorno benefited on some many different levels to Venice and Rome, in art, music, science, medicine and cuisine. This spirit of tolerance meant different cultures where absorbed and learnt from one another that meant the city of Livorno grew at a rapid pace. Galileo studied the heavens from the jetty of Livorno and pirates, who were tired of their lives of running, conducted talks with the Livornese city authorities to turn over their ships and treasure to the cities coffers, in exchange for the right to Livornese citizenship.


Arial Toaff, an authoritative historian confirms in his book Mangiare alla Giudia: La cucina ebraica in Italia del Rinascimento all' eta moderna (Eating alla Giudia: Jewish cooking in Italy from from the renaissance to the modern age) that couscous entered Italy through the cuisine of the Livorno Jewish community. From Toaff's book we also learn that couscous requires a prayer during its preparation. Spiritual energy is believed to be contained in the food, thus while making the couscous with the fingers, sacred formula's must be murmured. The semolina flour should be placed in a mafaradda (large soup tureen with flared sides) and sprinkled with salted water. Minute balls of couscous are then formed by using a circular motion with the fingertips. The minute balls of couscous should be dried on a cloth for several hours. Then they are placed in a cuscusera (a special colander or strainer) placed over a large pot of boiling salted water, covered with a cloth and left to absorb steam. The cuscusera should be left over the steam for no less than three quarters of an hour. Then placed back in the mafaradda, the couscous is left to stand for fifteen minutes or so. This is how couscous itself is prepared, but the a also many ways of making sauces for couscous. In Tuscany they make sauces from mutton, lamb, chicken or beef with barissa (a purée of hot red pepper). Tuscans also use vegetables and spices: zucchini, carrots, favas, white beans, onions, tomatoes, turmeric and olive oil is added. Some more adventurous and creative cooks now add more imaginative incidents to their couscous, for example, chocolate, pistachios or cinnamon, however, to many diehard Tuscan cooks this is completely frowned upon.

Between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Livorno was a land of social rebellion and protest and became the stronghold of the Italian anarchist movement. To highlight this rebellious streak, you only need to drink a cappuccino alla Livornese (Livorno-style cappuccino) where the milk foam is at the bottom of the cup and the coffee poured over the foam.

The one-of-a-kind Cacciucco was invented in Livorno. Many countries have their own classic fish soup; French - bouillabaisse, Greek - kakavia, Spanish - zarzuela and the Potugese - calderada. Cacciucco is a dish made up of leftovers and scraps of fish. Throughout history, Livorno's commerce has rested upon the fish trade, so while the expensive seafoods, such as bass, lobster, mullet, were destined for sale, the remains of their processing and the smaller fish went to the fishermen themselves, who created a delicious fish soup with slices of stale Tuscan bread. The blandness of the bread set off the flavourful fish leftovers, as well as the taste of the pungent Tuscan sauces. Tradition requires that the soup contains at least as many different varieties of fish as there are C's in the soups name. True Cacciucco cannot be made without scorpionfish, which s covered in venomous dorsal spines and sports a big, lumpy head. In Italy, scorfano (scorpionfish) is the rather impolite name bestowed on a ugly man or woman. Livornese fish soup is served in a deep soup bowl poured over slices of Tuscan bread, then soup contains small fish , pieces of squid, spotted dogfish, mantis shrimp, mullet, large mussels and scorpionfish. Cacciucco, as with any other Italian dish, has its variations some people use cuttlefish, octopus, conger eel, smooth dogfish and gurnard, along with a whole clove of garlic. The whole thing is topped with tomato and onion sauce, sometimes with added chilli, and cooked over a low flame. Another Livorno favourite is Livornese-style mullet. The mullets must be a large ones and they are cooked with a garlic and tomato sauce.


Tuscan food doesn't feature many sauces, if a Tuscan makes a sauce it will probably be made of just olive oil and black pepper, in the north of Tuscany, and olive oil, black pepper and tomatoes in the south. Tuscany is split down the middle with by the love of tomatoes. In the north, Cacciucco is known as "white" . However, around Livorno Cacciucco is adorned with tomatoes. In the areas of lagoon, along the Tuscan coast, around Argentario and Orbetello, prefer lagoon fish, such as bass, eel, gray mullet and gilthead bream. As with everything in Tuscany, they a roasted on a grill or cooked over coals. Sometimes the fish go into a spaghetti sauce called all' ammiraglia (flagship style). Pasta is not as popular Asian Tuscany as it is in the rest of Italy, but along the coast Tuscan's eat cappelatti ( pasta shaped like thin hats) which the often stuff with bass. Tuscans love to eat preserved fish as a snack instead of sandwiches or fruit. Eel for example, is fried, sprinkled with breadcrumbs, seasoned with olive oil, vinegar, garlic and mint, and eaten cold. Eel is also smoked and known as sfumato (smoked eel) and tuna is often eaten as an afternoon snack.

The Wines Of Tuscany

Many people say that Tuscany ranks alongside the region of Piedmont as the most well known wine growing region in Italy. Though Tuscany provides a contrast with Piedmont on the one hand by its rural and quite often antiquated methods of production, and on the other hand by the somewhat elitist image of their top wines. Tuscany also enjoys worldwide popularity, with wines such as Chianti, Brunello, Nobile di Montepulciano, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Galestro and Sassicaia have great a great reputation with wine lovers everywhere. Tuscany is the perfect embodiment of wine and culture, many of Italy's greatest poets, artists and composers have sung in praise of chianti (click here to find out more about The Wines Of Chianti  and the The Wines Of Brunello And The Others.)

Typical Dishes Of Tuscany


Crostini - slices of toasted bread topped with chopped veal spleen, onion, anchovies, capers and peppers; but other toppings include entrails (heart and lungs), liver, chicken giblets, razor clams to name a few.

Fettunta - slices of toasted bread drizzled with lots of Tuscan olive oil.

First Course

Panzanella - summer dish of stale bread soaked in vinegar, seasoned with anchovies, tomato, onion, olives and basil.

Bavettini - a typical Tuscan pasta accompanied by slices of fish.

Ribollita - thick soup made from twice-cooked white beans and Tuscan cavalo nero.

Pappa al Pomodoro - thick tomato and stale bread soup.

Cacciucco - fish soup from Livorno.

Second Course

Bistecca alla fiorentina - 450g beefsteak cooked over the coals without seasoning or salt.

Peposo - peppery boiled meat stew.

Tripa alla fiorentina - tripes flavoured by cooking them in an earthenware pot with veal shank.

Tuna in Chianti - not made of tuna, but a roast suckling pig which is boiled in the residues of wine production, the so-called vin brusco. In the hot months of the year pork is not cooked in the usual way, as Tuscans consider it too heavy.

Cee alla pisana - new born eels, caught in Pisa at night, fried in oil, garlic and sage and served sprinkled with Parmesan.

Mullet alla livornese - mullet cooked with tomatoes and herbs.

Fagioli nella fiasco - white beans cooked in oil and water in a chianti flask in the embers of the hearth.

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