One of the best things about travelling in Italy is seeing the strength and diversity of different areas' culinary traditions. In this regard our recent trip to Tuscany was no exception. In some ways it was almost a shock to find menus devoid of classic roman staples (what do you mean you don't serve amatriciana here?). I've got so used to Rome it's easy to forget that it's only one small corner of Italy, and only a few hundred kilometres away things are rather different.
First stop, quite literally, was the small town of Chiusi: coming from the south you have to change here from the Roma-Venezia intercity onto a small provincial train that runs to Siena once an hour or so. We allocated a couple of hours to see Chiusi and eat lunch, time which if anything was insufficient to properly explore this rather pleasant medieval centre with a beautiful Duomo of striking simplicity and charm, and a number of museums and sites dedicated to the Etruscans, who were big in these parts. But though we missed out on seeing all that much of the town, lunch was great, and full of local specialities. In particular I had a great Insalata di Farro: spelt salad. Steamed or boiled farro (not dissimilar from barley, I suppose) was added to a simple salad of mixed green leaves and then topped with cubes of chargrilled veal. Gorgeous. Grilled fresh tuna would be great here too. I think for a vegetarian option your best bet would probably by grilled or panfried mushrooms, something large and flavourful: you want savoury juices to mingle with the farro.
Onto Siena and here the Tuscan art of using up left-over bread was very much in evidence. Pici, which are a kind of very fat spaghetti, are traditionally served alle briciole: with bread-crumbs. Traditionally pici are made at home and eaten the same day: a very simple flour-and water recipe where after resting the dough you then roll out thick wormy lengths of pasta by hand, and cook them immediately. They can be used in anything you'd use spaghetti for, and CB had them with ragù di cinghiale (wild boar sauce) which was super nice.
To serve them alle briciole, simple chuck a lot of finely chopped garlic and a little chopped chilli into abundant olive oil along with your fresh breadcrumbs (made from grating stale bread; don't be afraid to have slightly larger chunks rather than smaller ones) and cook briefly on a medium heat- you want the breadcrumbs to go golden but don't let the garlic burn.
The other traditional way to serve pici is all'aglione: with garlic. A very simple and intensely garlicky tomato sauce: 2 or 3 cloves per person cooked very slowly on a low heat in plenty of olive oil, then add a few finely chopped fresh tomatoes, and a spot of chilli if you wish; some people chuck in some large breadcrumbs/mini cubes of bread, and sometimes a small teaspoon of red wine vinegar.
Still on the stale bread tip, the thing I perhaps liked best was the pappa al pomodoro: a kind of bizarre tepid bread soup, which sounds horrid, but is actually great. It can be served hot, warm or cold, and is better the next day than the first. If possible don't cook it in a stainless steel pot: a casserole of some kind would be better. Traditional Tuscan bread, which is best in this recipe, is made without salt (and is my least favourite of all Italy's many breads). In its absence, ideally you want some kind of coarse-textured white country bread here.
500gr fresh ripe tomatoes
2/3 cloves garlic
1 leek, finely chopped (optional – can even replace the garlic if you like)
Good quality vegetable broth – about half a litre
Extra virgin olive oil
Stale bread (about 300gr)
Gently cook the garlic and leek if using in a generous amount of olive oil; once softened, chuck in the tomatoes, roughly chopped (and peeled, if you can be arsed, but it's not essential). Fry together for a moment, then chuck in a handful of chopped basil, a little salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Cook for ten minutes or so, then add the vegetable broth and bring up to the boil.
At this stage chuck in your stale bread, chopped into rough cubes. Cook for about 5 minutes, not too long or it will disintegrate entirely.
Take it off the heat, cover and leave for at least an hour. To serve, drizzle over a spot more oil and sprinkle on some fresh basil.
NB It is not, apparently, ever to be served with grated cheese. Some fancy dans like to base it on a soffrito of finely chopped carrot, celery and onion along with the garlic and/or leek, but most Tuscans seem to agree that this is a modern innovation which forms no part of the traditional recipe.
Hopefully some Tuscans will be along shortly to tell me I've got it all wrong and that nonna used to do it very differently!