Saturday, 9 August 2008

a culinary trip to Tuscany

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.

Pappa al Pomodoro

Serves 4:

500gr fresh ripe tomatoes

2/3 cloves garlic

1 leek, finely chopped (optional – can even replace the garlic if you like)

Fresh basil

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!


Anonymous said...

farro is very like barley but I think quite different botanically. The English is "spelt"; you can buy spelt flour in health food shops, it's rather low in gluten, and quite a high proportion with other flours makes excellent bread. It appears that the Etruscans ate a lot of farro, so it's been grown in those parts for a very long time. It's fab in big thick heartyy winter soups.
- DeVertalerin

ursus arctos said...

Interestingly enough, the fancy food shops of Manhattan have discovered that they can get premium prices for "Farro" while at the same time being unable to give "spelt" away for pet food.

Who says language doesn't matter?

BTW, do you know why the Tuscans don't put salt in their bread? It has perplexed me for years, and the only somewhat plausible explanation I've heard is that it goes back to sumptuary laws penalising the use of salt by the hoi polloi.

Anonymous said...

Been reading your Blog for a little while & though I would say hello.
Season ticket holder at Oxford Utd & lover of all thing Serie A & been to see Roma couple of times in the past. Also managed to get to the Tottenham game on Sunday. Only wish AA had been sent off for kicking somebody who deserved it like the smug Bentley.

Unfortunately still waiting to see if anybody gets UK TV rights otherwise will be watching Streams on Sunday afternoons.
Anyway Good luck this season, looking forward to the Scudetto!

ginkers said...

Ah, that is exactly how nonna used to make the pappa al pomodoro! Brought a tear to my eye...

I hope you will be doing a follow-up on the best bestemmie you heard during your visit!

Guido said...

As you probably were all not yet born at that time but the 'pappa al pomodoro' was made famous by RAI TV in the 1960s because they made a TV series based on a children's book called 'Il giornalino di Gian Burrasca'

The protagonist (Gian Burrasca) was played by a woman singer Rita Pavone and the theme of the series was 'Viva la pappa al Pomodoro'.

I can still recall it..

"Viva la pappa pappa al po po po po la pappa pappa al po po po po pomodoro...che é un grande capo po po po polavoro...."

It was written by the famous Nino Rota.

And of course its on Youtube

bernardlion said...

That pappa al pomodoro recipe sounds pretty authentic to me, although my Arezzan relatives-in-law tend to cook it longer so that the bread does actually disintegrate. I was told (and have done) 30 minutes, which admittedly did lead to a rather glue-like consistency (using Roman bread) although the flavour was wonderful. I will give your 5-minutes-cooking-and-one-hour-resting a try, I reckon that could well be the key. No fancy leeks in there though, and the recipe I was given didn't include any stock.

The other famous Tuscan stale bread recipe is panzanella - a salad of stale bread, soaked in water and then squeezed dry and rubbed into breadcrumbs, mixed with raw and chopped/finely sliced/shredded ripe tomatoes, celery, cucumber, red onion, and basil, dressed with EVOO and balsamic vinegar and seasoned with salt and pepper. Some people add tuna and capers, though I've never known a Tuscan do it (I have, and it's very good). And some people (namely, me) make a non-tomato version, which is great if you have a severe problem with raw tomatoes (me) but tends to be disparaged by those who don't (most of the rest of the world). Leave to rest in the fridge for several hours before eating - it's another one that's better the next day. (At least the non-tomatoey version is -I can't vouch for the authentic receipe, although I'd imagine it might get a bit soggy.)

Spangly Princess said...

cheers for that, Bern. I imagine that all these things vary a lot depending on where you go in Tuscany. Funnily enough I didn't see that much panzanella on the menu in Siena.

Ginkers: there were indeed some excellent bestemmie, not least from an old couple arguing in the street with great energy. lovely stuff.

I have no explanation for the saltless bread, which I have always loathed. You may be right, Ursus. Or maybe it's just so as to make better pappa.

Anonymous: welcome, I hope you stick around, and perhaps identify yourself in some way so that I recognise you next time?