Tuscan cuisine is food for the soul; intense fresh flavours from a few choice ingredients which have been freshly picked or pulled from the earth. Unpretentious, seasonal and prepared with passion. Think lazy, hazy afternoons sipping a glass of ruby-red Chianti Classico and dipping into a platter of fennel infused salami with chunks of fresh focaccia soaked in gleaming pools of translucent extra-virgin olive oil. Black olives and sun-dried tomatoes complete the simple pleasures of a Tuscan table.
Tuscan food is based on the idea of Cucina Povera or “peasant cooking.” Simple, seasonal meals that can be made in large amounts without costing the earth. Local, homegrown and ‘nostrale’ meaning simply ‘ours.’ Today, I’m glad to say, it’s a trend of choice and not a necessity and we ate some amazing food during our stay in the Tavarnelle commune of Chianti. So, what foods to eat in Tuscany? Let me whet your appetite…
The classic Tuscan appetiser, or starter, is antipasto misto which basically means ‘mixed’ and we tried more than a few of these. Affettati misti is a platter of salami and cured meats; prosciutto, capocollo, and my favourite, finocchiona a pork salami with fennel seeds which give a subtle aniseed taste to the meat. Wedges of strong Pecorino cheese and olives make this the perfect platter.
Crostini misti are little rounds of toast spread with a variety of pâté; chicken liver, mushrooms, tomatoes, and sometimes a truffle paste. Fettunta or bruschetta are toasted rounds of bread rubbed with a garlic clove, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil, and sprinkled with coarse salt. The olives here are hand-picked – bruised olives make for a more acidic olive oil so they’re gently handled. Chopped tomatoes and basil leaves add the national colours to this tasty Tuscan starter. Hungry yet?
Primi, or first course, usually consists of a pasta dish and what better way to appreciate this dish than to make it yourself. We had a pasta-cooking lesson at Podere Torricella in Susan’s recently restored farmhouse with its rustic Tuscan kitchen. Our enthusiastic (and patient) chef Wilma showed us, step by step, the art of making delicious tortellini stuffed with spinach and ricotta followed by a rich vegetable stew with ribbons of spaghetti. Tagliatelle al tartufo is pasta covered in a truffle (tartufo) sauce and definitely gives a plain pasta dish a really special flavour.
A thick, hearty vegetable Tuscan soup made with day-old bread and cannelloni beans was a revelation to me and utterly delicious. In fact, I had two helpings! Meaning “reboiled,” Ribollita’s roots lie deep in Tuscany’s “Cucina Povera” and is a classic comfort food and definitely one I’ll be recreating at home.
Another Tuscan dish that was new to me was Wild Boar Stew – very tender and very tasty cooked in a rich tomato sauce. Many roasted meats are popular in Tuscan cuisine, particularly wild game such as deer, pheasant or wild boar used for the main course, il secondo, or in sauces for pasta – full of depth and flavour.
Vegetables and Salads
There’s a saying in Tuscany, “Fritta è bona anche una ciabatta,” which means even a slipper is good deep-fried. Not sure I’d agree but deep-frying is a Tuscan cuisine favourite and a great way to enjoy Tuscan vegetables is by ordering verdure fritte miste – deep-fried courgettes and artichokes which are best eaten piping hot. Bang goes the diet. The crispest, lightest I’ve ever tasted were at Villa Il Paganello. Artichokes (carciofi), stuffed courgette flowers and Julienne of courgette and squash fritte were incredibly delicious. Served with salad, primo sale cheese and ‘Quanta Cura,’ a delicious Tuscan red, it was a perfect meal in a perfect setting. My idea of heaven actually…
The perfect way to finish a Tuscan meal is with Cantucci con Vin Santo. Sometimes called biscotti, the small, twice-baked, almond crescents are dunked into the sweet dessert wine Vin Santo to soften and taste absolutely divine. They’re also pretty good with a cup of coffee.
So there you have some of the temptations of a Tuscan plate. Have you sampled Tuscan cuisine and do you have a favourite dish? Do share and let me know if I’ve teased your taste buds with this Tuscan cuisine. Time now for a coffee and a cantucci or two I think….
Disclosure: Accommodation, meals and tours were sponsored by the Municipality of Tavarnelle Val di Pesa but all thoughts, opinions, and enthusiasm for the food of Tuscany are most definitely my own. My thanks to all the people of Tavarnelle who helped make the trip so enjoyable. The “#chiantidavivere” blog tour took place during the first weekend of April 2014.