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The Unfamiliar Tastes of Tuscan Cuisine

“Ciao! Vorrei un tavolo per due per favore?”
A short Italian man walked me over to a table over looking the wide Tuscan countryside. Looking at the miles and miles of vineyards, I felt like I was directly in the set of Under the Tuscan Sun or staring right at a typical Italian postcard. Taking a deep breath, I wanted to take it all in. I was finally there. Tuscany has always been one of the places on my bucket list, and there I sat, finally about to experience the rich Italian cuisine that I heard so much about during my travels in other regions of Italy.

Views of the Tuscan countryside

I looked around at the interior of the restaurant. It was calm and charming, with light yellow walls, and wide open windows letting the cool September breeze gently flow through. I had no doubts that this meal was going to be one of the best I was going to have thus far in Italy because of the beautiful scenery around me, and I hadn’t even looked at the menu yet. I patiently waited a few minutes, which felt like hours because of my anticipation, before the waiter came over to my table.

“Avete un menú in inglese?” I asked the waiter, trying to seem as authentic in my tone as possible for an American having lived in Italy for just a few months. The tall, surprisingly skinny, Italian man turned swiftly, as if I had offended him, and then came back, dropped the menu, and nodded as I began to open what felt to me like the bible of the food world. I was immediately sucked into the reality of it all. The primo, secondi, and the dolce all seemed too good to be true. I wanted everything, but finally settled on two dishes. I ordered the caprese, because how could any fresh tomatoes and Italian mozzarella be bad? And I ordered the amatriciana, an Italian classic. While I know that amatriciana (a dish with origins in Rome with al dente pasta, guancale (pork cheek), fresh tomato, topped with local pecorino cheese) was from Rome, I was eager to try it in a different region to see if I would be as blown away as I was previously in Rome. And, of course, I could not forget the wine, so I ordered a glass of chianti from the region to really pull of the tastes together.

Italian amatriciana

“Posso avere un bicchiere di vino rosso, il caprese, e la amatriciana?” I eagerly asked the waiter. As he turned away, I couldn’t help but to smile because I was thrilled. I had no doubts that the food being prepared was going to be nothing short of phenomenal. In Tuscany, and all of Italy, fresh ingredients are what Italians pride themselves on. There are many regions in the country, twenty to be exact, and each of them has a unique cuisine built on tradition. After trying dishes from other areas such as Rome, Cinque Terre, Torino, and the Amalfi Coast, I could not wait to taste the tradition of Tuscany because of its reputation of fresh ingredients and superb wine.

The wine was brought out and graciously placed on my table, along with a large basket of bread, way too much for me to take on by myself. I didn’t say anything, but was kind of confused and wondered if the waiter thought that I had been starving myself for days. I sipped my wine, and couldn’t resist picking up a piece of bread from the crusty, oval loaf to see what it was all about. Taking a large bite, the taste was not one that I was expecting. While I immediately appreciated the crunch of the crust, I was overwhelmed with a bland taste of sad nothingness. I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but I was disappointed. How could this wonderful, heavenly restaurant, located in the heart of Tuscany, serve bread that tasted like it came right out of an American grocery store?

Traditional Tuscan bread

As the other dishes came out, I was very pleased and almost forgot about the bread and the tragedy it initially caused me. The tomatoes were as juicy as biting into a soft ripened peach, and the mozzarella was like it was made by the hands of an angel. The amatriciana came out, and it did not disappoint. It was just as good as I remembered it being in Rome, the guanciale perfectly crisp. I was content, but I could not help but to think about the stupid bread that had been so casually placed in front of me. A mountain for me to stare at throughout the whole meal. A reminder of my first bland taste of Tuscany. I finished the meal, thanked the waiter, paid, and began my journey back to Rome.

I took it upon myself on the train back to Rome to figure out what the deal was with Tuscan cuisine. Not going into the meal with any true knowledge, I googled Tuscan cuisine and discovered more about the traditions. I wanted to know what was unique about the specific region, and why what I just experienced was so surprisingly anticlimactic. As I typed the words into Google and hit send, I sighed a sigh of relief. Immediately, like it was obvious, I found on a Tuscan blog that in the region,”all meals are served accompanied by the regional bread: a white, plain, unsalted loaf.  This tradition dates back to the 16th century when there was a tax put on salt, changing the way locals thought about baking bread.” If only I had looked this up before I had the meal, I would have been a lot more appreciate of the great bread tower that stood before me. I was eager to read more.

Not only did the bread have the historic tradition of appreciating the past that is so apparent in Italian culture, but the simplicity of the bread was what was supposed to make it so delicious. I was mad at myself for being so quick to diss the bread. The bread, the flavorless bread, was made that way for a reason.
In Tuscan history, many people had to survive on the little food that they could get their hands on. Since bread was not very difficult to make, it became a staple ingredient in all of their recipes. However, the bread would go bad very quickly because there was nothing added to keep it from going stale. However, being poor, and not wanting to let anything go to waste, the Italians got creative and made recipes that built upon the bread to make it into something unique.

These recipes were created and marked as ‘cucina povera,’ or poor cuisine, which, as Walks of Italy explains is all “about simple meals that are inexpensive and could easily be made in large amounts.” Cucina Povera dates back to the fall of the Roman Empire, which this blog explains that “good cuisine was just reserved to the richest and noble families, while the peasants and the workers had to survive, feeding themselves with vegetable soups and poor food” During this time, cucina povera was not a choice but a necessity. However, like many things in Italy, tradition was passed on through generations, and today much of the cuisine is reminiscent of this type of basic cuisine.

Today, the dishes that were popular during the fall of the empire are served in almost every authentic eatery in Italy, along with a basket of the staple, unsalted bread. Two of these recipes, ribollita soup and panzenella salad, are traditional Tuscan recipes that I had the opportunity to try after going back to Tuscany with my newly discovered knowledge.

Traditional ribolitta soup

Ribolitta, a soup that is meant for winter, is a soup made of stale bread, broth, beans, and whatever inexpensive vegetables are available at the time. It is unique because at each different restaurant in Tuscany, there are different variations with different seasonal vegetables. All ingredients rely on what is available in the outdoor markets that day, ensuring that everything is fresh. Another recipe, a salad that is typically eaten in the summer, is called panzanella. This dish is made with the stale bread, tomatoes, sometimes onion, and dressed with oil and vinegar. While these dishes may seem simple, it is the simplicity and realization of their historic authenticity that make them taste so delicious. The ingredients flood the mouth with rich culture upon every bite, the same culture that makes Italy such a unique place for cuisine.

Panzanella salad

One of my favorite things about Italy is the fact that what people did so early on in history is still being done today. Tuscan cuisine is a great example of this, and it just goes to show how impactful tradition can be when passed down through generations. All of the purchasing and cooking of food is done with care, and it can be clearly tasted in every single bite of food. Tuscany is no exception to these Italian traits, and I have disdain for myself because I was so quick to judge a region without any care or previous knowledge.

Arriving back to Rome after the two-hour train ride, I was able to put things more into perspective and gain a new appreciation for not just Tuscany, but Italy in general. I began to ask myself more questions. What were the true staple foods in Rome and how did they come to be? I was eager to learn more. The day I went to Tuscany was one that I will never forget. Not because the bread tasted so incredibly and shockingly bland, but because the bread reminded me that cuisine is not just about how something tastes or appears. Instead, cuisine is about the tradition, preparation, and care that makes it so unique to a certain place. Now, I like to look more at how and why something is eaten instead of simply what is being eaten. Through this, and the questions that I now so often ask about food, culture, and tradition, have shaped my love for food. Sitting down at that table in Tuscany, I knew that it would be a meal I would never forget. However, I had no idea the impact the region would have on my views of food and different cultures in the world today.

Tuscan Bread photo: “Tuscan Bread – Crumb” by Rebecca Siegel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Panzanella Salad photo: “Proper Panzanella Salad, Jamies Italian, Leeds” by thefoodplace.co.uk is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Ribollita soup photo: “Making ribollita“by Joy is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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