Tuscany is the heartland of Italy with its foods reflecting the very best of Italy’s home cooking, it’s roots originating from cucina povera, or peasant cookery. The Tuscans are well known for their superior yet simple dishes, which arise from using the freshest available products. They believe in enhancing the purity and natural flavor of ingredients, rather than trying to camouflage with excess sauces and seasonings.
Tuscany is a large region, being made up of seacoasts, mountains, plains, villages and large cities, which all heavily influence its cuisine. A vast selection of seafood can be found along the coast, giving way to the invention of a famous seafood soup called Cacciucco whose ingredients may vary from day to day depending on the daily catch.
Almost everywhere in Tuscany, meat is grilled over open fires, but one of the mot well known grilled dishes must be Bistecca Fiorentina. This is a perfectly cooked T-bone steak, which is often served with a splash of olive oil, or thinly sliced and topped with peppery arugula lettuce as in my recipe for Tagliata con Rucola recipe. Wild game such as pheasant, rabbit, partridge and wild boar are plentiful across the Tuscan hills and have been hunted to supplement the meals of farmers for centuries.
Vegetables grow freely across the region, and the people have perfected methods necessary to bring forth their full flavor. Many vegetables are eaten raw, steamed and drizzled with olive oil and a little garlic, or cooked in a method called saltare. This method simply consists of gently steaming the vegetables, draining them, and then sautéing them briefly in olive oil, chile pepper and garlic. Artichokes, asparagus, spinach, fennel, broad beans and cannellini beans grow freely in kitchen gardens everywhere. Tuscans are named the "bean-eaters" of Italy, as they are renowned for their love of beans. One particular favorite are early fava beans eaten raw or lightly steamed as in my Fave con Pecorino recipe. The other favorite are dried white cannellini or toscanelli beans. The traditional method of cooking toscanelli is in a flask with olive oil and garlic and cooked over a dying fire overnight until they reach a creamy consistency.
Herbs grow wild across the Tuscan hills and are used constantly in various recipes, rosemary and sage being particular favorites. Driving across Tuscany, you can’t help but be amazed at the vast number of olive trees, growing everywhere from the flat, dry plains to up the sides of rocky hills. Good Tuscan olive oil is not considered something to be used for cooking, but is considered a condiment, and drizzled over almost everything from meats, vegetables and bread.
One can't discuss the foods of this region without mentioning its pecorino cheese, or sheep’s milk cheese, ranging from a version as fresh as ricotta, or a piquant aged version. Tuscan bread, which is salt less, is a perfect accompaniment to the tangy cheese. I have also had pecorino toscano served after dinner with a crust of good bread and a dollop of honey from the hills. Bread is eaten with almost everything in Tuscany, and most commonly is made without salt. This is because historically it was found bread retained its freshness longer when salt was not added, and it has been made that way ever since.
Tuscans are very thrifty people, hating any food product to go to waste so have developed delicious dishes to use up their stale bread. Panzanella, a bread salad is a personal favorite of mine, as are the two soups Ribollita, a mixed vegetable soup, and Pappa al Pomodoro, a hearty tomato soup.
Everyone is also probably familiar with Crostini, small rounds of stale bread that are grilled and topped with everything from a creamy liver and caper mix, to a simple tomato, basil and garlic topping.
Pasta is not generally an integral part to the Tuscan meal, but when Tuscan's do eat pasta, it is usually some type of fresh pasta. You will often see pappardelle on a restaurant menu, topped with a meat or tomato based sauce. Pici, a hand rolled, worm shaped small pasta made of solely flour and water is common in southern Tuscany. Although rice is also not a native dish, many types of gnocchi are made, particularly the Spinach and Ricotta type, which they top with a simple butter sauce, or light tomato sauce.
Not many cakes or desserts are native to Tuscany, but the ones that are can be found worldwide. The area around Sienna is famous for its Cantucci, which are simply almond biscotti made to be dipped into a sweet wine called Vin Santo. Another famous sweet of the area is Panforte, a rich, dense, flat fruitcake. Other cookies such as Amaretti, or Ricciarelli, made of ground almonds can be seen in every pastry store in the region. Chestnut trees are plentiful in the mountainous area of the regions, so Tuscans have perfected the best recipes in which to use them. Castagnaccio, is one of the most traditional Florentine cakes, and is made with fresh chestnut flour.
One cannot talk about Tuscan cuisine without mentioning the wines, Chianti in particular. It is said Chianti wines were first invented back in 1860. Today they are produced across the region and exported on a massive scale. Chianti Classico however only comes from the area between Florence and Sienna and every bottle proudly bears the growers label of a black cockerel on a gold background.
Tuscan cuisine is said to go back thousands of years, and even today it sets the standards other areas of Italy strive to meet. Simply put, the Tuscans approach to food is based on a love of wine, fresh pressed olive oil, bread, as well as the freshest produce, seafood and meats of the season. I hope you’ll try a few of the traditional Tuscan recipes I’ve offered, and perhaps you might want to do further reading on the region. When it comes to Italian cuisine, Tuscany is a shining example of some of the best Italy has to offer!
Olive Oil in Tuscany
Surprisingly, Tuscany is responsible for only 4 percent of Italy's olive oil production, since its climate and terrain are harsher than those of many other Italian regions: for example, in Apulia (Italy's most prolific olive oil producer), an olive tree yields twenty times as many olives as the same tree planted in Tuscany. This lower yield per tree means that Tuscan olives are a concentrate of flavor and aroma, which makes their oil more pronounced than that generally pressed elsewhere in Italy. In the best of cases, Tuscan olive oil is pressed from olives that are picked by hand when not quite ripe: hand-picking the olives ensures minimal bruising before they are brought to the mill, and picking the olives before they fully ripen yields a more intensely flavored oil.