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FOOD & WINE >> Food and Wine of Tuscany, Italy

Food and Wine of Tuscany, Italy

Simplicity and sobriety are the fundamental characteristics of Tuscan cooking. Surprisingly, cooking historians consider it the mother of French cuisine. It all began with the arrival in France of Catherine di Medici's Florentine cooks.
She married Henry II on October 20, 1533. A girl of 14, she was accompanied by an army of dressmakers, hairdressers, perfumeries, dancing instructors, cooks and pastry makers.
It is said that the latter revolutionized the art of gastronomy, teaching generations of French cooks.

Flattering, but far from the truth. Of all the regional Italian cooking, that of Tuscany is the most removed from French cuisine. It is spare, made from four or five essential ingredients, avoiding those sauces called "messes." If the French learned anything from their Italian queen it was the art of setting the table and that of pastry and candy-making.

So although the Tuscans cannot take credit for the birth of French cuisine, they are responsible for having conserved the antique recipes, based directly on the local resources. For example, they cook small game birds alternated with chicken livers wrapped in salvia, laurel, and bread crusts on a spit the same way they did in 1400. Essential food, lacking fat, strongly flavoured, made for a population with bright minds and a distaste for a thick waist, faithful to the grill and the spit. It's a tough life here for the cook, there's no saving face with strong sauces or fancy decorations. Simplicity is the rule, using the finest ingredients.

Take the famous steak "Florentine style." The best beef comes from the Val de Chiana, usually grilled and served with a dash of virgin olive oil. Some of the best oil comes from the area around Lucca, but Tuscans also carefully hoard the oil produced on their own farms.

Vegetables and greens are really appreciated in Tuscany, first of all Cannellini beans, small and tender, often cooked in a terracotta casserole. Minestrone, including the famous "ribollita" is made from the local vegetables, black cabbage from Siena, Cannellini beans and olive oil. The name "ribollita" or "boiled again" comes from the second boiling of the soup which increases the density and improves the flavour. It is served with croutons.

The Tuscan fish soup called "caciucco" mixes all kinds of seafood including fish, molluscs, crustaceans, eel, murey, lobster, polypus and cuttlefish from the nearby Tirrenean sea. It is ladled over a thick slice of toasted bread flavoured with garlic and enriched with a sauce of fried tomatoes and red peppers.

You don't need to consult the Michelin Guide to find a good trattoria in Tuscany. The host is gracious and will propose the day's dishes which might include a pheasant "as big as a turkey." Tuscans are a strange mixture of intelligence and a kind of gracious arrogance. (The distinguished writer Curzio Malaparte called them "damned Tuscans.") This blessed land produces some of the most celebrated products placed on Italian tables, including black and white truffles, raspberries, blackberries, funghi porcini (mushrooms), as well as cheeses made from sheep's milk and pork products.

All information courtesy of 'The Art of Cooking'. photo -'Tuscan Sagre' by R.Vulinovich 2005

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