Simple Tuscan Glory

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in: Cooking

Mistaken Tuscany Identity, Part Two

The metamorphosis of Tuscany into the archetype of all things Italian reflects neither the heart nor soul of Tuscany — or Italy.  How true is it that Tuscan cuisine, and especially the cuisine of Florence, is grilled beef steak, grilled chicken, grilled skewers and simple roasts?  Can we say that the cooking of Florence is all about fritters?  Fried meats, fried vegetables, fried sweets.  It’s a little more complicated than this, because there are some fundamentals to Tuscan cooking.

Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a famous offering of Florentine cuisine, is grilled Porterhouse steak.

Photo credit: Kyle Phillips

Bread, especially homemade bread, is important in Tuscan and, in fact, in much of Mediterranean cuisine, a phenomenon that goes back to the early medieval period at least.  Bread is the basis to Tuscan antipasti such as panzanella, crostini and fettunta, which are, respectively, a summer bread-and-tomato salad, toast points with various toppings and bruschetta (pronounced broos-KET-ta, please).  Bread also plays a role in the primi piatti (first courses) such as minestra di pane (bread soup), ribollita, the famous bread soup with cabbage and beans, and pappa di pomodori, a soaked bread and tomato soup so delicious I marvel that it’s not on everybody’s lips.  Wine is important in Tuscany, too, and in the medieval period wine was food and not something you drank with food.

Let’s deconstruct an example of Tuscan food proffered by TV personality Rachael Ray as in her recipe for “Tuscan Chicken.”  She takes 3 1/2 pounds of boneless chicken breasts and thighs and sautés them in a little olive oil with chopped garlic.  Vinegar is added to the pan and left to evaporate before butter, shallots, rosemary and flour are added.  Finally a cup of white wine and two cups of beef broth are whisked in and the mixture cooks for eight more minutes. The result is what Tuscan cooks would probably call, if they recognize the dish at all, as pollo in fricassea or perhaps a twist on chicken Marengo.  It’s a complex preparation, what I call a baroque dish that seems vaguely French.  What, exactly, makes this Tuscan?  I have no idea. And boneless chicken breasts sounds very un-Tuscan, for as any Tuscan cook would tell you: keep the meat on the bone for more flavor. What happened to our simple little Tuscan chicken?

A proper and true Tuscan chicken, pollo alla Toscana, is nothing but the simple Italian version of fried chicken. Small, cut-up pieces of a whole chicken are dipped in beaten egg, then salted and dusted with flour before they’re fried in a pan of hot butter and olive oil until golden brown.  It’s delicious and uncomplicated.  A couple of other simple preparations have the same name.

The cooking of Florence and Tuscany in general may rest on the fact that although historically the Florentines were all over the Mediterranean world, the city had never been a trading center or market drawing different peoples and cultures.  A proverb in the 14th century captured this fact: passeri e Fiorentini sono per tutto il mondo (sparrows and Florentines are all over the world). Florence exercised power through financial control, through wise investment and through superior organization of the aziende, the business firm. Lacking the influx of culinary ideas and foods, a culinary melting pot never formed nor was influenced from the outside as was, for example, Palermo or Venice.

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Vineyard near La Piazza in Tuscany. Clifford A. Wright

In all the talk of Tuscan food, I’m curious why certain foods emblematic of Tuscan cooking are missing besides the pappa mentioned above. Take, for example, Àrista, the spit-roasted pork loin that is a traditional dish in Arezzo and Florence on Sundays. Most people who visit Tuscany never encounter it. The roast is marinated for 24 hours before before being secured to the spit for roasting. The popular story of the origin of the name of this preparation, repeated by many Italian cookbook writers, is that during a banquet of the Ecumenical Council in Florence in 1430, several visiting Greek bishops exclaimed, “Aristos,” (“the best” in Greek) when they ate this dish.  In reality, the etymology is unknown, but Giordano di Pisa in his Florentine glossary Libro della cura delle malattie (Book for the care of illnesses) from 1304 had used the word to describe a butcher’s cut of pork back.

If you’re not heading to Tuscany this week, you can capture the spirit of the land with a little spit roasting of your own.  If you don’t have a spit, roast the meat indirectly (away from the fire) and turn frequently.  Don’t forget the fritters while waiting.  Zucchini flowers dipped in a light batter are nice.

Continued from last week’s Mistaken Tuscan Identity, Part One.

Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.

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