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Tuscany doesn't really do pasta

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

"all'etrusco on a Tuscan menu is not mere whimsy. these dishes actually forge a solid link with the past and incorporate the three basic elements of wine, oil and bread, which to the Tuscans are amost sacred." Lorenza de' Medici

We had no power yesterday, and so we spent part of the day in the very non Tuscan Greensborough shopping centre. However, first of all we dropped off some old clothes at Savers and I treated myself to a browse through their collection of cookery books, where I found this - which I have been looking for vaguely for a long time. (A mere $3.00!) I own its companion volumes on Provence and Italy, and the Provence edition, in particular is one of my very favourite books.

And here I will quote Rachel Roddy from her A-Z of Pasta, because as you will see it's sort of appropriate:

"Through the veil of spring drizzle, the olive groves look liike heads of unruly silver hair, while the neat vines are like tramlines on a skinhead. This is land shaped by the fourteenth and fiftieenth century Tuscan merchants who transformed this part of Tuscany into a model of rural development and beauty, a reason for so much Tuscan pride and fodder for sunburnt novels and ahem, narrative cookbooks." Rachel Roddy

Tuscany the Beutiful Cookbook is surely the epitome of those narrative cookbooks. I mean Tuscany is a sort of idealised and ultimate beautiful place isn't it? Why? I have now visited Italy, three or maybe even four times, and at least passed through most of its regions and they are all beautiful, albeit in different ways, and they all have old and beautiful buildings and wonderful traditional food.

But in fact the least favourite place that I have visited in Italy is Florence. Now I will admit that I only went there on a day trip - sometime in June I think - it may even have been May, but not high season. I will also say that it was a miserable day, grey and overcast and almost raining. But it was absolutely packed with tourists as shown here. This is part of the queue for the Uffizi. Now Rome, and also Venice are packed with tourists - always. But in both of those cities if you stray from the major sites, you find yourself in quite beautiful little back streets with a cultural surprise around every corner. In Florence we tried to do the same but the side streets were grim and not at all welcoming. In fact I think this was the only place in Italy where we felt vaguely threatened by the gypsies that everyone tells you about. And the locals were not welcoming. Yes I know it's difficult to live with so many, often difficult tourists, but the Romans and Venetians seem able to do it. Not the Florentines.

We were also not impressed by Siena - but that was entirely due to the weather as it was pouring with rain. Pisa too is unpleasantly overrun by tourists but Lucca is a delight.

I suspect that the 'romance' of Tuscany is all to do with the Medici and the Renaissance and all those artists who lived there, at least for a while. And of course the countryside is beautiful - this is the view we had from the villa we rented there.

So it was interesting to read in Lorenza de' Medici's Introduction that, according to her, anyway, "Until a few years ago, Tuscans did not even know how to cook spaghetti." So alright it was written back in 1992, but I'm sure they knew how to cook spaghetti, and served every kind of pasta in restaurants as well. Everywhere in the world has its own local specialities but they also know how to cook other things as well.

She also stressed that Tuscan food is essentially la cucina povera, based as it is on those three basic foods. And yet what Tuscany is famous for is all that wealth and high living, that expensive art enjoyed by the Medici and their ilk. The wine is not so cheap either. So there are two very different cuisines - one based on the poorest produce of the land - the holy trinity of bread, olive oil and wine, add herbs, foraged and home-grown vegetables and beans and the other on the best that money can buy. In fact in other parts of Italy if the Italians want to make fun of the Tuscans they call them mangiafagioli - bean eaters. Although I suppose that all that demonstrates is that there has always been, and probably always will be a gap between the rich and the poor. It's just that these days, la cucina povera has become fashionable and even the most expensive restaurants serve those peasant dishes.

To demonstrate that let's begin with Pici with breadcrumbs - Pici alle briciole. On the left Lorenza de' Medici's version and the right a very fancy version from Kachen Magazine, when really it's just pici tossed with crispy breadcrumbs, oil and garlic. The oil is, of course important, and it is indeed supposed to be the best in Italy, although I have no doubt that other olive oil producing regions would heartily disagree.

Lorenza de' Medici is not alone in noting that the Tuscans do not really 'do' pasta. They do however, have a few unique forms of pasta. The first one is that pici with the breadcrumbs above - long thin cords of a simple flour and water dough of which Tim Siadatan of The Guardian says: "Pici is to Tuscans what deep-fried Mars bars are to Aberdonian". Which is probably not entirely complimentary and now that I think of it somewhat irrelevant since pici are so basic and so ancient, and deep-fried Mars bars can only be a dish of the modern mass-produced food age. Peasant food I suppose is what he is saying.

Pici are believed in fact to be as ancient as the Etruscans - well that's what they are trying to prove anyway. They are certainly very primitive because it's just flour and water rolled by hand into very long ropes a little thicker than spaghetti. In neighbouring provinces they also go by the name of lombrichelli or strozzapreti which apparently means 'priest stranglers':

"gastronomic humour that comes from a time when priests were seen as the greedy and interfering lackeys of the papal state" Rachel Roddy.

I suspect that they were disappearing, because in fact Lorenza de' Medici's version uses spaghetti. Rachel Roddy however, (and many others including Jamie Oliver whose version is shown above) will tell you how to make them, and also what to do with them. I suspect that Lorenza de' Medici knew that back in the 1990s you would have been hard put to find any, and that now, at least they can be found in a semi specialist Italian pasta shop. Online certainly. But try it with your kids or grandkids - they love rolling them out and Rachel Roddy's PIci pasta with pea and ricotta sauce is a good dish to start with. And if at first you don't succeed, then keep trying, because as she says: "these things are all about practice."

Etruscan claims are also made for Tuscany's other major form of pasta - pappardelle - those wide ribbons of pasta which are somewhat trendy these days. The claim here is that remains have been found in a tomb. The name comes from 'pappare' which means 'to eat' in the local dialect. But we all know about pappardelle. Lorenza de' Medici teamed hers with wild boar - a meat that along with hare (rabbit these days) is frequently found in some form or another on a Tuscan menu. Nowadays these meats are expensive, but they would indeed have been the food of the poor in times gone by. As is the offal - another Tuscan delicacy which has been revived - if you like that kind of thing.

I also found reference to 'testardi' but could find nothing more about that particular pasta. However, I did find Testaroli thanks to Daniel Gritzer of Serious Eats - maybe the same thing - which are somewhat unusual, in that they are a sort of cross between a pancake - or strips thereof, and a pasta. Lorenza de' Medici has no recipe for this particular kind of pasta, although I found a few references to it here and there on the net as a Tuscan speciality. Curious, however, that she did not include it.

Finally there are tordelli or tortelli which are a particular type of stuffed pasta from Lucca - meat suffed and served with a ragù.

Lucca is apparently famous for its chestnuts, and I'm pretty sure that somewhere I saw a reference to some pasta that was made with chestnut flour but, of course, I cannot now find it.

So yes indeed, it seems that the Tuscans do not do pasta. They do however do Gnudi a kind of large gnocchi - a dumpling, made with ricotta, and in their purest form not much else. Well gnudi does sort of mean naked. An aside. You mostly see gnocchi and the like included in the pasta section of a restaurant menu don't you, but they aren't really pasta at all are they? I suppose it's because they are served with the same kind of sauces as pasta.

Anyway Felicity Cloake makes these 'perfect' gnudi which are about as pure as you can get, dressed simply with butter, cheese and sage, with a semolina flour coating. More often than not, however I found that people added spinach to the mix, and she certainly tells us that you can indeed add all manner of other things. Gnudi and gnocchi however - well any kind of ball shaped thing that you poach in hot liquid - is fraught with disaster. It's one of those so simple things that it's tricky to pull off. They might tell you that it's simple:

"All you’ve got to do is roll a ricotta mixture in semolina flour and let it rest overnight until that flour has hydrated and formed a thin, thin shell of pasta around the ricotta that just barely holds it together. Then you just boil and eat it." J. Kenj López-Alt/Serious Eats

Howeve, one of his colleagues was not so sure - and I'm with her:

"Gnudi are temperamental, to say the least, and far, far from foolproof." Maggie Mariolis/Serious Eats

Delicate - an oft used word in conjunction with Gnudi is a disaster waiting to happen. Get it wrong and they disintegrate in the water.

I think Yotam Otttolenghi - whose father hailed from Florence - has a kind of version but made with feta rather than ricotta. I have mentally told myself to have a go at them sometime, but now that I see Felicity Cloake's, I think I will try them first. They look gorgeous.

So what about that bread? That awful Tuscan bread that all the foodies seem to think is so wonderful. The one thing we did not take to in terms of Italian food in Italy was the bread. It always looked great, but it was tasteless and it went stale in no time at all.

"while I’d like to pretend my first experience with Tuscan bread was an epiphany, I can’t mince my words. The heavy, doughy slice tasted, and this may shock you, like nothing." Elisa Scarton/The Florentine

Well apparently this is all down to the fact that there is:

"no salt. Without it, the bread has no flavour, but it also has a lighter crust and chewier texture" Elisa Scarton/The Florentine

Tuscan bread is sometimes called sciocco, which besides meaning without salt, also means stupid. Which perhaps points to how Italians from elsewhere think of it. The story is that this is because back in the late middle ages, the tax on salt was so great that the bakers just left the salt out. The Tuscans became used to this, and besides the very texture - crusty /hard outside, chewy inside was perfect for eating with salty prosciutto when fresh, and for making that trio of now famous Tuscan dishes - Ribollita (The Mediterranean Dish); Panzanella (Jamie Oliver) and Pappa al pomodoro (delicious.) Now all of them are indeed delicious. I've made them all.

When it comes to meat there is yet another dish about which I cannot get all that excited, although it is praised to the heavens almost everywhere - Bistecca Fiorentina (Fiorentina steak if you're Jamie Oliver). I mean it's just a big steak isn't it? They don't even put oil on it. Maybe it's because I have never had a 'real' one. You see it has to be from a certain kind of beef cattle - Chianina is the name; - the steak has to be three fingers thick - very thick - and it has to be cooked over a flame - a very high heat. Plus it should be served rare (blue) although Jamie prefers his a little better done. Well done is a complete no no. So probably not something you will be making at home anytime soon.

You could however have a go at Peposo alla Fornacina. This version is adapted from the recipes of Emiko Davies and Guilia Scarpaleggia and published in Italy Magazine. And, talk about coincidence, it features peppercorns. Hence the black colour. It comes from Lucca, and I think I'm going to try this one soon.

Emiko Davies, by the way, is a name that came up frequently with respect to Tuscan food. She wrote a book called Florentine, which almost everyone seems to reference. Next time I'm in an op shop - or even a proper bookshop I shall keep my eye out for it.

Of course there are lots of other very tempting looking things in my Tuscany the Beautiful Cookbook. I have my eye on Pollo con le olive, which also includes fennel seeds and orange zest as well as white wine and garlic - maybe tomorrow - together with potatoes braised in wine.

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