I came to this dish very late, which is a surprise since it is one of the classic dishes of Venetian cuisine, and a pity since I have been missing it all my life. From just before my teenage years until adulthood, I wouldn’t touch fish on principle since I knew I didn’t like it, despite evidence to the contrary. For example, I remember at the age of about ten being fed what my parents told me was prosciutto di parma. It was delicious, but turned out to be smoked salmon.
This recipe is from Puglia.
To fully understand Italian cuisine, it’s important to note the major difference between it and, for example, French cuisine.
French cuisine is the cuisine of the chef. Home cooks spend a lot of time trying to live up to the creations and recipes coming out of the important restaurants in Paris and beyond. In France, chefs are celebrities: household names that everyone has heard of whether or not you can afford to eat in one of their stellar establishments. The publication of a new Michelin Guide makes the national headlines.
Italian cuisine is the cuisine of the mamma, or even la nonna (grandmother). Chefs in restaurants spend a lot of time trying to live up the the food their mothers and grandmothers cooked for them when they were young. Restaurants need to equal the standards of the dishes prepared by their customers’ mamme and nonne, which as you can imagine, is not easy.
Radicchio tardivo di Treviso is an extraordinary looking vegetable, rather like a red and white octopus. Once cut, it is a kaleidoscope of red and white leaves which are extraordinarily beautiful.
Grown in the provinces of Treviso and Venice, this plant now has protected name status from the European Union. It differs from other radicchio not only in appearance but also in its mild taste, which is not bitter at all.
For the stranger to Tuscany, one thing that needs getting used to is the bread. The local bread, known as pane sciocco, is made without salt and to many foreigners taste is bland at best. The other problem with it is that it goes hard very quickly and bread bought from the bakers in the morning may be rock hard by evening.
No-one knows exactly how the recipe for pane sciocco came about, but many attribute it to high taxes on salt in the Renaissance. I like to think that the tradition is much older than that because of a quotation from the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri, dating from the beginning of the 14th century.
In his poem, Paradiso, which tells the story of an imaginary visit to Heaven, Dante is told that he will be exiled from Florence. The speaker, Cacciaguida, Dante’s great-great-grandfather says:
‘Tu proverai sì come sa di sale lo pane altrui’ which translates as ‘You will see how salty the bread is elsewhere’. For me this has to be a reference to pane sciocco which, when you are used to it makes all other bread taste salty.