White ragù—Italian meat sauce without tomatoes—is one of my all time favourite dishes. I learnt it as a teenager from my Italian step-grandmother in her kitchen in Venice. She was noted for her ragù and people were forever asking her how she made it but, of course, she wouldn’t tell. But one summer morning while I was having breakfast, she called me over to the kitchen stove and allowed me to watch her make it. And I discovered the three secrets behind the taste.
Salami is one of the most famous of all Italian ingredients and forms part of antipasto platters and pizza toppings up and down the peninsula. Travelling around Italy however, once again, you notice that every region has its own variations and varieties. Perhaps the most famous Tuscan salami, and certainly my favourite, is finocchiona, a pork and red wine salami flavoured with fennel, a combination that has to be tasted to be believed.
Tozzetti are the Umbrian version of cantucci (aka biscotti or biscotti di Prato) and are slightly different containing hazelnuts as well as almonds and being flavoured with aniseed. I first had these at the Saio Winery in Assisi, where they served them as part of the food to taste with their wine. Cantucci are traditionally dipped in vin santo but they encouraged us to dip the tozzetti in red wine before eating. The effect was incredible, because what was a sweet biscuit, became in effect savoury; the aniseed a perfect partner to the wine. I promised the recipe after that blog post, but as these biscuits are traditionally eaten at Christmas time, I thought I’d save it for now.
Exploring the wines of the new Tuscan revolution
When people think of Tuscan wine, they think of Chianti, and rightly so because the Chianti region occupies the majority of the wine producing area of central Tuscany, and is the third largest Italian region in terms of DOC/G production.
Most people are aware also that forty years ago, there was a revolution in Tuscan wine precipitated by a perceived drop in quality of Chianti. At this time, a number of producers stopped adhering to the rules of the Chianti DOC and started producing the wines they wanted to make with a heavy focus on quality. Today, these wines—most notably Sassicaia and Tignanello—are known as ‘super Tuscans’ and are recognized as amongst the very best Italian wines.
What few people know, is that a similar revolution has been taking place, quietly over the last ten years and today we are enjoying the first fruits. This time, producers are seeking to produce quality wines by rediscovering both traditional methods and old grape varieties that were eclipsed by mass production and the ubiquitous Sangiovese.
Watch me make peposo, an amazing Tuscan winter warmer stew. This dish originated with the workers in the terracotta factories of Impruneta, near Florence, back in medieval times. Like them, I use a traditional terracotta pot, but you could make this in a slow cooker, or a normal dutch oven. Nowadays, some people add a small amount of tomato puree to this dish, but it was invented long before the arrival of the tomato in Italian cuisine. You need to cook this for a minumum of two to three hours: four, five, even six is better. The Tuscans eat this on top of a slice of toasted pane sciocco, which is unsalted, but any good rustic bread will do.
1kg (2 1/4 pounds) beef
18g (2/3 ounce) salt
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
6 cloves of garlic
1/2 liter (2 cups) Chianti
4 slices of Tuscan bread
- Put all the ingredients into a terracotta pot, dutch oven, or slow cooker.
- Cover and cook in the oven at 150-160°C (300-320°F) for 2-3 hours.
- Toast the bread and serve the stew on top.
What’s your favourite winter warmer dish?
In 1439, a council of the Greek and Roman churches was called at Florence. According to legend, during the meeting, the Bishop of Florence proudly served his local communion wine to one of the Greek bishops who proclaimed, ‘What lovely wine! It’s xantho! (yellow)’. The Florentines, mishearing the greek adjective as santo (holy), took this as a pronouncement of quality rather than colour, and the wine has been known as vin santo ever since.