Scroll down for a list of Tuscan recipes on this blog.
Under the Tuscan cliche
For many people, Tuscany is Italy. They carry an iconic image of the region in their heads, of emerald hills, rolling to eternity punctuated by cypress trees, like exclamation marks at the end of the phrase ‘This is paradise!!!’ Golden sunflowers and terracotta roof tiles complete the artist’s palette passed from hand to hand by the great painters of the middle ages and renaissance. The evening light is accompanied by the soundtrack of bells swinging in the many towers of the hill towns such as San Gimignano as one enjoys the sunset, sipping dry white wine.
On visiting Tuscany for the first time, therefore, many people are surprised, or not, to discover that this icon is the reality, a fact accounting for the region’s popularity with tourists and ex-pats alike, seeking their own slice of the dolce vita, or at least dolcelatte. It is still possible, but increasingly hard, to find a ruined farm to fix up like in a number of memoirs, and the fact that many foreigners have done this contributes to the beauty of the countryside and small villages. The prevalence of the British middle class in Tuscany, has given the area the nickname of Chiantishire, based on the name of the indigenous wine area, but you are just as likely to meet an American, or German, or Dutch person.
A bit of history
In ancient times, Tuscany was home to the Etruscans, the great pre-Roman civilisation that stopped the Greek colonists moving past the south of the peninsula and contributed heavily to Roman culture. The Romans said the toga came from the Etruscans, and they provided the caste of priests who were able to tell the will of the gods through observing flights of birds and examining the entrails of chickens. Many of the walls of Tuscan hill towns are Etruscan and the civilisation had its own language, which is currently being rediscovered by archaeologists working with the large number of artefacts in museums all over the region.
In Medieval and renaissance times, the region was the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, dominated mostly by the Medici family, one of the most influential clans in Italy and Europe. It was they who acted as the patrons to local artists, such as Michelangelo, born in the small village of Caprese in the eastern Tuscany, whose works are preserved as much in galleries of Florence as the chapels of Rome. The area is rich in art and architecture with Florence, Siena, and Pisa being amongst the most visited cities in the world.
Modern Tuscany survives on a mixture of tourism, agriculture, and industry. Famous for its sangiovese grapes and olives, it also produces a range of vegetables, sunflowers and tobacco. Although not as active as they once were, the marble quarries of Carrara still outfit luxury bathrooms and Piaggio, the company that brought us the Vespa, another icon of Italy, are based in Pontedera.
Even though it has a coastline, seafood doesn’t really make its way inland and the cuisine is dominated by the produce of the forest: truffles, game—particularly the abundant wild boar—and mushrooms. Huge t-bone steaks are served in the restaurants of Florence from the local Chianina cows. The local pasta includes hand-rolled twists, known as pici or bringoli or by many other names depending on the village of origin.
Food and wine
Tuscan bread, is made without salt traditionally and so goes very hard very quickly. This has lead to the development of bread-based dishes such as pappa al pomodoro, a tomato soup, and panzanella, a delicious salad.
The Chianti wine region covers most of Tuscany, although recent worries about quality have led to the development of the so-called ‘super Tuscan’ wines which are truly world class. These include Tignanello, Sassicaia, and Brunello da Montalcino, which are all priced to reflect their quality. White wine is dominated by the fresh Vernaccia di San Gimignano. Vin Santo, is a very popular dessert wine, often served with cantuccini almond biscuits and dunking is most definitely allowed.