Writing about Tuscany without mentioning food is like writing about the Titanic without mentioning that it sunk. Tuscans live for food and, of course, wine. Their favorite conversation during lunch (multiple courses every day in both town and country) is “What shall we cook for dinner?” The key to Tuscan cooking is the local—the world’s best—olive oil, and the variety of fresh produce and meats (some wild) and fish (most wild). Their preparation in the simplest manner is to accentuate—not hide—the wonderful primary flavors. Wild porcini mushrooms, fresh asparagus, and truffles are the queens of Tuscan kitchens. Wild boar, hare, pheasant and grass-raised Chianina beef for the mouthwatering steak Fiorentina, are the kings. The second secret of Tuscan cooking is patience: pastas made by hand (to die for), sauces that simmer for hours (oh Lordy), meats that roast slowly in wood-fired ovens (have mercy), and wines aged for years (Amen).
Bruscetta and Crostini
Bruscetta is a big slice of Tuscan bread toasted and rubbed on both sides with garlic and doused with freshly pressed olive oil on both sides. Crostini is smaller, toasted (or fried) bread topped with liver paste, or walnuts with anchovies and butter, or stewed tomatoes and mozzarella.
Pinci and Gnocchi
These dishes are celebrated handmade Tuscan pastas. Pinci—hand rolled—is thick, long, and irregular. Gnocchi (made with potatoes) are little nuggets. The sauces can be breadcrumbs stir-fried with garlic and olive oil, or sugo (a meat sauce made of boar, duck, or pork—all with tomatoes), or mixed seafood.
Ribollita and Panzanella
Ribollita is a thick, white-bean and black-cabbage soup—best with submerged bruscetta. The second is leftover bread soaked (whole wheat, like it was for centuries, is best), then mercilessly squeezed, with chopped onions, tomatoes, olives, fresh basil, and balsamic vinegar. Pour lots of fresh olive oil onto both.
Wild Boar Stew
Our neighbor Ofelio often regales us with big hunks of boar he hunted. The meat is chopped up into cubes, marinated overnight in wine with onions and juniper berries, then browned in garlic and olive oil and stewed slowly—piano, piano—with onions, garlic, celery, bay leaves, chili peppers, tomato pulp, and rosemary. Heaven.
Many times a year, we hit the Tuscan coast for this magnificent Livornese fish soup. Thick and replete with a dozen different fish, squid, and shellfish, it is cooked in three batches with onions, sage, garlic, peperoncini, and tomatoes—wow! If I were cooking the Last Supper, this would be the main course.