Take it without a pinch of salt

Tales of tuscan bread

Deirdre Pirro
May 18, 2006

One story places all the blame on the Pisans. In fact, an old Tuscan proverb declares, Meglio un morto in casa che un pisano all’uscio, which roughly translated means ‘Better a death in the family than someone from Pisa on your doorstep’. This epitomises the rivalry existing between Pisa and her neighbours since the Middle Ages. However, it would seem that, in those far off times, Pisa unwittingly did Florence a favour. Legend has it that, in 1100, in an attempt to force Florence to surrender in one of their endless battles against each other, Pisa blockaded the salt that arrived at her port, preventing it from reaching Florence. Thus, pane toscano (Tuscan bread) was born - the bread famous throughout Italy for being sciocco, from the word in the Tuscan dialect for ‘unsalted’.

 

A second version of the story stems back to wide-spread poverty in the Middle Ages and argues that salt, then a very precious commodity, was simply too costly for the Florentines to use in bread-making. During those times, it was the custom for each farmhouse, even the poorest, to have a wood burning oven where farm workers, in an almost religious ritual, cooked their bread once every two or three months. Once baked, the bread was wrapped in a cloth and kept in the madia, a dresser especially made to store it.

 

Today, the very best Tuscan bread is reputed to come from Altopascio, in the Province of Lucca, although there are other suitors who covet this throne, many of which belong to the Associazione Città del Pane (Bread Cities’ Association). In general, the main characteristic of Tuscan bread is that it requires a lengthy rising period which helps it keep its freshness for several days. It has a rustic look with a crunchy crust while the soft middle part of the loaf is honeycombed in appearance. Tuscan bread comes in three basic shapes, namely, round, called bozza, long and narrow, called filone, or flat, called ciabatta. A loaf may vary in weight from around 500 grams to 2 kilos.

 

Products called ‘Tuscan bread’ and ‘Tuscan-type bread’, which do not necessarily use traditional ingredients or baking methods, are available on the market throughout Italy. Prompted by this fact, on March 11, 2004, the Consorzio Regionale di Promozione e Tutela del Pane Toscano a DOP (Regional Consortium for the Promotion and Protection of Tuscan Bread with Denomination of Protected Origin) was established. Its aim is to safeguard ‘real’ Tuscan bread and its heritage by lobbying for it to be given DOP status, the equivalent of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) in France or the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) in Great Britain. Gaining such recognition would guarantee the origin of the bread and, therefore, its authenticity. This safeguard would define precisely what the bread is made of and how it is baked, as well as marking out the geographical boundaries within which it is produced. It will, however, be up to the Italian Ministry for Agricultural and Forestry Policies and the European Union to give their approval before Tuscan bread from the Tuscany Region bears the DOP label.

 

Nevertheless, whatever the true story of its origins or its future denomination may be, unsalted Tuscan bread has proved to be not only a fine accompaniment but also the basis of many of the tasty dishes that are renowned in Tuscan cuisine.

 

A FEW TYPICAL DISHES MADE WITH TUSCAN BREAD:

Fettunta - an appetiser made with slices of hot toasted Tuscan bread, spread with olive oil and sprinkled with salt.

 

Ribollita - a twice-boiled thick vegetable soup (hence its name meaning ‘re-boiled’), made of black and white cabbage, white beans and other vegetables, poured over toasted Tuscan bread.

 

Pappa al pomodoro - a bread-based tomato soup in which the slices of bread are cooked together with the tomatoes and herbs to make a tasty pappa, or kind of ‘mush’.

 

Cacciucco - a delicious fish chowder from Livorno where ‘poor’ and ‘noble’ fish are mixed together with molluscs and crustaceans. According to tradition, it should contain at least five types of fish to match the number of ‘c’s in the word cacciucco. These are, usually, relatively small fish such as rock octopus, cuttlefish and red mullet and the fish bones are added in order to flavour the broth. Once cooked, the cacciucco is served on a bed of toasted Tuscan bread which has been rubbed with garlic.

 

Panzanella - a salad dish which is especially recommended now summer is approaching. A Tuscan version of pan bagnat, it is both simple and inexpensive to make. For devotees, the town of Semproniano, about 60 kilometers from Grosseto, holds an annual Panzanella fair during the last two weeks of August each year.

 

Deirdre Pirro is an Australian lawyer who has lived and worked in Florence for many years. Apart from her general practice, she is currently working on a book on particular aspects of art law and she dedicates much of her time to environmental protection. She also has a special interest in food and its history, particularly in relation to popular customs and traditions.

 

MR P’s PANZANELLA

 

A foreword to my recipe for panzanella is necessary. I say ‘my’ recipe because this dish has many variations and can be prepared according to your fancy and imagination. It was a ‘poor’ dish of the farm workers in Tuscany who did not have very much at their disposal except some onions, green herbs and tomatoes. They also had bread which was sometimes only baked once a month in the countryside. When it became stale, it had to be softened in water, the fresh cold water from the small rivers running nearby the farmhouse, and then squeezed out and mixed with the vegetables in order to make a filling and appetizing dish.

 

Nowadays, I make panzanella (never in winter) in the following way:

Ingredients (serves four)

8 slices of stale Tuscan bread

4 ripe salad tomatoes

1 large red onion (the Tropea variety is the best)

1 small cucumber

4 or 5 tablespoons white wine vinegar

4 or 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

8 basil leaves

small bunch of parsley

pinch of oregano

salt & pepper

 

Preparation

Take the slices of bread and dip them in some cold water mixed with a couple of tablespoons of white wine vinegar. Squeeze out the liquid and crumble the softened bread into a salad bowl. Then add four quite large salad tomatoes cut into cubes, one large, finely chopped red onion, the sliced cucumber together with chopped fresh parsley and some seven or eight basil leaves. Season with salt and pepper. Finally, add a pinch of oregano, dress with four or five tablespoons of good quality extra virgin olive oil and toss. Leave the bowl in the fridge for at least half an hour or until serving. Although not part of the traditional recipe, if you wish you can vary the dish by adding a cup of tuna, several anchovies or a couple of sliced boiled eggs. That’s it! Buon appetito.

 

Mr P is a retired Italian sea captain and now an amateur gourmet chef and food buff.

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