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BENEVENUTO!

Greetings and welcome to The Tuscan Life Newsletter. In this issue, we focus on the bread of our region, and two recipes that feature it as a central ingredient. Many visitors to Tuscany are initially surprised by the taste of our bread: unsalted, dense, yet delicate. (In our Prosciutto newsletter a few issues back, we mentioned that our saltless bread has a colorful history and is uniquely suited to intensely flavored foods.) We hope you can visit us here in Toscano soon , and taste the delights of the Tuscan tavolo for yourself.


 


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Contents

1. A Short Primer on Tuscan Bread

2. Recipes: Fettunta and Panzanella

A Short Primer on Tuscan Bread

While the advent of the European Union brought many advantages to citizens of its member countries, there are those who fear that strict standards for uniformity in foods, and the ease of importation among member countries, will destroy a part of Europe's culinary legacy. In Italy, in order to protect our traditional foods and wines, we seek one of two special honors for our products; the DOP, a protected Designation of Origin, and the IGP, which is the indication of a particular geographic provenance. To date, no Italian breads have been awarded a DOP, and only the distinctive bread of the village of Genzano in Lazio has obtained an IGP. The Toscana Cereali , an organization of Tuscan grain producers, is hoping to see that change.

Because our bread is central to our culture and its unique characteristics are essential to our cuisine, we are seriously threatened by the high yield wheat being imported from France and Germany, and by the industrialized yeast used in the mass production of bread. Our bread isn't made that way. We depend on a mix of distinct grains, Bolero , Pandas , Col Fiorito and Mec , all cultivated in the Val di Chiana and around Florence, to give our bread its fragrance, almost like toasted hazelnuts, and its delicate taste. The agriculturists seeking the DOP for our bread are actually waging a battle for biodiversity. While these grains may not yield as much as some of the high-yield, low quality imports, they produce the flavor and tenderness of the bread that we love. Without them, it would not exist. The DOP would also guarantee a continuation of our agricultural tradition, because all the ingredients would have to be harvested, milled, and mixed right here in Tuscany in order to live up to the standard of the DOP.

But the taste, you wonder: why is our bread made without salt? One popular theory has it that in the 12th Century, when the Pisans were a Maritime empire, with control over trade coming from the sea, they decided to wield their power over rival Florence. In order to raise revenues, the Pisan authorities decided to raise the cost of salt to the inland cities that they supplied with goods from across the water. Salt was among the products that they imported inland, and it was easy to hike the prices. When the price of salt rose, the Florentines objected by baking their bread without it. Just one of the theories? Yes, and there are many.

Despite the many theories as to why the price of salt rose to exorbitant levels in the 12th Century, the simplest economic explanation for the bread of Tuscany is that no matter why the price of salt was high, thrifty Tuscan bakers decided to do without. They began to bake saltless bread centuries ago, and the tradition firmly persists.

Historians of gastronomy offer yet another theory for the saltless bread. They say that because the people of Tuscany have always favored pungent and salty meats, spicy salamis, rich olive oils, complex Pecorino cheese, and pungent liver paste on toast, a saltless product was naturally called for. What could be a better foil for intense, complex flavors than our neutral (some say bland) tasting bread?

Recipes Using Tuscan Bread

In the past, bread was usually made just once a week, and as the week wore on, the bread became tough and stale. What happens to bread that is too dry to enjoy? Thrifty Tuscan cooks developed a series of uses for the leftover bread; our huge traditional Tuscan loaves provided the inspiration for a variety of dishes that rely upon it. Ribollita and Pappa con il Pomodoro are the winter and summer versions of soups made with stale bread. We have shared a Ribollita recipe in the past, and the following dishes are my favorites among the traditional and uniquely Tuscan treatments for leftover bread.

Fettunta

I first tasted Fettunta at an old inn in the countryside near Firenze. I must tell you that I loved it at first bite, and I've been working to duplicate the taste of that delicious treat ever since. With some research and experimentation, I think I have come up with something you will enjoy.

Fettunta is particularly easy to prepare, and goes well with a variety of antipasti. It may remind you of bruschetta and in fact, they are quite similar. What is known as bruschetta in other parts of Italy becomes Fettunta in Firenze.

What does Fettunta mean in English? A fairly literal translation would be oily slice! The friend who introduced me to the dish called it greasy bread. In any case, a liberal baptism with our good extra virgin olive oil gives Fettunta its unique and delicious taste. To prepare the Fettunta you will need:

  • 1 loaf of Tuscan saltless bread, or a good, coarse and crusty Italian country style loaf
  • 2 large cloves of garlic, sliced in half across the widest part
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Tuscany

Fettunta is best made with bread that is not too fresh. You want some body to stand up to the rather heavy handed treatment. One loaf of bread will make several servings; I sometimes make just two or four slices.

Cut the bread into slices about 1/2 inch thick, and lightly toast them over an open flame. I have used the outdoor grill, and in Italy you can buy a tostapane , a devise that allows you to toast bread over the flame of your gas range.

Rub the hot toasted bread with the cut sides of garlic, and using a brush, liberally apply the extra virgin olive oil. Depending on what you will serve the Fettunta with, you can sprinkle it lightly with sea salt and/or freshly ground pepper. Serve with cured meats, chicken liver spread, tomato salad, or Tuscan white beans. Delicious!

Panzanella

Panzanella is a wonderful summer salad made with leftover Tuscan bread. It relies upon the freshest summer produce that provides a contrast in texture and flavor with the bread. I have heard it said that the green, white and red colors of the salad mimic the Italian flag, but I don't think the flag was as much inspiration for this salad, that has been around for centuries, as was the large loaf of leftover bread sitting in the madia, or bread cabinet, where rural women used to knead the dough and then store their great oval loaves.

Our Tuscan bread has no preservatives; if you do not have access to bread made in the traditional Tuscan way, it is important to chose a loaf without preservatives for Panzanella. Bread that won't dry out and become stale will not provide the right texture for this dish. The bread must be dry in order to crumble after soaking, rather than form a soggy ball.

There are a great many variations in recipes for Panzanella, but here is one that works well for me. It is especially right for this time a year, when we have an abundance of sweet, ripe tomatoes and fresh basil. You will need:

  • 1 pound loaf of Italian country style bread, sliced thick and left to dry
  • 1 small handful of fresh basil leaves, julienne cut
  • 1 small to medium red onion, sliced thin
  • 4 large tomatoes, very ripe, cut into cubes
  • 1 Tablespoon of red wine vinegar; more or less to taste
  • 3 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil; more or less as needed
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Dip the slices of bread into cold water, getting them wet through, but not leaving them to soak. Gently squeeze any excess water from the bread, and then tear the bread into small, coarse, crumbled pieces. Place the crumbled bread in a bowl with the tomatoes, onion, and basil, and dress with the oil and vinegar, and salt and pepper.

As I said, there are an infinite number of variations on Panzanella, and each cook knows what her family likes best. In our house, where spicy foods are a favorite, I often add finely chopped garlic and a little crushed red pepper flakes to my Panzanella. Some cooks like diced cucumber and while researching this, I found a recipe that included tuna fish and hard cooked eggs! You can experiment endlessly with Panzanella, and I'm sure that you will develop a version that will appear on your table at the end of every summer, when tomatoes and basil are abundant.

This recipe will make several servings.


 
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