Italian Table Talk: The Longevity of Tuscan bread
If there were one defining ingredient in a Tuscan kitchen, one absolutely essential part of every single meal, it would have to be bread; not just any bread, but pane toscano, Tuscan bread.
It’s a large, rustic, usually oval-shaped loaf baked in a woodfired oven with a hard and crunchy outer shell and an inside of bland (yes, bland), springy white bread. It has the physical characteristic of only staying soft for one day, but once stale it lasts forever. Well, almost. There really is no other bread quite like it.
But before I get into this particularly Tuscan staple, let’s talk a little bit about bread, moreover Italian bread. It’s the topic of the first blog post of Italian Table Talk, a monthly discussion on traditional, regional Italian cuisine that I’m proudly sharing with some of my favourite food bloggers, Valeria from Love Life Food, Jasmine from Labna, and Giulia from Juls’ Kitchen. Together, our monthly musings (always to a theme) aim to bring insight to the traditions of regional Italian cuisine that is often forgotten.
Valeria, a Venetian transplanted to London via Piemonte, is an expert in all things cheese-related. Her beautiful bilingual blog celebrates the simple pleasures in life and good, wholesome food. Milan-based Jasmine has an Italian language blog with wonderful recipes that show her love of Jewish Italian cuisine, vegetarian dishes and, of course, sweets. Giulia, a born and bred Tuscan with an Anglophile side, tells us the story of her countryside home and her family traditions through her recipes and photography.
So back to the discussion, which is, in my case, Tuscan bread and its amazing qualities when stale. The most important characteristic (and most obvious, when you bite into it) of Tuscan bread is the fact that it is – to use the Tuscan word – sciocco, bland. It is made without any salt at all.
I’m still searching to put my finger exactly on this mystery – some say that the traditional accompaniments were always salty, so the bread became bland, but personally I’m of the persuasion that says the opposite, that the bread has always been bland, so the accompaniments became saltier to compensate. In other words, salt was purposefully omitted from the bread, perhaps because of the expensive cost of this much-loved seasoning back in the twelfth century. I do recall hearing somewhere (and I’ve been searching ever since for these hard facts but have yet to come across them again!) that this was indeed the case, and that it may have even had something to do with pride. Something about Florentines not wanting to pay salt tax to Pisa, who had control over the sea port (and thus the source of salt), or the Pisans refusing to allow salt inland – so the Florentines preferred to stubbornly stick to making bread without salt. It certainly sounds like it fits the nature of these Tuscans and the constant rivalry between the two cities.
Whatever the case, we do know that Florentines have been making unsalted bread for centuries, at least since the Middle Ages. Dante Aligheri even refers to it in the Divine Comedy, with this quote from Paradiso, a moment where he learns of his exile from Florence and is given some idea of the difficulties he’ll face:
“Tu proverai si come sa di sale Lo pane altrui, e com’è duro calle Lo scendere e il salir per l’altrui scale.”
In other words, ”You shall learn how salt is the taste of another’s bread, and how hard a path the descending and climbing another’s stairs.”
For many foreigners, the blandness of a plain piece of Tuscan bread can be difficult to get used to, but once you taste it the way it is meant to be eaten, with the heavily salted and tasty local ingredients such as prosciutto Toscano (saltier than prosciutto from Parma) or Pecorino cheese, it all begins to make sense.
Bread is versatile on a Tuscan table. When fresh, it accompanies every antipasto. It can be transformed into literally hundreds of variations of crunchy crostini after a light grilling, with any number of Tuscany’s favourite flavourful toppings, from a simple rubbing of garlic, sea salt and peppery extra virgin olive oil to chicken liver pâté or puréed white beans.
Bread also accompanies the secondo, and is especially popular when used like an extension of your hand for mopping up juices when you do a scarpetta. Try wiping up a Tuscan stew or sauce such as sugo al cinghiale, trippa alla fiorentina or peposo with a piece of Tuscan bread and you begin to understand that there is really no other accompaniment that could replace it.
But one of the best things about Tuscan bread is its amazing transformation when it is at least a day old, and the subsequently thrifty use of this unique bread when it’s stale. It’s a quality that I think is best expressed in the phrase, un pane più buono ogni giorno che passa – a bread that’s more delicious each day that passes.
Day-old, saltless Tuscan bread would be quite useless to most other people, but Tuscans have always been incredibly inventive and good at recreating delicious, hearty meals from yesterday’s leftovers and pane raffermo, ‘hardened’ day old bread, never gets wasted. This is even more so considering the old tradition of ‘blessing’ loaves of bread in religious ceremonies, which would make throwing out old bread sacrilegious. I would even go as far to say that you are likely to find equal amounts of fresh and stale bread in any Tuscan, and particularly Florentine, meal.
Stale Tuscan bread also makes wonderful breadcrumbs (simply pulse in a food processor until you get crumbs and store in an air-tight container). A staple of country kitchens of generations past, breadcrumbs were tasty, nutritious and added substance to sparse peasant dishes. Artusi has a simple recipe for a Tuscan Minestra di pangrattato, or ‘breadcrumb soup’, made by grinding leftover stale bread into crumbs then cooking them in stock, adding an egg and Parmesan cheese to thicken it.
Stale Tuscan bread has an incredible consistency when soaked with liquid. It doesn’t become soggy the way many softer breads would when submerged in vinegar and water. It holds its shape well, it remains springy and the crumbs remain intact. Even fresh Tuscan bread does not hold the liquid the same way as its stale version. It’s a phenomenon that it not easy to produce with other breads. I’ve seen many translated recipes destined for places where pane toscano isn’t available that have resorted to calling for toasted bread. But, of course, it’s never the same.
Here are some of my favourite Tuscan recipes where this wonderful stale Tuscan bread is the hero. These, particularly the first three, are difficult to replicate with any other kind of bread, in terms of texture and flavour:
Panzanella: This rustic, summertime, Renaissance-age salad was born in the hard-working farm kitchens of the Tuscan countryside, as a way of using up day old bread and the abundance of fresh vegetables that came straight from the fields. Made up of day old bread revived in red wine vinegar and olive oil, ripe tomatoes, cucumber and basil, it’s a great example of a dish that makes much out of little and inexpensive ingredients, and it goes a long way to feed a large, hungry family, all without even having to turn on a stove (a blessing in the sweltering Tuscan summer). It’s a great dish that can be improvised in a number of ways with the vegetables and herbs on hand but remember that the bread should make up half of the volume.
Pappa al Pomodoro: The bread is a very sensitive issue in the pappa al pomodoro considering it is the base of the dish. It is what gives it is characteristic texture, its volume and most importantly, what makes it a pappa, which is essentially the word for a mushy meal, like what you would feed a baby. The bread must be Tuscan, of course, for its great ability of being revived in liquids without turning soggy. It can sometimes be seen toasted, but purists will always use left over day old bread. Some simply rub raw garlic sparingly on the stale bread for a delicate, warm garlic flavour instead of adding it directly to the soup. But the most important step of the pappa al pomodoro is how and when you add the bread – either before or after cooking. Soaked in the hot tomato soup, the bread breaks down creating a thick and creamy soup that will fill up even the hungriest bellies. Check out Giulia’s version (involving cooking the bread in the soup) here.
Ribollita: The classic Florentine winter soup, ribollita, is, for me, the epitome of Tuscan ingenuity in using up what is on hand. Ribollita literally means ‘reboiled,’ which not only implies the use of leftovers but is also it is one of the essential techniques in getting this soup just right. Using stale bread, essential seasonal vegetables and beans, this is a cheap and healthy winter dish to make on those cold winter days when you want to feed an army of hungry people. Find Artusi’s 120 year old recipe here.
Pici con le bricole: This utterly humble dish from the Tuscan countryside around Siena and Arezzo is probably one of the cheapest, tastiest dishes ever. Made with the basics of what can be found in the kitchen: water, flour, some old bread (or perhaps, in hard times, the breadcrumbs collected off the tablecloth), a clove of garlic, olive oil. Anchovies and chili are sometimes added as ‘refinements’ in this dish, and completely optional.
The pici – hand-rolled, rustic noodles – are made with only flour and water, the signs of a dish with poor origins. I’ve heard local stories by those who remember when pici, made daily by the mamma of the house, may have sometimes included an egg, perhaps on a Sunday, if they were lucky or it was a special occasion. The sauce, if you can call it that, is a clever one made with just a few ingredients packed full of flavour – garlic, chili, anchovies – and breadcrumbs to hold it all together. The olive oil as well as the water from cooking the pasta provide a way for the breadcrumbs and flavours to stick beautifully to the pici, guaranteeing tastiness with each forkful.
Check out more of the insights into Italian bread with the other Italian Table Talk bloggers. Valeria takes us to her homeland of the Veneto where she tackles the bread vs. polenta tradition. Jasmine has posted about a wonderful Italian Jewish bread pudding recipe and Giulia shares her thoughts on Tuscan bread but also on an afternoon ritual. And just to be sure you don’t miss their other wonderful posts, you can also follow them here:
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