Tuscan spice pumpkin bread, a tale of forgotten drugs

I am quite aware that this title sounds a bit ridiculous — because there is no such thing as Tuscan spice pumpkin bread and it sounds like one of those recipes that I see online and abhor, that has nothing at all to do with Tuscany, like “Tuscan salad dressing” (no such thing exists in Tuscany, we just use olive oil and a wine vinegar of choice). But this time Tuscan spice really is a thing and it’s a fascinating thing too, something also sadly disappearing and not very well known. A heady mix of spices and an unlikely pairing of ingredients go into this mix, which is called droghe (drugs!) and is sold by the weight from a disappearing culture of food shops. Its name comes from an ancient term that covered not what we think of now as drugs but all manner of pharmaceuticals, in particular, plants, herbs and seeds that were used for medicinal purposes. And pharmacists were those who, in centuries past, would have kept spices too. Today in Florence, Bizzarri is one of those shops that looks like it has remained unchanged for 150 years and it is still where I go today for hard to find whole spices like mace.

My mother in law’s grandfather, Angiolo, who built the house she lives in, was the owner of a bar and alimentari (a food shop, or deli), where his wife Maria churned out aniseed biscotti and cakes, where they sliced salami and prosciutto, supplied pecorino for grating and fresh bread, dried pasta, salt, pepper and other spices, everything by the weight and packaged in paper. Their “droghe” were sold, like all spices and salt, alongside the tobacco.

The droghe mix can contain spices such as cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, aniseed, fennel or perhaps liquorice, pepper, star anise, coriander seed, juniper berries, dried orange zest. It’s also the same mix of spiced commonly used in salumi-making to spice Tuscan salami, soprassata or sausages.

There is a shop in my mother in law’s town — one of those shops that is unchanged by time — that still sells droghe by the weight. The signora of the shop pulls down a white container from a shelf labelled “spezie toscane” (Tuscan spices), weighs out a scoop for me and packages it in a piece of paper to take home — she shares with me that to the usual mix of ground spices, they add raisins, pine puts and chunks of chocolate. It’s mostly used for gamey stews — it’s perfect for a sweet and savoury Tuscan wild boar and chocolate stew known as cinghiale in dolceforte, and it works very well with hare too, although that is a rare dish these days. It’s a similar mixture of spices also used in the medieval panforte, a dense, rich, heavily spiced fruitcake from Siena. Both these well known dishes taste of the Renaissance, with that wonderful spice mix being the hero, and the highlight.

This pumpkin bread is made with mostly buckwheat but you can use regular flour in its place, I personally love the nuttiness of buckwheat in a cake like this (also in this incredible apple cake from Danielle Alvarez). Buckwheat is naturally gluten free so if you are looking for a completely gluten free cake, you can use almond meal/ground almonds in place of the flour. We all know that pumpkin in cake is just another vehicle (just as with carrot cake or zucchini bread) for a delicious, tender cake full of spices. So rather than use the classic, American style spice mix (often labelled “pumpkin spice”) which is a usually a mixed blend of cinnamon, ginger, cloves and allspice, I used this special Tuscan blend of “drugs”. I wanted to include raisins and pine nuts in this too but you can leave them off or use dates or chunks of dark chocolate instead of the raisins, and walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts instead of pine nuts.

I made this with a simple glaze using the juice from the zested orange, sprinkled with pine nuts, but alternatively you can enjoy this unglazed, warm right out of the oven lathered with some butter. Add the pine nuts to the batter if you like instead.

Tuscan spiced pumpkin bread (Torta di zucca con le droghe)

For the Tuscan droghe spices, combine the following ground spices in equal amounts: cinnamon, ginger, cloves, fennel seed, coriander seed, nutmeg. Keep in a jar and use as you please.

  • 125 gr butter, softened
  • 150 grams light brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 300 gr of fresh pumpkin boiled and mashed
  • 1-2 tsp droghe spice mix (above)
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • Zest and juice of an orange
  • 150 gr buckwheat flour
  • 65 gr flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 50 gr raisins, optional
  • 100 gr powdered sugar (icing sugar)

Preheat oven to 180C and line a load tin with baking paper or grease with butter.

Beat the butter and sugar together until creamy and pale. Add the eggs and continue beating until well incorporated. Add the pumpkin mash, along with the spices and orange zest (reserve the juice for later) and now fold through the buckwheat, flour, baking powder and salt. Once the flour is well incorporated, stir through the raisins, if using. Pour into the prepared loaf tin and bake until the cake is well risen and the spices begin perfuming the kitchen. A cake tester inserted in the middle should come out clean, about 40-50 minutes.

Allow to cool and in the meantime, toast the pine nuts in a dry pan until golden, shaking them the entire time so they don’t stay in one spit too long and burn. Prepare the the orange glaze by mixing the powdered sugar with a teaspoon at a time of the freshly squeezed orange juice until it slides thickly off a spoon. Sprinkle over the toasted pine nuts and allow to set before slicing.

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Comments

  1. Ellen says:

    So whole coriander seed? Is it crunchy when used in soft cake like this? Fennel seeds are much smaller of course. Should I crack either seed first?

  2. Audrey says:

    Delicious recipe, thank you.

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