Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Gourmet Cuisine of Tuscany: Antipasto of Crostini, Salame, Funghi Porcini, Panforte, Ricciarelli

Tuscany is a huge garden, producing the wonderful fresh fruit and produce for market days throughout the medieval stone and stucco villages that cling to its hills. The ancient traditions of olive cultivation and wine making are still a hugely important part of life here, and make the region prosperous and proud of the genuine quality of its produce. It is this that strikes you about Tuscany - its genuineness.
Cultivators here have always striven for the greatest quality in whatever area they work - genuino is almost the greatest compliment you can pay or be paid - they have always known that the less you add to the simple ingredients - whether to oil or to wine - the better the final result, so there is nothing new here about avoiding noxious insecticides, and making all aspects of production as natural as possible.

Food here is rustic - the very best ingredients, the simplest cooking. Even the smartest Florentine restaurants will have the famous Tuscan bean soup on the menu, a traditional minestrone eaten with pane e parmigiano: honest food, full of flavour and heart. The secret is to slow yourself down. It's completely in keeping with the place and the people to punctuate so much visual overload with a really memorable lunch - something very Florentine that will fortify you - a bistecca alla griglia, doled out by weight, and a bottle of Chianti. Look out for the distinctive different Chiantis - Colli Fiorentini, Montalbano and Rufina. Il Cibreo, via de' Macci 118r, has a very Florentine feel, and likes to finish off its customers for the day by having a fantastic pudding menu.

If your travels take you to Prato it's an excellent excuse for insisting, after another long lunch, on having cantucci, or biscotti di Prato, with a glass of vin santo. Nearby is Carmignano, where the wine of the same name is produced. In an area where red wine is so plentifully available, this one stands out for its very specialised producers, limited quantities, and its wonderful quality. This is truffle country - tartufi with pasta, rice or meat name your dish and it will be brought to the table fragrant with the most recognisable aroma.

On to Pistoia and soft rolling hills where alternating rows of vines and olives mirror the values of Tuscan cooking. Fields of corn provide the bread, the vines the wine and the olives the very best oil. If the heat is rising start the day early but remember not to miss the prima colazione. This important first breakfast (!) should be taken with strong dark coffee - perhaps allungato with grappa, to fortify you for an active day, or lightened with steaming hot milk and something sweet, a pastry or choux bun bursting with fresh cream patisserie. Later, stop for a cold drink and a square of schiacciata, moist literally flattened bread heavily seasoned with salt and rosmarino, delicious with a slice of prosciutto or mortadella.

From Pistoia to Lucca, and streets packed with delicatessens and bars. In the quiet of a warm evening, it is wonderful to eat outside at a table surrounded with vines wound into a pergola. The simplest traditional dishes are best - antipasto of crostini, and salame, if you are there in the season game is rich and local, and the Chianti from the Lucchese cooperatives is the best vino da tavola you can get. If you are feeling adventurous, try the Ristorante Canuleia, via Canuleia 14, where you can find salami di cioccolata on the menu.

Up in the Garfagnana the most passionate local obsession is with funghi porcini, the wild mushrooms that grows in the chestnut groves: only the most skillful mushroom hunters have regular success in finding them, but when the weather has been just right, the very best local dishes feature porcini: pappardelle ai funghi is a wonderfully delicate combination when the pasta is homemade and the funghi freshly gathered. No menu here is complete without a traditional soup, and along the Garfagnana valley you will find soup thickened with farro, a grain only grown in this area. You can sample farro cold too, flavoured with fresh seafood and seasoned with heavy olive oil. If you are a real meat-eater cinghiale (wild boar) is wonderful, richly roasted and served simply in its own juices.

From the Garfagnana to the coast, and some fantastic seafood. At Tellaro, a picture postcard village on the sea, you will find the Miranda, via Fiascherino 92, where just-gathered vegetables accompany the freshest possible seafood, often served with a garlic sauce. Amongst this feast gamberi al vapore con salsa di pomodoro e basilico (steamed crayfish with a tomato ad basil sauce) are perfect. Along the coast you will find restaurants to die for. Try Bagno Annetta, viale Franceschi 23 Forte dei Marmi, open only for lunch or the Bistrot, viale Franceschi 14, which has a lovely terrace overlooking the sea.

Following the river Arno inland, and you reach the area which gives its name to the most famous of Tuscany's wines, the Chianti: the Chianti Classico which is produced all over this area between Florence and Siena is made with Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Ciliegiolo, Malvasia and Trebbiano grapes, and the Gallo Nero label will only be found on bottles that conform to its strict production regulations.

In contrast, try the wonderful Vernaccia di San Gimignano. Nothing could be dreamier than sitting under a pergola at a cool marble-topped table sharing a bottle of this sun-yellow wine, some fettunta, or bruschetta, made with great oblongs of homemade bread and local oil, and a salty tomato salad. At L'Osteria delle Catene, via Mainardi 18, sample the zuppa medievale (medieval soup) flavoured with local saffron.

From medieval hill towns to Siena: it seems so appropriate that the best wine made in the province of Siena is the famously rich Brunello di Montalcino, which is made only with the Sangiovese grape, and has to be aged at least four years before it is sold; it is a sublime partner to the local pecorino senese, a buttery, luxurious cheese seasoned with olive oil and tomatoes and stagionato for forty to sixty days.

If you can, hold out until you reach Siena before tasting panforte, which is the local speciality along with ricciarelli, light almond cakes. Just outside the walls you will find the Antica Trattoria Botteganova, strada Chiantigiana 29. It has the perfect mix of traditional and modern cuisine - including a souffl頤i gobbi con zabaione e zenzero (a light souffl頷ith zabaione and ginger).

Tuscany is a limitlessly rich area for both food and wine, and its heritage of traditional cuisine - la cucina rustica - combined with the inventiveness of its restaurants and plentiful fresh ingredients, has to be some sort of gastronomic ideal. Buon appetito...

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