In 1825 the renowned gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote about food “tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are”. This is what we had in mind as we embarked on our Tuscan food exploration on a rainy October weekend. Food is a symbol of various cultural beliefs all embedded in the ingredients of a recipe to its preparation, promotion and consumption and what a better way than to explore the marvels of Italy by eating your way through the small medieval villages of Tuscany, meeting artisanal producers and learning first hand why olive oil is considered the “golden treasure of the world” and what makes “a good prosciutto and salciccia” despite its unappealing external surface covered in mold!
The characteristic Tuscan landscapes and rolling hills covered with bright yellow fields of sunflowers, olive groves, grapevines, hill towns, and monuments are also home to some of the most influential artists of Renaissance Italy. Such artists and architects, saints and philosophers, navigators and scientists like Amerigo Vespucci, the merchant and navigator who gave America its name, Giovanni da Verrazzano, the great Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Lorenzo de’ Medici “The Magnificent”, Brunelleschi, Della Casa, Galileo, Giotto, Donatello, Botticelli, Dante, Machiavelli, to name but a few, made Tuscany the stronghold of Italian art and in some unique way Tuscan food has become a work of art in itself as the ingredients of making food are carefully selected based on quality, freshness, locality, historicity in order to become a perfect canvas of colors and taste! “We shall NOT be defeated by rain” all students shouted as we came off the train and walked through a beautiful medieval “frantoio”- olive mill where we were welcome by Signore Nicola, the owner and his sons who are continuing the tradition of olive making using techniques native to the territory and limiting their production to such quantities so as to ensure quality and gastronomical status. Our introduction to the “world of extra virgin olive oil” focused on the techniques of olive collection, the specific kind of olive trees native to the land of Tuscany and the “passion per la cucina tradizionale” (passion for traditional, authentic cuisine) by using traditional recipes, the best seasonal ingredients and the pivotal role of olive oil in them. After our hard day’s work helping in all the phases of the olive pressing process it was time to taste the fruits of our labor! So we sat in this long table with Signore Nicola and his wife overlooking the picturesque hills of Tuscany and we tasted all the fantastic types of olive oil they produced both aromatic and extra virgin olive oils. Bread, cheese and cold meat cuts helped us to refine our tasting pallets and little blue tasting glasses and techniques made us extra virgin olive oil connoisseurs, even for only one day! All these helped us to understand the difference between traditional local production and industrial production, a skill that students can carry back to America as informed consumers.
Leaving the frantoio we moved further up to the mountains of rural Tuscany to the medieval villages between Lari and Terricciola. These areas have a rich history of farming tradition as they were the stronghold of the Vicars of Tuscany that controlled the grain and meat production. It was no surprise to find there the oldest butcher of the area and to try his delicacies. There we explored the history and cultural economics of the area and the types of Tuscan foods that were produced that influenced the culture of rural Tuscany.
After the dungeons of Tuscany and the smells and tastes of rural meaty Tuscany we cleaned our pallets with a glass of cherry liquor that was made in the area and we moved on to the next visit an old, family run pasta factory where the family lives above the small factory and due to the lack of space they dry the pasta right next to their living room. Martelli craft pasta (“Spaghetti”,”Penne Classiche”, ”Spaghettini” and ”Maccheroni di Toscana”) is made by slowly kneading the best durum-wheats with cold water from the region. The bronze-drawing gives the pasta a rough texture. This is then dried at a “low traditional temperature” for about 50 hours and the result is a super-tasty and porous pasta which allows sauce to be absorbed well. Much discussion on traditional methods of making pasta and using traditional machinery from the 1920s led to the importance of packaging and family logos, true to the very first pasta package of the family back in 1926.
Further in rural Tuscany we visited Terricciola, an ancient Etruscan village, strategically located on the valleys of the river Era of Cascina and Sterza. Terricciola’s geographical location allowed its people to use its water resources and created Hypogea, underground spaces dug in the ground tuff which were used to store grain and wine. In Terricciola we visited an old family run traditional winery, with its own Hypogeum, turned winery, famous worldwide for its excellent production of wine thanks to its unique D.O.C., I.G.T. and D.O.C.G. Walking through the winery with the owner we tasted a selection of wines and their grape varieties, discussed their cultivation, fermentation, aging and the role of good barriccaia- good quality wooden barrels to produce high quality Tuscan wine. But wait! What about Italian cheeses that perfectly accompany wine? What does the name “pecorino” come from? How is it made? Is “ricotta” produced in Tuscany too? Well, the answer to these questions depends on the season, the processing, milk coagulating, cheese salting or cheese rinsing during an organic production, as the students will tell you! Our dinner in the old tavern of the village had authentic Tuscan recipes prepared for us from porchetta (roasted piglet flavored with Tuscan herbs), cow meat, selection of vegetables, freshly made pasta with leak and sausage from the oldest butcher of the region, ending the meal with Vin Santo, Tuscany’s sweet wine accompanied by Cantucci biscotti and fresh homemade pastries.
The beauty of simple, fresh, seasonal ingredients in all its triumph in Tuscany’s cucina povera!