Katie & Giancarlo Caldesi
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Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Helen Cathcart

The Italians have the phrase ‘ben curato’, meaning ‘well cared for’; Tuscany is ben curato. On my first visit to this green and pleasant, fertile land I was mesmerised by the neat fields – every hill and valley had some edible crop growing on it. It looked as though a giant hand, perhaps belonging to an old Etruscan god, had reached down and combed each field neatly into place. The thoughtful being had placed a perfectly sized town on top of each hill and drawn a little winding road with his finger up to each one. It is this order, the friendly and welcoming landscape that Tuscany possesses, that has attracted so many of us, over millennia, to visit and fall in love with this region. It is about the size of Wales, inhabited by just under 3.8 million people, yet more than 40 million tourists visit every year.

We have travelled all over Tuscany for the last 20 years, as it is Giancarlo’s homeland. He was born and raised in Montepulciano Stazione, a tiny village near the Umbrian border. He remembers a happy yet tough childhood living on his family smallholding, helping his mother with the cooking and his father on the land. They had little money and mostly ate what they grew. Marietta was Giancarlo’s mother; sadly she was very ill when I met her. I would have relished learning from her first-hand and often imagine I hear her whispering advice in my ear. I am fascinated by the way she, and her mother before her, used to cook. Both cooked over an open fire using a grill positioned over the embers and had a tripod for a cauldron (which we still have) for one-pot dishes. Baking happened once a fortnight in the outdoor oven.

Pre-1950s, life in Italy hadn’t changed for generations, and I believe old Tuscan cooking (with some exceptions) was healthier than it is now. Everything the Caldesi family ate was organic, seasonal and fresh. And that was the norm. I want to adopt all Marietta’s ideas of fresh home cooking – the lovely herb-filled Tuscan dishes, the slow-cooked meat stews, the hearty soups and the light, just-picked salads – but I want to translate them for today’s cooks. When Giancarlo talked about how his mother ran her kitchen, we thought this might not be possible today, but in fact it seems increasingly relevant as we become more conscious of what we eat and what we waste. Marietta’s food is what we should be eating now: good food cooked from scratch, from field to fork.

Post 1950s, motorcars, fridges and pesticides came in, sugar and dried pasta became widely available, flour was imported and women went to work. Believe me, although I love cooking, I don’t want to be tied to a kitchen sink or a hot oven seven days a week, as Marietta was, and today many of our younger Italian friends of both sexes follow a career path outside the home. However, what many Tuscans still want is good home cooking. According to a study by Unioncamere, Italy’s chamber of commerce, the financial crisis and soaring unemployment have forced Italians to spend less and shop more cautiously, replacing fizzy drinks and sugary snacks with homemade produce. Half of Italians now buy ‘only the essentials’, according to the survey, and what they do buy is carefully chosen, with many buying directly from small producers and markets.

Living the Tuscan dream – going back to the land

Around 15 per cent of Italians grow their own food and 17 per cent of these started in the last five years, coinciding with the financial downturn. Combined with the economic benefits of growing your own, Italians are increasingly worried about the quality and purity of food. The phrase 'cibo genuino' crops up again and again, and Tuscans tell me that they want ‘natural food’ that is uncontaminated with chemicals. The organic aisle in the Tuscan supermarket stretches far further than in my local supermarket in the UK. Biodynamic and organic wines are readily available, too.

There is something elemental about planting a seed, watching the plants develop and tasting the ripe fruit. It seems to me that Tuscans have never been as disconnected with the production of food as we have become. From medieval times to the present, Tuscan cuisine, just like the Etruscan cuisine before it, is tied to the agriculture of the area. The real wine movement in the UK and the farm-to-table trend in the US seem quite new to us, but the Tuscans have been growing, buying and cooking food in this way for generations. Our friend Fabrizio Biagi thinks we should all be ‘moving towards the future with the methods of the past’. He gave us an example: his friend catches fresh anchovies at night by lamplight in Viareggio. He gives them to Fabrizio who preserves them in jars under salt, and he in turn gives some jars back to his friend. Fabrizio then uses them (we ate one on thickly buttered bread – heaven) and each time he opens the jar he has a connection, a relationship with that food and its origin, and knows every ingredient in it.

Many Tuscan families still have an 'orto' – an area for growing food – whether it is outside the back door or on an allotment. There is a small but burgeoning movement of people choosing to grow in an 'orto sinergico', meaning to grow in synergy with the natural rhythms of the world. Our friends Livia and Nello, now in their seventies, have always farmed like this. Far from being a little cuckoo, it is a holistic approach that harnesses the power of nature by farming in harmony with insects, using mixed planting between flowers and vegetables and sowing according to the phases of the moon, the 'ciclo lunare', to help plants thrive. Even our friends’ local town newspaper suggests when it is best to cut your hair or when to plant seeds according to the phases of the moon. In towns where Tuscans can’t grow their own food, there are an increasing number of ‘zero kilometre’ restaurants specialising in locally sourced produce.

To ensure the quality of the food they put into their bodies, Italians are prepared to spend 14.4 per cent of their income on food compared to 8.9 per cent in the UK. They are also prepared to spend the time gathering ingredients. On a recent visit to Siena, our friend Antonella Rossi pointed out of the window and told me where all her ingredients were from. She grew the vegetables in her orto, the chillies were from a pot outside her front door, her olive oil was made from olives on the trees outside her window and the pigeons for the ragù came from the farm down the road. While she was telling me this I was wondering what I would have to say to a friend who came over for supper – ‘This is from this supermarket,’ ‘This I got online,’ and ‘This is from the local corner shop.’ I know I couldn’t name the exact provenance of most of my food.

Antonella and her husband Fabrizio took us to buy cheese and salami for Christmas direct from the producers. They live on a budget but none of the food they bought was a bargain – that wasn’t the point. They weren’t trying to save pennies; they wanted to ensure they bought safe and good-quality food. Again, I couldn’t imagine doing this back home. Here, in general, we seem more preoccupied with bargains than quality.

It might seem like I am looking at Tuscany with rose-tinted glasses, that we have formed an idealised view of Tuscan life and that we are not giving the real impression of Tuscany today. It is true that obesity is on the rise, as is diabetes (particularly in children), and I know some people in towns are hurriedly buying a panino for lunch and a ready meal for supper, but the numbers are less than in the UK and the US. And we are interested in those that are still living as people have done in Tuscany for thousands of years; those that are in pursuit of a good meal. We want to capture what we thought was special about Tuscany. To do this we have worked with family, friends and chefs who are passionate about their food and land. In Italy, someone like this who appreciates good food is called a 'buona forchetta' – a good fork – and happily Tuscany is full of them!

The collective pride

Everyone recognises Tuscany, the landscape punctuated by winding roads and pointed cypress trees; its clichéd images have graced tea trays, greetings cards and coasters for years. However, real people live, work and eat there! At the heart of every Tuscan there is a pride in their region, and an incredible sense of responsibility and love for their surroundings, their customs, recipes, their football teams and their wine. During the Renaissance, Boccaccio, the 14th century writer, wrote in The Decameron of the civic pride that he has in his own city, Florence, where he praised the qualities of Florentine men as ‘noble, chivalrous, agreeable and wise’ and the women ‘all of whom are beautiful’. This fierce love of home is called 'campanilismo', which comes from the Italian word for bell tower – campanile – due to your home being defined by living close to the parish church bell.

Tuscans feel the need to celebrate what they have and show off, much to our benefit. The biannual Palio di Siena, for example, is the horse race around the fan-shaped Piazza del Campo in Siena. The Sienese compete with each other within their own city as they are divided into 'contrade' (districts of the city). Each horse is taken into the local church to be blessed before the race, the area is decorated with the contrade flags and dinners are thrown in honour of the ancient race. The Sienese are happier when their rivals lose, rather than when their contrade wins, so fierce is the rivalry. The Palio replaced an earlier ‘game’ known as the Gioca del Pugno that took place in the Campo, which was a glorified fist fight between two contrade with 300 men on each team. Another example is the 'sagre', which are food festivals put on to celebrate the seasonal arrival of a particular food; you might have the sagra of the chestnuts, the new olive oil or the porchetta. It’s taken very seriously and attended by all around.

The slow Tuscan life – how to make food taste Tuscan

The rhythm of life in Tuscany is slower than in Rome or the northern cities but faster than in Sicily, and many people visit or move here just for this pace. And the way Tuscans cook is also slower and calmer. In lessons from Tuscan chef Antonella Secciani, I learnt to slow down even more. ‘Just wait, be patient,’ she told me as we made a ragù. ‘Turn the heat to low and let the flavours develop.’ She showed me the level of heat over which the ragù should be made. The surface should merely ‘quiver or tremble’ in the pot. This will reduce the sauce, concentrating the flavour to the ultimate umami experience that gathers in the bottom of the pan waiting for a piece of meat or bread to scrape up the intense flavour. This is Tuscan cooking. She doesn’t recommend putting the pan in the oven, using a slow cooker or a pressure cooker; the flavour won’t develop in the same way.

In the chapter Skills from the Tuscan Kitchen, we share the skills and tips we have learnt over the years for making food really taste Tuscan. It reflects how Marietta ran her kitchen where she made pasta, stock, tomato sauce and ragù, preserved fruits, dried herbs and cooked beans. The Tuscan kitchen is a frugal one and many of the recipes in this book cost very little to make. These kitchen skills are as relevant today as they ever were, and should never have fallen out of fashion.

Fat-bellied Etruscans who liked to party

The first settlers to make an impact on this region of Italy were the Etruscans. Their origin is debated – they could have been voyagers who came via the Eastern Mediterranean from Anatolia (also called Asia Minor). The earliest evidence of the Etruscans in Italy is found on the island of Elba, part of the Tuscan archipelago, and dates back to the 9th century BC. They formed Etruria and built hilltop towns such as Volterra, Cortona and Chiusi.

Their culture was heavily influenced by Greek society, with dining and drinking being favourite pastimes (to judge from their tomb paintings), so much so that the Romans condemned the Etruscans for their luxurious lifestyle and for allowing wives to take part in banquets.

We don’t have any written evidence of recipes but they did leave pots, amphorae and plates behind, along with wall paintings in tombs depicting partying men and women who had fat bellies and glasses of wine to hand. It was one of the few societies where women seemed to be treated as equals and allowed to drink and party with the men. They liked to hunt, fish, grow and farm. They cooked over fires and used cauldrons, just like Giancarlo’s mother.

It is thanks to them that ingredients such as olive oil, herbs, chestnut flour, pulses, cereal such as barley, wild and sown vegetables, cheese, fish, wine and honey became widely used in Tuscan cuisine. They made farro soup, ate wild boar and pork and – like today – used every part of the pig. It is said that they dried the first ham and made the first prosciutto, and turned the first pork bellies into porchetta. They ate beef from the famous white Chianina cattle.

Etruscan Tuscany was seized by Rome in 351 BC. The last town to fall to the Romans was Cortona and eventually Etrurian Latin eclipsed the Etruscan language. City states were established and new cities at Lucca, Pisa, Siena and Florence were developed, the latter being established as a town for retired veterans from the Roman army. The Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century AD, a fall partly brought about by Barbarian invasions.

Tuscany in the Middle Ages and why it looks like it does

During this time there was a form of sharecropping known as the 'mezzadria', with the wealthy landowner (the padrone) providing the land, house, some equipment and livestock to the tenants (mezzadri), who provided the labour (from an entire family). It is a system that is said to date back to Roman times.

The mezzadria was a version of the feudal system similar to our own in the UK, which died out centuries ago. In Tuscany, it was not abolished until the 1960s. We visited a 'casa colonica', a large detached house on a farm where families, sometimes up to 10 in each one, used to live in one large room and share a bathroom. It seemed an awful way to live and so recent you could still see the 1960s tiling and paint.

The families grew vegetables, wheat, and grapes for wine, made olive oil, had chickens, cows for milk and cheese, and other animals. Although the word mezzadria, which strictly translated means ‘halving’, implies that each party was entitled to 50 per cent of the annual production, in reality, after the church took its share and the padrone got his, the mezzadri were left with almost nothing. There are dishes like strozzapreti, meaning ‘priest-stranglers’, which illustrate the tenants’ hatred of them. This dish was homemade gnocchi given to priests when they turned up, as you had to feed them regardless. The mezzadri did not have any protection or rights. You could benefit from a kind padrone or suffer at the hands of a cruel one, and they had the power to eject a family from their home with nothing. Many families nearly starved and were always worried about having enough to eat.

However, the mezzadria system is the very reason the Tuscan landscape changed from impenetrable thick woodland to neat, easily accessible vineyards and ploughed fields. Where you couldn’t grow a crop you could graze animals, and the system provided the workers with the materials to make it happen. When the system was abolished people were free to go to work in the towns, and many farms and their casa colonica were abandoned.

Cucina povera

As well as being responsible for the changes to the landscape, the poverty resulting from the mezzadria system gave us a legacy of recipes which we now label as cucina povera – ‘cooking of the poor’. During the Middle Ages, the diet of the average peasant was bread, or porridge-like soups made from a mixture of grains and dried beans. The soups were known as 'puls' and it is from here we get the word ‘pulse’ for a legume. Meat was broken up and eaten with your fingers; at best there was a spoon for the juices or gruel-like thick soups. The food hasn’t changed that much, except that people can afford to eat meat more often, fresh fish is more readily available and they have learnt to use a fork. (Apart from my husband that is, who still insists on eating dishes such as Rabbit in White Wine with his fingers and loves his soup thick. You can take the man out of Tuscany but you can’t take Tuscany out of the man!) The Tuscans are still known by their Italian counterparts as the mangiafagioli (‘beaneaters’) for their love of beans. In fact, there are over 30 types of beans, also known as poor man’s protein, that still feature in the Tuscan diet.

The lack of food was excused by the church during Lent, when the fast was a necessity as well as a religious event by virtue of the fact that in most years reserves of grain had been exhausted by this time. However, medieval cookbooks indicate that the nobility continued to enjoy a luxurious menu even during Lent, when the definition of ‘fish’ was extended to include whale, dolphin, beaver’s tail and barnacle goose. In the 14th century, the Anonimo Toscano, an anonymous Tuscan chef, wrote a book entitled Libro dello Cocina. In it he writes of the use of spices such as ginger, cloves, nutmeg, saffron and pepper, which were used to display wealth in the affluent homes of the day. We have included his version of a frittata made with wild herbs, known as erbolata, as well as his recipe for cabbage and fennel cooked with saffron.

Cucina nobile – the Renaissance trendsetters

The other contrasting strand of Tuscan cooking is cucina nobile – the ‘noble kitchen’. The growth and expansion of the wealthy Tuscan city-states through commerce, trade and agriculture led the mini-republics to find themselves frequently in conflict with one another. They had their own customs, dialects, differing ingredients and traditional recipes. At the same time there was substantial investment in art, culture and architecture, reaching a zenith in Florence during the rule of Lorenzo the Magnificent (1469–92). By 1435, Florence had expanded to take in nearly the whole of Tuscany except for Siena and Lucca.

Cuisine and eating habits formed during the Renaissance in Italy were the beginnings of the modern concept of Italian food and dining. Wealthy families such as the Medici in Florence and the Petrucci in Siena broke away from the eating traditions of the old and formed the basis for modern gourmet creations, incorporating new ingredients such as potatoes and peppers alongside the use of a novel utensil called the fork. Forks were first seen in Italy during a visit by an 11th century Byzantine princess to Venice and their use was in first instance frowned upon by the Church. They thought it a slight against God to not use the natural forks (our fingers) that he provided us with. When she died two years later they saw it as God’s punishment for her vanity and pride. Centuries later the fork was finally accepted. Food was consumed from fine porcelain china at cloth-covered tables decorated with flowers as seen in the painting of The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, rather than eaten off planks of wood. The Florentine palate was surprisingly sophisticated and it was during the 16th century that Buontalenti invented the custard-based gelato in Florence.

There are many myths surrounding Lorenzo the Magnificent’s daughter Catherine de’ Medici, who in 1533 – at the age of 14 – moved to France to marry the future King of France, Henry II. With her she took Florentine chefs, gardeners and vintners, and this is said to have changed French cuisine with the introduction of sauces such as besciamella, which became béchamel. She could well have encouraged the use of Tuscan ingredients as well as those from the New World and the use of the fork. In 1754, the Encyclopédie described French haute cuisine as ‘decadent and effeminate’, and explained that ‘fussy sauces and fancy fricassees’ arrived in France via ‘that crowd of corrupt Italians who served at the court of Catherine de’ Medici’.

Our Tuscan inspiration

During the Middle Ages there was almost constant warfare between neighbouring city-states with regular battles between Florence and Pisa, and between Florence and Siena.

Even today, every Tuscan is vociferous in their loyalty to their home city, town or village, and battles are still fought on the football pitches and other sporting arenas. You can ask a person from the Maremma in the south of Tuscany about farro and they look blankly at you, but for the Lucchese in the north it is a staple food. Our cousin from Buonconvento in the east thought very little of food between Volterra and Pisa – he told us not to even bother going there, and that ‘real’ Tuscan food was to be found near Arrezzo and Florence! This is why recipes have stayed so local, with no migration of ideas or ingredients from one province to another.

We decided to ignore our cousin’s advice and have taken recipes from the entire region. I hope we have also managed to convey some of the Tuscan passion for what they have or what they are about to eat. From the minute they look out of their windows in the morning to the last nightcap at the bar, Tuscans, like most Italians, are immersed in food, and the chapters of this book take a culinary journey through a Tuscan day.

In all of our cookbooks about the Italian regions I begin by summing up the fundamental ingredients and principals: in Amalfiit was first catch your fish; in Venice it was first grind your spices in a pestle and mortar; in Rome it was grow your chilli and rosemary; in Sicily it was find lemons and oranges with leaves to ensure their freshness. And now, for Tuscany, my advice would be: don’t rush, take your time… Know the provenance of your beef, tomatoes and wine, and let the ragù tremble over the lowest heat for as long as you can. It might even taste better the next day.

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