Skills from the Tuscan kitchen

Skills from the Tuscan kitchen

Katie & Giancarlo Caldesi
12 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Helen Cathcart

Do read this! These are the foundations of Tuscan cooking: the essential stocks, sauces and flavour bases. Master these and you can build your meals and really get the flavour of Tuscan food in your kitchen. I thought I knew a lot about Italian cooking, but I learnt so much more in the year of writing this book and concentrating on what made food Tuscan. This chapter is about passing on that knowledge we’ve acquired from working with our friends, family, and professional cooks from Tuscany such as Antonella Secciani, a cook at an agriturismo and restaurant. She is Tuscan through and through, and learnt to cook from her mother.

Giancarlo has immersed himself in the past and recalls the mantras and tips his mother, Marietta, his Auntie Agnese, and his neighbour Elide gave him as he would always be found in the kitchen with them. I often imagine hearing Marietta’s voice in my ear telling me I haven’t used enough olive oil, or haven’t cooked something for long enough! ‘Have patience,’ she would have said. ‘Give your body the good food and time it deserves.’

The Tuscan kitchen is a waste not, want not kitchen. During centuries of poverty nothing was thrown away. There was continuity in the kitchen: a stock used for two meals; tomato sauce used in several different ways; and leftovers respected and re-used (if it couldn’t be eaten it went to the pigs, the chickens or back into the land). Everything was seasonal, freshly picked and eaten quickly as there were no fridges. People preserved food throughout the year, from gluts of fruit in summer to the pig slaughtered in winter. Now, as in the past, Tuscan locals tend to shop daily. This ensures fresh ingredients but also for many older people it is a ritual: a daily chore that provides contact with local people, a chance to talk, and the exercise of walking up a hill and down again. This is part of the Mediterranean life that keeps people healthy

Olive oil

It’s all about the oil! Olive trees form the landscape of Tuscany and their oil fuels the people who live on it; the same pure extra-virgin liquid gold that has been valued in Mediterranean cooking for millennia. These cultures usually have good health and longevity. We trust and love olive oil.

I remember standing in our friend’s kitchen admiring an old tile – it was painted with an image of medieval peasants collecting olives from the trees. Out of the window that day I could hear a familiar sound and looked out to see the same image of men hard at work gathering olives, only this time with electric rakes. Nothing had changed in this eternal marriage between Italians and their beloved olive oil. This is the first lesson in Tuscan cooking. Don’t try and cook Italian food with any other cooking oil; the flavour won’t be the same.

Tuscan food has developed around their robust and peppery Tuscan oil. In the mountainous areas of northern Tuscany where olive trees can’t be grown, pork fat is the main cooking fat.

Always buy extra-virgin olive oil. It is from the first pressing of the olives. It is the least processed and has to have less than 0.8 per cent free oleic acid. The lower this percentage of oleic acid, the higher the quality of the oil. It should have a fresh flavour of olives. Avoid olive oils that have been extracted with the aid of chemicals. A good-quality extra-virgin olive oil should be produced at a temperature below 30°C. If the temperature is higher it degrades the oil.

Check out the range of regional oils on offer in shops and delis and always bring some back if you travel in Italy. Price is a good indicator of quality. We buy one standard extra-virgin olive oil probably made from a blend of olives from Europe for cooking, and a more expensive single-estate oil from Italy for finishing food.

Extra-virgin olive oil loses its flavour over time. Every winter, new oil is made and this fresh oil is used where you can taste it the most: as a final flourish on tomato bruschetta; swirled into a warm soup; or drizzled over grilled meats, steamed vegetables or hot pasta, where the heat will warm up the oil and release the aroma of freshly pressed olives. Last year’s oil can be used for everything else.

Olive oil does have a lower smoke point than nut, seed or coconut oil, but it is only a little lower. We use it for everything apart from deep-fat frying. (For more olive oil facts see


Excellent and versatile stock should be made from things you would normally discard in the kitchen. I freeze vegetable peelings throughout the week, adding bendy carrots that have seen better days, celery ends and leaves, pepper cores, parsley stalks, tops and tails of onions and coarse, dark leek ends. I also do the same with raw and cooked chicken bones and carcasses, fish bones and prawn (shrimp) shells. I never bother defrosting the vegetables or meat – I just add them to the pot as they are.

The better the stock, the better the flavour of the final dish, and a natural flavour is infinitely better than a stock from a cube or powder. Make stocks when you are at home and not rushing about. They need time to bubble away gently and make the house smell like a home. Use them up a few days after making them, or reduce them to an intense, concentrated stock and freeze them in small batches ready for when you need them.

Cooking greens

I have a theory that people who hate greens just haven’t had them cooked by Italians! Tender cooked green leaves dressed with nothing but a slick of very good oil and a squeeze of lemon is our comfort food and a bowlful will be fought over at the kitchen table. Traditionally, Tuscans collected wild greens such as chicory, cress, nettle and dandelion leaves from the fields, which are used raw in a salad called a misticanza or cooked, such as in the erbolata recipe.

Depending on the time of year, the greens that are available vary, and each need to be treated differently. After cooking they can be finished according to the Sautéed Leaves with Chilli & Garlic recipe.

Weights of leaves

Leaves are typically sold with their stems intact, which weigh more than the leaves and you generally end up throwing them away. To end up with enough cooked leaves for a recipe you need to start with a lot of leaves!

Soft leaves such as spinach and Swiss chard, once stripped from their stems, usually cook down to half their raw weight. Tougher leaves, such as cavolo nero or curly kale, cook down to around two thirds of their raw weight once stripped on their stems, depending on the density of the leaves.

How to prepare spinach

Baby spinach leaves should be washed and drained well. Then they need a mere flash of heat in the pan, stirred through with a little salt and extra-virgin olive oil. Larger leaves are best washed; then, without completely draining them, put them into a deep saucepan, cover and leave it to steam in the residual water with a little salt for 5–7 minutes until tender and wilted. Drain and leave to cool down. Squeeze the water out well, ideally with your hands.

How to prepare Swiss chard

Giancarlo’s mother Marietta would never have thrown away the thick white or rainbow-coloured Swiss chard stems, but they do have a strong minerally flavour so they are not to everyone’s taste. They have to be cooked separately to the leaves. Cut the stems from just under the leaf and chop them finely. Boil in salted water for 10–15 minutes, until tender. Prepare the leaves of Swiss chard as the larger spinach leaves above.

How to prepare cavolo nero

Pinch the rib around the middle of the leaf and pull the leaves away by running your fingers up and down the hard stalk. Discard the stalks. Wash the leaves under cold running water. Roughly shred the leaves and cook them in salted boiling water for up to 10 minutes, until soft and tender. Drain, then squeeze out the water when cool to the touch.

How to use... salt

In the Middle Ages salt was only used when absolutely necessary – such as for preserving – as it was very expensive, hence the traditional Tuscan bread has always been made without salt. Part of the expense resulted from a local tax on salt imposed in the 16th century across Tuscany.

Salt is an essential part of the Tuscan kitchen. Without it your food will never taste authentic. We have measured the salt quantities in some of the recipes when you cannot add salt to taste, for example to a ragù before it is cooked, to a mixture with raw eggs or to a bake. When you can, do keep tasting your food before serving it. This might sound obvious, but you would be amazed by the number of people who don’t, and the end result can be disappointingly bland after all your efforts.

Adding salt can often make food taste sweeter. For example, adding the right amount of salt to a tomato sauce brings out the natural sweetness of the tomato, avoiding the need to add sugar.

Tuscan food can often be salty. To address this, if you were a little over generous with the salt, add a peeled small potato to the pot and it will absorb the salt. A squeeze of lemon juice helps, too. An average Italian pinch of salt is approximately 3 g.


Having written cookbooks for years I have now realised it is pointless to state how much fresh chilli to put into a recipe. Long red or green chillies vary so much in heat you cannot tell by looking at them. Therefore, I encourage students in our cookery classes to taste the chilli. The heat is not in the seeds but in the pith, so you need to taste the chilli from around the middle, not at either end where there may be no pith. Only by tasting it will you know how much to add to your dish.


Small pots of sage, rosemary, parsley, basil and thyme sit outside every Tuscan’s house or flat where there is a little space. These provide essential flavours to Tuscan food. Only a few dried herbs will be found in the Tuscan cupboard, such as sage, oregano and fennel seeds. Parsley is easy to grow and used in abundance, and someone who is always hanging around is called prezzemolo (parsley) – it was Giancarlo’s nickname when he was young as he was always in the kitchen.

To dry herbs at home, pick them at their peak and tie them in bunches by their stems. Hang them in a dry, airy place until completely brittle and crumbly. Put them into a bag and crush them with your hands. Pull out the stems and tip the leaves straight from the bag into jars. To dry fennel seeds, pick the yellow flower heads of wild fennel when the seeds have begun to dry on the plant. Tie, dry and store them like the herbs. The seeds and herbs will keep until the following year but will gradually lose their strength.

How to make a cartouche

This is a simple trick to make a lining for a cake tin or a circle of paper to cover fruit when it’s poaching. It is used a lot in Italian cooking when making cakes. It also saves washing the tin! I think it is prettier to tear out the circle so that you have rough edges which protude above the edge of the tin.

Cut or tear off a piece of baking parchment larger than the surface you are going to cover. Fold the piece of paper in half and then in half again. Now fold the edges in to make a triangle. Fold again the same way. Put the pointed end of the triangle into the centre of the tin and measure out to see where you need to cut off the excess. Either tear or cut at that point. Open out the circle and use.

How to make a cartoccio

This is a way of steaming foods but it also traps in the flavours and juices. I think it is a lovely way to cook; it’s clean and simple. I used to get our boys to make their own parcels of food to cook so that they took part in cooking. They would write their names on the outside so they knew whose ‘present’ was whose.

To make a cartoccio, cut a rectangle of baking parchment at least 10 cm larger than the food you are about to cook. Lay the food in the centre of the paper. Fold the long ends up to meet each other above the food. Make a fold of both pieces together of around 2 cm, then fold again. Keep folding down until the fold is around 4 cm above the food. Now fold the short ends inwards to seal the parcel and trap any juices. Place the parcels on a baking tray to cook. I find this is enough to cook and hold the juices when steaming vegetables. However, if you are cooking fish al cartoccio, it is a good idea to wrap the paper parcel again in foil to be sure that no steam or juice leaks out.

How to store low-sugar preserves

Since we wrote our book The Gentle Art of Preserving, we have incorporated many of the techniques we learnt into our lives. Giancarlo’s mother would have preserved vegetables and fruits throughout the season, and cured meats in winter, as she had no fridge until the 1970s.

If a jam consists of over 60 per cent sugar it can be poured into sterilised jars and kept out of the fridge, as harmful bacteria cannot grow in a solution so sugary. However, we like to use little sugar in our recipes these days, so preserving under a vacuum is a better solution.

First of all, clean your jars by pouring boiling water into them up to the top (I do this in the sink) and put the lids into a bowl of just-boiled water for 10 minutes. This method is better for jars with metal lids lined with plastic coating rather than Kilner-style jars. The jars can be recycled ones but the lids should be new to ensure a tight seal.

Tip away the water from the jars using a pair of tongs. Spoon the low-sugar preserve or compote evenly between the jars and pour over the juices. The level of liquid should completely submerge the fruit, so add a little boiled water if necessary. Drain and screw on the lids with a clean cloth. The jars can either be cooled at this point and stored in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, or they can be further sterilised to extend their shelf life as follows.

Put a clean tea towel (dish towel) in the bottom of a large saucepan big enough to hold the filled and sealed jars, and deep enough to be able to cover them with water. Put the jars into the pan and put a piece of paper towel or a small cloth between all the jars. Fill the pan with water so that the jars are completely covered. Put the pan over a high heat and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and let it bubble gently for 10 minutes, then turn off the heat. Allow the jars to cool in the pan. When the water is at room temperature, remove the jars and check that there is a depression in the lids. This means you have created a vacuum and your jars can be stored in a cool, dark place for up to 3 months. If they have not created a vacuum, store them in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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