Your guide to understanding tuscan food at home and in Restaurants
TOMATOES, OLIVE OIL, AND WINE. TUSCANY TREATS INGREDIENTS WITH RESPECT.
One thing you can always count on with Tuscan food is an obsession with quality ingredients. Things are fresh, high-quality, and treated with respect. Why? Because they have to be. Tuscan cuisine doesn’t rely on heavy sauces, reductions and otherwise things-that-can-cover-up-bad-ingredients. It’s all about taking the Earth’s yield, treating it with respect, and turning it into something simple and pure.
Some of the most prized dishes of the region, like pasta in hare sauce, or various grilled game and free range domestic animal meats grilled over hot coals, and even simple plates of simmered beans contain little more than the raw ingredients themselves.
The two most common cooking additives are certainly wine and olive oil. Tuscany, and Lucca in particular, are world renowned for their extremely high-quality olive oil. You simply can not get this stuff in North America, the oil here is harvested entirely by hand and without the use of brutish machines that often bruise the olives and result in highly acidic oils. The oil is then bottled and used almost immediately – olive oil is typically good for only a single year, after which the flavour fades and the olive is rarely lives up to Tuscan standards.
When it comes to wine, little more has to be said than the fact the Tuscany is the home to the regions of Chianti, Brunello, Montepulciano and the seductive Sangiovese grape. Not to mention Vin Santo, tuscany’s gift to the world of sweet wine, and a product produced with more respect that almost any other on the planet. There’s a reason wine drinkers from around the world flock to Tuscany. Ever heard of truffles? This is the place to find them.
Eating in restaurants in tuscany
For tourists this can be a little bit of an adjustment. Some hotels and restaurants frequented by tourists will have a breakfast menu or buffet however since this is not typically the way that Tuscan people it, it is rarely executed particularly well. Try the cappuccino and pastry for a couple of days, you might be a little hungry but I guarantee you will understand and appreciate the beauty of breakfast in Tuscany after experiencing the pastries and coffee just a couple of times.
Don’t miss this course (recommendation, not a rule). Tuscan ham, cheese and olives are among the best in the world and usually show up in this course. You might also find bruschetta, chicken liver pate, or prosciutto with melon, among other things, in this course. It is a salty entrance to the world of tuscan food, and you’ll welcome it after all that unsalted bread.
Primi often brings fresh pasta. In Tuscany you will find all the different types of pasta you’ve ever dreamed of. It’s not unusual to find black/white truffle, ricotta, sage, mushrooms, game meat and more somehow stuffed into little pasta pockets or woven into the ribbons of tuscan cuisine. This course is magical and encompasses Italian cooking wonderfully. In Tuscany you should always be within walking distance of, and should certainly try, Ribollita, Tuscan Bread Soup. Don’t let anyone have a chance to say they told you so, just try it.
Secondi is where the prime cuts of beef typically show up. Tuscan Beef is world renowned. You can expect to find magnificent cuts of beef, veal, pork and game on any good Tuscan Menu. Often these courses are simple and come with little to no garnish or ‘sides’, just a top quality ingredients prepared properly and with respect. Sound familiar?
Contorni is the hardest course for North Americans to get used to. Most North Americans are used to salad before the meal, however in Tuscany it comes after the main course and before dinner. This course can also sometimes be as simple as white beans with salt, pepper and olive oil, or in the height of the growing season, roasted vegetables. Salads often feature mixed greens with a heavy dose of young olive oil and some aged balsamic.
Dessert. You know the drill. Vin Santo, more cheese, fresh fruit and nuts, don’t let these delicacies slip from your grasp.
On second thought, even if etiquette says it’s okay to miss a course or two, why would you?