With its lush landscapes, hilltop havens and rust-coloured rooftops, Tuscany is a feast for the eyes. Such beauty has long drawn painters, sculptors and architects, and the region’s galleries and museums are filled with world-class art. But when it comes to food, Tuscany’s treasures are more farmhouse than fine art. Situated in the beating agricultural heart of Italy, the region is a paradise of fresh produce; Tuscany’s tomatoes are considered some of the best in the world, and Tuscan wine and olive oil is prized from Turin to Tokyo.
However, Tuscan cuisine hasn’t always been held in such high regard. In days gone by, other Italians would mockingly refer to Tuscans as mangiafagioli – bean eaters – because of their humble fare (centred around bread and beans). In fact, the region’s reliance on pulses was actually borne out of necessity; Tuscany was historically a poor and rural region, so the majority of its inhabitants had to make do with resourceful cucina povera – or peasant cooking. These recipes still form the backbone of Tuscan cuisine today, but it’s the reverence Tuscans have for their larder of local ingredients that make it such a foodie destination. Here’s our rundown of the region’s culinary calling cards.
Typical Tuscan cuisine
Bread and pasta
Tuscans love their bread. Every day, fresh, crusty loaves emerge from wood-fired ovens across the region, ready for the Tuscan table. Apart from the fact that the loaves are huge, Tuscan bread looks just like many other Italian breads. But beneath that crisp crust, pane toscano is hiding one key difference: it’s made without a grain of salt. Also called pane sciocco – ‘stupid bread’ – perhaps because of its simple nature, Tuscan bread has been made without salt for centuries. Some say heavy salt taxes in medieval Florence led to bakers leaving it out of their bread out of principle, while others claim it was a deliberate decision to compensate for the salty cheese and charcuterie the bread was often served with. Whatever the truth, Tuscans remain deeply attached to (and fiercely protective of) their saltless bread. It makes sense then that in Tuscany, bread is never wasted; stale pane sciocco is a vital ingredient in a host of the region’s signature dishes, from panzanella salad to Tuscan bean soup – ribollita.
Bread might be the dominant carb, but Tuscans are partial to pasta as well. The region shares a border with the home of fresh pasta, Emilia-Romagna, and it shows; fresh, egg-based shapes like pappardelle and tagliatelle are common, as are filled pastas like spinach and ricotta ravioli – which are common in the Maremma region of southern Tuscany. Tuscans have their own pasta traditions too: pici is a hand-rolled, spaghetti-like pasta from the Tuscan city of Siena. Made with nothing but flour and water, this Tuscan pasta nods to the region’s ‘cucina povera’ heritage, and in Siena you’ll often find it dressed with all'aglione – a garlic-heavy tomato sauce.
Fresh produce and pulses
Tuscany sits slap bang in the green heart of Italy, so it has an ideal climate – and plenty of space – for growing fresh food. The region produces superlative tomatoes, with a version of the world-famous San Marzano tomato (the redorta) taking the crown as the Tuscan tomato. These tomatoes find their way into a host of regional dishes, including another Tuscan bread soup, pappa al pomodoro, which elevates ripe tomatoes, stale bread and good olive oil into something truly memorable. Tuscan olive oil is seriously special too; top-tier olives are pressed in places like Lucca, Grosseto and Siena, and Toscano extra-virgin olive oil has Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status.
As we’ve already mentioned, pulses have been a vital part of Tuscan cuisine for centuries – and you’re unlikely to make it through a day in the region without eating beans of some description. Creamy cannellini and plump borlotti beans are grown across Tuscany and star in a range of hearty bean soups and stews, whether that’s pasta e fagioli (pasta and bean soup) or the quintessential Tuscan vegetable stew, acquacotta. It’s not all just tomatoes, beans and olive oil though. Take Tuscan black kale (cavolo nero), once thought of as a peasant crop, nowadays it’s prized by chefs across the world for its distinctive earthiness (we love it in a Tuscan pesto). Talking of earthiness, we can’t forget to mention Tuscany’s truffles. The prized tubers grow in a handful of locations across the region and you can even find rare white truffles (‘white gold’) here – a yearly festival is held to honour the delicacy in the hill town of San Miniato.
Meat and seafood
Meat may once have been the reserve of the elites in Tuscany, but these days Tuscans are some of Italy’s most meat-obsessed. With lots of land for grazing, beef is a big favourite, particularly in Florence, where bistecca alla Fiorentina appears on every menu in town. Traditionally only made with beef from the region’s Chianina cattle, these gigantic steaks often weigh well over a kilo. Served rare with little more than a side of cannellini beans and salad, it’s unadulterated gratification for any meat-lover.
It’s not just beef that’s on the menu though. Pork is hugely popular across the region, with a trove of famous Tuscan sausages and salami on offer, from finocchiona (fennel salami) to lardo di Colonnata (smokey cured back fat). Tuscans are also fond of game; wild boar – or cinghiale to the locals – are something of a regional mascot. Still, Tuscans have no problem eating boar, perhaps due to the animal’s reputation for sneaking into the region’s vineyards to eat grapes! The most famous boar dish is a slow-cooked ragù al cinghiale, which you’ll often find paired with strands of pici pasta, or nestled under a blanket of fresh pasta in a rich play on lasagne. Rabbit also regularly appears on Tuscan tables, again often in ragù form.
With all the talk of rolling hills and green grass, many people also forget that Tuscany has a long strip of coastline to the west. Here, the Tyrrhenian sea supplies a wealth of riches for the local fisherman. Perhaps the region’s most famous seafood supper hails from the port city of Livorno; cacciucco alla Livornese is a seafood stew that typically pairs the day’s catch with red wine, fennel and spices. Again, the spirit of ‘cucina povera’ is present – it’s said that the stew was first created as a way for fishermen to use up the smaller fish that they hadn’t managed to sell.
No guide to Tuscan cuisine is complete without a mention for the region’s wine. Tuscany’s verdant plains play host to vineyards of every description, and many Tuscan wine regions are leading producers of DOC and DOCG wines. The most famous Tuscan wine is undoubtedly Chianti, a rich red that’s often called the ‘Bordeaux of Italy’ – but Brunello di Montalcino from Siena and a group of wines known as ‘Super Tuscans’ from the Maremma are similarly well-renowned. Moving from the countryside to the city, the region is also the birthplace of one of Italy’s most stylish cocktails: the negroni. The palate-sharpening combination of sweet vermouth, gin and campari was first created in Florence in 1920, when Florentine Count and socialite Camillo Negroni requested a stronger version of his typical aperitivo. It’s undergone its own renaissance recently, but for us there’s nothing like sipping a negroni in Florence – it is the home of the Renaissance after all.
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