The culture of Tuscany has stimulated the imagination of world travelers for centuries. Lurking in the back of every traveler’s mind is always the anticipated delight of savoring the celebrated Italian cuisine.
n authentic Italian eating experience can be challenging to discover.
Understanding and making the most of a Tuscan meal takes some cultural mediation. Aretines take great pleasure in the foods of their region and are decidedly proud of the perfect balance they have achieved in serving and preserving typical dishes from long-but-not-lost traditions.
A traveler or student arriving in Italy soon perceives a striking truth — Italians have serious and rigid ideas about when and how to eat. For an Italian, there is an appropriate time to drink an espresso as opposed to a cappuccino, to have lunch and dinner, and to serve bread at the perfect moment during a meal. Parmesan cheese is not to be served with just any pasta dish, and ice is not to be served in just any drink. This may be baffling to visitors and leave them perplexed, but these mores are based in century upon century of tradition.
Change is not easily embraced. In Tuscany, and Arezzo specifically, basic foods that were popular in ancient times are still enjoyed today.
Typical dishes made with farro (a type of wheat), which is used in numerous salads in the summer and delightful rosemary-infused bean soups in winter, have been common since the time of the Etruscans. Other legumes, the most popular being the cannellini white bean and several varieties of ceci, or chickpeas, continue to be enjoyed in traditional as well as updated recipes. These ingredients were plentiful during both Etruscan and Roman times and enjoyed by all social classes.
Fruits and vegetables were common, as were roasted and grilled meats. Archaeological finds attest to the extensive use of olive oil as a foodstuff, a salve for wounds, and even as a cosmetic in Roman times. Moreover, the abundance of spectacular vineyards throughout Tuscany, thanks to a perfect combination of soil, terrain and climate, have made wine the drink of choice, with evidence of its consumption dating as far back as the eight century B.C.
After three millennia, it is no wonder locals have well-defined opinions about the proper way to prepare, serve and enjoy these foods.
The Aretine table is straightforward and characterized by simple preparations of absolutely top-quality ingredients.
The fertile hills and atmospheric conditions of the area make for excellent grapes, mostly Sangiovese, which variety serves as the basis for extraordinary local Chianti and other wines. Extensive olive groves, characteristic of Tuscan landscape, produce spectacular oil. Raised only in this area is the special Chianina breed of cattle from which the Florentine bistecca is prepared. There are other local specialities that include particularly tasty tomatoes and beans from the Casentino area, as well as several outstanding sheep’s cheeses. Local herbs include rosemary, sage, wild fennel and a particularly small leafed variety of mint (nipitella), all of which blend together harmoniously to make for a perfect peasant or aristocratic meal.
A meal in Arezzo is a celebration. Whatever event is being commemorated – a birthday, a holiday, the last day of school or the opening of a store.
Inevitably the party will begin with the antipasto (which is eaten before the beginning of a big meal). Fundamental to an antipasto in Arezzo is a dish of mixed crostini. Traditionally, these small toasts come in two varieties – red and black. The red crostini consist of a smooth, spicy tomato mixture on top of toasted bread. The black are topped with a coarsely ground rustic chicken liver pate' served with capers, a bit of anchovy and a splash of vin santo to add smoothness (Vin santo, which translates as “holy wine”, is a sweet, after-dinner, port-like wine). Crostini are served together with an array of cured meats – prosciutto crudo, Tuscan salami and finocchiona, a salami that is generously flavored with fennel seeds.
Next comes the Primi Piatti (literally, ‘first dishes’), a first course of local pastas. For a special occasion, this would usually consist of a homemade egg pasta, plain or filled with egg and spinach, or potato. These pastas are served with a ground meat and tomato sauce. It is a slow-cooked delight that pairs well with grated Parmesan cheese.
The main course, Il Secondo Piatto (second dish), is usually made up of mixed grilled or roasted meats. These include the exquisite Chianina steak or the Tagliata, served with warmed olive oil aromatized with generous amounts of rosemary, garlic, black pepper and salt. The main meal can also include chicken, sausages and, on occasion, rabbit. Side dishes include white beans, potatoes and when in season, a plate of salad.
Dessert is simple, although the traditional Aretine treats have given way to more decadent sweets prepared in the local Pasticceria. Given the tradition of outstanding pastry chefs in Italy, homemade desserts are basic and few. They include the most popular crostata, a sweet-crust tart filled with fruit jam or, at its best, a fig and walnut compote. There is also the traditional cream and pine nut Torta della Nonna (Grandma’s cake) and the ever-popular cantucci — crisp, almond filled, twice-baked biscotti cookies, to be dipped into a glass of vin santo at the end of a meal.
A WORD ABOUT BREAD
The subpar Aretine bread is a historical anomaly, due in large part to the Florentine domination of Arezzo in the 1500s. Florence placed a huge tax on salt, and the Aretines decided to rebel against their rulers by baking saltless bread. Over the many decades of Florentine rule, the local population grew fond of the taste of the unsalted bread and most loaves are still made in the same way today.
Traditionally, the bread was baked in the community oven. Bread used to be a precious commodity and baked just once a week. It was eaten not only as a side at meals but also for breakfast with homemade jams and marmalades or as a snack with olive oil.
Stale bread was used for panzanella, a delightful bread, tomato, red onion, cucumber and basil salad in the summer. Other uses for stale bread include Pappa al Pomodoro, a thick bread-based tomato porridge, and Ribollita, a magnificent vegetable and bread soup eaten in the colder months. Aretines never let bread go to waste, and these traditional recipes continue in the local diet.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
As in all parts of the developed world, the daily diet in Arezzo and throughout Italy is changing in response to a multitude of modern nutritional needs and time constraints. Nowadays, it is rare to have someone at home tending to slow-cooked meals and long lunchtime rituals. Today’s students often have a short break, as do professionals working in office jobs.
Modernity has mandated the option for a quick, satisfying meal, and there are plenty of choices around town. These meals range from a very basic sandwich or panino, to a slice of pizza, a freshly prepared dish of pasta, a crepe or a kebab. Another option is the piadina (a flatbread sandwich, made to order), filled with grilled vegetables, soft cheeses and cured meats.
Aretines are excellent interpreters of beloved standards. Professionally trained young Italian and foreign chefs are also creating food that is delightful to both the eye and the palate at restaurants throughout the city. What was once considered a ‘poor’ kitchen in Italy may at times appear extravagant to a foreigner. Consider the magnificent Porcini mushrooms gathered in the Casentino hills, either fried or grilled in the autumn; or a special variety of artichoke found in early spring and eaten raw with other locally produced vegetables. These were once peasant food that now grace the tables of the world’s finest restaurants.
Whatever your budget, time restrictions, or venue of choice, an essential element to enjoying Aretine cuisine, and Italian food in general, is to stop and allow your senses to savor what you are eating. The Italian saying ‘non si invecchia a tavola’ literally translates to “one does not grow old while sitting at the table”. Long lunches and longer dinners are a way of life. Even the aperitivo, with its multitude of tapas-like snacks is a festive, celebratory act.
A WORD ON GELATO
It would be remiss not to say a word or two about gelato as part of Arezzo’s gastronomic offerings. Gelato is going for gold internationally in recent years, giving ice cream a run for its money as a top dessert. Gelaterie sell artisan-made ice cream all over Arezzo.
There are traditional flavors such as rich chocolate, hazelnut and vanilla, but also pistachio, chestnut or pine nut, coffee, salted caramel, fruit of every kind, fig and yoghurt.
The Italian saying ‘non si invecchia a tavola’ literally translates to one does not grow old while sitting at the table!
It is true that Italians never tire of eating, but they ceaselessly talk about food too, planning dinner at lunch and reminiscing about breakfast at teatime. The Italian and Aretine passion for food is unending. Food nourishes not only the body but the soul. Take your time, enjoy, eat with your friends and family. It is an irresistible part of Aretine life.
Adapted from an article by Donna Logan, published in Buon Giorno Arezzo: A Postcard from Tuscany.