Tuscan cuisine is one of Italy’s best kept secrets.
Of the boot shaped peninsula’s twenty regions, you hear of foodie pilgrimages to Emilia Romagna and to Puglia, but lesser so to Tuscany, a region whose inhabitants are still routinely – and unjustly- referred to as ‘mangiafagioli’ (bean eaters).
But Tuscany is good at food, excellent in fact.
It is a region where cucina povera reigns supreme, where the phrase ‘fresh and seasonal produce’ is roaringly true; a land of spicy salamis, crumbly pecorino cheeses, plump Jerusalem artichokes, olive oil, truffles, almond biscuits, and of deep, rich chianti wine.
If you’re off to Tuscany, here’s a list of delicious foods to sample. Read it and don’t tell anyone – it’s best kept a secret.
In Tuscany, fresh pasta is king. Blockbuster dishes include Papparelle al cinghiale or al leone – glorious thick ribbons of fresh egg pasta laden with a rich wild boar or hare ragù.
They’re very good at tortelli here too – huge pillows of pasta are stuffed with potatoes, parsley and garlic or stuffed with ricotta and spinach and served smothered in butter and sage.
If you’re in Sienna, make sure you sample Pici, which is similar to spaghetti but plumper, usually served with a tomato, garlic and chilli sauce or alle briciole, a delightfully crumbly sauce made from bread, chilli, garlic and pecorino sauce.
If you’d like to try your hand at making some yourself, Cucina Lorenzo de Medici offers cooking classes and workshops specialising in homemade pasta and other Tuscan specialities, right in the heart of Florence.
For the meat eaters amongst us, indulging in one of these glorious hulking steaks is as much of a rite of passage as a pilgrimage to the Uffizzi is for the artistically appreciative.
These T-bone Chianina beef steaks are cut three to four fingers thick, blasted over hot coals and served blackened on the outside, rare and juicy on the inside.
The best are seasoned only with oil and salt, and weigh between 800g- 1kg. It is perfectly acceptable to share it, though you may well regret your decision – it is, in short, a masterpiece.
It would be remiss to skip wine off this list, being, as Tuscany is, arguably the wine capital of the world.
Chianti is undoubtedly Italy’s most famous wine and with over 70,000 hectares of vineyards sprawling over the provinces of Florence, Pisa and Sienna it would be criminal not to sample it at the source.
Head to the vine-covered Chianti Classico zone, to Fattoria Viticcio in Greve.
Guided tours though the vineyard and cellars offer a unique insight into the journey from grape to bottle, and guided wine tastings offer an enticing opportunity to sample four different wines paired with olive oil, regional salami, local pecorino and fresh Tuscan bread.
As Daniele, the wine maker says, ‘you can’t make good wine without good grapes’, and they’re awfully good at the grapes here – richly aromatic, smooth and rich in texture, you’ll want to bury your nose right into it.
Rarely do good sandwiches get the credit they truly deserve. There is no Michelin star available for gourmet sandwich shops.
But, if there were, Tuscany would be brimming with them. Tuscany’s most typical panini involve oil drenched schiacciata bread (a Tuscan incarnation of focaccia), stuffed with cold cured meats like sbriciolona (fennel infused salami) or regional salsiccia, local pecorino cheese and seasonal roasted vegetables – plump artichokes, roasted peppers and sun-dried tomatoes.
For a truly exquisite iteration, head to All’Antico Vinaio in Florence, though be prepared to wait- it is one of the few occasions in my life I have felt 30 minutes spent queuing was time well spent.
Those with a penchant for offal will enjoy the Florentine classics – panino con lampredetto (cow’s fourth stomach) and trippa (simmered tripe).
Some of the best can be found at Da Nerbone in Mercato Centrale, served in a paper napkin and enjoyed with a glass of local chianti. Fear not though, the market has plenty of other local specialties to offer – from tomato-studded focaccia to fresh pasta served on a paper plate.
It’s a gastronome’s paradise.
Good gelato is not difficult to come by in Italy, but to sample some of the best, visit Gelato Dondoli in the medieval town of San Gimignano (Sergio Dondoli has won the title of ‘World’s Best Gelato’ on numerous occasions).
Flavours include everything from the classics (nutella, melon, forest fruits etc) to the more inventive (saffron, ricotta and sweet figs, olives and cheese).
If you’d like to hone your gelato making skills, Gelateria Dondoli also offers two-hour gelato making workshops.
A mild climate, fertile land and carefully honed production processes have made Tuscan Extra Virgin Olive Oil one of the most popular food products in and outside of Italy.
The Tuscan variety is delicate and slightly bitter in taste; ask for fettuna – toasted bread topped with extra virgin olive oil – to sample this precious commodity in its simplest form.
To smell, taste and learn all about it, take a trip to Fattoria di Maiano, in the hillsides of Fiesole. Here you can learn about the art of oil production, from tree to bottle, and indulge in a tasting too.
Harvesting takes place in November, so if you’re visiting at this time of year, book in a trip to the olive mill too.
Most meals in Tuscany end happily with the onset of a plate of cantucci and a small glass of vin santo. Vin Santo literally translates as ‘saint’s wine’ (an apt title) and is not dissimilar to sherry.
Intensely amber in colour and sweet in taste, it makes the perfect vehicle for dipping cantucci, those small almond-studded sweet and moreish biscotti. In short, a delight.
Disclaimer: this list is by no means exhaustive. It was decidedly difficult to condense.
- Alessandra DAlmo