Remembering Tuscany

When I think of Tuscany, I think of the light. It illuminated dark corners of uneven cobblestones with a preternatural glow. Staring through my bedroom window as it cast out on the Arno River, I registered hundreds of variations of yellow, orange and gold. Especially at sunrise and sunset, the light seemed to pulse, as if it were living and breathing being. I also remember the iconic images of rolling fields carpeted with lush Sangiovese grape vines and towering cypress trees, but it’s the light that stays with me. To this day, I have never seen anything like it.

Many moons ago, I lived in Florence for a time. It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and spending a year studying Tuscan food culture and eating my way through the Florence is ultimately what convinced me to pursue a formal culinary education.

Tuscan cooking is largely defined by simplicity and restraint, grounded in the humble roots of la cucina povera, loosely translated to peasant cooking, and a sincere scorn for waste. In fact, Tuscans are often referred to as mangia fagioli (bean eaters) because of the omnipresence of beans, fresh and dried, in their cooking. I read somewhere that Leonardo da Vinci, himself a Tuscan, once said: Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

In Tuscan cooking, simple means most dishes don’t use more than five or six ingredients, and sourcing quality ingredients is a central part of the cooking process. Bistecca alla fiorentina, one of the region’s signature dish, is a good example: a massive T-bone steak grilled hot and fast and served very pink with a liberal drizzle of grassy, pungent extra-virgen olive oil, a large pinch of coarse salt and a glass of Chianti.

Tuscan cooks use copious amounts of olive oil and woody herbs like rosemary and sage to season their dishes. Bread, fresh or stale but always without salt, is featured prominently in ribollita, pappa la pomodoro, panzanella and the like. Sandwich stands selling trippa braised in tomato line the streets of Florence. Salami studded with fennel seeds and black peppercorns hang from local trattorie, whose menus almost always offer some variation of braised rabbit or wild boar ragu.

It is a cuisine that’s utterly accessible and relatable. Being stripped down to the barest essentials, Tuscan food seems impossibly pure and honest. Deeply steeped in the traditions of the land and the table, it is simple, sincere and — when done well — sublime.

*

During this time of year on my morning runs through Santo Spirito, I’d smell the first round of schiacciata all’uva coming out of the ovens. It took every ounce of willpower I had in me not to stop and ogle through the bakery window. The bread is a Tuscan-style focaccia studded with red grapes such as uva fragola or canaiolo – the same grape used to make Chianti. American concord grapes would work well, although I’ve never seen them sold seedless. I made this recipe last week using Thompson white grapes and it was delicious although conspicuously absent that visually stunning stain of red grape juice running through the bread like a bloodline.

Some recipes suggest dividing the dough in two and laying the grapes in between the two layers. I much prefer this version where you lay the fluffy, yeasty focaccia dough on a well-oiled tray and press the grapes into the dough along with lots of crunchy Maldon salt. Be heavy-handed with the grapes as they will shrink and pop while the bread bakes.

I used to snack on schiacciata on fall afternoon as I strolled through the Oltrarno taking pictures for photography class. The bakeries would serve it wedged in an envelope of butcher paper. I remember how the olive oil would bleed through the paper and stain my fingers as I tried in vain to capture that glowing light through a lens. I eventually came to see that it’s best to experience it in person.

Schiacciata all'uva

  • Servings: 20-24 pieces
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

  • 60 ml olive oil, plus more for baking
  • 1 kg/2.2 pounds AP flour
  • 2T/17g salt
  • 1t/3g active dry yeast
  • 850 ml warm water (about 100 degrees)
  • 3C seedless Concord or Thompson grapes
  • Maldon salt

Pour the oil into a container large enough to hold 6 quarts.

Whisk the flour, salt, and yeast together. Pour the water into the dry mixture and stir until just incorporated. Transfer dough to oil-lined container. Refrigerate for 12-48 hours.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Generously cover a 9X13 inch sheet tray (as known as a jelly roll pan or half-sheet tray) with olive oil. Turn the dough onto the tray and gently stretch the dough with your fingertips to cover the width of the tray. Place in a warm area until the dough is puffed up and threatens to spill over the sides of the tray, about two hours. At this point, cover the dough with grapes and sprinkle liberally with Maldon salt.

Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, turning halfway. When cool enough to handle, slide onto a cutting board and let it rest for another 10 minutes before slicing.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s