Tuscany Now & Then; le gente d’allora
Autumn is rolling surely towards winter with rain interrupting the olive harvest. Traditionally the coldest days are mostly in January and February but now until the winter solstice with days getting progressively shorter there is a temptation to semi hibernate! The sheep huddle together and are very interested in the hay in their manger and the home grown oats in their trough. I settle for semi hibernation in the kitchen; a hot oven with the wafting scent of bread and maybe something sweet is a good tonic for overcast days or long evenings.
Many people think of Tuscany in terms of summer foods; and I agree that there are few dishes finer than say panzanella (bread salad) or papa al pomodoro (tomato and bread soup) but they are NOT what you want at lower temperatures. In fact remember to give any restaurant that is still serving them a wide berth!
Now is the time for Tuscan ribollita soup, which you will see served at other times but which really needs good cavolo nero (Tuscan black kale) and slightly chilled fingers to appreciate properly. It is another example of making the best of a few simple but good ingredients to make something delicious, nutritious and thrifty too. These qualities abound in Tuscan cooking, which is very much home cooking; grinding poverty was widespread until the post war years. Have you ever wondered why black pepper was not much used? You had to buy it, whereas you could grow chilli peppers, although even these were not so widely used as in some southern Italian areas.
Food is still intensely local, often home grown or foraged; an example of this is Castagnaccio. A chestnut flour cake made with olive oil, a sprig of rosemary and if you were feeling festive a few sultanas (home dried, of course) and maybe a walnut or two. This cake is flourless, sugarless and eggless (as hens would be laying less in autumn) and relies on flour made from chestnuts that would have been gleaned from the forests on Monte Amiata. When times were hard chestnuts would have substituted for bread and people were deeply respectful of them.
Castagnaccio epitomises Tuscan peasants making the very most of what little they had; as well as being a sweet treat it is a special reminder of the often bitterly hard life that was the norm here. Unless one wishes to treat Tuscany as a theme park one should note and pay attention to the signs of history. One that is within living memory here.
When I farm, something I had the luxury of choosing to do, I remember those who had no luxury and little choice. And feel deep respect for them.