Under the Tuscan Sun
This year will mark 50 years (yikes!) since I saw the Tuscan sun for the first time. I can clearly remember that first morning in the little pensione on Via 27 Aprile when I flung open the shutters to discover the most vivid colors, sparkling clean air and brightest sun I had ever seen.
Tuscany is a region located in central Italy but ask any Tuscan and they will tell you it is the center of the universe. They are exceedingly proud of their heritage and are profoundly connected to their culture, not the least of which is their culinary patrimony.
Our menu this week will travel through the region, highlighting specialties from its different provinces. We are also introducing a little known light Tuscan red wine, Sabazio, that is best enjoyed lightly chilled, to “temperature di cantina.”
Francis Mayes’ award-winning work, Under the Tuscan Sun, adds to the experience. Open it up, read any passage and you will be transported. Or, for a fun and lighthearted accompaniment, try watching the movie for enticing food scenes and spectacular landscapes.
This year will mark 50 years (yikes!) since the first time I saw the Tuscan sun. I can clearly remember that first morning in the little pensione on Via 27 Aprile when I flung open the shutters to reveal the most vivid colors, sparkling clear air and brightest sun I had ever seen. I stood there taking it all in, together with the sounds and smells of early morning Florence, not knowing that from that moment on everything would change – that it was the beginning of my new life.
Every time I go back to Tuscany I can feel the same pull. I was there for seventeen years and yet there is infinitely more to discover. Maybe that is why I enjoyed Frances Mayes’ book, Under the Tuscan Sun, so much. She was able to articulate that contradiction of wonderment at the unknown together with the deep seeded feeling of home and connection.
Tuscany is a region located in central Italy, but ask any Tuscan and they will tell you it is the center of the universe. They are exceedingly proud of their heritage and are profoundly connected to their culture, not the least of which is their culinary patrimony. Up until the unification of Italy in 1861, the now Tuscan cities of Florence, Siena, Lucca, Arezzo and Pisa thrived as independent republics with their unique histories, traditions and food. This explains why there is such diversity in Tuscan cuisine.
Tuscans are very welcoming and genuinely kind. The Ricchi family and the entire cast of characters in our little town, accepted me with such warmth that it was impossible not to fall in love. There was Beppe and “Lo Spacchini”, Zio Dante, Alfiero, and Guzzi (named after the moto he drove) who would come every night to play cards in our little bottega. In the film, Under the Tuscan Sun, the protagonist becomes very attached to the townspeople and laborers who help her adapt to her new home. That certainly was my experience.
There were always people in our kitchen. The Trattoria was on the ground floor of the house Francesco’s grandfather built. We slept upstairs, so our family kitchen was the restaurant kitchen and it was always full of activity. Friends and customers would come to the door, stick their heads in and the next thing you knew they were with spoon in hand, tasting the sauce or “stealing” a freshly made raviolo. It was here, seated around our large kitchen table, that I discovered my affinity for cooking and nurturing through food.
Our menu this week is a tour of Tuscany, highlighting some of its most well-known dishes. In a pivotal scene in the movie, Francis (Diane Lane) prepares a Tuscan feast, writing her menu on an adjacent chalk board. First on the list – Bruschetta ai Peperoni Rossi. Bruschetta or “fettunta” as it is commonly known in Tuscany, is basically a slab of bread, toasted, rubbed with garlic and EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) and topped with whatever is seasonally available. In summer, in could be anything from tomato and basil to zucchini, peppers or prosciutto and melon.
Pici all’Aglione is known in the province of Siena as the quintessential local pasta, not easily found on Florentine menus, just an hour away. Traditionally, each strand of pasta dough is rolled between the palms creating long rustic worms much like the ones we made with play-doh as children. In the interest of time, we have used our pasta extruder to make this homemade thick spaghetti topping it with “Aglione,” a well-known local tomato-garlic sauce finished with a dollop of whipped ricotta.
Costata di Maiale, or as it is commonly known in Tuscany as “Arista,” is claimed by Arezzo as having originated there during the Ecumenical Council in the fifteenth century. Supposedly, upon tasting it for the first time, the Greek bishops exclaimed, “Aristos!” meaning the best. We season the roast with juniper berries and serve it with a fresh plum sauce. The Tuscan countryside is covered with orchards of peach, apricot and plum trees this time of year. Bietola Saltata, from Pisa, is a common Tuscan accompaniment. Delicately flavored swiss chard is boiled and then quickly sautéed with plenty of EVOO and garlic.
Zuppa Inglese, from Florence, translates into “English Soup” -- most likely an adaptation of the English trifle prepared by the homesick Victorian Brits who flocked to Tuscany in search of beautiful landscapes, warm sun and freedom from oppressive social constraints. This “Paradise of the Exiles” attracted such noted authors as Lord Byron, Shelley, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. The British love affair continues today, as “Chiantishire,” the area between Florence and Siena, is largely populated by English speakers. With the abundance of summer berries, I couldn’t resist adapting the recipe to include them. We’ve layered sponge cake, pastry cream, maraschino and berries to create a light finale.
Though the Disney film version is definitely “Under the Tuscan Sun Lite” and not true to the book, it is worth watching for the spectacular landscapes and food scenes. But if you want to really feel the excitement of discovering the most beautiful place on earth, you must read Frances Mayes’ book.
Two years ago, when we were seated together at a dinner here in DC, Frances and I easily fell into delightful conversation about our favorite topics, Tuscany and food. There was an immediate kinship, an understanding that we shared a common experience. We both had taken the risk of leaving our old familiar worlds behind to embark on an adventure that has rewarded us a thousand fold.