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Friday, April 19, 2013

Under the Tuscan Soil

From the Vault Dept.: With the days lengthening and the weather warming and everything in nature that grows growing, I think about escaping yard work. Here’s a pleasant recollection of one such getaway.


DURING A RECENT WEEK spent traveling through and dining in a few of the cities and towns of Tuscany, I never saw a supermarket. That’s because the cuisine stays close to the fertile ground. It may be presumptuous to generalize about an area the size of Massachusetts based on mere hours spent in the environs of Florence and Siena, but it’s a common affliction among visiting American writers.

Fattoria Lavacchio
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The food is rustic, I was warned. It’s not fancy. No sauces. What I wasn’t told is that dining is an all-day affair that includes tending and harvesting the farmland, butchering and preparing the meats, making pasta, putting together a compelling ragù and, especially, producing excellent wine and olive oil.

Tuscany is the upper front thigh of Italy’s leg, bounded by the regions of Umbria and Emilia-Romagna, with the Pisa end of the province facing the Tyrrheian Sea. Despite its extensive seaside holdings, Tuscany’s cuisine is defined by its two greatest agricultural products: olive oil and Chianti. As Waverly Root observes in The Food of Italy, “Its people speak the national language in its purest form, and ... cook the most robust form of food, meat (especially beef), in the simplest manner, without fuss or frills.”

It has to start with good meat. The pig on the table before me was killed that morning, after a short life of natural foods and little confinement. Beside the carcass is Sergio Giovannoni, a stocky man with a mane of greying hair, who runs a twelve-inch butcher’s knife across a steel. With deft, trained fingers, he sets to work on the beast.

He speaks no English; my Italian is the insufficient souvenir of opera fandom. We converse in a pidgin of sign language, but, not to get too precious about it, we share the language of food. Except that my lexicon is rooted in the supermarket shelf; his includes the shotgun.

Sergio works at Fattoria Lavacchio, a farm that, unsurprisingly, produces wine and olive oil. They’re also part of the Italian agriturismo movement, which encourages such farms to also take in tourists. Sergio is the house butcher/chef/factotum. Should you choose to dine at your lodgings, you’ll be served whatever he decides to make that day.

My first lunch there began with ribollita, and the group I was with – a dozen American restaurant people – was bowled over by it. Puzzled, too; it seemed to be no more than a serving of thick bean stew. Ribollita literally means “re-boiled,” and it’s a Tuscan classic, born of the traditional Sunday dinner of beef boiled with carrots and leeks. The vegetable leftovers would be combined, the following day, with stale bread and mashed beans and, inevitably, olive oil. Now it usually also includes cavolo nero, or black cabbage, and we’re convinced that that was the ingredient that put this dish over the edge.

Because the flavors, in Sergio’s preparation, leapt out at us. Nothing fancy in the seasonings – I begged a recipe and find little other than salt and pepper as enhancements – and yet it was so lively on the palate that it threatened to overshadow the roasted, farm-raised chicken that followed. Threatened, but it didn’t.

 It didn’t hurt that there were breads to go with it. Bread made on the premises. Bread made from the wheat ground at a restored windmill – the only working one in Italy – located nearby.

The following day, after Sergio turned a pig and two boar into roasts, sausages and what eventually would become soppressata (after the pig’s head boiled for a sufficient amount of time), he set to work with cornmeal and water and produced a fresh, sticky polenta that he served with a pork ragù (another product of the late pig).

A short walk from the our lodgings was a restaurant called Mulino a Vento (after the windmill), but Vincenzo, the chef, is a Sicilian, and thus (as the Tuscans whisper) not truly Italian. Yet he used fried squares of polenta as a bed for a stew of cinghiale, the wild boar first hunted in Tuscany because of its fondness for wine grapes.

Another night, Vincenzo served us the most renowned of all local dishes: bistecca alla fiorentina. It’s a two-inch cut of what we call a T-bone steak, from the muscular, grass-fed Chianina cow, a white-coated animal unique to the area. The steak is rubbed with lemon, rosemary (such bushes appear as ornamentals alongside the farm’s walkways) and olive oil, and grilled rare. Vincenzo obviously saw in me a trencherman who deserved, and was awarded, the bone itself, to which clung the rarest beef.

In contrast, Sergio one evening took a simpler cut – a whole, boned, butterflied hare – and covered it with strips of his homemade prosciutto. On top of this went thin slices of pecorino cheese, and that was covered with a scrambled egg layer (eggs sourced, naturally, from the farm’s own hens). The roast was wrapped around tubes of Sergio’s own rabbit sausage, then tied and roasted. Served with a side of pisellini stufati (stewed peas), it had an incredibly persistent flavor that lingered long after the last glass of grappa that night.

Each glass of Chianti Rufina, a state-controlled variety unique to the area in which I stayed, seemed to soar up and into the food. Likewise, the peppery olive oil, the best of it cold pressed and stone ground, added a unity of flavor, whether drizzled on crusty bread (fettunta) or worked deeply into a dish.

With so many components feeding off the same soil, there was a continuity to each meal and to the succession of meals. And all of these components came together at a small farmhouse in the town of Petorio, not far from Siena. Sergio had a room at this house because he visited regularly to butcher meats for his friends. When he brought us there, trays of meat and potatoes already were roasting in a large, deep, wood-fired oven, the aroma dominated by the dark flesh of more cinghiale.

Working more quickly than I could follow, Sergio’s friend Gina made a volcano of semolina flour on a bread board and broke eggs into its crater; soon she was hand-rolling pici, a thick spaghetti unique to that area.

Tomatoes and potatoes both arrived in Italy from the New World, and the latter took an especially long time to catch on. When it did, its favorite Tuscan preparation became the olive oil-drenched potato cubes that finally emerged from Gina’s oven, their outsides crunchy, the insides like little olive-scented clouds.

First there was pici with a rabbit ragù; then there was more rabbit, roasted alongside duckling and chicken, served with the wild boar. Add to that the Chianti made on the premises, and the olive oil ditto. By now, Sergio was in his T-shirt, toasting Gina, toasting her husband the winemaker, toasting our group. And we toasted him back, easing from Chianti to sweet Vin Santo and then into an amazing, orange-scented grappa that we easily polished off.

When your local agriculture defines your cuisine, it also defines your community, a social phenomenon well described by Wendell Berry. The thriving hillside communities of Tuscany, where the by-products of this close-to-the-ground cycle are such excellent food and wine, are a case study in how well that can work.

Metroland Magazine, 20 October 2005

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