Pappa al Pomodoro
Photo by C. De Melo
When winter drags on, when the rain and snow take the spring out of your step and the sky is full of clouds, the place to be is where you can find those silver linings. Those crisp, cold sunny days that so illuminated January in Florence have, for today at least, conceded to some miserable February weather. So what good can come of that? The answer for me is in the kitchen. Tuscan food does miserable well. The recipe book of local dishes seems written especially for days when the wind lashes at the windows. It is food that doesn’t tax you in its preparation, that comforts with its textures and tastes and is full of a simplicity and honesty that speaks of homes and hearths from the ancient past.
Bread soup, tripe, sausages and beans; cheaply assembled and easily prepared, it is the food of simple folk, sometimes derided by other Italians for its lack of sophistication. Whereas finer cuisine is full of tricks and techniques that dazzle the palate, Tuscan food satisfies without amazing. You can see the ingredients on your plate – chunks of carrot and leaves of cabbage. You may be underwhelmed if you like more sorcery in your saucery because a Tuscan chef is like a magician who walks on stage with a hat in one hand and a rabbit in the other, plonks them both on a table and shouts “Tadaaa!”. That inherent simplicity, though, is where it wins in winter; when it’s wet and windy outside you want a wooly sweater, not a fine suit.
Ribollita and pappa al pomodoro are two staples that use the local bread as their base. Pane Toscano is a strange creature. Unsalted and somewhat hard even when fresh it gives a fairly unloveable slice and is useless for making sandwiches. What makes it special is how well it cooks. Most breads, when soaked, turn into a gooey mess. Pane Toscano molecular simplicity means that it almost dissolves, giving a thickness and flavor that turn a simple broth into a hearty meal. It is used in many traditional Tuscan cuisines. The word ‘traditional’ hardly begins to describe Ribollita, a dish that has been traced in its current form back to the Etruscans. Although some less well attended lunchtime cafes display dishes of the stuff that look like they themselves may date back to the Etruscans, it is a consistently delicious bowl of food that can get you through the gloomiest of days. Papa al pomodoro was originally considered a housewives’ secret, disposing of a bag of old tomatoes and a loaf of stale bread at the same time; but such humble origins mean nothing when the outcome is so pleasing.
Never mind those who shout about Bistecca alla Fiorentina; a high quality T-bone steak is good the world over. What Florence and Tuscany should be really proud of is the way that they turn the unglamorous cuts, the boring vegetables and the unwanted corners of old bread and create a warmth and nourishment that will keep you happy and fed till you’re a hundred. I’ve never bought into the popular claims of Florentine snobbishness, but if evidence were ever needed of a naturally modest and down to earth people, the menu of your local trattoria undoubtedly provides it.