Italy - The Real Flavour of Tuscany - Lori de Mori and Jason Lowe

Portraits and recipes from 25 of Tuscany's culinary artisans - with video

By Robyn Lewis
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The real flavour of Tuscany
World famous Italian butcher, Dario Cecchini, with bistecca fiorentina, the classic steak of Tuscany
Zucchini flowers in the market, Tuscany, Italy
The most famous Italian butcher in the world, Dario Cecchini, at his butcher shop in Panzano, Italy

 

Is there room for another book on Tuscany? This delightful volume by foodie author Lori de Mori and her photographer husband Jason Lowe says yes, as they explore the authentic lives and hand-made produce of twenty five artisan makers of all things Tuscan, from the sea coast to the mountains.

From terracotta potters, master knife makers and artisan linen weavers - who use natural dyes so non-polluting they can weave their cloth in the middle of town – through to the more expected food producers and winemakers, The real flavour of Tuscany brings us new discoveries as well as some of the better known faces of real food Tuscan style.

However this is no romanticised view of Tuscany, where “not long ago food was pane e companatico - bread and ‘something to go with the bread’”, which usually meant beans, dried white cannellini cooked overnight in an old wine flask in the embers of the kitchen fire. The cuisine was largely born out of poverty and hardship – all the more important that it be both flavour-rich and wholesome.

Even the bread is no ordinary bread of the type we see today in supermarkets. Tuscan bread is saltless pane sciocco, naturally leavened and hearth baked, and of a texture that balances the earthy flavours of its accompaniments. I’d often wondered about Tuscan bread salads and soups, until de Mori explains that Tuscan bread goes hard and not mouldy on ageing (without the need for preservatives) and it absorbs liquid without turning into mush. Ah to find some near where I live…

The flavour of the food made up for any lack of abundance, and led to creativity and resourcefulness in cooking. Despite large increases in wealth since World War II and again since the 70s, Tuscans still choose nostrale (local) over exotic and stay true to the seasons – not out of necessity but because the food is so delicious. They still eat beans, which are a fabulous vehicle for the local olive oils.

Tuscan cooking is at the same time generous and frugal, and inextricably tied to the land. Growers and makers give attention and care to their labours often lacking in today’s world. The authors found that the twenty five subjects all shared the same qualities: personal integrity; pride but without arrogance; humility and steadfastness; and a view of their work as one of the ways to give meaning to their lives, not just as a means to something else. They all look incredibly healthy, too.

Celebrity chef cookbook this is not – their genius is driven by personal vision not desire for success, money or fame – and their generosity shows through in every page, especially in the sharing of recipes and techniques that have been passed on and refined sometimes over generations.

The real flavour of Tuscany is about all these things, but mostly about generosity. The first subject, Gianluca Paoli is the antithesis a celebrity chef; his Florentine restaurant Coco Lezzone - which operates in premises that have been serving food and wine for over 300 years - is about the food, not him. His menu changes only weekly and peas can cost more than beef, a reflection of the care and time taken to hand-pod a serving of new season’s baby peas.

His food is described as ‘traditional but extraordinary’ – Paoli explains that Florentines are used to paying little for their food, so he makes his own salamis, preferring to do ‘a few things well not lots of things that are ordinary’.

The Florentine’s unspoken rule is that all things should be eaten in moderation, except the famous bistecca alla Florentine, which is for special occasions. The Tuscan diet is one which would meet the approval of the Heart Foundation, without the need for scientific analysis, for so few use anything artificial, and olive oil rather than fat predominates.

Another is beekeeper Roberto Ballini, who lives on the island of Elba, the largest island of the Tuscan archipelago 20 km off the Tuscan coast (the third largest island in Italy after Sicily and Sardinia). A former professional cyclist, he came to honey after using it for energy when he raced.

He views honey as pure, natural food – exactly the opposite of refined sugar – and his philosophy is to interfere as little as possible: dove mette la mano, l’uomo fa sempre danno. ‘The bees know what they are doing, man damages everything he touches’. His honeys reflect the environment and the seasons, and he pairs them simply with fresh figs and sheep’s cheese, of the sort made by Salvatore and his son Giovanni Cannas, shepherds turned organic cheesemakers.

Salvatore moved to Tuscany from Sardinia fifty years ago with his flock of sheep, when ironically Tuscan famers were moving to the cities and land was cheap, and the farmhouses which today command a small fortune were thrown in for free.

Like a number of others in The real flavour of Tuscany they operate an agriturismo business, where travellers can stay on farms and participate in the daily operations, and are then indulged in the home-cooked produce and the local wines. In perhaps the ultimate of slow food making principles, some of their cheeses are formed using rennet made from local wild artichokes.

There is a chilli collector, an olive oil maker, growers of saffron and irises for orris root, and an organic farming co-op in Paterna which grows zolfino beans, the Arno Valley’s celebrated white bean (actually pale yellow) which now commands higher prices than the best cuts of beef. However this proprietor Marco Noferi thinks that the whole ‘food thing’ is getting out of hand, and thinks that more attention should be given to the producer than the product.

For one, he says that the ripening beans now have to be guarded. But more importantly he believes that ‘people are eating with their heads’ and ignoring the real issues like lack of sustainable water supplies, climatic change, seed resources now being in hands of multinationals and food being transported from continent to continent. It all sounds very familiar, and removed from the postcard-perfect view of Tuscany that tourists usually see.

Another environmental advocate is fisherman Paolo Fanciulli – who in a nod to modernity appears in one photograph with his iPod – who uses pescatourismo (the sea’s equivalent of agritourism) to draw attention to dwindling fish stocks off the Tuscan coastline caused largely by illegal trawl netting in the fishes’ breeding grounds.

Not one to stand by and do nothing, and tired of bureaucratic inaction whilst he saw the sea beds denuded to the marine equivalent of deserts, Paolo and a group of local fisherman recently installed 250 ‘fish houses’ made of concrete that provided a safe haven for breeding fish – made even more so by embedding giant net-tearing hooks into the structures, whcih weigh some tonnes. ‘We haven’t seen a trawler since’ Paulo says elatedly. The fact that 30 of these fish houses were paid for by the proceeds of pescaturismo adds to the impact. Visitors enjoy being taken out of working fishing boats - kids especially love it - and the fact that it can now also be done sustainably enables a local economy to develop around it.

All the chapters feature recipes contributed by the producers, from Paulo’s simple fish (‘nothing but lemon, salt and olive oil brushed on with a sprig of rosemary’) and the beans in the flask to seasonal fare such as porcini with garlic and wild mint and chestnut polenta with ricotta. It’s amazing that so much of a region can be covered by only twenty five of its food and wine personalities, but so deep do their roots go into Tuscan soil and sea that they seem to be able to effortlessly draw up its essence.

It’s hard to imagine that there are still undiscovered corners and pockets of Tuscany such as the Garfagnana in the northwest and the village of Usi, home to a breed of rare local pig which was once on the brink of extinction but now whose prosciutto commands five to six times the price of reared animals, herds of which live bucolic lives foraging for acorns as their mediaeval ancestors would have done.

I want to go to Chiusure, a village of population 90 which has revitalised its economy and community by forming an association dedicated to the globe artichoke. One thing that stands out is that Tuscany seems to lack the ‘me too’ factor so often encountered today, where if someone can make a product suddenly there are seemingly hundreds of makers of (say) chocolate-dipped orange slices or preserved figs, which them swamp the market and ensure than no-one can make a genuine profit out of them, let alone a sustainable livelihood. No doubt Italy's regional IGP status helps (Indicazione Geografica Protetta), which not only enables produce to be traced back to the source to protect consumers, but protects the producers from non-regional counterfeits, too.

For ultimately Tuscany is about being true to one’s local roots, and if that is mushrooms, vin santo or a particular breed of beef cattle, then that remains the regional speciality. Of such is the rich tapestry of Tuscan rural life made.

De Mori clearly has the ability to absorb all this bounty and variability, and with Lowe’s evocative photographs the story is a rich and entrancing one. The real flavour of Tuscany is bound in soft cover and on non-glossy paper reminiscent of a Slow Food annual, perhaps not coincidently as the slow food philosophy is strong throughout. In all, a delight to read, to savour and to dream - of the recipes to recreate, and future trips to this eternal land of food, wine and generous-spirited living.

But this is far more than sentimentality. The real flavour of Tuscany and the makers it features also point the way for other food-producing regions of the world that wish to avoid broadacre agri-monocultures and the loss of community that accompanies it. As Marco Noferi says 'the traditions are not bridges to the past', but instead can be a way to a healthier future for both us and the earth.

 

 

The real flavour of Tuscany by Lori de Mori and Jason Lowe is published by Quadrille UK (2007) and is released in Australia in 2009 (sc, RRP A$34.95). Winepros Archive and VisitVineyards.com subscribers and Members can purchase The real flavour of Tuscany from our bookpartners Seekbooks at 12.5% discount (postage extra).

  

Watch some of Tuscany's artisans at work in this beautiful and evocative video tour of Tuscany

 

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