The Tuscan Table
Vineyards and olive groves atop rolling hills, Michelangelo’s perfectly proportioned statue of David, the incomprehensible frenzy of the Paleo horse race in Siena’s Campo, and Pisa’s leaning (now fortunately in control) tower of Pisa. Think of Italy and these, among other, numerous examples of the immense beauty and passion that lie beneath the Tuscan sun immediately come to mind. Each of Italy’s 20 regions possesses its own unique beauty, history, culture, food and wine, but Tuscany has become the country’s most globally recognized.
Food and wine are an integral part of its identity. Tuscan wines such as Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, and globally sought-after Super-Tuscans have brought international attention while the region’s simple but incredibly flavourful cuisine has captivated even the most unadventurous palates.
Inevitably, any wine trip to Italia must morph into a food trip as well. Such was the case with my expedition to taste the new releases of the cornerstones of the Tuscan wine industry: Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Brunello di Montalcino. While we focused on tasting over 700 wines in five days, our hosts ensured that we were schooled on traditional cuisine as well.
Tuscan cuisine is simple; with each dish incorporating a few great quality ingredients such as olive oil, rosemary, sage, beans, bread, vegetables, wild boar (cinghiale), duck (anatra), rabbit (lepre), and beef from the local Chianina cow. One of the most memorable dishes I have ever had was years ago at a small restaurant in Siena: Pillowy soft gnocchi with fresh tomato sauce, olive oil and sage. So simple, yet so flavourful. My recent trip re-introduced me to the traditional dishes that form the foundation of the Tuscan table.
Crostini di Fegato
Chicken livers are most often cooked with capers, anchovies and sage and spread on top of lightly toasted pieces of bread drizzled with a little olive oil. A wonderfully tasty stuzzichini (small bites) to start you meal with a glass of cellar-temperature Chianti such as the Triacca Chianti Classico ‘Bello Stento’ DOCG 2008 ($24.99) with its lovely morello cherry flavours, hints of earth and wonderful fresh acidity on the finish. Chiantis from Col d’Orcia, Fonterutoli, Donatella Cinelli Colombini, and Frescobaldi are also worth seeking out.
Bread salad whose ingredients can vary depending on what’s in the pantry, but generally would involve a few days old bread, fresh tomatoes, basil, olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Eggs, tuna, other vegetables, garlic, and several other ingredients can also be added. Once the elements are combined, the salad is left to sit for a short time to allow the bread to absorb all the flavours. A great match is the floral, elegant, apple and peach fruit flavoured Vernaccia di San Gimignano from Teruzzi & Puthod or Giovanno Panizzi (both $19.99).
The name means “reboiled” and this bread, bean and vegetable soup really does taste better the next day. Every Tuscan seems to have their own version of this traditional peasant dish, but most will include stale bread, broth, beans, leafy greens, and a mixture of vegetables (generally whatever was in the pantry). Serve at room temperature drizzled with some great quality extra virgin olive oil. When you think of comfort foods, this is one of the world’s best.
Pappardelle alla Cinghiale
Pappardelle (a broad, flat pasta) is often mixed with the ragu of local critters. Wild boar (cinghiale) makes a rich, flavourful sauce with a tremendous depth of flavour. Duck and hare are also common. A perfect wine choice would be the full plum and cherry flavoured Capezzana Barco Reale di Carmignano DOC 2007 ($28.99) which is blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon or Col d’Orcia Rosso di Montalcino DOC 2007 ($37) with its liquorice, berry and mineral aromas and flavours and silky tannins.
Bistecca alla Fiorentina
A large Porterhouse steak cut from the region’s Chianina breed of cattle. Generally the steak is one to one-and-a-half inches thick, seared and crisp on the outside and rare in the middle. Simply seasoned with salt, pepper and olive oil, the bistecca is frequently ordered by the 100g and shared. A great wine pairing would be the region’s flagship wine, Brunello di Montalcino, from great producers such as Donatella Cinelli Colombini 2004 ($68, or $85 for the Riserva) with its crushed berries, meaty, blackberry, wild cherry, elegant yet full-bodied, and multilayered character; or Brunellos from Gianni Brunelli, Col d’Orcia, Frescobaldi, and Uccelliera. Also a no-brainer wine pairing would be the region’s internationally collected and highly sought after Super-Tuscans such as Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Ornellaia DOC 2007 ($235) with its dark colour, complex aromas and flavours and seamless, muscular and velvety tannins. You also could not go wrong with Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia, Tua Rita Redigaffi, Brancaia Ilatraia, or Capezzana Ghiaie Della Furba.
A fruitcake containing dried and candied fruit, honey, nuts and spices. Made by the Sienese since Medieval times. A natural pairing with the rich, apricot, honey, and nutty flavoured Tuscan dessert wine Vin Santo. The best examples are the Capezzana Vin Santo Riserva DOC 2000 ($42/375 ml) and Avignonesi.