1950s Archive

A Gastronomic Tour of Italy: Tuscany

Originally Published April 1954
Notes on the bountiful gifts of the Tuscan fills and where to savor them in all their aristocratic simplicity.

It is difficult to avoid a torrent of superlatives in appraising Tuscany and her contribution to the culture and beauty of this world. The list of her famous sons is even now electrifying, centuries after they were horn. How much richer is mankind for the genius of Dante, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, to consider only the pinnacle of human achievement. They all belonged to Tuscany, as did Galileo, the mathematician, Boccaccio, the father of Italian prose-and the racy yarn, and Machiavelli, the unscrupulous statesman whose name has become a synonym for sly plotting and malevolent schemes.

Tuscan painters and sculptors have no peers in the realm of art. From Giotto, Fra Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, the della Rohbias and Donatello to the boastful Benvenuto Cellini, the majesty of Florentine genius remains unrivaled, and puts the earthy, camera-toting twentieth-century traveler in a mood of awe and wonder. Confronted with such splendors of the past, the mere needs of the present seem insignificant. How does one dare think of food? Why not live on ambrosia and a still life in the Pitti Palace?

Today's very finite visitor, however, is obliged to come down to earth every few hours, if only because his rebellious feet remind him that he can look at pictures in the Uffizi Gallery just so long, and no longer. The normal desire to sit down and relax must have its turn. Only because such mundane phenomena as thirst and hunger unfailingly assert themselves do we come to the relatively minor art of Tuscan food. True to Tuscan supremacy, it is probably the noblest in Italy. And if this art failed to produce culinary geniuses on the lofty plane of a Dante or a da Vinci, it has the distinction of being the most ancient in Europe. It dates from Etruscan times, a full millennium before the Christian era.

This is admittedly a remote boast. Florentine gastronomy can claim another honor which comes right down to the present: It was the forerunner of French cuisine as we know it today. It was Catherine de' Medici, a Florentine name deeply etched in French history, who started a new era of French cooking. When she became the wife of Henry II and Queen of France, she brought her own Italian cooks with her. Their new culinary techniques, their sauces and their sweets, revolutionized court dinners and launched a wonderful new trend. French ingenuity has done the rest down through the ensuing centuries.

Tuscany, whose name is derived from its ancient Etruscan origin, is one of the larger Italian regions, containing ten smaller provinces. It has a long coast line along the Mediterranean, and includes the Isle of Elba, made famous by Napoleon's enforced stay. Aside from the flat valley of the Amo, most of Tuscany is either hilly or mount a if urns. The higher stretches of the Apennines can be grim, as veterans of the Fifth Army who spent the winter on Futa Pass can tell you. But most of this region is picture-book stuff-bills carpeted with olive trees and umbrella pines and crowned with regiments of solemn cypresses, villas with wide roofs and formal gardens, fortified hill towns, remort monasteries. Its scacoast is seductive to the vacationist, particularly in the region of Viareggio. But its cities, in the long run, exert the strongest appeal upon travelers. Florence, Pisa, Siena. Lucca, Pistoia, Arezzo-these and a dozen smaller cities have for centuries fascinated visitors, especially the Anglo Saxons. Some of these have been famous-Lord Byron, Keats and Shelley, for example. Robert and Elizabeth Browning could nor be separated from Florence, once they came to know it. Many another English expatriate feels the same way. coming there for a week and remaining a lifetime.

The charm of Tuscan speech and manners has much to do with the popularity of this district. There are laughter and animation and industry here, and, if there is less singing of operatic arias in the local streets than in Naples, the penpie are unfailingly gay and gracious. This is a stronghold of Italian arts and crafts, and few places produce as many interesting things to buy for your friends back home. The shops have an intoxicating effect upon the wide-eyed visitor, and especially upon his wife. What skilled Florentine workmen can do with leather, silver, gold, precious and semiprecious stones, colored marble and silk, is almost beyond belief.

The keynote of Tuscan gastronomy is furnished by the fertile hillsides, tapestried with the good things of life: olive trees, vineyards, green gardens, and pastures dinted with plump young cattle. The ancient culinary maxim that the best dishes are often the simplest couldn't claim better proof than in Tuscany. Taking advantage of the excellence of his own meats, vegetables, fruit, oil, and the soul-warming wines of Tuscany, the famous Chiauti, the good Tuscan chef presents them with simplicity and good taste-and a minimum of manipulation. There are a few succulent specialties, however, especially in the field of pastry, where the city of Siena has produced delicacies prized all over Italy.

The most celebrated meat dish of Tuscany is bistecca alla fiorenlina: a junior size steak broiled only with olive oil, salt and pepper, and served with a quarter of lemon. It is good young Tuscan beef, somewhat sophomoric in comparison to the ponderous steer one encounters in Midwest county fairs. A Florentine beefsteak falls somewhere between a porterhouse and a veal chop, but is much closer to the latter.

The Florentine variant of the famous Italian dish fritto misto contains sweet breads, calf's brains, sliced artichoke, zucchini and small cutlets of lamb, all dipped in flour and beaten egg, and deep-fried in Tuscan olive oil. Fragrant and surprisingly light, this dish goes well with a cool white Chianti. Some restaurants add a few sweet fruit fritters-apple, apricot or orange-thus obviating the need for a dessert course.

Enthusiasts of tripe-an excellent but unloved-by-many dish-will find that young Italian tripe needs less aromatic disguise than tripe d la mode de Caen. Trippa alia fiorenlina is thinly sliced, cooked lung hours in a casserole with meat gravy and tomato. Usually it is served with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese and with white Tuscan beans.

Subscribe to Gourmet