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The Origins of Tuscan Cooking

17 June 2017

The origins of cooking – Its conservation, flavors and variety

The preservation of food has always been one of the greatest problems in the history of cooking. Various processes were used to make food last throughout the year, for example, salting, smoking and drying of meat and fish, or the conservation of fruit and vegetables in vinegar, brine, juice or honey. New methods were introduced with the arrival of spices, ginger and pepper aimported from the East. Many people think that food in the Middle Ages was extremely simple, usually roasted and smothered in spices to hide the nauseous flavors that came from the primitive methods used to preserve food. However Italian cooking was constantly experimenting with flavors, colors, and matches even then, to ensure that all the dishes gave the greatest pleasure possible. People preferred unusual flavors in this period, with specialties like the delicate milk of almonds or rose water or stronger sweet and sour dishes, and exotically fascinating and long forgotten spices. An enormous quantity of dishes were carried out for the banquets, most of them meat-based, and of course many foods we normally eat today were still unknown, like tomatoes, potatoes, chilli peppers, maize and coffee, all imported after the discovery of America.

Bread – From crushed acorns to wheat flour

Our primitive ancestors used to mix the powder of crashed acorns with water and then cook the dough on red-hot slabs of stone, to make the rather hard flat bread that was the predecessor of the bread we eat today. The Egyptians accidentally discovered how to leaven the dough by leaving it outside and cooking it the next day. They found that bread cooked this way was much softer. The ancient Greeks instead started to add other products, like milk or spices, to the simple flour and water dough; they opened the first public bakeries and made the first rules for bread-making. Bread became so generalized a food in ancient Rome that laws were even made to establish the price of wheat flour to be sold to the population, to keep the making of bread below market price. The culture of bread and bakers was lost after the fall of the Roman Empire. In the Middle Ages bread made with wheat flour was limited to the wealthier members of the population, and other cereals, like barley, spelt and rye etc., were usually used for making bread dough. During the Renaissance, the introduction of beer yeast and higher qualities of flour led to an increasingly large use of this type of bread. This development has since continued thanks to the rediscovery of cereal flour, previously considered too humble, that today enriches the range of traditional types of bread.

Etiquette – Remember to wipe your mouth before drinking

This classical recommendation is part of a series of rules for good table manners that were drawn up in the Middle Ages. In those days the tables, covered by two sets of tablecloths, were placed on top of two trestles. Each table setting was laid with a bowl, made of pottery or seasoned wood, placed on top of a flat plate. Everyone was also provided with a spoon, but tankards had to be shared between two and it was up to guests to bring their own knife, a piece of cutlery that was only included in table settings from the 17th century onwards. The fork was instead invented in Venice in the late 14th century, while although napkins already existed, they were only used on the more luxurious tables. This type of setting also called for some good manners, soon leading to the birth of so-called etiquette and the creation of a handbook of rules for the table that, even in medieval banquets, were as important as wearing a decent suit of clothes.

Tuscan Cooking – Simple ingredients beautifully cooked

Plain, simple and basic, the Tuscan cuisine needs little elaboration to be able to conquer new admirers. The care given to the quality of the basic ingredients is an essential part of Tuscan cultural traditions, still closely linked to country cooking and genuine products. You only need taste a slice of Tuscan bread soaked in olive oil to appreciate the essence of this cuisine. The locally produced extra-virgin oil is in fact of exceptional quality, wonderful whether cooked or raw, and accompanies almost all the most characteristic recipes in the region. A Tuscan style lunch starts with a meaty appetizer based on cold cuts (including savory salted ham), and croutons, slices of toast spread with a pate made with chicken livers, spleen of veal, capers, and butter. Traditional first courses include simple but delicious vegetable soups like the `pappa col pomodoro`, made with tomato, garlic, basil, and pepper, or the `ribollita`, made with vegetables cooked for hours, the flavor brought out by a last minute topping of oil. Pappardelle (ribbon pasta) served with a hare sauce made with red wine, oil, and tomato, is just one of the typical pasta dishes. The world famous Florentine steak, a special cut of prized Chianina beef, is a symbolic second course, though we should also include characteristic Tuscan tripe, flavored with bacon, tomato, and Parmesan. The most popular legumes are beans, cultivated here from Etruscan times and either cooked `all` uccelletto` (in tomato sauce with sage) or in a wine flask. Like the soups, vegetables are almost always tossed in a frying pan with oil and garlic – spinach, artichokes, baby marrows – or fried, like, for example, the crunchy marrow flowers. Typical dishes in the summer months are the `pinzimonio` or sliced fresh vegetable dip of oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper, or classic fresh field salads.

Renaissance Cooking – The Art of Cooking

Banqueting was one of the expressions of Renaissance court culture and is why we can find some of the most famous artists and craftsmen of the time (Buontalenti for example) dedicating themselves to their staging and or organization. Culinary art became a science and, thanks to the recipe books, instructions for etiquette and manuals on table-laying and decoration that were published, it was also passed down to posterity. The dominating taste was apparently based on sweet sugar-based flavors, which, for the court society, became a sign of social distinction and linked more to ostentation than the palate. Cooks, on the other hand, discovered that the use of spices was indispensable for cooking the dishes requested with greater creativity, thus adapting themselves to the tastes of their masters and to the established rule that prefers whatever is rare and costly according to the principle of magnificence and luxury. Compared to the past, the Renaissance cuisine stands out above all for the extraordinarily rich ingredients that were used. Despite the fact that they were not yet completely integrated into the culinary culture, products, like maize, tomatoes, and marrows began to arrive from the Americas, while turkey quickly replaced goose, queen of the medieval table. There was also a much wider use of butchered meat in this period, especially beef and veal, together with a growing passion for entrails and offal from butchered animals, birds and even fish. Although milk and its derivatives were rarely used in noble kitchens in the past, during the Renaissance they became the basic ingredients for preparing many dishes. Butter and cream almost completely replaced lard in the kitchen and cheeses, made in a wide variety of ways, at last, appear on the table.

Game & Chocolate

The game was cooked in a sweet and sour sauce up until the Middle Ages. One of the first recipes to be written in that period tells us that the various ingredients included raisins, almonds, vinegar, ginger, honey and cooked must, later replaced by cinnamon. This sweet and sour sauce, however, was notably changed after the Spanish started to import chocolate from America. It arrived in Tuscany in the late 16th century and became a real inspiration for alchemists of cooking, who started to elaborate it by adding other ingredients like the peel of fresh limes, cinnamon, vanilla, amber, and musk. In the 17th century, scientist Francesco Redi invented an exquisite recipe that mixed chocolate with jasmine. Grand Duke Cosimo III dei Medici reserved it for his court and the fame of this culinary masterpiece lasted for many years. The exclusive recipe, which listed all the ingredients, quantities and preparation in detail, became a carefully preserved State secret that was kept in the strongbox in the Foundry of the Pitti Palace by the noble members of the Medici family.



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