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Tuscan Cooking

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The Origins of Tuscan Cooking

The origins of cooking - Its conservation, flavours 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 con servation 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 flavours that came from the primitive methods used to preserve food. However Italian cooking was constantly experimenting in flavours, colours and matches even then, to ensure that all the dishes gave the greatest pleasure possible. People preferred unusual flavours in this period, with specialities like the delicate milk of almonds or rose water or stronger sweet and sour dishes, and exotically fascinating and long forgotten spices. An enor mous 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 wa ter 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 leav ing 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 generalised a food in ancient Rome that laws were even made to estab lish 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 man ners that were drawn up in the Middle Ages. In those days the tables, cov ered 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 al though napkins already existed, they were only used on the more luxurious tables. This type of setting also called for some good manners, soonleading to the birth of so-called etiquette and the creation of a handbook of rules for the table that, even in mediaeval banquets, were as important as wear ing 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 ingredi ents is an essential part of Tuscan cultural traditions, still closely linked to country cooking and genuine products. You only need taste a slice of Tus can 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 appetiser based on cold cuts (in cluding savoury 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 flavour 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 sec ond course, though we should also include characteristic Tuscan tripe, fla voured 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 ganisation. 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 flavours, 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 request ed 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 inte grated into the culinary culture, products, like maize, tomatoes and marrows began to arrive from the Americas, while turkey quickly replaced goose, queen of the mediaeval 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 in gredients 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

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, hon ey and cooked must, later replaced by cinnamon. This sweet and sour sauce however was notably changed after the Spanish stated to import chocolate from America. It arrived in Tuscany in the late 16th century and became a real inspiration for alchemists of cook ing, 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.

Catherine & the French Cuisine

When Catherine de` Medici went as a child bride to wed Henri D`Orleans, she was accompanied by her Florentine court that took the typical Tuscan ways of life and customs to Paris with it. This cultural exchange also involved the cooking. Sauces made with flour were called "bechemelle", salted puff pastry became "crepes a la Florentin", duck with sweet orange was transformed into "le canard a l`orange" and, among many other dishes, the popular onion soup, enriched and refined, became one of France`s most fa mous recipes, renamed "soupe a Foignons".

Catherine de` Medici - The Medici influence on the Court of France

We cannot avoid mentioning Catherine de` Medici, if we want to talk about Tuscan cooking and the Florentine cuisine in particular. This great queen and important sponsor of Italian art went to France in 1533 as the bride of the Duke of Orleans, the second son of the King of France. Although Francis I, her father-in-law, adored her, her husband, who far pre ferred his mistress Diana de Poitiers, could hardly bear her. Catherine was clever enough to remain discreetly in the background, in spite of the fact that she possessed a far more refined culture than the French nobility, who were still linked to the traditions of the Middle Ages. Catherine found relief from her husband`s continual unfaithful ness in good food. She liked to put on a apron and cook her children`s meals herself, taking over from the cooks of the Court. A gourmet and a great drinker, she even risked dying from an at tack of indigestion brought on by chicken giblets, a famous Floren tine dish known as "cibreo", after a luncheon held in April 1549 for her thirtieth birthday. This great ambassadress of Floren tine culture not only managed to make her specialities famous in France, but also on the other side of the Channel, for we can find an Eliz abethan poet waxing enthusiastic over "creams, cakes and amusing Florentine women for sweetening the palate and the mind". In those days the prestige of the powerful grew according to the amount they ate and drank, while that of the women depended on the number of children they bred. Apart from her culinary talents, Catherine managed to conquer the esteem of the Court of France by giving birth to nine children... though this was nothing compared to Florentine Dianora Salviati, wife of the eminent wine producer Bartolommeo de` Frescobaldi, who gave birth to as many as fifty two infants and never less than three with each pregnancy... ( from ` A taste of Florence ` )

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