Experts will tell you that Tuscan food is exceptional because it is based on “fresh ingredients.” Fantastic! What does that mean?
Imagine holding a fresh egg that is still warm from the hen. Hear the distinct snap as you crack that egg and place it on a flat surface. Take in the fresh smell. See the shiny orange (yes, orange) perfectly round, thick yolk that stands about ¾ inch high. Notice the compact and lustrous white of the egg, so very distinct from the yolk. Observe that the entire circumference of the egg is around 4-5 inches. Perfect.
You combine this egg with freshly ground (Italian) flour to make pasta dough. The color of the dough is a vivid gold, the smell of the pasta is enticing and the texture is smooth and firm in your hands.
Toss that pasta into briskly boiling salted water. It retains its shape and easily cooks to an “al dente” (firm in the middle) phase.
Finally, combine your perfectly cooked pasta with your favorite sauce or ragú (that you made using all the freshest possible ingredients). Heaven!
Compare the egg used in this case with that of an egg bought from your local grocery store. Crack it and the shell might crumble into many pieces. Place it on a flat surface; you will often see a pale yellow yolk that blends into the white of the egg. The egg white is runny and quickly spreads all over the surface.
You may, of course, not be able or willing to reach under a hen’s rear end to retrieve a warm egg. The point is, always be meticulous about using the freshest possible ingredients. Learn to read the signs of freshness and quality.
This is how the Tuscans approach cooking – with simplicity, attention to freshness and details and love. This is how my 99-year-old mother still cooks today.
Try this approach, no matter what you are making. This can apply to cooking, sewing, writing, painting or whatever you enjoy. Your outcome is only as good as the attention and love you put into each detailed step of the process, each moment along the way.
And, when your end result is something totally wonderful? Like the Tuscans, share it joyfully with people you love!
- ‘Just say no’ to Parmigiano: I must agree with Mario Batali (one of my heroes) when he says that Parmigiano Reggiano is the “Undisputed king of cheese.” Italians sprinkle parmesan onto and into many dishes, from appetizers to main courses.
Exception to note: Italians to do not add Parmigiano to any dishes with seafood (pasta or main course).It is considered somewhat sacrilegious to add such a strong-flavored ingredient as Parmigiano to the (incredibly) fresh and delicate taste of fish or shell fish.I have actually seen waiters at restaurants in Italy refuse to bring Parmigiano to someone who has ordered seafood pasta!
- Names and sequence of courses in a meal:At a restaurant, or at home for special occasions, Italians meals flow in this order: Read more
Are you ‘singing in tune’ with life? I’ve written before about the importance of paying attention to each detail of a process. We used the freshest of eggs as an example of detail.
Tuscans use this approach to life in general, paying attention to each aspect or each moment along the way of any process. It is with each inspired brush stroke that Leonardo painted his masterpieces and with each perfect note that Puccini constructed his melodious operas.
In fact, music can be used as an analogy to many ways in which Tuscans approach life; paying attention to each single note, not going “off-key” or “out-of-tune…”
I was recently reminded of the “off-key” aspect in a conversation I had near Lucca with Maria a.k.a. “The Pasta Lady” at the villa Maionchi estate. Maria and her sister-in-law Alba take 100 of only the freshest, newly-laid eggs each morning to make pasta by hand for the Villa Maionchi restaurant. They also make those amazing vegetable soups (with bread or farro) found only in Lucca.
I have tried to replicate the Lucca soups by using the classic recipes. Soups made anywhere else never taste quite like those in Lucca. The reason for this is that the Lucchesi (people from Lucca) are famous for the use of Erbi (wild greens) found in the surrounding areas of Lucca and in the Garfagnana region. There are wild asparagus, tomatoes, lettuces, bitter greens, etc.
Maria attended classes in Lucca at a cooking school dedicated to these Erbi. She shared with me that there are more than 100 varieties of Erbi and that it takes much studying and field experience to learn them all. I found this interesting because, until now, the mothers and grandmothers from the Lucca area (including my own grandmother) have gathered Erbi for thousands of years handing down their knowledge from generation to generation. I suppose it’s a sign of modern times that aspiring cooks are going to an official cooking school to learn Erbi!
Besides soup, Erbi are cooked in pies, as a side dish and even in some desserts. Maria explained that the most important thing she learned at this school was to always use the right taste and balance of Erbi in any preparation. She was taught to be sure that the preparation contained no wild green that “stonava” (stonare means to be “out-of-tune” or “off-key”). In other words, when cooking, you should always make sure there is no ingredient that clashes with the others and that everything blends together harmoniously.
The concept of food being balanced and “in tune” is one often used in Tuscany. It goes side-by-side with the philosophy of paying attention to each detail. All ingredients used in each step along the way should complement each other and form a great-tasting end result like the notes in a musical symphony. Tuscans use the “out-of-tune” guide as an aesthetic barometer in many ways: In fashion, art, cooking, architecture and in family life, it is important to make sure things are always “In tune.” Do you cook in tune? Is your life in tune?
Tuscany has always been a very popular tourist destination for people from all over the world. For Americans, since the publication of Frances Mayes’ “Under the Tuscan Sun” (and the eponymous movie plus her other subsequent books on Tuscany), the fascination with this region of Italy has reached amazing heights.
I am not knocking this trend – the desire to share the Tuscan lifestyle is the reason I began writing this column. I am from Tuscany and passionate about all it has to offer :Art, architecture, food, wine, history, vineyards, sunflowers and natural beauty. Tuscans are very proud of their heritage and live a great life. But who knew that all the traditional foods I grew up with (such as bruschette, crostini, rustic bread soups, home-made salumi and sautéed beans) would end up being featured in the trendiest of U.S. restaurants?