Simply cooked, robust foods from Tuscany
South of Florence is an area of Italy where there seems to be a ruined castle or church on every hilltop, and the slopes, covered with olive trees, are silvery and misty.
The landscape of this part of Tuscany appears unchanged since the artists of the Renaissance used it as background for biblical paintings of the Holy Land.
Under the filtered light of a vineyard you can eat a picnic lunch of finocchiona, the Florentine sausage that contains fennel, coarse Tuscan bread, fresh pears, and strong pecorino cheese, and see the distant hill towns and tall , slim cypress trees that Giotto, Botticelli, and da Vinci might have seen.
When you dine in Tuscany you are eating the foods that are the basis of French cooking. Catherine de Medici was a Tuscan, and she took her chefs, and forks, to France when she married the future King. Today many Americans and British are settling in the area, and it's interesting to notice that they are becoming Tuscans, rather than inputting their own cultures and life styles.
Recently I visited three very different places in the northeastern section of Tuscany: an agricultural town, a castle, and a farm with an ancient abbey converted to a home with a restaurant. Each gave different and stimulating impressions, and fostered an overwhelming desire to return even before I'd left.
The village of Greve is roughly halfway between Florence and Siena on the old Via Chiantigiana, National Highway 222. The road follows a little river down the hillside and into a narrow, shadowed side street that leads into the bright, triangular piazza. Roman-arched porticoes attached to the yellow buildings shade entrances to shops and excellent family restaurants, and a bronze statue commemorates native son Giovanni da Verrazano, explorer of the coast of America and discoverer of New york harbor and Narragansett Bay.
Just north of Greve is Castello Vicchiomaggio, a stronghold built on the top of a mountain before the year 1000. Tours can be arranged by hotels in Florence to come here for midday dinner, which might include grilled beef from white Chiana cattle, or fritto misto alla Fiorentiana, a potpourri of juicy deep-fried foods such as hare, lamb, chicken, pork, calves' brains, and breaded vegetables.
Beans will most likely be served, usually white kidney beans, called cannellini or Tuscan beans, or chick peas, called ceci. They are cooked in soups, such as minestrone or incavolata, with kale. They may be served hot -- by themselves or mixed with pasta or rice, or cold -- served with green, first-pressing olive oil.
Southeast of Greve is Coltibuono, a peaceful and isolated restored 11 th-century abbey that has an excellent country restaurant. En route you will see the famous greens of Tuscany, portrayed in so many paintings. On the hills olives and grapes grow together in alternate rows. Dark cypresses and pine trees add other shades of green.
Around the abbey are chestnut trees, and under them grow the magnificent wild mushrooms called porcini (Boletus edulis). Dried porcini are sold in small packages at specialty and Italian groceries in the United States. Called cepes, if grown in France, they add an incomparable flavor to sauces for steaks and fowl, or in risotto, or sauteed in butter and served as a side dish.
Tours of the cloister-turned-residence can be arranged for small groups. Inside the gray walls are religious frescoes, a collection of old manuscripts, and the centuries-old household account book.
The vine-covered restaurant serves the robust but simply cooked food of Tuscany, such as wild boar with gravy and wide macaroni with butter. The recipes below for Bread Soup and Chicken on the Spit, Tuscan Style, are both from the Ristorante di Badia a Coltibuono and are typical of the region. Bread Soup (Pappa al Pomodoro) 1 quart water or part water and part tomato liquid 1/2 pound stale county-style bread, sliced thinly 1 pound very ripe tomatoes, or 1 14 1/2 ounce can, drained 2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped 1 teaspoon dried sage 1/4 cup less 2 tablespoons olive oil Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bring water to the boiling point. Heat half the oil in a large, deep skillet. Add garlic and sage. When garlic begins to turn golden, add bread and brown lightly on both sides. Salt and pepper lightly. Remove from skillet and save.
Pass tomatoes through vegetables mill directly into skillet, or coarsely chop in food processor. Cook over high heat for a few minutes, stirring constantly. Add boiling water, cover, reduce heat, and simmer 40 minutes.
Off heat, let soup cool to lukewarm. Adjust salt and stir well. Divide bread between 4 soup bowls and add soup. Sprinkle remaining oil into soup without stirring, and grind black pepper generously into each bowl. Serves 4. Chicken on the Spit, Tuscan Style 1 whole broiler chicken, about 2 pounds 1 3/4 ounces prosciutto 1 tablespoon dried sage, or 1 sprig fresh 1 tablespoon dried rosemary, or 1 sprig fish 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped 2 tablespoons olive oil Juice of 3 lemons Salt and freshly ground pepper
Stuff chicken with a mixture of finely chopped prosciutto, herbs, and seasonings. Sew up both ends and tie with string to hold chicken together while turning on the spit.
Mix garlic, oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper and brush chicken with it before cooking and frequently during cooking. Place chicken on a spit and cook about 1 1/2 hours, when it will be done inside and crisp outside.
You can also cook the stuffed chicken in an oiled roasting pan, uncovered, in a 400 degree F. oven 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours. Serves 4.