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Hearty soups of Tuscany

The soups of Tuscany

by Great Italian Chefs 01 March 2019

No one does rustic, no-frills cookery like the Tuscans – especially when it comes to simple, flavourful soups. Here are five of the best from the Italian heartland, complete with recipes so you can whip up a bowlful of something delicious at home.


Tuscan cuisine is built around two key tenets – simplicity and efficiency. That’s not to say that it cannot be elaborate and impressive – there are chefs doing fantastic things across the region – but food here unquestionably has its origins in the modest cookery of la cucina povera – the kitchen of the poor.

Nothing quite illustrates that point as clearly as the region’s deep-seated traditions of making soups and stews (which often fall under the same generic terms of zuppa or minestra). These are the dishes that Tuscans lived on for centuries, taking the food that was available to them in the surrounding countryside and making it into vital, fulfilling food that would keep them fuelled for the working day. As a result, these Tuscan soups are very adaptable. These are not rigid recipes that are steeped in tradition – they change with the seasons and availability of ingredients. Many of them simply started as a way to make the most of things that were available, whether that be fresh vegetables, beans or stale bread.

This style of cooking isn't just about thrift and necessity, however; it celebrates fantastic fresh ingredients above all else. Championing great produce is central to Italian cookery, but as the agricultural heartland of the country, Tuscany seems to do it a little better than anywhere else. Acquacotta at its most basic is a soup of water, stale bread, onion, tomato, olive oil and salt – a spartan meal by all accounts. The joy of eating it is in appreciating the history of Tuscany, but also appreciating the quality of the olive oil and the bread.

Take a look at these five vital Tuscan soups to see what we mean. Remember – the key is to always buy the best quality, freshest, in season produce you can (even if that means swapping out a few ingredients for something that's at its peak). And whatever you do, never throw away your stale bread!

Pappa al pomodoro

The translation of pappa al pomodoro, ‘mush of tomatoes’, gives you a good idea of what to expect when you order this. Tuscany is awash with incredible tomatoes during the summer, and Tuscans make the most of the glut with all sorts of salads, sauces and this soup, which brings together fresh tomatoes, stale bread, garlic, basil and olive oil to create a luscious, thick dish that's far more than the sum of its parts. It might sound pretty basic, but it offers an iconic taste of everything we love about Italian cuisine. The dish can be eaten hot, room temperature or chilled; make it thick enough and it can be used as a fantastic pasta filling too.

Cacciucco

Just as Italy’s east coast has brodetto, the western coastline of Tuscany has cacciucco – a hearty fish stew that contains anything fishermen have caught that day. It's made up of the fruits of the Tyrrhenian Sea: gurnard, scorpionfish, monkfish and snapper could be paired with langoustines, mussels, clams and squid. Whilst most similar fish stews around Europe have a fairly rigid foundation, cacciucco is incredibly flexible – the base can contain almost any combination of vegetables (though onion and tomato are usually present), the broth can contain red or white wine, fish stock or vermouth, and spicing varies from traditional European herbs all the way to powerful aniseed and dried chilli. Although traditionally associated with the coastal city of Livorno, cacciucco is common all along the coast, and the fun of it is that you never really know what you’re going to get. This recipe is just one iteration of the dish – feel free to swap out certain fish and shellfish for whatever you fancy – but the appeal of it is that there's lots of different varieties of seafood in there (according to some traditional chefs, there should be at least five).

Acquacotta

Acquacotta is the ultimate peasant food among peasant foods, by all accounts. It came about, allegedly, as a way to make stale bread edible – people who would spend lots of time away from home (shepherds, woodcutters and the like) would often take bread with them, marinate the stale pieces in acquacotta (which translates roughly as ‘cooked water’). The basis of the soup in Tuscany is stale bread, water, onion, tomato and olive oil, but beyond that, there are no rules – you can throw in practically anything you like! While it would certainly elevate the dish from humble to luxurious in days gone by, you'll often see it served with melted cheese on the bread and an egg on top, which is gently poached in the simmering broth.

Ribollita

Ribollita isn’t a million miles away from acquacotta, but as a rule it contains a few more luxurious ingredients than its cousin, including not just stale bread, but also brassicas such as Italian kale (lacinato) and cavolo nero. Beyond that there's cabbage, carrot, potato, celery and cannellini beans, which are mashed to add body to the soup. The word ribollita means ‘reboiled’ in English, which may link back to the practice of people reboiling leftover minestrone or vegetable soup with fresh vegetables. It may also simply reflect the traditional way this soup is cooked: first the greens are cooked in the soup, then left overnight, and the soup is ‘reboiled’ the next day with stale bread.

Minestra di farro della Garfagnana

The Roman Empire was built on the back of ancient grains like spelt, emmer and einkorn. In Italy these wheat grains are known as farro – beloved for their distinct nutty flavour and grown in huge quantities in the Garfagnana region of Tuscany. Farro remains a staple in Tuscan cooking, the most common dish of all being minestra di farro – a simple soup made with a base of onion, celery and carrot, then enriched with pancetta, olive oil, waxy potatoes and of course, the ever-present fagioli.

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