> Features

The complete foodie guide to Tuscany

The complete foodie guide to Tuscany

by Great British Chefs 01 March 2019

Tuscan food is famous for its humility and honesty, but don’t mistake that for weakness – the exceptional produce here forms a foundation for hearty home cooking that will change the way you think about food.


When we talk about Italian food, we often refer to its humble beginnings in the kitchens of the country’s poorest inhabitants. For centuries, whilst the nobility and clergy claimed the best cuts of meat, the freshest fruit and vegetables and prized fish and seafood, the majority of Italians were forced to make do with the scraps. Although some remnants of upper class cuisine have survived, it is the ingenuity and resourcefulness of la cucina povera – the so-called ‘kitchen of the poor’ – that defines Italian food today. Nowhere in Italy is that more evident than in Tuscany, where these humble dishes are still enjoyed in homes and trattorias all over the region.

Respect for the history and origins of these dishes is important in Tuscany. A bread soup like acquacotta may look spartan to us, but there was a time not all that long ago when Tuscans ate it because it was literally all they had. People who worked for long periods away from home – shepherds, woodcutters, quarry workers and the like – would often take bread with them as, although it would go stale, it would keep for many days before spoiling. If all you have is some stale bread, water, and a few vegetables, then that’s what you’re going to eat. These days of course, you might enhance your acquacotta with a poached egg, grated Parmesan or olive oil, but regardless – the dish survives at least partly in celebration of Tuscany’s past.

There’s another reason too, though – Tuscany’s geographical location in the heart of Italy means it shares a similar climate to neighbouring provinces like Emilia-Romagna, Campania and Umbria, making it fantastic for farming. Tuscans are blessed with a bounty of fresh fruit and vegetables – tomatoes here are exceptional, perhaps the best in the world – and the outstanding quality of produce is the cornerstone of Tuscan cuisine. Tuscany really does have it all too – wild game here is superb, as is the beef and pork, with native Chianina cattle especially prized for their lean, flavourful meat. The long western coastline along the Mediterranean yields a huge variety of fish and seafood, which often goes into soups and stews. When you see the produce here, Tuscan cooking makes sense – it’s about preserving the quality of the ingredient, by doing as little to it as possible.

It makes sense to go self-catered in Tuscany if you’re planning a visit, then! But that said, there are chefs across the region who are pushing the boundaries of Tuscan food to bold new places. In Florence, Marco Stabile is taking familiar Tuscan flavours and reinventing them with imagination, whilst two-Michelin-starred chefs Gaetano Travato and Francesco Bracali run two of Italy’s best restaurants from idyllic spots in the Tuscan countryside. Scroll down for our complete foodie guide to Tuscany, to ensure you don’t miss anything on your next visit.

image
Florence isn't just home to the Italian Renaissance; there's also a booming food scene and a host of superb restaurants
image
Chianina cattle are native to Tuscany's Valdichiana in the south, and are prized for their superb flavour

Ingredients and flavours

Meat

Tuscans are among Italy's most prolific meat-eaters, and they regularly eat beef and pork, as well as wild game like hare and boar. The Florentines are particularly meat-obsessed – one only has to order the outrageous bistecca alla Fiorentina to see that – and you'll find lots of offal snacks sold from street vendors too, normally sandwiches stuffed with trippa (tripe) or lampredotto (the fourth and final stomach of a cow, braised with onion, celery and parsley).

Salumi

As you'd expect from a meat-heavy region, salumi is much-loved all over Tuscany, and they make a selection of their own sausages. The best known is undoubtedly lardo di Colonnata – the smokey preserved back fat of Tuscan pigs, slowly cured in marble tanks in the hinterlands of Carrara – but soft, spreadable soppressata is common too, as is finocchiona – a classic Tuscan fennel salami.

Fish

The Tyrrhenian is one of the best fishing seas in the world, packed full of top quality fish and seafood as well as rarities like eels and langoustines. Salt cod is a favourite all over Tuscany, but if you're near the coast you'll get to try a huge variety of delicious fish soups and stews, including a regional classic – cacciucco alla Livornese, made with octopus, squid, clams, mussels and monkfish, among other things.

Cheese

Tuscany isn't as well-known for cheese compared to neighbouring Campania and Emilia-Romagna, but close proximity to those two means you get excellent quality mozzarella di bufala and Parmigiano Reggiano here. Still, there are some local sheeps cheeses worth looking out for –Pecorino della Garfagnana is made in small quantities around Garfagnana in the north, whilst Pecorino Toscano is far more common – both are hard cheeses good for grating and seasoning, and for eating in salads.

Pasta

Emilia-Romagna is the true home of fresh pasta, but again, Tuscany shares a considerable border with its northern neighbour, and inherits many similar traditions. Handrolled pici – often associated with the beautiful city of Siena – is eaten with tomato, garlic and breadcrumbs, and other pastas like pappardelle are common here too, not to mention typical Tuscan dishes like crespelle and testaroli, both of which use a unique pasta dough that is said to be the precursor to the French crêpe.

Vegetables, fruits and pulses

You won't eat for a day in Tuscany without eating a cannellini bean. Fagioli – not just cannellini but also borlotti and other varieties – are the lifeblood of Tuscan cuisine, alongside a huge variety of vegetables like Italian kale, cavolo nero, Certaldo onions and of course, Tuscan tomatoes, which might just be the best in the world. The Tuscan climate is also perfect for stone fruits like cherries and peaches.

Chestnuts

Chestnuts are a surprisingly important part of Tuscan cooking. Through the years of famine and poverty, chestnuts have supported many of the locals thanks to their abundance and high calorie count. Though they can be eaten fresh, they're often ground into flour and used in polenta, porridge, bread, cakes, biscuits, fresh pasta and necci (a type of Tuscan crêpe).

Desserts and sweets

Tuscans have a real sweet tooth, particularly for rich, dense cakes. Panforte is typical of the region – a thick, sticky gingerbread-esque cake flavoured with almonds, candied fruit and spices. If that doesn't take your fancy, there's plenty more to try, from soft almond ricciarelli and castagnaccio chestnut cake to the classic Tuscan torta della nonna.

Wine

Home to world-renowned DOP wines like Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti and Montepulciano, some of Italy's important, traditional winemakers are based in Tuscany. Though there's an established scene already in place, there's a growing number of organic, natural and biodynamic wines here too, meaning Tuscany is undoubtedly the beating heart of Italian wine country. Check out our guide for more.

Famous dishes

Bistecca alla Fiorentina

Bistecca is a remarkably simple thing on the surface – a kilogram of T-bone steak, seared over raging hot coals and served rare with a dash of seasoning – but it has a complex history that goes back thousands of years to the rule of the Medici family. Take a look at how it's stood the test of time.

Soups

Nothing illustrates Tuscany's humble cuisine as well as its collection of soups and stews. Tuscans have cooked soups like ribollita and acquacotta for centuries, using these simple recipes as a vehicle to make the most of meagre ingredients like stale bread, Italian kale, tomato and onion. We've rounded up all the most traditional recipes, so you can taste them yourself.

Crespelle alla Fiorentina

A classic Florentine dish, crespelle alla Fiorentina is a pasta pancake, filled with ricotta, pecorino and spinach. Legend has it that the crespelle actually inspired the French crêpe! This is normally served at Christmas in Florence, but there's no reason why you shouldn't eat it all year round.

Crostini neri

Crostini neri – so called because of the dark brown colour of the chicken liver spread – is a classic way to kick off a Tuscan feast. The livers are slowly braised with soffrito before anchovy paste and capers are stirred in at the last minute, making for a wonderful antipasti dish.

Panzanella

Order a panzanella outside of Tuscany, and you'll probably get a tomato salad heaped with toasted croutons, but the reality is very different. A true panzanella should be made by soaking slices of stale pane sciocco in water, and then squeezing the liquid out with your hands, before adding chopped onion, tomato, cucumber and dressing.

Coccoli

These little bread dumplings are standard antipasti fare in Tuscany, particularly on the streets of Florence, where they're served with creamy stracchino cheese and prosciutto crudo – a seriously moreish sweet and salty combo.

Minestra di farro della Garfagnana

Tuscans are known throughout Italy for their unwavering love of everything beany. This soup is one of many dishes that are bolstered with them, but the real star is farro, the name given to a variety of ancient grains (namely spelt, emmer and einkorn, although any variety of wheat falls into the category). These chewy, nutty grains are grown in Garfagnana in northern Tuscany and when cooked in a simple soup with a little pancetta, potatoes and those famous beans, they become a hearty delicious bowl of comfort food that's stood the test of time.

Cacciucco

You'll find this traditional Tuscan fish stew all up and down the region's western coastline, but it's especially famous in Livorno, where the locals make a rich red wine and tomato broth and cram it with whatever seafood is available. Traditionally, it should contain at least five different species.

Lasagne bastarde

We see chestnut flour as somewhat of a luxury ingredient in the UK, but in Tuscany, chestnuts are so common that the flour has been used to cut regular flour for hundreds of years. One of the resulting dishes is lasagne bastarde – diagonal pieces of chestnut pasta, tossed generously in oil then topped with plenty of pecorino and black pepper.

Rosticciana

These tasty pork ribs are a Tuscan barbecue favourite, cured for twenty-four hours in fennel, chilli and rosemary before being roasted on the barbecue. The final result has an intense meaty flavour thanks to the cure, with meat that tears effortlessly off the bone.

Pici all’aglione

Pici – those thick, chewy, delicious noodles we all love – actually come from Siena in southern Tuscany. Head to Siena and you'll typically see pici served all'aglione – a garlicky tomato sauce (aglione is the name of a local garlic) – or sometimes simply with breadcrumbs.

Biscotti

Another Italian sweet that has forged itself some popularity around the world, biscotti (or cantuccini, as they are known in Tuscany) first appeared in the city of Prato, just to the northwest of Florence. These days they're eaten everywhere and anywhere, often with a glass of Vin Santo – an amber-hued dessert wine.

Torta della nonna

One of Italy's most widespread desserts, torta della nonna has Tuscan roots, though there's argument as to exactly who was first responsible. A proper torta is a thing of delicious simplicity – two sheets of slightly leavened sugar pastry with a topping of crunchy pine nuts and a creamy filling of lemon-scented custard.

Panforte

Another Tuscan Christmas treat, panforte started in monasteries, but quickly became a favourite in homes all over Tuscany. This thick, dense cake is made with almonds and honey, with heady aromas of coriander seed, mace, clove and nutmeg.

Testaroli al pesto

Testaroli get their name from the cast-iron pan in which they are cooked, the testo – a flat pan with two handles and a lid, used throughout Tuscany to make all sorts of things, from delicate chestnut necci to roast meats. The testaroli themselves are almost like a giant pasta pancake – cooked in the testo, cut into diamonds, plunged into boiling water then tossed with a simple basil and pine nut pesto.

Necci

As we mentioned before, the use of chestnut flour to cut regular flour is extensive all over Italy – chestnut flour is used in pasta, bread, cakes and even pancakes like these necci. Traditionally served with ricotta and a dash of honey, the natural sweetness of the chestnut is perfect alongside fresh, creamy ricotta.

Pappardelle alla lepre

Rural Tuscan homes would often hunt game in years past, and hares, though fast, are also plentiful in Tuscany's beautiful rolling hillsides and meadows. The best way to treat wild hare is to cook it slowly at a low temperature, breaking down the tough meat into a glorious silky ragù, served alongside ribbons of tagliatelle.

Get in touch

The complete foodie guide to Tuscany

 
 

Please enter text

The message must have at least characters

The message must be less than characters

Unfortunately, a problem occured and we are not able to send your comment. Please try again later.

Technical details: