Food in Renaissance Tuscany

Tuscan cooking is characterized by having simple food, not covered in heavy sauces. Cooking is done with olive oil (not butter, as is used further north.) Olive oil is used as a salad dressing, is poured over bread and is used in soups and stews. Beans are a staple. Sage, rosemary and basil are popular spices. Grilling over vine embers and chestnut is preferred. The Florentine steak, grilled flat over an open fire, is a tradition that may go back to the Etruscans. There are paintings from as far back as the 8th century BCE showing this practice. 1. These steaks are preferred rare. Chicken is also split, spiced and broiled. Other meats and sausages were skewered before broiling.

Soups were very popular. These included vegetable and bean soups, like ribollita, and bread porridges, like Pappa al pomodoro. A soup that became popular in the Renaissance was cinestrata. It was a broth with marsala, beaten eggs, cinnamon, nutmeg and a little sugar.

The farm land surrounding Florence produced olive oil and wine , wheat, corn (though this was a new world crop that probably didn't become popular until the late Renaissance), and fruits. The vegetables grown included artichokes, asparagus, spinach, cardoons, beans, broad beans and peas. Chickens, ducks, rabbits and pigs were also raised on the small estates. In the valley of Chianti and Maremma there were also cows. Small hams and boar hams were made locally. Finocchiona (salami flavored with fennel seeds) is a favorite. Because Tuscan cows are not raised to produce milk, there is little local cheese, other than pecorino (which is made with sheep's milk.) There are a few truffles in the surrounding woods, and a great quantity of mushrooms including porcini, ovoli, and morels.

Every city in Tuscany had its own regional specialties. Pisa was famous for black cabbage soup and a dish made with cieche (newborn eels.) They also made torta coi bischeri, which is a pastry for the Feast of Pontasserchio, filled with rice, candied fruit, chocolate, raisins, pine nuts, nutmeg and liquor. Arezzo is famous for acquacotta (which means "cooked in water") with fried onions, tomatoes, egg and cheese. The city also makes stuffed pheasants with cream and truffles and sautéed chicken giblets. Siena loved cooking with spices and makes such dishes as panpepato (spiced bread), sausage and filled pastries.

The first meal was eaten at 9 or 10 in the morning, and second at dusk. In early days, the meal consisted mainly of bread, herbs, jam and fruit with meat served only on Sundays. 2 A rich man would serve several courses. At the beginning of a meal, and periodically throughout, the host would pass around water for hand washing. Music was played while guest ate. A meal might include such dishes as melon, Pasticcio alla fiorentina, which was a sweet crusted pie with macaroni and meat sauce, hare cooked with wine, raisins, pine nuts, and candied orange peel, game bird cooked with marsala and juniper berries, baked goose stuffed with garlic and quinces, trout, leeks cooked with spices, followed by jellies shaped as little men and animals and colored with saffron, sweet almond milk, and the juice of herbs.

Tuscan cooking really began to develop in the 1300s, with the introduction of new spices. It soon became some of the most elegant in all of Europe. King Henry IV of France married Maria d' Medici in 1599. According to the stories, the French were amazed by the gracious table setting and dining. There were embroidered table cloths, silver settings, Murano glasses, beautiful china, flowers and sugar sculptures on the table. Twenty-four cold dishes, twenty-eight hot dishes, fourteen plates of raw vegetables, cheeses and fruits and nine desserts. Supposedly, Maria brought the secrets of Italian cooking with her to France. Although the specifics of this story are a little shaky, there are some obvious influences of Italy in French cooking: sorbets, ice cream, fruits in syrup, pastry making, pasta (and Italian import from China) forks, and glasses.3.

One area in which Florence far surpassed the rest of Europe was in manners. Giovanni della Casa wrote out the rules to good manners and common courtesy in Il galateo, published in 1588. In the area of table manners, he advised Florentines: "when you are eating, do not masticate noisily or crouch gluttonously over the food without raising your face, as if you were blowing a trumpet" and "Avoid rubbing your teeth with your napkin, or, worse still, with your fingers. Do not scratch yourself, or spit, or at lest only do it 'reservedly.'" In general, "After blowing your nose, do not look into your handkerchief as if pearls or rubies had been deposited into it." and to "refrain from long descriptions of your dreams, as though they were interesting"4.

Drinking was acceptable in moderation. Luigi Pulci wrote "I believe no more in black than in white, but I believe in boiled or roasted capon, and I also believe in butter and beer... but above all I have faith in good wine and believe that he who believes is saved" 5. The most famous and popular local wine came from the Chianti Valley. Authentic Chianti comes sealed with a black cockerel on a gold flask. It is made from three kinds of grapes: red "San Giovese", white "Trebbiano", and white "Malvasia."

In medieval times arrosti (roasts) were the food of the rich and bolliti (boiled foods) were consumed by the poor. The less wealthy dined more modestly. A meal might consist of a salad, a pigeon or some sausage, goat cheese and fruit. Much pasta was served. Chestnuts are also an important ingredient. They were a staple of poor peasants, who would collect them, dry them and then make chestnut flour. The flour was used to make mush and cakes. Fresh chestnuts were also roasted or simmered in sweet milk or water.

1.Roden, Claudia. The Good Food of Italy Region by Region. New York: Knopf, 1989. p.120
2. Lucas Dubreton. Daily Life in Florence. trans.A.Lytton Sells. New York: Macmillan, 1961. p.115
3.Roden, Claudia. The Good Food of Italy Region by Region. New York: Knopf, 1989. p.118-119
4. Lucas Dubreton. Daily Life in Florence. trans.A.Lytton Sells. New York: Macmillan, 1961. p.118-119
5.ibid, p.117

Bode, Charles. Wines of Italy. New York: Dover, 1974.
Lucas Dubreton. Daily Life in Florence. trans.A.Lytton Sells. New York: Macmillan, 1961.
Roden, Claudia. The Good Food of Italy Region by Region. New York: Knopf, 1989.
Ross, Janet and Michael Waterfield. Leaves from our Tuscan Kitchen. Anteneum, New York: The Murray Printing Company, 1974.