Bread salad? Yes.
I wonder if people coming to Florence or other destinations in Tuscany realize what Tuscan cuisine is and what it isn’t.
Tuscan cuisine is a complex yet simple beast. Frankly put, it is not pizza and pasta. There are flatbread pizzas (schiacciata) and ancient recipes for some pastas (maccheroni alla cacciagione). But pizza is native to Naples and pasta is home in the Emilia Romagna.
If I had to sum up Tuscan cuisine, it would be the art of not wasting anything- down to the last stale bread crumb and 4th cow’s stomach, drizzled with local fresh olive oil.
I can only imagine the confusion on people’s palates when they bite into a slice of Tuscan bread for the 1st time and befuddled by it’s lack of savor in the land of otherwise tasty carbs.
Reportedly, salt was omitted due to a couple competing food legends. The most commonly recited legend speaks about a rather high salt tax that was imposed in Tuscany as far back as the 12th century and was thus omitted as a way to protest the tax or that salt was a sort of currency. Another legend speaks about the battles between Pisa and Florence and Pisa being the perpetrator of high salt taxation or distribution control. Personally, I find that these battles with salt are not unique to Tuscany since for example in Umbria, the bread is also made without salt. A Florentine chef pal of mine told me this was because Papal states (including Umbria, Le Marche and Emilia-Romagna) were subject to a high taxation on salt. That’s why you find salt in breads in say Campania in southern Italy who were not under one of the territories under papal rule.
Nevertheless, the point is that there is historical reason and tradition for bread in Tuscany to be made without salt and has been done this way for hundreds of years. Since Italians are sticklers for tradition (habit), Tuscan bread “pane toscano” will probably always be made without salt.
The problem with this besides the lack of taste, is that salt is what helps strengthen gluten, aid in the rising process and give texture. Another reason, Tuscan bread seems stale rather quickly. As I summed up Tuscan cuisine previously, it is premised on not wasting anything, even leftover stale bread. Panzanella is a creative solution to food waste.
I cannot stress enough how much food waste bothers me. I completed university coursework on the geopolitics of food and it was were I formed my opinions on why communities go hungry, and it’s not because of lack of food. People go hungry, especially in the western world, because of a lack of access, not because of a lack of production. There are millions of pounds of food waste annually in America, for example. Perfectly good food gets tossed away and many people don’t know how to be creative with less noble edibles. This is why, I am so passionate about Tuscan food. This culture has figured out a way not to let any ingredient go to waste. I am not suggesting you not throw away food if it is rotten, but you need not throw away bread just because it is stale.
In Tuscany, you can find a variation of re-purposed stale bread dishes. In the winter, you find la ribollita. In the summer you find la panzanella: a salad of stale bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, basil, olive oil and vinegar.
This is a traditional first course or appetizer in rustic eateries and family homes during the spring and summer months when tomatoes are fresh and full of flavor.
Curious? Make it yourself with this recipe.
Tuscan Panzanella Bread Salad
-1/2 kilo of day-old (up to 3 days old) Tuscan bread, preferably rustic wood-fired oven pane from lievitazione naturale (natural fermentation).
– 6 mature salad tomatoes. If in Florence, the “Fiorentini” variety work beautifully.
-2 small red onions, preferably from Tropea.
– 2 cucumbers
– Torn basil leaves, olive oil, apple cider vinegar (that’s what I prefer, but red wine vinegar will do), salt and pepper.
DIRECTIONS: Slice the loaf of stale bread in thick slices. Soak slices in a bit of cold water in a bowl for 15 minutes. When the bread has absorbed all the cold water, ring/press out the extra moisture (either in a cheese cloth or colander), crumble the bread into pieces by hand in small bits, preferably not huge chunks. Imagine crumb sized to be like Israeli couscous. Slice all vegetables, thin or thick to your delight. Toss crumbled bread with salt, sliced veggies and torn basil. Dress with olive oil, mix and chill in the fridge. Once chilled, add vinegar to dress/taste (something like 2-4 tablespoons. Taste to achieve preferred flavor.) When you serve your panzanella, you may add more sliced veggies to add more crunch and zest.
Enjoy with a glass of light red wine like a young Chianti or a Vernaccia di San Gimignano.
In your love for every morsel,
The Curious Appetite
Looking for a cooking class in Florence or in the Tuscan countryside? Contact me if you’d like a referral for the best culinary adventures in Italy. Follow me on Instagram (@curiousappetite) and Facebook for live culinary tips. Buon appetito!