#bread

Panzanella – Traditional Tuscan bread salad

Ingredients for 6 people

600 g of two-day old Tuscan bread

6 Ripe but firm tomatoes

1 Red onion

1 Cucumber of your favorite kind

A handful of basil leaves

6 Spoonfuls of red wine vinegar

3 Four-finger pinches of salt

The secret to get a good Panzanella lies in knowing how to soak the bread having good olive oil extravirgin and excellent vinegar.

but if you follow my instructions you will all become master panzanella makers!

 

PREPARATION

On the table in front of you, from left to right (if you are right-handed, otherwise do it the opposite) put: the old bread cut in slices one finger high; the basin full of cold water, and the empty salad bowl.

Soak the slices one at a time for 5 seconds, then use your hands to squeeze all the water out.

Then break the bread up into big chunks in the salad bowl.

The bread must be wet, but also soft and spongy; if you keep it in the water too long, you will end up with a pulp which will not blend well with the fresh vegetables.

Now you have done most of the job! Cut the tomatoes into thumb-sized pieces, slice the onion into thin rings, break the basil with your fingers, peel and cut the cucumber into thin round slices.

Now you just need to add the seasoning – oil, salt and vinegar.

Mix softly using your hands, so as not to spoil the texture.

Let it cool off in the fridge for at least half an hour before serving.

Farmers used to make this dish during the harvest season to refresh themselves, and it was often brought directly to the fields by their wives, not to waste time going back home for lunch.

A poor dish, often accompanied by wine diluted with water, was good to slake thirst without being heavy. The recipe is very old: 700 years ago, Giovanni Boccaccio, poet of our town, used to call it “Pan lavato”, “washed bread”. Tomatoes were added after the discovery of the new world. The name seems to be a combination of “pane”, bread and “alzanella”, an old word for large salad bowl.

The Tuscan Raw Ham & other childhood memories

As I’m sitting by the fireplace sipping my coffee, watching some shy snowflakes dancing in the air, like trying to figure out which is the best place to lay down on, my mind goes back in time, to the same period in the old days when I was a child, living in the countryside with my family.

A community event and a family feast

Late winter was usually some sort of a break, a stasis during which Nature had less to offer and farmers didn’t have much work to handle on the fields. The sun was often veiled by a thick blanket of clouds, and because of the bad weather, even the farm’s animals preferred to hole up inside their stables.

And so it seems that our ancient Tuscan tradition decreed this to be the best time for domestic slaughtering, as it required the coldest weather for best preserving the great amount of meat that had to be handled during the butchering, since there were no big storage cellars back then, as we see today.

In the countryside, money didn’t come first: farmers would work hard everyday to make a living. Everything was seen as a precious resource and the community spirit was strongly felt, as neighbors were often the only workforce farmers could count on, other than their families. Their precious help and hard work was always rewarded with food, wine and of course a hand when needed.

Pig slaughtering was an important moment for the community and a family feast, so everyone would gather to give a hand, because they all knew that after a long day of intensive labor, would follow an evening of generous pork treats and good wine; and we do have to say that back then, it was the only time of the year when people would afford to indulge on such a great amount of meat.

Pork meat has always been a valuable asset in our culinary tradition, because nothing ever got wasted, not even the smallest and apparently most insignificant part of it. After being properly processed by the butcher, it turned into a year’s supply for the farming families, and a precious bargaining chip for other goods or services.

Based on Nature’s course, our farmers followed a precise sequence for consuming the products obtained from their animal. Everything was based on seasonality so the goods that were eaten first were those which needed less time for preparation and aging, like jowl and pork belly.

Prosciutto crudo Toscano

In Tuscany, we have a wide range of fine cured meats and other pork products of excellency, but when we think of pork, the first thing that comes to mind is the PDO Tuscan Raw Ham (Prosciutto Crudo Toscano DOP). This dry cured aged raw ham – probably the best in the world – is the flagship product of the Tuscan area, together with the Tuscan Pecorino Cheese and the Chianti Wine. So precious that in older times, it was the last pork product to be consumed: often up to one year later. The finest delicacy farmers had and which they were often jealous about. I remember that “opening” the Prosciutto was a convivial moment, a feast where friends and families were invited to share this delicacy, but only because the first part of the hind leg had a little too much fat around, before getting to the finest savory, chewy bites of pure raw ham; however, that doesn’t mean it was less tasty.

Originated with the most ancient traditions, the Tuscan Raw Ham is not to be confused with the similar Raw Ham of Parma and San Daniele. The process may seem quite the same, but the distinct flavor and the characteristic chewy, almost buttery and salty taste of the Tuscan PDO Raw Ham, are unmistakable, as it’s directly related to the local aromatics and customs, as well as the geographical area’s temperatures and humidity.

The Tuscan Raw Ham gets its typical salty taste form… well salt of course. But it’s not the quantity of salt that’s important, rather than the aging time and the particular environment with the right level of humidity, where the meat is being held and cured. It’s a secular tradition, that dates back in Medieval times, when farmers used to cure the hind legs with fennel seeds that grew wild along the Tuscan fields, together with sea salt to preserve the meat. More recently, juniper, garlic and pepper have been added to the recipe, but still it depends on each family’s tradition and customs that have been passed down through generations.

For what I can remember, my father used to rub the pork hind legs with a garlic and pepper pomade and leave them on a wooden table for a while – up to 20 days – then he would wash the pomade away with vinegar, and after an accurate drying, he would rub the part without the rind again with plenty of salt and pepper, to prevent flies from wasting the meat.

In my family, nothing was being wasted, so when the ham was over, the bones were used to flavor the more simple peasant dishes, like the Tuscan bread soup or the beans soup, but before doing that, my mother always used to preserve some marrow in a small jar inside the fridge. It was her secret medicine for when me and my brothers would come back home with bumps and bruises… a little scrub on the spot and the pain would disappear. Now you think that’s funny, but I tell you it made a miracle medicine back then.

And talking about childhood memories, the best “merenda” (snack) we ever had as kids – and that we’re still greedy about to this day – was the very popular “panino col pane sciabo e prosciutto” (the Tuscan unsalted white bread and raw ham sandwich). Yes, because nothing is random: the typical Tuscan unsalted white bread makes the perfect match with the salty Tuscan Raw Ham, as it brings out the very best of this fine cured meat’s taste. Imagine eating a salted piece of bread with an even saltier piece of raw ham, or Pecorino aged cheese… it’s all been figured out since ages, no wonder our culinary matches are known worldwide!

V – for vineyards

 “While Nature Awakens” – behind the scenes

Every January is a new beginning here at Giuseppina’s Cooking School; as the nature awakens, we are preparing for a whole new year, load of great new recipes, delicious home-made preserves and fine tasty Chianti wine directly from our vineyards.

colline all'alba

There’s a great buzz in the air around here, and as Giuseppina is preparing to welcome and delight her guests this season, with new kitchen tricks and tips about her Tuscan recipes, we’re about to kick off with preparing our vineyards for a new great harvest year of fresh, marvelous wine that will go beautifully with our local cuisine dishes.

And because Nature can’t wait, the moment is right for us to cuddle our vines so that they will give us back their best rewards. It is a moment of great devotion, and attention given to the process of the vine’s new vegetative growth, the same as we would give to one of our home-made pasta dishes or bread. We start off by “kneading” the soil just enough so it can breathe out after a long cold winter; next, we add in the “spices” (winter fertilizer) that will help the vine’s heart grow its best harvest, giving the wine just that perfect mix of tastes that makes Chianti wine world wide famous and appreciated. At this point we are almost done, and we start trimming the vine, restoring it to keep the growth shape. It’s probably the most important part of the work, because keeping a clean shaped vine means a richer harvest; as an old saying states, once a vine said to its owner:
Chianti vineyards

fammi povera e ti farò ricco

(Keep me poor -of unwanted trims- and I will make you rich -of the best grapes-).

The vine is abundance, is love for the land in the shape of a grape and it takes a great passion and perseverance to produce the best wine possible, by making the most of the amazing properties that the land of Chianti has to give.

The wine-harvest and tasting is just the final act of a year-long process of hard work and caring, that we are going to share with our guests, making them go beyond the scenes, further than the popular tourist attractions, the simple wine tasting or just a local visit to the vineyards.

We stay out in front and give them the real deal about growing the Chianti vines, together with making them a real part of the story.

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B – for bread

Saturday kneading

Winter time is the period for indulging in the joys of country life.

That’s why Sunday is the day for bread baking. good bread that lasts an entire week. Our sourdough was resting in a jar by the fireplace since last weekend, as a sly cat, nothing but flour and water fermented.

Saturday evening, It’s time to wake our natural yeast and by adding flour and warm water we start kneeding, about six kilos will be the quanity for our family, but we always consider a little extra that is eaten in front of the oven when baking.

Sunday is fast approaching and our dough go back near the fireplace, rest and rise all night. Natural rising, without yeast, require more time but we do not hurry and we can say goodnight to our dough.

Sunday baking

Buongiorno!  not a big breakfast today, the feast will come later, so after a good espresso , while starting the fire in the oven, the dough is shaped into loaves, folded one last time and those little ones will rise again for a couple of hours, during this time the top of the oven will become withe, the temperature is right, we can remove the fire and embers, clean the surface and start baking.

All of the loaves have to fit inside or will be wasted, the teperature is enough for one only batch, this is a delicate step, it need to be done gently but quickly as the oven have to be sealed as soon as possible.

After one hour the magic happen, as the smell comes out of the oven, curious people will comes out of their homes to get a taste.

Buona Domenica!