Thursday, October 31, 2013

What Makes Tuscany’s Bread Unique

I have to be honest, one of the things I have NOT grown accustomed to in Tuscany is the bread. For those who have never been here, it might be a surprise to learn that Tuscan bread has no salt. Referred to as pane 'sciocco' (the term in Tuscan dialect for saltless, but which in modern Italian means “stupid”) this characteristic distinguishes it from almost all the other breads in Italy (and maybe in the world, except for Umbria). Personally, I don’t enjoy saltless bread – but be warned, never tell a Tuscan you don’t think their bread is good! They get very defensive, and make you feel like you don’t have a clue about the subject.

Since I have been drawn into this debate before, I will explain the reasons they give to justify the lack of salt. The first reason has historic origins. It is said that in the 12th century the great rivalry between the republics of Pisa and Florence led to an embargo on salt by Pisa, leaving Florence without this precious commodity. The Florentines, rather than capitulate to their enemy, opted to cook and make their bread without salt. In fact, there are even references made to this in Dante’s The Divine Comedy – where he says that 'you will taste the salt in your enemy’s bread.' Another explanation is that there was a heavy tax on salt in Florence during the Middle Ages, so as a result, the population made do without it for the most common foods, like bread.

The second reason you hear has to do with the traditional Tuscan cuisine. Most of the region’s famous dishes are actually quite salty – so having a salt-free bread to accompany them is a better choice. When the hearty vegetable soup called Ribollita is made, the bread without salt helps to temper the savory flavor of the broth. Even Tuscan prosciutto is much saltier than its counterpart from Parma.

Still today, Tuscans will defend their bread – and claim it is better than most others, not only for its taste but for its texture and longevity (as it tends to stay fresh longer if carefully preserved).  In addition, the ancient custom of never throwing away stale bread remains, and there is a dish for every season to reclaim leftover loaves. From Panzanella in the summer to Pappa al Pomodoro in the winter and Bruschetta and Crostini all year round, you’ll be sure to find a way to use your old (saltless) Tuscan bread. 

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