Paradise on a Plate

Franco Pagetti / VII

Tuscany is arguably the birthplace of foodies. Dante’s ill-fated brigata spendereccia (“spendthrift brigade”), who appear in the pages of The Inferno, ate and drank themselves to destruction. But in reality, they were based on a set of idle rich men from Siena whom Dante considered outlandish because they larded their roast pheasants and served partridge stuffed with cloves. They also wrote the first modern cookbooks. Tuscans remain inordinately proud and protective of their culinary traditions, with many still mistakenly believing Catherine de’ Medici was responsible for transforming French cuisine by taking a retinue of Florentine chefs to France when she went to marry the future Henri II.

I was a relative latecomer to Tuscany, having made my first visit only in my 40s. It was partly because I had spent my formative years living and traveling throughout Asia. I felt relaxed about Tuscany, as I knew it would still be there when I had more time on my hands. Also, I like to slightly ration pleasurable experiences to avoid sensory overexposure. This meant that on my first trip to the Baptistery in Florence, I deliberately refrained from entering the interior. Besides, I wanted a good incentive to return.

I am hardly the first Anglo-Saxon to respond to Tuscany’s allure: in the 20th century, it was home to Sir Harold Acton, the ultimate dandy-aesthete, who lived for most of his life at La Pietra, his family estate near Florence. At the other end of Tuscany—and the sexual spectrum—there was Lord Lambton, the British politician who thought it necessary to decamp from London in 1973 after he was photographed in bed with two prostitutes while smoking a joint. He set himself up in the magnificent Villa Cetinale outside Siena, where he lived contently for more than 30 years with his aristocratic mistress and a repertoire of only two Italian words: capito and grazie.

Most people flock to Tuscany because of its incomparable art, breathtaking architecture, and exquisite countryside. The cultural and physical richness of the region attracts me, too, but the quality of its food, both at the upper reaches and on the street level, also has a powerful pull.

The epicenter for haute cuisine in Tuscany is Enoteca Pinchiorri, the only three-star Michelin establishment there. Located in a Florentine palazzo, it offers food influenced by French tradition, which is hardly surprising, given that chef Annie Féolde was born in France. There is no such localism when it comes to the wine list, one of the world’s greatest, with virtually every top wine around the globe represented among its 150,000-bottle cellar. I once spent an entire morning roaming among the wines, which are formed into pyramidal stacks.

Giorgio Pinchiorri, the owner, has a playful side, which manifested itself once when I was dining with Burton Anderson, perhaps the greatest foreign expert on Italian wine. Giorgio came over with a masked bottle of Mouton-Rothschild 1982, one of the iconic vintages of this famous château, poured each of us a glass and asked Burton to pronounce. After a studious amount of sucking and slurping from both of us, I suspected it was a grand Australian red because of its leathery sappiness, while Burton declared it was “a Super-Tuscan from 1990.”

The joys of eating in Tuscany are not just at the very highest end. In 1991, after my first visit to Enoteca Pinchiorri followed by an expensive dinner on the terrace of the Villa San Michele in Fiesole, my then-girlfriend (now wife) and I were virtually penniless. The next day we bought a kilogram of figs with our remaining coins and literally sat in the gutter experiencing near-blissful contentment at what remain the most luscious figs we have ever eaten.

To check out the current state of Tuscany’s produce, I made a visit to the central market in Florence, which was purpose-built in the late 19th century when the city was vying to be the capital of a united Italy. Now surrounded by the usual cheap stalls selling tatty clothing and leather goods, the interior has kept its standards, with exceptional wine merchants, fresh-fruit suppliers, fish and meat purveyors, and specialist shops selling all sorts of fungi and tripe. If you have a strong constitution, there is a century-old restaurant called Nerbone, which makes lampredotto, essentially a cow’s-stomach sandwich with salsa verde and spicy sauce. I was impressed to see a steady stream of Japanese tourists line up for this challenging dish and then record their bravery on digital cameras.

On the very edge of Florence, up a narrow lane just beyond the old city walls, there is an excellent restaurant called Zibibbo, run by Benedetta Vitali, the former wife of the owner of Cibreo, another authentic establishment in the center of Florence. Benedetta serves fine Tuscan dishes such as inzimini di calamari, a stew of squid and kale with recently pressed olive oil, plus some dishes from Sicily. Like most good restaurants in Tuscany, it has a wide variety of local wines, but what makes Zibibbo special is that there are also impressive wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux at acceptable prices. This willingness to offer the best wines of other countries is testament to a certain maturity and confidence in the local product. For me, Tuscan wines are not generous when young and invariably improve when consumed with food. There is a tannic edge even to the best-quality Chianti Classico or Brunello di Montalcino that dominates the aftertaste, unless one is eating something substantial that can neutralize its impact.

Recently, for a change of scene, I traveled to Palazzuolo sul Senio in the Apennines in northern Tuscany, just beyond the notorious Gothic Line, where Hitler’s armies made their last stand during the Italian campaign. Even though it is only 30 or so miles from Florence, it takes nearly two hours to traverse the steep hills that divide Tuscany from Emilia-Romagna. Here, there is a rustic place called Locanda Senio, where a husband-and-wife team serve their own vegetables and homemade hams and sausages. Their specialty is culatello di zibello, one of the finest cured hams in Italy, which is encased in a pig’s bladder and aged for up to a year in their cellar. Outside in the narrow streets, the villagers were holding their annual Marrone Fair, in honor of the local marrone del mugello, a large sweet chestnut. We were the only non-Italians present at the celebrations, the highlight of which was a bearded man wearing priestly garb who appeared to be auditioning to become a latter-day Saint Francis of Assisi. He had a pigeon perched on his shoulder, next to a donkey with a white rabbit and ancient rooster on its back while a goose, dog, and tame goat ambled between them all.

Although I have eaten bistecca alla Fiorentina (a Florentine T-bone steak) on several occasions, this time I decided to visit the butcher who has become almost as well known as this famous Tuscan speciality: Dario Cecchini in Panzano, Chianti. His tiny shop is constantly crammed with curious tourists, who eagerly consume the free salami and terrine samples along with glasses of Chianti. Dario seems perfectly happy to entertain the crowd with verses of Dante’s The Divine Comedy and music that veers between Italian opera and Jimi Hendrix, along with knife displays as he hacks a leg of beef into its manifold parts while tourists suck their breath in and shout their approval. He declares that because bistecca alla Fiorentina is one of the great pleasures of life, “it follows that this dish cannot be improved upon nor modernized, because it is perfect as it is and thus untouchable.”

While bistecca may be sacrosanct in its cooking technique, Dario is quite happy to break with tradition when it comes to using the Chianina cow, the white-colored traditional breed for the dish. “I must say that the Chianina is a fine breed, but ultimately what is more important is the search for quality,” which means he uses an organically reared cow from Catalonia in Spain. Although Dario professes admiration for bistecca alla Fiorentina, his real passion is for using the entire offerings of his animals. Just opposite the butcher shop is his simple restaurant, where he serves all number of obscure and wonderful portions of the cow, including one dish called ramerino in culo, or as his menu puts it, “rosemary up your bum”—roughly minced buttock cheek with sprigs of rosemary. Another admirable dish was tenerumi in salata, which was gelatinous portions of beef knee in salad. There was a total of 10 courses, including perfectly cooked roast beef and an array of braised meats with onions, plus water and wine, all for the princely sum of €30. There is an inner frugality in the Tuscan character, especially among the rural population. Perhaps for this reason, Dario was never allowed to taste a bistecca alla Fiorentina until he was 18. It may also explain why he sees his role as an ambassador for consuming the entire animal, not just the 40 or so bistecca alla Fiorentinas that come from a single beast. “I like to take on the responsibility of using every ingredient well, to show people the whole animal. This is an awakening experience similar to that described in the opening verses of The Divine Comedy.” How can one not approve such a description?

Bruce Palling has reported in Asia and Africa and lives in London’s Notting Hill, where he mainly writes about food and wine.