Every time that I go back home (my other home, in Tuscany) I find myself astonished by the beauty of my birth region. Everything is drawn together in such a harmonious way that one cannot doubt the presence of a divine painter brushing colour with care and skills.
Many are put off with the idea of visiting Tuscany during the Summer because of the fear of being too hot. It is true, it can be indescribably boiling but when a gentle breeze starts blowing in the late afternoon and a soothing warm light mellows the shape of every object there is nothing comparable to such a feeling of calm and peace.
And despite the manic scooters and cars that whiz around, it is possible to find a corner of paradise in the gentle Sienese countryside. Chianti is technically only the small area of Tuscany between Siena and Florence but that unofficially comprises also strips of land around Arezzo and Montepulciano. Le Crete, the dry, arid hills southern Siena, are for me almost more attractive than Chianti for its rough and authentic spirit. But more on this another time.
I cannot deny that life in Chianti is slow. And simple.
I always feel the need to correct foreigners when they talk about Italy as just one country. There are in fact 20 Italies. Each for every region. No kidding. And Tuscany is one of them. It has its own cultural background, history, traditions, and of course food.
Tuscan food is either simple or heavy depending on its origins - peasant or medieval. On one side you find unsophisticated food like Ribollita (a black cabbage and bean soup), Pappa al pomodoro (tomato and bread soup), bruschetta (toasted bread with garlic and olive oil), and on the other side rich and elaborate dishes like Panforte, Cinghiale al cioccolato (wild boar with dark chocolate) and Florentines.
My favourite though is Panzanella. In the summer is a constant on every table as it is quick to prepare, cheap, fresh, filling, and tasty. What else can you ask from a dish? Panzanella or panmolle is made with stale bread lightly soaked in water, torn into chunks, and simply dressed with olive oil, tomatoes, basil and onion. Nothing else. Of course there are variations on it - adding capers, tuna, cucumber, and origano. Equally good I must admit.
Those who believe that it originated from the countryside add a little bit of vinegar to the water when soaking the bread and a touch of red wine - which the peasants used to "revive" it after a day or two. Those who think it was born on board ships add salt to the water (as mariners soaked the bread using sea water) and tuna. Whichever origin you decide to believe in, you won't be disappointed.
The only caveat is the bread. You need to use strong bread rather than typical English loaves which often contain milk -the bread must be stale not mouldy! Ciabatta bread can be a good substitute for Tuscan bread.
500g Tuscan bread
250g ripe tomatoes
2 handfuls of basil
1 red onion
salt and pepper
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
Cut the bread roughly and soak it in a bowl with lukewarm water and the table spoon of vinegar. Leave it in the water for only a few minutes (2 maximum) as otherwise it becomes mushy and horrible (more like a pulp than a salad).
Squeeze the water out of the bread and tear it into medium/small peaces. Let it rest for 10 minutes. Season it and then dress it with chopped tomatoes (you can add some of their juice but be careful or the liquid soaks the bread further and make it too soft), torn basil leaves, and onion chopped in rings (and halved further),
Dress with olive oil (probably 3 table spoons) and toss the salad. Let it rest in the fridge and serve it cold.