Under the Tuscan spell

From dips to salads, Canadian food-makers conjure up images of the ’bella vita’ with one word: Tuscany, although there’s nothing very Tuscan about their products
Michelle Tarnopolsky

Tuscan chef and sommelier Sarah Fioroni giggles when she hears the list of ingredients in the Tuscan Salad at McDonald’s Canada. Among eclectic ingredients like sweet cranberries and garlic-yogurt dressing, the only thing that even vaguely evokes the central Italian region are the seasoned sunflower seeds, and you’d be hard-pressed to find them in any true Tuscan dish. “Some of these you can’t even buy in Tuscany,” says Fioroni.

This salad is one of countless Canadian products whose names include the words “Tuscan” or “Tuscany” while having little or nothing to do with the region of Toscana. Of four President’s Choice products with these words in the name, the extra-virgin olive oil is the only exception. Whoever came up with the Memories of Tuscany Balsamic Vinegar and Fig Sauce either has a terrible memory or has never actually been to Italy. Otherwise they’d know that balsamic vinegar comes from the Emilia Romagna region and that authentic Tuscan salad dressing consists of oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper.

In fact, Tuscans are amused by the glamorous ideas we seem to have about their cuisine, which is basically peasant food. Colle Val d’Elsa native Giulia Scarpaleggia, who writes a food blog and teaches Tuscan cooking to foreigners, attributes this discrepancy to North American restaurants: “What they know of Tuscan food are dishes that have likely been reinterpreted with unusual ingredients that misrepresent the dish’s poor origins.”

Australian food writer and photographer Emiko Davies, who lived in Florence for seven years, agrees there’s a disconnect. “I don’t know what tourists imagine they’re going to eat when they go there, but it’s definitely fancier than what typical Florentine food really is, which is street food, it’s the food you find in food vans and market places. It’s not at all elegant. It’s rustic and cheap and made from ingredients that reflect its poorer origins.”

“A lot of Tuscan food has been cooked for centuries pretty much the same way,” says Davies. “And the favourite, really traditional dishes were things that the peasants or the regular people were eating. What hasn’t survived are the actual fancy dishes that the nobility were probably eating.”

Surely the epitome of this concept is acqua cotta, which literally means cooked water. “It’s a bit like the story about the stone soup,” says Scarpaleggia. “It comes from a mountainous and very poor part of Tuscany where it was made with whatever few ingredients were on hand, like wild herbs in winter, tomato and swiss chard in the spring. These would be boiled for a long time, with a bit of onion to pull out all the flavours and at the end you add a slice of dry toasted bread and some ricotta if you have it.”

Stale bread is in fact the staple ingredient of the region’s best-known dishes like pappa al pomodoro, ribollita, and panzanella. Though its regular use was born out of deprivation-related necessity, it remains at the heart of modern Tuscan cooking. “For my nonna bread is a basic element of life,” says Scarpaleggia. “She even eats it with fruit. She can’t eat if there’s no bread.”

“The main idea of these recipes was re-using a product that would otherwise be thrown away,” explains Fioroni. “So bread was made just once a week and by the end it was really too dry and hard so it had to be soaked in liquids.” “These were the kinds of dishes they served in trattorias but you can also imagine them sitting on a country stove to feed a large family over several days, with a lot of things being cooked twice,” says Davies. Ribollita soup means just that: re-boiled.

So where did we get our misguided ideas about Tuscan food? “I think advertising and movies, and especially the book Under the Tuscan Sun, which really helped people have this dream vacation image of Tuscany with the country villas, the sunflowers, the terracotta pots…” says Fioroni. “Also the wine, which is much better-known than the food.”

“Tuscany has become a name, a brand,” continues Fioroni. “But actually we had a very similar period in Italy when the key word was americano: American pizza, American coffee, the American dream. This started after the war with the arrival of television, but also the Italian immigrants told those left behind about all the beautiful things in America. Even if the geographic region is much larger, I think there’s a similarity in the concept. The fact that ‘America’ became a reference point and now ‘Tuscany’ has become a symbol of well-being and holidays, of sun and the bella vita.”

Putting the question of authenticity aside, perhaps we can forgive East Side Mario’s for putting the “Tuscan Turkey Club,” a Canadian sandwich in everything but name, on its menu rather than what is actually the most typical sandwich in Tuscany: the panino di lampredotto, a cow-stomach sandwich.