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Episode #113: Spring Dishes from Tuscany

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In this episode, we head once more to beautiful Tuscany to take a peek into the rhythm of life and seasonality that makes the produce and dishes of this region so special. 

Show notes

We talk to proud Tuscan Giulia Scarpaleggia – a food writer, video tutorial creator, and cooking class instructor from Juls’ Kitchen who has over 13 years of experience building blogs and online content. She tells us all about the kinds of produce and dishes they prepare in Tuscany in the Spring time, about the wonderful markets that can be found all over Tuscany and we hear about a pear tree miracle, micro-seasonal and regional ingredients, and a frog sagre.

Subscribe to Giulia’s bi-monthly newsletter “Letters from Tuscany for Tuscan recipes and stories. Giulia has kindly provided Untold Italy listeners with a 15% discount off annual subscriptions.

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Nature has its own ways and even its own miracles perhaps. In Giulia’s family, they had a pear tree (considered nonna’s tree) that produced fruit but fruit that tasted awful. This had always been the case and the pears usually ended up dinner for the neighbor’s pigs. However, after Giulia and Tommaso’s daughter, Livia was born, these pears that had been inedible for so many years suddenly and mysteriously became tasty. This pear tree is now, understandably, known as Livia’s tree
  2. Spring in Tuscany means green. The countryside turns green and the market stalls turn green. Lots of amazing produce appears – sweet peas, fava beans, asparagus and artichokes (though artichokes are winter and spring vegetables- you can eat them throughout both seasons). Another very typical local, lesser-known vegetable is Agretti or barba di frate (monk’s beard). A very green vegetable that looks like chives but tastes more like spinach as it grows on salty soils, but not as bitter as spinach. Giulia likes to make a savory pie with ricotta and eggs.  Ricotta and eggs are also very seasonal to spring. It’s when they start to make cheese again after winter. Agretti also makes great pasta. As it’s very thin and long it goes great with spaghetti – adding perhaps anchovies, fried breadcrumbs and if you really want to go the extra mile some Burrata or stracciatella – the creamy cheese
  3. It just takes forever to clean Agretti because of how thin each strand is, but as with other spring vegetables – such as peas of fava beans that need shelling peas or cleaning the artichokes, cleaning the Agretti, is quite a meditative practice. So it’s slower cooking in spring as opposed to summer’s quick cooking
  4. When you visit Tuscany (or Italy) and often tend to just have the food you eat in a restaurant and you might not have tried the incredible array of vegetables – because they are being cooked at home, not in the restaurants (unless you go to a restaurant with a farm to table approach). In traditional Osterias, you’ll get Tuscan food but vegetables tend to be side dishes –  spinach or salad perhaps. If you stay in an apartment or villa or somewhere with a kitchen, then head to the markets and you can find those wonderful Tuscan spring vegetables to cook simply.
  5. Of course, you’ll eat amazing dishes at a restaurant, but if you think about, it’s the same for most of us –  when we go out to eat, what we like to eat is something different from what we like to eat at home. If you weren’t staying anywhere you can cook (or you simply don’t want to) then another great way to try these ‘home’ dishes is to stay at an agriturismo
  6. As well as seasonal, dishes in Italy are of course very local. So local in fact that something like Garmugia (a Spring vegetable soup) is so local to Lucca that you struggle to even find it anywhere else in the areas surrounding Siena/Florence areas. A perfect example of micro-seasonality, Garmugia contains fava beans, peas, asparagus, and artichokes. They are together on the market stalls for only a short period of time, maybe a few weeks – so it’s the only time you can make Garmugia. It is a filling, comforting soup that also contains ground beef, pancetta, and fried bread. The soup originates from the 18th century but it is not cucina povera, or peasant food because it contains meat and good spring vegetables. They say that this was the soup for women who had just given birth or for people who were recovering because it’s very nurturing as a soup. If you’re outside of Lucca you’d have to make it for yourself but in Lucca, you could find it in some restaurants including one of Giulia’s favorites, Il Mecenate
  7. Giulia’s hometown of Colle Val d’Elsa is a small town, typical of Tuscany and in fact Italy in that it has a big market once a week. The big market means everyone from the surrounding area comes into town to shop, to meet up, to go to the doctor while they are there. But you’ll also have smaller weekly neighborhood markets where you can find just a few stalls with some fresh vegetables and some cheeses. The cities, like Florence and Livorno, meanwhile will have daily markets. You can always ask your hosts/wherever you are staying in about where and when the local markets are on
  8. Giulia found during her cooking classes, that the market trip was always a highlight for people, so she thought it could be interesting to have a cookbook about Tuscan markets. So they set about discovering markets from North to South in Tuscany. Open markets, the markets that are there throughout the week, big markets, like in Florence and in Livorno, and then the farmer’s markets organized by the local producers. This has led to Giulia’s 5th cookbook, From the Markets of Tuscany: A cookbook
  9. One of the things they discovered was a honey from the seaside. They discovered it in Lucca, but the honey comes from the nearby coast where there are pine trees and you can really smell the sea in that honey. And it’s fantastic, especially with cheese and with savory ingredients. So not just bread with honey, but maybe with some pecorino.
  10. They found wonderful local breads, local cheese, charcuteries. They also discovered a lot of amazing recipes, because of course, she went to the markets they chatted to people who were very supportive and happy to share their local recipes
  11. Another fabulous spring dish is Carciofi Ritti – the upstanding artichokes – a cooking style particular to Giulia’s area of Tuscany. You removed the harder leaves outside of the artichokes, then you open the artichoke almost like a flower. You then stuff the artichoke with garlic, parsley, and pancetta. You then put one artichoke next to the other, standing, in the saucepan. You then add olive oil and water, more garlic, and mint. The way it then cooks, with the water and olive oil, the water first thins the artichokes, and then when the water is all gone, you are left with the olive oil which then fries the outside of the artichokes. So you get this delicious crispy on the outside, soft on the inside artichoke with all the filling, and they’re incredibly good. Again, a slow Spring cook, needing to be at least 40 minutes to cook – depending on the number of artichoke heads you have
  12. Fresh fava beans belong to the Tuscan spring. Every time they have a Spring picnic, it could be Easter Monday, it could be the 1st May where we always have picnics – they will include some fresh fava beans. You bring some pecorino and some salami and you’ve got the perfect combination for a Tuscan spring picnic. The fava beans, as they are slightly bitter are very good with cheese, with a milky pecorino and with salami as well. The sour beans that you find in Tuscany are fresh fava beans. In the south of Italy, they often eat dry fava beans. That’s when they turn from being a vegetable to a legume. And in Apuglia, (where Tommaso‘s mother’s family is from)  they have a dish with mashed fava beans, with chicory on top. As it’s vegan and gluten-free dish, it’s very inclusive dish
  13. Towards the end of spring, beginning of summer – the cherries arrive and there are lots of sagra for cherries
  14. A rather unusual sagre in a neighboring town, is the  frog festival – frog sagre. Fried frogs are a popular delicacy there – not so common in Italy
  15. The wonderful Easter cake, which is called Sportellina in San Gimignano (where Giulia’s mom is from) is called Schiacciata in Colle Val d’Elsa and in Siena. Normally if you think of Schiacciata, if’s the therm for the Foccacia. In this case, this is called Schiacciata because you are breaking many eggs. This is a rich bread made with a lot of eggs, some sugar, orange zest. Then you have any seeds, mint liqueur, another local liqueur. It’s very aromatic and a dome-shaped cake. It takes a very long time to make which is why it’s for the special occasion of Easter.  You can have a slice of this Schiacciata as a dessert with some sweet wine, some Vin Santo or with some chocolate eggs –  Schiacciata is very good with a piece of chocolate egg fondant or dark chocolate If you’re in Tuscany over Easter you will find this in bakeries. A favorite of Giulia is in Siena,  Forno il Magnifico. You have to queue because it’s so good it makes it very popular!
  16. Colle Val d’Elsa, although not a very touristy town is a foodie heaven. Particularly in the newer (non-medieval) part of the town, there are lots of great restaurants – everything from very good Neopolitan Pizzeria, to a very traditional local trattoria, to a restaurant where you have a farm-to-table approach. There are also great restaurants in the surrounding areas, including one of Giulia’s favorites – Futura Osteria. They have very local ingredients- so the meat doesn’t just come from Tuscany, it comes from the same town. They have the simplest of dishes like Spaghetti Pomodoro, but their tomato sauce is outstanding. They do a fantastic dessert of toasted bread with roast peaches, vanilla ice cream, and Extra Virgin olive oil
  17. A base in Colle Val d’Elsa means being surrounded by all these fantastic restaurants and countryside and there is an amazing agriturismo run by Guilia’s friends (they even got married there) –  Tenuta Mensanello is a working farm with rooms and apartments that you can rent. They have a restaurant, they have a swimming pool, they make wine, they make Extra Virgin olive oil, they even make beer – their own artisanal beer called ‘Farm Beer’.  It’s peaceful, very rustic, very authentic, as they are actually working farming the land and creating wonderful produce
  18. You don’t have to do all the things you think you should in Italy. It’s a nation known for its wine and especially in the Chianti region, but as Guilia is not enthusiastic about wine herself (apart from the wine with the same name as her daughter’s from local winery Il Querceto di Castellina), when she visits a vineyard she’s always keen to try their Extra Virgin Olive oil. Or the sweet dessert wine Vin Santo – perfect if you have a sweet tooth!
  19. Giulia and Tommaso have created fantastic resources if you are wanting to discover Tuscan food to cook yourself or if you are planning a trip to Tuscany. Along with the website, and their drool-worthy Instagram, there is a podcast Cooking with an Italian accent and you can sign up for their newsletter.

About our guest – Giulia Scarpaleggia from Juls’ Kitchen

Giulia is a Tuscan-born and bred food writer, cookbook author, food photographer, and cooking class instructor.

She started from a deeply rooted passion for food and heritage which turned into her blog, Juls’ Kitchen, in 2009. She was later joined by web designer and photographer Tommaso, who is now her husband and they’ve been working together since 2015. They restored an old out-building to create the Juls’ Kitchen Studio, a space where they film video recipes and host authentic Tuscan cookery workshops, as well as offering short courses in food writing, photography and branding.

They teach Tuscan cooking classes, now also virtually, and has a newsletter Letters from Tuscany and podcast in English called Cooking with an Italian Accent. They also consult and work for food brands and magazines to develop recipes and film video recipes and tutorials.

Giulia is very kindly offering Untold Italy listeners a 15% discount off annual subscriptions to Letters from Tuscany. It’s normally $US 40 for the year but it’s reduced to $34 for you. You can find all the details at https://untolditaly.com/recommends/julskitchen/

You can find Giulia on these channels:

Cook Books

Giulia’s latest cookbook is about the markets from all over Tuscany:

Find Giulia’s other cookbooks here 

Places mentioned in the show

  • Siena, San Gimignano, Volterra – well-known and beloved cities within Tuscany
  • Colle Val d’Elsa – between Siena and Florence
  • Poggibonsi – town in province of Siena on the river Elsa
  • Gracciano – the village where Giulia lives
  • Garfagnana – region in Northern Tuscany
  • The Maremma – a coastal area of western central Italy
  • Viareggio – coastal city in northern Tuscany
  • Abbadia Isola – small village near Colle Val d’Elsa
  • Monteriggioni – medieval walled town referenced in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.
  • Il Mecenate – Giulia’s favorite restaurant in Lucca with the tagline “The only Inn with a hole in the sock … and that does not hide it!”
  • Futura Osteria – recommended innovative restaurant in Abbadia Isola
  • Tenuta Mensanello – beautiful agriturismo in Colle Val d’Elsa on a working farm with a pool, a wonderful restaurant and they make their own wine, beer and olive oil 
  • Il Querceto di Castellina – gorgeous winery in Castellina in Chianti with apartments (and Livia wine!)
  • Forno il Magnifico – bakery in Siena famous for its Easter cake (though it’s very popular so you have to view)

Food & Drink

  • garmugia – a spring soup from Lucca very specifically
  • agretti – a green springtime vegetable also known as barba di frate (monks beard)
  • Torta Pasqualina (Ligurian Easter pie)a savory pie with spinach or foraged herbs, eggs and with a very local cheese similar to the ricotta, a little bit more sour
  • carciofi ritti – upstanding artichokes, stewed upright with garlic, pancetta, and parsley
  • fava beans – found throughout Italy but in Tuscany, they eat them fresh – perfect for a picnic
  • robinia/acacia – Robinia Acacia flowers from this plant are available for a short time and are delicious fried
  • robinia and elderflower fritters – can be served savory, sprinkled with salt, or sweet, with sugar or honey.
  • schiacciata – the cake made at Easter time in (with the confusing same name as the focaccia bread)
  • Vin Santo – Tuscan dessert wine
  • Bistecca alla fiorentina  – chiannina cows from the Val di Chiana 

Resources

  • cucina povera – meaning poor cooking – it’s food from rural Italy and for the peasants, where there is no waste
  • Via Francigena – well-known walking trail/camino with a stretch through Tuscany

Resources from Untold Italy

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Transcript

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