Southern Tuscany is known for its fabulous views and an outstanding contribution to Italian cuisine. Full-bodied Brunello wine comes from Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano variety from Montepulciano and Pecorino cheese (both matured and fresh) can be smelled in the streets from the moment you step into the town of Pienza.
Olives grown in this part of the region are used primarily for olive oil, as they are particularly small, not really useful for snacking, but brilliantly lack acidity; crucial for creating a good olive oil. (The giant briny olives we often associate with Italian cuisine come from further south.)
That said, these small, fruity delicacies you can see dotted along each tree from nearly every angle of every view, and in particular those from the agriturismo groves of Terre di Nano, produce some of the fruitiest olive oil you’ll ever ever try – made from a mere one thousand trees on location and harvested in late September and into October.
This olive oil, amongst the wines and cheeses of Southern Tuscany that have become world renowned, cultivated in tiny villages, symbolise the real ethos behind Tuscan and Italian cuisine as a whole.
The Secret INGREDIENT to Italian Cuisine
Having spent ten glorious, sun-soaked days in Southern Tuscany over the summer (we are finally at the stage where our children are old enough to travel enjoyably), I was struck with how simple the components of some of the dishes I enjoyed the most, were.
Olive oil and sea salt drizzled over ruby red homegrown tomatoes. A plate of cured meats and cheeses alongside a glass of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. A salad comprised of white beans and tomatoes with little else. I’m quite honestly not sure if I’ve ever had so much naturally occurring MSG in my life, and I loved every minute of it.
As chef and host of Terre di Nano, Georgio said to me one afternoon, “There are no kept secrets here. We just use the best ingredients we can possibly grow.” And although the magnitude of just how good well-grown and cared for ingredients can taste, did surprise me, the idea itself was one I always knew was truth. I was however, surprised by something else entirely.
“Family style” is a term that goes in and out of style here in the UK, as British tradition can often dictate the one-person/one-plate rule. Family style in Italy however, seems to have a double meaning. Every meal we ate out in Italy, felt “family style” despite how many dishes were brought to the table and where they were laid.
The culture is one that embraces families and children where they are, rather than where they think they should be. Despite the hours not being ones in which we were used to keeping with young children, Italian culture is one of the most family friendly I have ever come across. From the moment we walked into any given restaurant or café, the girls were immediately wrapped in attention and love and care by complete strangers.
This, perhaps along with a large serving platter of items to share amongst loved ones, is at the root of Italian culture. Babies and children are made to feel comfortable, shown as much (if not more at times!) attention as adults. The results of this open arms attitude towards people was seen and felt from the ingredients grown and cared for, to how they were cooked and presented on the plates; taking care to celebrate rather than overwhelm the natural flavours, to the relaxed terraces on which we dined.
Tuscan White Bean Salad
Serves 2 as a main dish, or 4 as a side
1 tin/500g white beans, drained & rinsed
3-4 vine ripened tomatoes, chopped & juices reserved (option to de-seed some if it becomes to watery)
1 handful fresh basil leaves (without stems), torn or thinly sliced
1-2 tbsp. good, preferably Italian extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp. red wine vinegar
1 large pinch sea salt
white pepper (optional)
1. Begin by draining and rinsing the white beans, then tip into a medium –sized bowl.
2. Carefully chop your tomatoes into equal, bite-sized pieces, de-seeding half before chopping if they feel to watery. Take care when chopping to pour off any juices from the cutting board over the white beans for extra flavour.
3. Slice and then sprinkle in the fresh basil, using two spoons to gently toss, as you would a leaf salad so as not to bruise the fruit or herbs or crush the beans.
4. Drizzle the olive oil and vinegar over your bowl and gently toss again.
5. Sprinkle sea salt and white pepper
6. stir one last time, taste and adjust seasoning if necessary and serve.
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Author: Adrienne Katz Kennedy
Adrienne Katz Kennedy is a food writer and cultural anthropologist living in London. She uses food and words in an attempt to connect to people, history, and culture and has spent the last ten years working within the cookery school and food media industry. She is a member of the Guild of Food Writers, contributing author of the cookbook Hong Kong Diner and has published work both nationally and internationally within the food and travel industry.