Tuscany, Chiantishire, is that region of Italy that is forever British and widely regarded here as the ‘best’ bit of that wonderful country. But what do we like about the place?
The answer is many things: the art, architecture, the fabled snobbishness of the people, the landscape, the wine and the food.
All the above aspects for good or bad are a direct result of the area’s history and no bit of that past is more important than when it was called Etruria, the heartland of an empire which dominated the northern half of the Italian peninsula from the sixth century BC to the third century BC.
Rome itself was probably a part of this Etruscan dominion, indeed the name Rome itself was what the little city state was called in Etruria and many of its political, social and religious structures derived from there (gladiatorial combat being a significant example.) The ancient Romans themselves believed the snobbery of their patrician elite to stem from Etruscan influence.
There are few standing Etruscan buildings but a great many underground tombs, stores and wine cellars, often lavishly decorated with frescoes, some startlingly erotic in nature. The Etruscan made a lot of wine and their descendants still do, maturing their fine Chiantis and Orvieto whites in three or four thousand year old cellars.
To go with this wine the Etruscan cuisine was highly developed, utilising little meat, except pork, a host of vegetables, game birds, fish, shellfish from their coasts, lots of pulses and above all Farro. Basing their cuisine on this ancient form of wheat surrounded by a wide variety of other foodstuffs gave the Etruscans probably the healthiest and most nutritious diet of all the peoples of the central Mediterranean region. This fact is supported by archaeological examination of the teeth found in their tombs; they had good teeth because they ate well and thus generally healthy as a whole. They had enough protein in their diet to provide the fuel and energy for highly successful commercial and colonial ventures, competing with or invading their neighbours.
From the ancient city of Lucca, but straight out of the pages of history, comes this fabulous vegetarian soup:
Zuppa di farro (Spelt soup)
Ingredients. (makes a lot of soup, does not freeze well, but is all the better for a reheating.)
50 ml good Tuscan or Umbrian olive oil
250 g diced onions
250 g diced carrot
250 g diced celery
250 g diced leek
1 stripped sticks of rosemary
A pinch of chilli flakes
2 cloves of garlic (pressed)
4 tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp salt
250 g farro semi perlato
1 x 400g tin each of: fagioli cannellini, borlotti beans, chickpeas and lentils.
Fry the onion, carrot, celery and leek in the oil until slightly coloured and collapsed. Add rosemary, chilli, garlic, tomato paste and salt then fry for a minute or so before adding two litres of hot water. When the water has returned to the boil add the farro. Cook for thirty minutes or so until the farro is just tender. Drain all the pulses in a colander, rinse thoroughly and add to the soup. Return to a simmer for ten minutes. Taste for salt and pepper. Serve with some more good olive oil, plain bruschetta and a little grated parmesan for an amazingly healthy and nourishing meal.