At his irascible best, Alastair brings us #TOWIC – The only way is Chiantishire
It is said that Tuscany appeals so much to the British because of its overwhelming cultural heritage, its beauty, its wine, its oil and its food. This is all true, but it does not present the whole picture needed to explain how ‘Chiantishire’ came into being. The missing ingredient is the landscape, which gives off such an air of affluence, neatness, permanence and exclusivity that it reminds us of a sun-baked version of the Cotswolds. In a more cynical explanation, we feel comfortable there because we recognise the Tuscans’ justified reputation for aloofness and snobbery as akin to our own. The availability of large quantities of empty rural properties to be bought and restored as picturesquely as possible did not hurt either. We really do feel at home there and have done for several centuries – witness the English Cemetery in Florence.
There are, of course, many of us who simply love the place for its wine and food. All the other factors are just fringe benefits or, in some cases, liabilities. Tuscan food is austere, plainly cooked, and reliant on ingredient quality for effect. One ingredient dominates: the olive oil. For climatic reasons, the Tuscans harvest the olives early, producing small yields of quite challenging peppery, green oil when first pressed, but calming down to a wonderful condiment for the above-mentioned ‘plain cooking’. The reason Tuscan food is so good is almost entirely down to the quality and method of using their incomparable oil. If you don’t believe me, boil some nice fresh green beans, season with a little salt, taste, then dress with some River Café liquid gold and taste again.
Tomatoes are used sparingly – no ubiquitous tomato sauce found here. Bread is central to everything, and because Tuscan loaves contain no salt, they stale and harden without going mouldy so can be used in bruschetta, panzanella (bread and vegetable salad), papa al pomodoro (smooth and comforting tomato, olive oil and bread soup) and the fabulous, wintery ribollita (literally re-boiled minestrone, black cabbage and bread). All these dishes are elegantly rustic (like the landscape), restrained, wine-friendly, and nothing special without the olive oil. Cooking techniques are similarly restrained, with grilling over vine and olive trimmings, roasting, and boiling dominating.
In Burgundy and Bordeaux the food plays second fiddle to the wines. The same applies in Tuscany. This does not mean that the Bourguignons, Bordelais or Toscani are not interested in what they eat; to the contrary, they are passionate, proud and very parochial about their cooking. But it is seen primarily as an accompaniment to their wonderful wines. Their cuisines have none of the flamboyance of other regions in their respective countries, because such showy food would detract from the wine. For example, Provençal food is undeniably a world-class cuisine but is not wine friendly; bouillabaisse requires an entry-level Provençal blanc or rosé. Likewise in Sicily and in Naples, delicious caponata would murder any wine, and world-dominating pizza demands rough red or beer, but probably goes down best with water.
Some of the dishes from these great wine-growing districts contain truly remarkable amounts of wine. Sauce bordelais, coq au vin and the recipe here, pollo ubriaco basically need a bottle or more tipped into the dish.
Pollo Ubriaco (“Drunken chicken”)
A speciality of Tuscany and Umbria, this is a perfect autumn dish, served with beans and a boiled new potato or two. I’ve reduced the amount of wine used here from the original to suit our delicate sensibilities. You can use leftover wine as it does not matter if it has gone vinegary; in fact, the extra sharpness improves the end result. Never cook with wine you would not have drunk when freshly opened. I put any red wine left (admittedly a rare occurrence) into a stoppered bottle in my kitchen and keep adding to it until it is needed for a dish.
The reason Tuscan food is so good is almost entirely down to the incomparable oil
6 free-range chicken legs, thighs and drumsticks separated. I prefer grain-fed to corn-fed chickens
1 bottle Chianti or other Sangiovese wine
1 bouquet garni
100g unsmoked pancetta, skinned and diced (reserve the skin)
1 tbsp plain flour
½ litre light (not reduced) chicken stock
Put the chicken, red wine and bouquet garni to marinate for two hours.
Drain the chicken legs, preserving the marinade, and pat very dry with kitchen paper, then season lightly with salt and generously with black pepper. Brown the legs skin side down in the sunflower oil in a frying pan. Remove the legs from the pan and arrange in a single layer in a casserole or baking dish with the skin side up.
Do not wash the frying pan, add a little more oil and gently cook the pancetta over a medium heat until a fair amount of fat has rendered out. Be careful not to burn the pancetta at this stage as it is easily done and is an expensive mistake. Over a low heat add the flour and continue cooking and stirring until all the fat is absorbed. Remove this sauce base from the heat.
While you are browning the chicken and pancetta put the wine, stock, pancetta skin and bouquet garni in a pan and bring to the boil. When it is bubbling away, pour over the pancetta. Stir thoroughly to avoid lumps of flour and return to a low heat for about 15 minutes. Set the oven to 150° C.
Pour the sauce over the chicken pieces – their skin should be at least partially poking above the sauce. Cover loosely with a sheet of baking paper and cook in the oven for 45 minutes.
Remove the chicken from the oven and allow to sit for a few minutes to calm down. With a slotted spoon, lift the chicken pieces out of the sauce and set aside. Pour the sauce through a sieve into a saucepan, keep the pancetta dice, and discard the bouquet garni and pancetta skin. Bring the source to the boil. The sauce will have a layer of fat on it that will become apparent as it nears the boil and can easily be removed by skimming with a small ladle. Simmer for half an hour to reduce slightly. Keep skimming.
While the sauce is reducing, wash out the baking dish and replace the chicken pieces, skin side up and then scatter the pancetta dice evenly around. Pour the reduced and skimmed sauce over the whole dish and return uncovered to the oven for about 15 minutes, or until bubbling gently.
This article first appeared in Noble Rot magazine, Issue 25
Pollo Ubriaco (“Drunken Chicken”) is on our menu from time to time, and can be ordered HERE. It will be cooked to order, and delivered fresh to your doorstep.
A collection of olive oils, fussily curated by Alastair, and undeniably expensive, can be found HERE. They will, however, bankrupt you at a more leisurely pace than those available in Hammersmith…