Panzanella

Tuscan pane sciocco (saltless bread) is used in a plethora of everyday bread-based dishes, especially once it’s past its best. Italy has traditionally had a cultural and economic climate in which you can’t let anything go to waste, a mindset that has spawned hundreds of cheap, delicious recipes, including a few gems of Tuscan cuisine. Summer brings pappa al pomodoro and panzanella, while ribollita warms the winter as soon as the black cabbage is ready. Then there are endless dishes with ground meat and other ‘poor’ ingredients: meatballs and meatloaf are eaten throughout the year. These are just some classic examples of the Tuscan diet, in which pane sciocco plays an absolutely crucial role. When fresh, it is served in the breadbasket, sparking off the eternal debate between those who prefer the crust and those who pick out the soft white pith, and evoking the usual truisms (“without bread, you’ll always be hungry”). A few days after baking, though, when it’s still tasty but a bit stale, it’s best used in the soups, minestroni or minced meats that really speak of Tuscany through their flavors. “It’s a sin to waste anything”.

Panzanella is a traditional Tuscan peasant dish, really made only in summer. Of all the dishes based on pane sciocco, it is panzanella that has enjoyed the greatest attention, even a renaissance, in recent years. It’s a simple dish, full of aromas; and though it’s light, it fills you up like a whole meal. It can be eaten outside and taken on picnics, or it can lead the way into a longer, multi-course dinner.

For this recipe, the pane sciocco spends a number of days soaking in water and summer vegetables, which must include tomato and onion. The ensemble is then seasoned with salt and pepper, oil and a bit of red wine vinegar. This historic dish has reached every corner, every city, even every family in Tuscany, and everyone has their own little secret methods and ingredients. The use of cucumber, for example, is hotly debated.

[Photos: Sandra Pilacchi, originally from La Toscana di Ruffino]