TUSCAN RECIPES … today — PANSANELLA (Bread Salad)
Nonna Margherita Dottorelli in her kitchen, 1905
Some excellent Tuscan recipes from her granddaughter, Marta, who refuses to be just a character in a novel made up by that writer.
If you have too much bread
When I come down the hill to clean the house that the beautiful Signora inherited from her uncle (and he was a good man, no matter what his neighbours say!) I always bring the Signora a loaf of my good bread.
On that first morning, with her hands so ill-tended and smudged with watercolour paint, the Signora picked up my loaf and smiled.
I have known the Canadian Signora, then, for five minutes. Already I see the edges of many secrets and mistakes behind that smile. But I will care for her.
I can see the lips of the Signora squeezing so she will not make some little joke. Then she tells me that in Canada a game is played on ice, with stones shaped like my good loaf, swept with brooms.
Then her face becomes pink.
“Beh!” I tell her. “Signora Chiara, do not worry that you make un brutto scherzo about my bread.
I cut a thick slice, pour over it some green olive oil from the trees which my husband Niccolo has tended all his life. I sprinkle on a little of the pure white salt which my nephew brings me, who works at the salt marsh near Ravenna – this same salt, I will tell you, that has been harvested since Etruscan times.
“Eat,” I tell the Signora. “Eat, eat, eat!”
She takes a tiny doubtful bite. Her eyes widen.
“But it’s the best thing I have ever tasted! And so simple!”
She will say this many times, about the things I make for her. We Tuscans understand that food is best when it is simple, when each flavour is allowed the chance to sing.
But she is right that our Tuscan bread is a little heavy.
Also, when the stranieri first taste it, they are surprised, for it is baked without salt; we use our bread for many dishes and we add the good salt later, but not too much.
Each week, though my family is grown, I bake two dozen loaves of bread. No, I no longer use the domed outside wood-fired oven; what do you think? That I am lost in the time of my husband’s grandmother, Nonna Margherita, who you will see at the top of this page?
I have two indoor stoves with ovens. A big one that burns wood, which I like best; but also one that uses the the electric power, though this often goes off in our country; but my husband Niccolo has installed a generator so we can be alright.
I make two dozen loaves of bread, and I give some to my daughter who works in a shoe factory in Perugia and some to my son for his trattoria in Pienza, and some to my other nephew … e cosi via … so it goes.
In Tuscany we make the bread without salt so it will keep nicely, with no mould. But then every week, even though we have some left over, we will want to make it, again, new.
What to do?
Pansanella – Bread Salad
This will be something to serve as a primo piatto for a larger meal, or on its own as a fine light supper.
FOR THE SIGNORA, who eats “come un ucello — like a bird” — except when sometimes she comes home from Cortona with an entire mousse-cake of chocolate that she eats all alone (yes I have found the evidence in the garbage, and I blame the married Italian for so upsetting the Signora, and I tell Niccolo he should again let loose the dogs!) I will often leave a simple bread salad for her – never in the fridge, this would spoil the flavor – under a clean dishcloth on the olive-wood kitchen table.
(This will be for four people, more or less)
Cut four thick slices of not-fresh bread, soak for a moment in water, squeeze them out, then crumble into your salad bowl. Chop into the bowl some wild greens if you have them, even spring roots of the dandelion – if not, you can chop some cucumber. Next, chop maybe three firm tomatoes, two sweet red onions, several cloves of garlic very fine. Then tear in some basil leaves and maybe also some parsley. Mix all together.
Take some sea salt and a little grind of pepper and dissolve this in 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar. (Some will tell you “red”; but for me I like to keep the vinegar in quiet tones.) The dressing ingredients you can pour directly into the salad, if you want to do it in modo Toscano . (Or you can mix in a cup.) In any case you will then pour in one half of a teacup of the very best olive oil and stir. (If you have some spring onions, this will be pretty to lay in a pattern on the top.)
You will want to serve this cool, but (as I have told you) never in the fridge.