Toni Lydecker's Tavola Talk Blog

May 23, 2013

Under the Tuscan Rain Clouds

Since we arrived in Tuscany, it’s rained almost every day. From what I hear, it’s been an unusually cold and rainy spring.  And that’s saying something, because Tuscany is actually not the reliably sunny place we’ve been led to believe. Tuscans themselves don’t brag about savoring life under their sun; they know better.

Comparing May precipitation stats with Seattle, I see that Florence averages three inches compared to two for a city famous for overcast skies. The maddening thing is how changeable the weather is. The sun peeks out, like a temptress, and then 15 minutes later the skies open again.

I’m not complaining–well, maybe a little–but mostly just going with the flow (sorry, hard to avoid water imagery). Even under damp conditions, Tuscany is one of the best places on earth. So I add layers of clothing until the chill can’t get through, finishing if need be with the bubblegum-pink shell I had brought, optimistically, for bicycling. Not ready for that quite yet.

vitalba

Compared to a visit a few years ago at the same time, seasonal vegetables lag far behind. Tender young artichokes, zucchini and greens are showing up in markets, but the seedlings have just been planted in the garden of the farmhouse where we’re staying. We’re months away from local tomatoes, but enjoying the juicy ones from Sicily.

After running a hand over a plush rosemary bush, I sniffed and wondered why the familiar aroma burst went missing. Our friend Allen, a gardening expert and food historian, explained that the rain has diluted those aromatic oils. The best he could suggest was to pluck the older, slightly more fragrant sprigs for cooking.

Allen also pointed out vitalba, a weed that according to Italian sources is poised between poisonous and medicinal. To make it edible, boil to deactivate the enzymes and then cook a second time. Often it’s battered and fried, probably to divert attention from the bitter taste.

The white acacia flowers now in bloom belong to the same category of “emergency foods,” one step down from cucina povera because they don’t necessarily taste that good.  I bought honey made from bees fed on acacia flowers, but apparently you can also fry them or toss in salads. We can drive to the supermercato even in the rain, so I doubt we’ll get hungry enough to go acacia hunting in the woods.

I’ve started fantasizing about a visit to a terme, one of the thermal springs that dot Tuscany, and this raw weather is also extending the season for hearty, rib-sticking foods.  The quality of beans is amazing here. At the weekly street market, we bought a big, sturdy variety of ceci (chickpeas) to make minestrone; the vendor said the smaller chickpeas from the Maremma (on the right) are best cooked alone and drizzled with oil to accompany roasted meat or poultry (the third variety in the photo are borlotti, cranberry beans).

Italian law forbids central heating after April 15 and, although we energy-guzzling Americans should take a lesson from their example, I hadn’t felt warmed clear through until two nights ago, when we built a fire in the wood-burning stove. The stovetop radiated so much heat that the meat sugo I set on top was soon bubbling. I mixed it with pici, the thick round noodles typical of Tuscany.

This part of Tuscany, in the Arno Valley, is known for the quality of its chickens.I’ve already made aquacotta, a vegetable and bread soup topped with poached eggs, and tonight my husband made one of  his fabulous frittatas, mixing the orange-yolked eggs with sauteed onions and potatoes, pancetta and lots of parsley.

I’d give you his recipe, but honestly, I wasn’t watching. Instead I was listening to Corelli, sipping wine and watching the sunset. The weather had cleared. In the late evening light, the flowering plants were brilliant in their hues of yellow, fuchsia, purple. After all, it’s springtime in Tuscany.

 

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Thu, May 23 2013 » Italian food, Italian ingredients, Italian lifestyle, travel, Tuscany, Uncategorized

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