Tuesday, September 15, 2009

So Tuscan: Pappa al Pomodoro

I recently returned from Tuscany. My heart is still there and my appetite for the food has not left me. I wonder how I will ever enjoy a tomato in Canada again, after having plucked the first one of the season from its vine and letting the sweet, sun-warmed juice cover my tongue. I lived and worked in an agrituismo for three months. In that time, I watched swiss chard and asparagus come and go, followed by radishes and beets and finally, tomatoes. Every day the ripe tomatoes would fall into my cupped hands, perfectly ripe and every following day there would be more tomatoes, ripe and waiting. Soon, every surface inside was covered with tomatoes and very pot was on the burner simmering and spattering tomato juice. Passata is a sieved tomato puree and the Italians’ answer to the abundance of tomatoes. Once jarred, this puree can last throughout the winter, giving a bit of summer to each dish.

When you live by the harvest on a small farm, you must also learn to appreciate the (often monotonous) abundance that changes week by week. I must be honest and admit I enjoyed our two-week tomato season far more than the two-week season of swiss chard. Tomatoes can be dried, purred and jarred or frozen and pickled or made into chutney. You don’t need to be a chef to create something different every day from the same ingredients, but you do need a bit of inspiration. What I learned in Italy was: What grows together, goes together. This saying can be expanded to include the region’s specialties, such as cheeses and breads. Papa al Pomodoro is a thick tomato and bread soup that is especially popular in the Chianti region of Tuscany. It is as Tuscan as a dish can get: Basil and tomatoes from the garden, olive oil produced just over on the next hill, and thickened with Tuscany’s saltless bread.

I spoke to an old nonna (grandma) in the town where I was staying and she asked me skeptically what I had been doing with all my tomatoes. I mentioned that earlier that day I had made Pappa al Pomodoro for lunch, thinking she would accept my attempt to be true to Tuscany. The nonna promptly told me that I had done it all wrong. I smiled. This was my third month in Tuscany and I had learned very quickly that every family has their own way of preparing even the most traditional dishes so that it is their own special touch, which makes their dish, ‘the best’. I had also learned by this point that most people were more than willing to share their secrets and even more willing to argue that their way is the only way. By the time I had finished the most intense conversation about soup, in the best Italian I could muster, there were three more old nonnas sitting around us, speaking simultaneously, and some old men close by, smoking and shouting over their opinion. Eavesdropping is ok when it is about food.

Tuscany truly is a food lover’s dream. The culture is so rich with food from farm to table to the espresso to the vin santo and cantucci afterwards. I don’t know the old nonna’s name, but I know her recipe, and she would be joyous to know that now you do too.

Nonna’s Pappa al Pomodoro
“ First in the pan: olive oil, basil, bread. Then tomatoes and stop”

The above recipe has no measurements because cooking should be free. If you have some special olive oil, add more. Use a hearty, stale loaf of bread so that the crumbs dissolve easily into the tomato juice. If you want a thinner soup, add less bread. Make adjustments to your taste and enjoy with friends.

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