It’s impossible to dig into the history of Italian cuisine without seeing the influence of Tuscany in every era. And while a thorough review of Tuscan culinary history would be a heavy tome, there are a few particularly important points on the timeline that are worth highlighting—both because they demonstrate Tuscany’s delicious reach and because they’re illustrative of how timeless Tuscan culinary traditions are.
Much of central Italy (including Tuscany) is known, even today, for its agricultural bounty. Throughout history, the region we now call Tuscany has provided its residents with excellent soil for growing grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables—as well as for sustaining meat- and milk-producing livestock.
This doesn’t mean there were never hard times, of course. Times were especially lean during the Middle Ages, when the notion of discarding anything that might be turned into a meal was anathema. But even when poverty wasn’t as widespread, there was still an emphasis on not wasting food.
So, as you read these brief historical overviews of Tuscan cuisine through the centuries, note the cucina povera thread that runs throughout. The term may be fashionable in culinary circles today, “peasant cuisine” so often dressed up in Michelin-star restaurants with a price tag to match.
It’s important to remember, though, that much of what falls under the cucina povera umbrella was genuinely born of poverty. When all you can afford, all you have access to, are things like beans and offal and stale bread, you make do.
Cucina povera has endured through more prosperous periods, though, because it embodies what we love about “Italian cuisine” today—using quality seasonal ingredients, preparing relatively simple dishes, and not letting food go to waste. It’s a culinary philosophy many Tuscans through the ages have lived by, and one we can all endeavor to embrace.
The Etruscan Kitchen
When most people think of Italian history, they think of Ancient Rome. The Etruscans, however, pre-dated—and heavily influenced—Roman culture. They lived in the area we now know as Tuscany (they called it Etruria) from roughly the eighth to the third century BCE, and were so thoroughly assimilated by the Roman Empire that they remain something of a mystery even today.
One of the things historians do know, however, is that food was an important part of Etruscan culture.
As mentioned, the land was ideal for providing the Etruscans with a bounty of foodstuffs. Things like grains and olive oil were even in such great supply that the Etruscans were able to export them.
Tuscan menus today feature dishes made with ingredients that would be familiar to an Etruscan. They grilled thick cuts of wild boar meat over open flames, like a bistecca. They cultivated grapes and produced their own wine. They foraged for and ate truffles—a practice they passed onto the Romans. And they enjoyed a hearty barley soup full of beans and lentils centuries before Tuscans would earn the nickname “the bean eaters.”
The Ups and Downs of the Middle Ages
If the Middle Ages is a bridge between antiquity and modern times, it was a pretty rough one for the culinary world.
The Early Middle Ages, from about the fifth through the eighth century CE, is also what’s known today as the “Dark Ages.” The Roman Empire was in decline and, as the Medieval church grew more powerful, it cracked down on what it deemed sinful indulgences—including culinary ones. An increasingly poor population had no choice but to become more frugal, in the kitchen and otherwise, making use of ingredients they could come by cheaply and easily.
Food needed to be filling and it needed to last. And absolutely nothing was discarded.
The ribollita we know and love in Tuscany today was born during this time—the word literally means “re-boiled,” and it was made by re-boiling yesterday’s minestrone and thickening it with some stale bread. Chestnuts became a Medieval cucina povera staple, too, roasted or ground into flour (chestnut flour remains a commonly used ingredient in Tuscan pastas and breads today).
Siena’s popular panforte, a dense spiced cake full of nuts and dried fruits, served a dual purpose in the Middle Ages. It packed a nutritious punch for travelers who needed portable food (think of it like a Medieval PowerBar) and it was valued enough that the church accepted panforte (literally “strong bread”) as payment for taxes.
(Ironically, thanks to popular Roman beliefs that truffles were aphrodisiacs that had mystical origins, the Medieval church decided they were unfit for consumption by anyone except peasants.)
As Europe began to turn toward what they would later call the Renaissance, the Late Middle Ages (roughly the ninth through 14th century CE) saw the re-emergence of a noble class in Tuscany and elsewhere. And one way for this new nobility to show off its wealth was through food.
By the 15th century enjoying a good meal wasn’t considered a sin anymore, setting the stage perfectly for a culinary comeback.
Sidebar: Medieval Rivalries and Tuscan Bread
One food item that’s ubiquitous throughout Tuscany today and confounds many outsiders is the bread. You take a bite and you can’t quite figure out what’s different about it, until it hits you—there’s no salt. And this famous salt-free bread has Medieval origins.
Florence and Pisa are relatively friendly rivals today (just ask soccer fans), but in the 12th century things were a little more contentious. Pisa controlled the flow of goods from the sea up the Arno River and, therefore, what cargo would arrive in Florence. They decided to place a hefty tax on salt and, rather than simply pay, Florentines started making their bread (among other things) without salt.
Though salt was added back into other recipes later, the salt-free bread remained. Not only that, it’s an important part of Tuscan cuisine today—the lack of salt makes Tuscan bread ideal for soups like ribollita and pappa al pomodoro, thickening without making dishes overly salty.
Renaissance Tuscan Trend-Setters
Tuscan culinary fingerprints in Italian culinary history are perhaps nowhere more evident than in the Renaissance—and, specifically, in Florence.
The Medici family began its rise to prominence in the Late Middle Ages, and by the start of the Renaissance in the 15th century they were the true Tuscan influencers we know them as today. The House of Medici set the trends in art, music, and—yes—cuisine.
Lavish banquets were back in style, sometimes consisting of a dozen courses served over several hours. The dishes themselves, though, weren’t necessarily extravagant.
The Medici favored relatively simple dishes with a focus on quality ingredients that were fresh and seasonal. At times, it might have even looked like (a very expensive version of) cucina povera, though the family didn’t need to be frugal and certainly didn’t call it “peasant cooking” at the time.
(The Medici and Renaissance Florence also helped usher in the new concept of “table manners”—like washing your hands before dining and refraining from picking your teeth or blowing your nose at the table. Thank goodness.)
Some of the Tuscan foods born during this time and that we still love today are pecorino cheese (made from sheep’s milk) and the Chianina breed of cattle, still prized as the best for bistecca. Through the influence of one Medici in particular, Renaissance Tuscany also stamped itself (according to some) on what are commonly considered French dishes today.
Caterina de’ Medici, daughter of Lorenzo “Il Magnifico,” was married off to the future king of France in 1533 (at the ripe old age of 14). Caterina had been raised in a house of foodies, so she brought with her a veritable army of Florentine chefs with her to her new home. They continued making the Tuscan dishes she loved—dishes like onion soup in a rich and vinegary broth, roasted duck with a sauce made from orange juice, and thin pancakes served with a creamy sauce.
The Cookbook that United a Nation
From the Renaissance, we’re fast-forwarding a few centuries to what’s known as the Risorgimento, or the unification of Italy. A scant three decades after Italy became a country, bringing together somewhat reluctant city-states under one national umbrella, a cookbook helped the people recognize themselves and one another as Italians.
First published in 1891, “La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene” (“Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well”) did something revolutionary. The author, Pellegrino Artusi, gathered recipes from all over the new country of Italy, featuring everyday dishes alongside those of the nobility for the first time.
It was an incomplete collection, to be sure, focusing more heavily on northern Italy than southern and leaving out some regions altogether, but it introduced cucina povera traditions from around Italy to cooks from different regions—including Tuscany’s beans, bread, and soups.
Artusi not only presented recipes, he underlined the familiar cucina povera mantra of not wasting anything edible—something everyone in the brand-new country could understand. The book managed to make Italians feel a kinship with one another while maintaining pride in their unique culinary contributions to the nation as a whole.
The Manuale dell’Artusi, as the book is often known, is still in print today, updated over the years until Artusi’s death in 1910 and now available in several languages.
Jessica fell in love with Italy on her first visit and has been channeling that affection into Italy travel guides for more than 15 years. She especially loves the stories food can tell us about a place. Living in often-rainy Portland, Oregon means Jessica is often in the mood for a steaming bowl of Tuscan ribollita. When not writing, she’s probably knitting.