This book is about ingredients and what I have seen people here do with them, and its about the joy brought by each month with its new ingredients. It is about Tuscany, and even though all the dishes in the book are not Tuscan in origin they are all eaten here. Most of the recipes, however, have them roots firmly embedded in Tuscan soil. Year after year, as the months and ingredients change, so does the family table.
The trattorias serve what seasonal goods their suppliers offer and generally don't rely on expensive, out-of-season produce. People are accustomed to accepting the gifts that their surroundings offer. I once asked a local what he did when he wanted strawberries in December and he looked genuinely puzzled. His reply finally was that he wouldn't, because strawberries come in May. What is assumed by the homecook is supported by medical science it seems. A pediatrician suggested simply serving what the month has to offer as, she maintained, nature has taken care of us during the different seasons of the year. The earth gives as we need -- oranges and their vitamin C come in winter and refreshing watermelons arrive in August.
Ingredients vary -- not just seasonally but monthly -- and sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. This is reflected on the canvas that is the Tuscan countryside. Each month that passes I notice a change in the land, a change in ingredients -- from the young green of a tiny, new bud to a more insipid shade of hill brown. People are involved with their surroundings here, and respect them for what they have to give; many seem to choose a vegetable patch over a flower garden. The so-called peasants lovingly sow and reap all year -- and naturally reap most in the summer months, when there is abundance. From that abundance, preserves are made, and the flavors of June may be recalled in December. The generosity of summer eventually wanes, out there are the vegetables that last a long time -- potatoes, pumpkin and onions -- and these are used deep into the months that render nothing. Some products are ever-present, such as carrots, celery, sage and rosemary, and they form the oasis of most stews and casserole dishes that might appear at any time. Although the land provides great variety in fruit and vegetables, Tuscany s not a land of vegetarians, and to the bounty of the earth are added the catch off its seacoast and the annual hunts in the woodlands.
My aim in writing this book has been to share some of the delights that have been part of my life here. More than an informative guide, it outlines the basic goings-on taking place on stovetops in a place whose culinary fame is steadfastly rooted amongst the hills and within tradition.
First amongst the list of things I have appreciated is the quality of ingredients: an apparently ordinary piece of meat, grilled and transformed by lashings of olive oil; the apricot eaten off the tree after lunch; the gorgeous artichoke dipped in lemon juice and luminous green olive oil, and the tomatoes bursting with summer. The sensibility in knowing what to do with good ingredients is a strong point in Tuscan cuisine, such as the acuity to deliciously vary the final taste with a change in the basic ingredient or addition of a new one at the last moment.
Hopefully as the reader, and especially a kitchen reader with the book propped up on the kitchen counter and surrounded by beautiful ingredients, you will come to appreciate all this on your own. Throughout the months of the year you will find the ingredients of Tuscany just as they became available to the Tuscans. In each month there are recipes for all the courses of an Italian meal -- though as you will see in "The Italan meal", even an Italian doesn't eat all the courses all the time. In the spirit of beginning well, "The store cupboard" gives tips on filling your pantry with the right type of basic ingredients that are at the heart of these recipes, and the "Basics" section provides preparation instructions and recipes that Tuscan homecooks will have learned at their parents' and grandparents' side. Although it is my belief that with good ingredients anyone can cook a good Tuscan meal, I recognize that not everyone lives in Tuscany and so I have occasionally given alternatives for those harder-to-find ingredients. The rest, I trust you will shift, find, improvise and add to suit your personal space and marketplace.
My story begins in January.