Take it with a grain of salt: a Tuscan bread story


Take it with a grain of salt: a Tuscan bread story

13 September 2016

Have you ever tasted bread in Tuscany and wondered what's missing? The answer is salt.

Bread is a staple in many places, and Tuscany is no exception. Tuscan bread, however, confuses visiting diners every day with a taste that leaves newcomers scratching their heads. “I don't know what it is about this bread,” they think, “but it tastes... Weird.” That “weird” taste, it turns out, isn't something added but rather something omitted – salt. To understand how significant an omission this is, consider that the four ingredients required to make a basic loaf of bread are flour, yeast, water, and salt. That's it. Which means that eliminating the one seasoning ingredient produces a taste in the finished loaf that's (most likely) in stark contrast to every other bread you've ever eaten.

Why Tuscan bread has no salt

There are several possible reasons why Tuscan bread – called pane toscano in Italian – has been made without salt for centuries, though no one knows the “why” for sure. Some of the tales directly contradict one another. One story says that the saltiness of Tuscan cuisine caused people to make their bread salt-free, while another theory says that the blandness of the salt-free bread led to people putting more salt into their food. It's a “chicken or egg” scenario, and either one is plausible. Making bread in Tuscany. © Salvadonica Borgo del Chianti Making bread in Tuscany. © Salvadonica Borgo del Chianti

Another story has to do with money. Salt, as you may know, was a highly prized commodity in the Middle Ages, and therefore taxed heavily. Impoverished Tuscans (which was a large percentage of the population at the time) couldn't afford salt, so they started making their bread without it. This story makes a great deal of sense, too. Perhaps the most colorful story (and also, perhaps, the most apocryphal) stems from the historic rivalry between Florence and Pisa. During one of the feuds between the two city-states, the Pisan army set up a blockade on the Arno River to prevent salt shipments from reaching Florence. Undaunted, Florentine bakers kept baking – they just left out the salt. This legend has some obvious holes (it's Tuscan bread, not just Florentine bread that's salt-free), but it's no less appealing as a story. While it would, of course, be fun to know which of these was the truth, in a way it almost doesn't matter. It's enough to be prepared for that “weird” flavor before you bite into a piece of Tuscan bread so you're not caught off-guard.

How Tuscan Bread is Used in Tuscan Cuisine

Now that we've got a little history (or legend, depending on which theory you prefer) under our belts, it's time to understand the purpose of pane toscano in Tuscan cooking. After all, salt could have been added to the traditional recipe at any point over the centuries, right? Tuscan bread has remained salt-free in large part because it plays such an important role in the Tuscan kitchen. Pappa al pomodoro. © Thomas Busk Pappa al pomodoro. © Thomas Busk

There are two features of Tuscan bread that make it a key ingredient in several regional specialties. One is the flavor – or, rather, the lack thereof – discussed above. The other is the texture. Tuscan bread goes stale more quickly than other types of bread, but then gets springy (not mushy) when that stale bread is rejuvenated with liquid. Tuscans have used these qualities for hundreds of years to make use of day-old bread, to make simple peasant dishes more filling, and to give salads and soups a thicker consistency. There are three dishes you should seek out when visiting Tuscany, each of which do a particularly good job of showcasing Tuscan bread:
  • Ribollita. © Jules Ribollita. © Jules

    Panzanella is a light summer salad usually made with fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, and lots of stale pane toscano that have been tossed with good olive oil and red wine vinegar. Some people add thinly-sliced red onion and/or cucumber. The bread chunks soak up the oil and vinegar but don't turn to mush, turning a salad into a meal that involves absolutely no cooking whatsoever. You can serve panzanella with a dry white wine like Toscana Bianco from the Maremma to balance the acidity and sweetness of the salad, chilled to accompany a perfect summer day.
  • Pappa al Pomodoro is, at its heart, a tomato soup. Chunks of Tuscan bread are added while the soup is cooking, and – again – because of the bread's unique ability to not get mushy, the chunks simply break down enough to create a thickened tomato soup. It's a favorite Tuscan comfort food, and goes well with a light red wine or even a Toscano rosato.
  • Ribollita is a classic Tuscan dish, and certainly the most classic of those that use Tuscan bread. This hearty soup combines white beans, cavolo nero (a type of kale), whatever vegetables happen to be on hand (often carrots, onions, and other fall or winter produce), and hunks of pane toscano. The word “ribollita” means “reboiled,” and yes, this dish is even better when you heat it up again the day after you make it. Top off a steaming bowl of ribollita with a drizzle of peppery extra virgin olive oil and pair it with a Chianti Classico for a quintessentially Tuscan meal.