ay “Toscana” — Tuscany — aloud and many Italians will reply with touch of longing in their voice. “Ah, la Toscana,” many will sigh with a dreamy look in their eyes. Some will go on and on about the Tuscan countryside, with its cypress-lined dirt roads and the endless rows of olive trees nursed to perfection by olive farmers, while others will immediately talk about the food.
Though I was born and raised in Rome, half my blood is Tuscan, which is why the thought of the “Tuscan sun” — not the book or movie version — makes me weak-kneed. When I was small my parents would take my sister and I to visit the Tuscan side of the family. For two little girls, those three-hour road trips were journeys into a different time and place. They ended with us being hugged, squeezed, kissed and pinched by unfamiliar but loving people. The Tuscans are like that.
The meals were the highlight of all our trips. Whether home cooked or served up in a rowdy trattoria with waiters yelling orders over your head, they all consisted of hours spent sitting around a long wooden table passing around excessive amounts of antipasti, followed by all sorts of pristine Tuscan meats and vegetables, topped off with the traditional coffee tiramisù, and almond cantucci — traditional biscuits — dipped in Vin Santo. A king’s feast.
Just a few weeks ago, and after almost a decade, I returned to the region with some old friends. We began in Pisa, and like every good Tuscan pilgrim took our fair share of pictures. We then made our way back to Florence. For weeks we’d talked about the trip, where we’d go and what we’d see. But what we all really looked forward to was that exceptional cut of steak know as bistecca Fiorentina. If all else failed, we’d at least get a fix of melt-in-your-mouth, rare steak. Tuscan beef is a rare and precious commodity.
With a few hiccups, the trip was a success. We ate more meat than we could handle and dipped our cantucci down to the very last drop of Vin Santo. We went to bed a bit heavier but a lot happier.
If you find yourself in Florence and crave hearty, typical Tuscan cuisine, I recommend you book a table at Alla Vecchia Bettola (Viale Vasco Pratolini, 3-5-7. Tel. +39.055.224.158. Closed Sunday and Monday. No website.)
Their fave (broad beans) and pecorino starter, seasoned with simple oil, salt and a pepper mixture is to die for, and the bistecca fiorentina, served as always by weight, all’etto (a tenth of a kilo), comes in mammoth portions. It’s an acclaimed restaurant that feels like home.
But before you get there, you can certainly take time out to make the biscuits at home.
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour.
- 1 tsp baking powder.
- 1/2 tsp baking soda.
- 1 tsp salt.
- 4 large eggs.
- 1/2 cup sugar.
- 1 tsp orange zest.
- 1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract.
- 1 cup toasted almonds, coarsely chopped.
— Preheat your oven to 160C/325F. Butter and flour a baking sheet.
— In a large bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt; set aside.
— Beat the eggs and the sugar until light and foamy. Add the zest and the vanilla.
— Slowly add your dry ingredients to the sugar mixture, making sure you incorporate all the flour before adding more. This will help with stirring, if doing so by hand. Finally, stir in the almonds.
— Shape the dough into two 14″x2″ “logs,” and then smooth the tops and the sides using a rubber spatula.
— Bake for about 30 minutes until firm and golden, flipping the logs half way.
— At this point, remove the logs from the oven and let them cool for 10-to-20 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 275F/135C.
— Cut the logs diagonally into 2/3 inch slices and arrange them standing apart on the baking sheet.
— Bake for another 30 minutes until lightly toasted on the sides. Cool on wire racks. The biscuits can be packaged and stored.