Mashed, Roasted & Fermented
Tuscan Styled Potatoes are Amazing
This fruit, when viewed on its own, seems innocuous. Actually even rather bland. However, it’s not possible for an ingredient like the potato to go through the Tuscan kitchen and not come out with an almost saintly reputation. Putting up with much resistance, prejudice, and vicious rumors, the potato finally worked its way into the hearts and menus of Tuscans throughout the region from Lunigiana to Mugello to Mount Amiata in less than 100 years ago.
We couldn’t possibly talk about the Tuscan variety of potatoes without including a few recipes. Featuring a wide variety (red skin, brown skin, white pulp, yellow pulp, etc.) and an equally wide selection of recipes, you can practically create an entire meal with potatoes including bread, appetizers, pasta, main courses, side dishes and even drinks. As is the case for many recipes from the poor man’s kitchen, necessity played a large role in choosing ingredients and cooking techniques.
Not an Easy Introduction
The potato was introduced in Europe in the late 1500’s after the explorers returned from the Americas but it never really “took off” as a viable source of nutrition. In fact, it was delegated to the farm animals, and even then it was not received well. Then, there were some who accused the nobles of using the potato to spread leprosy and keep the poor down!
The people of Germany, England, France, and Italy stood strong and refused to allow it into their diets until the mid 1700’s. It was an uphill battle for the governing parties to encourage their constituents to eat the potato which proved to be an excellent food source in a moment of intense famine throughout Europe, however, as soon as the hunger passed the people were back using only grains.
Perhaps one of the largest contributing problems was that the first varieties that arrived in Europe were not “good” compounded by the fact that they didn’t know how to cook it! The common consense was since it grew underground like a truffle and it was brown like a truffle — that it should be cooked like a truffle — but the results were not promising and it was quickly discarded..
But from about the mid 1800’s, with the insistence of the Grand Duke and the officials in power, the potato began to infiltrate on the table in Tuscany.
In fact, France even tried to trick the poor by setting guards around freshly harvested potatoes — giving them the illusion of supreme value — and then they ordered the guards to “fall asleep” so that the poor would steal the potatoes!
Eventually, Tuscany took the potato to new levels, awarding it a special place in history, and more recently initiating several food festivals and many — too many to count — recipes from which to choose. We have highlighted a few of our favorites, which you can look for on the menu next time you are in Tuscany or if you find all the right ingredients, you can give then a try at home.
Locals all Have Their Favorites
As far as "terroir" conditions, Tuscany was the first place in Italy that the potato should have grown abundantly: preferring high altitudes, and humid terrain. In fact, the areas that have the strong traditions tied to the potato are located in the mountains and several have recipes that specifically call for only these types of potatoes. But this didn’t happen immediately, it took years of cultivating and cross cultivating to produce potatoes that thrived. Today you will find that you can’t transplant one variety in another territory...the true expression happens only in its native hills.
Here are a few of the more celebrated variations and where you can find them:
Patata di Regnano
Production Area: Lunigiana and in particular the town of Regnano in the province of Massa Carrara
Patata di Zeri
Production Area: Lunigiana and in particular the town of Zeri along the river Magra in the province of Massa Carrara.
Patate di montagna Sillano
Production Area: Garfagnano and more precisely in the town of Sillano, near Piazza di Serchio in the province of Lucca
Patata del Santa Maria a Monte (Tosa)
Production Area: the town of Santa maria a Monte in the province of Pisa
Patata bianca del Melo
Production Area: the town of Melo, near Cutigliano in the province of Pistoia
Patata bianca di montagna a Firenzuola
Production Area: Mugello, especially near Firenzuola in the province of Florence
Patata rossa di Cetica
Production Area: Casentino, in particular, the town of Cetica in the province of Arezzo. This is one of few variations which has arrived at viable commercial levels, and you can find the variety in Tuscan supermarkets. Read more here.
Production Area: Maremma, near Monte Amiata and Monte Labbro
Classic recipes with potatoes
It might have had a slow start, but the potato has effectively infiltrate every area of the Tuscan menu. It started as a necessity: grain was short and there were hungry bellies to fill. Places in the Lunigiana learned how to mix it in their bread dough, and places around Grosseto created recipes to help stretched the meat. These recipes have found their way on the table and continue to do so as testimony to both the delicious flavor and a memory of hard times.
The first thing to remember with Tuscans and their potatoes is that they are (almost) always served without the peel. The whole "the nutrients are just under the skin" message has yet to become main stream, and only a few types of potatoes boast "thin" edible skins. Another important point is every recipe wants specific characteristics for the best results — for example to make gnocchi, the general consensus is:
white-pulp potatoes, rich in starch and a little aged because they are poor in water
Tortelli alla lastra
This is a variation on a theme and one you will only find in one small town in Tuscany in the hills outside of Arezzo. This super-sized ravioli is filled with a spicy potato filling (which we have been told is … secret!) and then cooked on a grill till slightly crunchy. Normally it is served hot as an appetizer or snack - but just recently a restaurant opened in Florence which uses it as a main course with creative - even if not traditional toppings.
Tortelli di patata
The tortelli di patata is a tradition which has changed very little over the years. It is a ravioli shaped pasta stuffed with mashed potatoes that have been lightly seasoned some with salt, pepper, a bit of tomato and parsley...a few will throw in some sausage. This pasta heralds from Mugello and Casentino, and will traditionally be served with either a rustic meat sauce or simply sauteed in butter in sage.
This particular pasta has its origins dating back to the XVI century before the potato made its way over from America - using grain and bread as the main ingredient. In fact, tradition has the people from Sorrento as the first inventors of the “gnoochi”. The pasta that you find in Tuscany is a bit different; they appear much smaller without the indentions impressed on the outside. The local dialect has nicknamed them “topini” or little mice.
Patate al rosmarino
Sunday lunch was one of those appointments you could always count on happening: Christmas, Easter and Sunday lunch! Family meals not to be missed. And without a doubt, the meal features a pretty standard menu: antipasti, pasta, roast meat with roasted potatoes and dessert. The classic roasted potatoes were placed in the oven with the fat drippings of the meat and liberally seasoned with rosemary, sage and in some cases (depending) on the type of meat wild fennel flowers.
Patate in umido
Anything “in umido” in the Italian kitchen means cooked with tomato sauce, in many cases it was a creative way of reusing leftovers. Chop up the “odori”, standard natural flavor givers (carrot, celery, onion, parsley...garlic). Sautee them up and then add meat and/or potatoes. In the end add the tomato sauce and let simmer till everything is well flavored.
Torta salata di Lunigiana
A classic dish from the Lunigiana area, who have a long tradition of savoury pies using what is on hand, and that would be potatoes and leeks, though the leeks could be substituted or you can add other spontaneous herbs and greens to the recipe. The base is a simple dough made of flour, water and oil which is completed with a delicious filling - every family has their own variation and recipes are carefully guarded. This recipe requires either the Zeri or Regnano potato to exalt its true flavor.
Those in the province of Grosseto have a rather interesting way to make the meat go a little bit further with potato and pork filled sausages. This is not something you will easily find, in fact the butcher normally only makes it upon request. It can be consumed spread fresh (pre-cooked) on bread as an appetizer or, grilled pan with beans and sage.
Patate alle Brace
Jacket potatoes cooked in the ashes is a classic dish wherever you go. Some will wrap them in foil and some prefer to let the heat seep through the skins. The story tells us that in the town of Castelnuovo Magra, when the farmers would bring their olives to the mill, there would be a large fire which was fed by the excess after the pressing (the pulp, etc.) where the mill workers would heat water for the olive pressing. While the farmers waited their turn, they would roast potato alle brace (on the coals) to eat.
There are three special recipes that have been passed down that use the potato when grain was in short supply. This is just another inventive way that Tuscans made best use of what was available: chestnuts, potatoes and grain. The addition of the potato has an added plus which is the bread stays moister longer. Most of these recipes are found in northern Tuscany: Marocca di Casola, Pane di Regnano and Pane di Patate di Garfagnano
Probably not a traditional recipe, but definitely a delicious alternative. The birrificio just on the other side of the hills from Cetica, Birra BVS, has brewed us a craft beer - called Cetica - rather simple, but for the locals it definitely gives you the idea. Official Website
In Tuscany, when you got a good thing, you show it off which will explain why there are so many food festivals (sagras) and why they draw such large crowds. The potato might have made its culinary debut late in life but it has made up for it in the number of recipes and festivals that honor its presence. Here are a list of some of our favorites:
Roccastrada features the "Sagra della Patata" every July and you will find a complete menu based on potatoes. It is well over 16 years that crowds have been drawn to this little town, for its potatoes and unique beauty.
Regnano holds an annual festival in August to celebrate their special recipe for bread where the potato is one of the main protagonist.
Arcidosso in the province of Grosseto invites you to the "Sagra della Patata Macchiaiola" in August. The festival revolves around a variety that risks extinction, as do so many plants, fruits and trees that have adapted to very particular growing conditions, climates and soils. But that hasn't stopped the people in southern Tuscany from celebrating the potato.
Cetica has put quite a bit of effort into protecting their potatoes, so much so that these are one of the few types you can actually find in the supermarket. They hold a Sagra della Patata di Cetica every fall, and though it's not large, the location, menu and community make it a highlight you don’t want to miss.
The first Fiera di Santa Maria a Monte near Pisa took place 17 Agosto 1327, but it wasn’t until more recently that it featured their famous Tosca potato fried!
Every August the ladies of Corezzo get out their rolling pins and start preparing their totally secret, but ever delicious tortelli alla lastra. You won’t find this in a restaurant - but it is worth waiting in line. Among other things you will find tortelli di patate fritte (fried tortelli...and like the Italians say “Everything is delicious when fried, even your slippers” and you will find tortelli di patate with meat sauce or butter in sage...your choice.