For the stranger to Tuscany, one thing that needs getting used to is the bread. The local bread, known as pane sciocco, is made without salt and to many foreigners taste is bland at best. The other problem with it is that it goes hard very quickly and bread bought from the bakers in the morning may be rock hard by evening.
No-one knows exactly how the recipe for pane sciocco came about, but many attribute it to high taxes on salt in the Renaissance. I like to think that the tradition is much older than that because of a quotation from the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri, dating from the beginning of the 14th century.
In his poem, Paradiso, which tells the story of an imaginary visit to Heaven, Dante is told that he will be exiled from Florence. The speaker, Cacciaguida, Dante’s great-great-grandfather says:
‘Tu proverai sì come sa di sale lo pane altrui’ which translates as ‘You will see how salty the bread is elsewhere’. For me this has to be a reference to pane sciocco which, when you are used to it makes all other bread taste salty.
The Tuscans themselves tell the legend that the bread originated from a war, variously with Pisa or the Papal State, in which Pisa (or the Papal State) blockaded the supply of salt to Tuscany and so they started making saltless bread. When Tuscany won the war, they kept on making saltless bread as a point of pride.
Whatever the true story, and there are many other theories too, the fact remains that pane sciocco is still alive and well in Tuscany. And over the years many traditional recipes have grown up to use the bread once it is hard and to avoid throwing it away.
One such recipe is panzanella, which is a bread and tomato salad and very commonly eaten at this time of year. The bread is soaked in water and then squeezed dry and ends up with a similar consistency to couscous. It’s very quick and easy to make and so qualifies as a quick lunch. The traditional recipe, which I’ve translated from Pellegrino Artusi, is below but you can add in any other ingredients you like such as olives, capers, and so on. As you will see, from the photos, I added capers since I was fresh out of basil.
Stay tuned for other pane sciocco recipes coming soon. Buon appetito!
Preparation time: 15 mins
Rest time: 1 hr
Total time: 1 hr 15 mins
6 slices of stale pane sciocco
1 red onion
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
a pinch of salt
pepper to taste
1 bunch of basil
- Place the bread in a bowl and just cover it with water. Leave for 10 minutes. Then squeeze the water out and place in a salad bowl. Make sure that the bread is as dry as possible.
- Thinly slice the onion cucumber. Cut the tomatoes into eighths and mix all the vegetables together with the bread.
- Mix the oil, salt, pepper and vinegar together and beat with a whisk to form a dressing. Dress the salad with this.
- Leave in the fridge for at least an hour before serving with the basil leaves torn and scattered on top.