Traditional Tuscan cuisine: La panzanella toscana, a delicacy already well known at the time of Boccaccio
When we think of Tuscany, our mind is immediately drawn to its cities which are rich in art and history, set in spectacular landscape contexts, among which Chianti, Val d'Orcia and Maremma Toscana stand out. The latter is a very characteristic territory which extends from the coast, where Lake Burano lies, to the inland area, touching Mount Amiata and the Metalliferous Hills. Right in heart of Maremma we can find Capalbio, an enchanting village that best embodies the soul of Tuscany: it has so much history, art, beautiful surrounding landscapes and also an excellent gastronomic heritage, the result of ancient peasant traditions. The “panzanella” is one of those delicacies that for centuries have been confirmed as one of the most symbolic dishes of traditional Tuscan cuisine, which was once appreciated by such famous people as Giovanni Boccaccio.
The origins of the “panzanella”
The “panzanella” is basically a delicious soup made from slices of slightly dry bread and vegetables and is ideal to be enjoyed during the summer, being fresh and easy to prepare. It’s difficult to find someone who does not like “panzanella”, as it is also a vegan dish that makes use of seasonal vegetables.
There have been many who praised the goodness of this dish in the past, and how can we not forget the prose of Giosuè Carducci, who talked about the farmers, returning home after a tiring day in the fields, who were looking forward to tasting the “panzanella”, with lots of basil and onions. Furthermore, we must remember the poem "Della cipolla", that the Mannerist painter Bronzino has always dedicated to the “panzanella”.
Not only the origins of this dish but also its curious name are rather unknown: there are those who think that the term comes from the word “panzana” understood as a lie, or as soft gruel or as the chatter that is made while eating it. It is also thought that the name panzanella refers to zanella, or the soup bowl where the bread was placed and, with it, all the other ingredients.
The birth of panzanella is traced back, as the peasant dish it is, to a meal that the farmers enjoyed. They used bread which was a few days old, and then seasoned it with vegetables from the garden. However, there is another theory which instead calls into question the fishermen, who apparently used to wet stale bread with sea water, which softened and salted it.
However, the most curious of all is the legend of Blessed Colombini: it is said that the holy man, who belonged to one of the most important families of Montalcino, wandered around the countryside trying to help the poor and homeless during the plague that struck Tuscany in 1352. At one point, feeling desperate due to the famine, he turned his eyes to heaven and burst into tears: his tears bathed the earth and the bread he held in his hands. Hence the birth of the “panzanella” and the custom of reusing stale bread by wetting it with water.
The ingredients of the “panzanella” and where to eat it
To prepare the panzanella the ingredients are: in addition to bread that is a few days old, typical seasonal summer vegetables, such as onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, salt, vinegar and extra virgin olive oil (some also add hard boiled egg and tuna). Bread is the main ingredient of panzanella and Tuscan bread, which is made without salt, should be used. In the past it was one of the few things to be found on the tables of both the poor and the rich and it was often softened in vinegar and water, which the Roman legionaries often drank to quench their thirst during their long campaigns. The tradition of wetting dry bread is however very ancient, so much so that Boccaccio himself, a writer of the fourteenth century, speaks of "washed bread" that is wet.
During your holidays in Capalbio you can not miss enjoying a few lunches and dinners at one of the local restaurants, in search of the best “panzanella”: even the surrounding area of Capalbio offers many solutions, but you don’t need to move far from the Tuscan village. For example, just outside the historic center of the town is the Capanna di Sant'Irma, precisely in Via Monteverro: it is a very characteristic structure in the unmistakable Maremma style, surrounded by unspoilt nature. Here you can taste a variety of grilled meat and an excellent panzanella, prepared with local products and accompanied by house wines such as Capalbio Bianco DOC. You can also eat outdoors, in a rural environment which is enhanced by the presence of a riding school.
Hotel Residence Valle del Buttero
The Hotel Residence Valle del Buttero is the perfect solution for those who would like to stay right in the heart of Capalbio, not far from Piazza Magenta, situated in the centre of the village where every year events and exhibitions, that attract many V.I.P.s to Capalbio, are held. If we consider the Technogym fitness area, the garden and the swimming pool, nothing is really missing and guests can only feel pampered: they will also find a pleasant welcome toiletries set in the rooms, made only from olive oil, and its scent evokes the wonderful Maremma lands.
From the hotel, from which you can easily walk to several restaurants in the village in order to discover the typical Tuscan cuisine, you can organize a series of activities in Capalbio, starting from excursions to the symbolic places of the Maremma, starting for example from Orbetello; and here in July, to be precise in San Donato, the Festival of Panzanella and Barbecued Pork is held. Do not miss a visit to the Nature Reserve of Lake Burano where numerous species of bird come to winter amongst the Mediterranean scrub and lagoon, and they can be seen from the many watchtowers that dot the reserve. Also worth seeing is the Orbetello Lagoon, with its Spanish mill scenically located in the centre of the lagoon, which is frequented by pink flamingos, herons and black-winged stilt known as “cavaliere d’Italia”.