The Mysteries of Ricotta Cheese - a rather cheesy story!
The Italian ricotta is a simple cheese that can be enjoyed as it is or used as a key ingredient for sweets and main courses. The chefs of Tuscookany can introduce you to dozens of recipes that include this soft, natural wonder shipped directly from the mysterious cheese land. You should come around to one of the Tuscookany villas when our kitchen is conquered by the aroma of the famous Sicilian cannoli and cassata: yes, ricotta cheese is the secret of those delicious funny looking sweets , and yes, they are amazing. If you don’t have a sweet tooth, you will be surprised by the gift ricotta has for you: ravioli, cannelloni, and pretty much every possible stuffed pasta recipe you can think about. As a matter of fact this is the first ricotta mystery you should be aware of:
1) Ricotta has a double, sweet and salty soul.
The versatility of this cheese is topped only by its healthy constitution. The Italian ricotta, in fact, is made of whey, which makes it naturally low fat. Yes, you finally found a cheese that won’t make you feel guilty about your own cravings. So, let’s get one thing clear:
2) Ricotta is not fatty, it is healthy.
As for its origin, let’s start with the name. As it often happens, especially in the case of ingredients and recipes, the etymology of a word hides the secrets of its meaning. Ricotta comes from the Latin “recoctus” , which quite literally means cooked twice. Now, why would you call something “cooked twice”? During the production of cheese such as Pecorino, Caciotta or Parmesan, as the curdling phase begins the milk is divided from the whey. This is when the whey is collected and cooked again: welcome to the world, Ricotta. Let’s recap it, then:
3) Ricotta means cooked twice, from the Latin “recoctus”.
As you probably guessed, pretty much every Italian region has its own local recipes and traditions when it comes to ricotta cheese. In Carlantino, for instance, not far from Foggia, every year there is a peculiar festival dedicated to the Madonna della Ricotta (Virgin Mary of the ricotta cheese). It is a tradition that comes from a habit the shepherds developed through the centuries. In order to find fields for their animals free from the taxes of the landlords, these ingenious fellows used to travel to Monte San Giovanni, which had no owners. On top of this mountain, there was an emblem, which then became a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary where the shepherds used to leave gifts to express their thankfulness: milk and ricotta. Yes, you heard it right:
4) In Italy, there is a Virgin Mary of the ricotta cheese.
Italians love it, but ricotta cheese can be traced back to the origin of human kind. In fact, historians have claimed this special food is probably one of the most ancient types of cheese ever conceived by the Homo sapiens. Some civilizations even thought it was a matter of mythical roots. The Greeks, for instance, thought that ricotta cheese was discovered by Artiseo, son of the god Apollo and the beautiful nymph Cirene. Ricotta is also mentioned in the Odyssey, more specifically when Ulysses meets Polyphemus. Apparently, the hero loved it so much he decided to risk his life with the giant Cyclops, who was a crafty producer of ricotta, in order to taste some. Well, we have to admit it:
5) Ricotta cheese is a matter of gods and heroes.
And what about the Italians? It is said that Giotto, when he was a kid, used to be a shepherd and dreamt about being an artist. Inspired by the bucolic soul of the magic ricotta cheese, he carved on a rock the image of a sheep and a bowl of ricotta. As he was doing so, Cimabue passed by. He was a famous master known all over the country. The young Giotto offered him some ricotta. The master accepted the gift, noticed the carving and was so impressed he decided to offer the kid free art lessons… and the history of art changed forever. We better be thankful:
6) If you like Giotto and art, say “thank you, ricotta!”
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Photo: "The flavours of Tuscany" Sughi e primi piatti page 80 Tortelli di patate di Cetica al ragù
Ragu: Is there a perfect recipe for this delicious meat sauce?
Ragu (meat sauce), also known as "bolognese sauce" around the world, is one of the most famous sauces in the world. If you haven’t tried it yet on pasta, you probably tasted it while you enjoyed lasagne, or as a stuffing for the famous cannelloni. Everybody knows this delicious sauce, but very few people know where the name ragu (ragù in Italian) comes from. It comes from the French word ragoût, chopped up meat stewed with tomato and other ingredients.
Many of the travellers and adventurers who visit Torre del Tartufo, the living heart of Tuscookany, sooner or later end up asking for it. Still, chefs all over the planet have been asking for quite some times if there is a perfect ragu recipe. The questions are seemingly endless. Should you use pork meat and dairy? Is it a matter of slow cooking? Maybe it all depends on whether or not you use red wine, or maybe is all about personal taste?
Truth be told, this wonderful meat sauce varies in the different regions of Italy. It is an expression of the changing Italian landscapes, a mirror of the many micro cultures that constitute the most precious Italian treasure. The ingredients vary depending on availability and traditions, but the most famous one was born in Emilia and then spread to Tuscany. The meat sauce of Naples has also an old tradition and often the people of Campania, where Naples is situated, claim their region is the birthplace of the original recipe. The main difference is how the meat is chopped, bigger in the Neapolitan version, and the habit in Bologna to add some sausage, making it thicker. The real secret of a good meat sauce, however, is hidden in the quality of its ingredients and in the time needed to make it cook gently so that meat can flavor tomato with its taste, while aromatic herbs and vegetables can mix up together in a perfect symphony.
A little side note here is necessary. In the Italian cuisine, you always need to consider details and traditions. In this case remember that, even if they are both important in the cuisine of Emilia, meat sauce and spaghetti must not be mixed up together. The people of Bologna would never do that, and the Tuscans know it too well. In fact, the ideal companions are tagliatelle, lasagne, and almost any egg-pasta and also dried "small" pasta. But then again at Tuscookany we believe in the kitchen there are no rules so if you like spaghetti with Ragu or a filled pasta with ragu – go for it!
An essential ingredient of a good Bolognese/Tuscan ragu is a pinch of imagination, which Italians certainly have. Therefore, the meat sauce had to be adapted depending on available ingredients. You can have wild game ragu (fantastic with polenta [cornmeal mush]), duck ragu, Chianina ragu, vegetarian ragu... some people also add grated pecorino cheese or Parmesan cheese, a little raw extra virgin olive oil, and the magic is done.
Poor families had a special recipe with chicken livers, hearts and offal instead of beef or pork meat. Even though it might seem unusual, these "poor" meats, properly cooked by allowing them all the necessary time to boil in a ripe tomato sauce, become a delicious sauce, with a strong yet exquisite taste, that has nothing less than the noble and traditional recipe.
Learn how to cook this wonderful culinary treasure with our Tuscookany chefs, a wonderful sauce the people of both Emilia Romagna and Tuscany consider part of their own heritage.
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Six things you didn’t know about the Tuscan Ribollita Soup
The famous Tuscan Ribollita soup made at Tuscookany. Comforting and delicious!
Find out six things you didn’t know about the Tuscan Ribollita Soup and come and join one of our cooking classes in Tuscany this season.
Tuscookany and its amazing chefs are very proud of their Ribollita. It is a wonderful recipe, one of the finest bread soups in the entire world and a cornerstone of the Tuscan cuisine. As a matter of fact, it is quite impossible to visit Tuscany without meeting the aroma of this culinary gem. Beyond its famous texture, however, the Tuscan Ribollita hides a few secrets not many people know about.
1.When the leftovers become the main course
The real trick behind this dish resides in the ancient wisdom that has governed the Italian traditions for centuries, according to which nothing in the kitchen should be wasted. The Ribollita wasn’t born in the house of some aristocratic family or the kitchen of a prince: it is the son of the poorest Tuscan women, who regularly collected the leftovers and turned them into a triumph of flavours with their creativity and art.
2. Something about the recipe: there is no recipe
Because of its origins, the Ribollita doesn’t have a single “proper” recipe, one that was written in ancient times to be then passed down from generation to generation. People added to it whatever they had in their kitchen. Of course, bread was a constant protagonist in the poor Tuscan houses, just like cabbage, which grew also in the winter and didn’t require much to survive, onions and beans (one of the key ingredients in peasant cuisines around the globe). Everything else was a matter of availability.
3. Cook it and recook it
Just like the name suggests (Ribollita means reboiled), the dish was often cooked more than once. The poor farmers used to heat up their Ribollita day after day to serve it hot. Plus, there was no fridge and the boiling process was helpful to avoid the deterioration of the food. Everyday, new leftovers were added to the mix causing a constant change of flavours.
4. It is a religious dish, for a couple of reasons
As time went by, the Ribollita became a classic Friday dish. For religious reasons, in fact, Catholics should avoid meat, gravies and elaborated sauces on Fridays: this bread soup was the perfect choice. Plus, the people of Tuscany love the dish so much it is almost considered sacred: definitively a religious dish.
5. There is a certain way to eat it properly
One of the classic curiosities that characterize this famous dish is the way in which it is traditionally enjoyed: with your right hand you should hold the spoon, ready to be filled with the soup; in your left hand there should be an onion. Then, the dance begins: a spoon or two of soup followed by a bite of onion. Truth be told, this is how many farmers still eat their Ribollita today. Sometimes the soup is so thick you actually eat it with a fork!
6. Something you should know about the pepper
Black pepper is considered a key ingredient of the Ribollita, as the chefs of Tuscookany will confirm you. However, black pepper used to be a very expensive spice, and the poor farmers could not have access to it. However, the smart Tuscans collected peppercorns from the leftovers of the feudal lords (especially from the salami that was thrown away). The spice added a pinch of character to the already strong flavour of the Ribollita, and it turned out to be the perfect final touch.
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Thanksgiving and celebrating the harvest
In few countries, gastronomy is connected to seasons like in Italy. The farming customs, the strong connection with nature as well as the family and ritual oriented culture, have helped create a lasting bond between flavours and emotions.
One of the most suggestive seasons is undoubtedly autumn, This season marks a crucial transition. After two seasons living in the fields, in the open air, from sowing to harvest, everything suddenly changes. Products are different, fireplaces are lit, family gathers together and while outside the leaves turn yellow and the sky turns grey, old stories, legends and fairy tales are told around the fire. For children as well as for adults, the crackling fire hides a delicious surprise: roast chestnuts. This is the season for cooking chestnuts on burning fire, allowing their skin to brown, wrapping them in a cotton cloth, like a blanket and peeling them, burning one's fingers a little.
There is always a cooking pot on the fire and one of the ingredients was a fruit with summer colours: the pumpkin. Thanks to its sweet and chestnut-like flavour, it was a good base for restoring soups and these two ingredients were often mixed together to create some sweetish and familiar pasta. This tradition is revived every year.
Very different traditions meet up in the same ritual. In the United States for instance, Thanksgiving Day dates back when the Pilgrim Fathers gathered in the city of Plymouth to give thanks for the harvest. In this holiday, just like in Italy, the pumpkin reigns, as well as traditional turkey. While there is a commitment, also present in Italian celebrations, that strongly bonds this holiday to autumn and to the ritual of harvest: it is inconceivable to celebrate at the restaurant.
Thanksgiving Day is related to the traditional gathering of the family that give thanks to what nature has given in the moment of taking stock, when the harvesting is done and, whatever the result might have been, if family can gather together and eat, the year has been successful.
Are you looking for some interesting dishes to celebrate this beautiful season and enjoy Thanksgiving? Tuscookany chefs have the following suggestions: Franco Palandra - our Italian chef at Torre del Tartufo – recommends Guinea fowl with Jerusalem artichokes, grapes and chestnuts. Laura Giusti – our Italian and Mediterranean chef and the author of the Tuscookany cookbook "The flavours of Tuscany" – thinks Pumpkin soup and Pumpkin nut bread would be great for your thanksgiving table, while Paola Baccetti – the Tuscookany Italian chef at Casa Ombuto – suggests Maltagliati with pumpkin, leek sauce and chestnut flour.
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Photo: "The flavours of Tuscany" Antipasto page 34 Bruschetta with Porcini mushrooms and garlic bread
What are Porcini Mushrooms and when were they discovered?
Probably the finest mushrooms you will ever eat, you can call them porcini (if you are in Italy -which actually means piglets) penny buns (if you live in England) or cèpes (if you live in France), but one thing will never change, it doesn’t matter where you are: they are absolutely delicious. As the Tuscookany chefs confirm, porcini mushrooms are one of the symbols of the beautiful Tuscan autumn that turns the last few months of the year into a celebration of smells and colors. The fungus was first described by Pierre Bulliard, a French botanist, towards the end of the 18th century - more precisely, around 1782: the year is dangerously close to the date of the French Revolution, but apparently the famous porcini didn’t play a significant role in that particular occasion, or at least none that we know of. Besides being a French “discovery”, penny buns are easy to find across the Northern Hemisphere. Still, here is an interesting curiosity: these mushrooms were only recently introduced in the Southern Hemisphere, and it certainly wasn’t a natural occurrence
Where can you find Porcini mushrooms?
Whoever crosses the Italian borders can’t fail to notice the love the inhabitants of the peninsula feel for the mushrooms that grow naturally in the woods, under beeches, oaks, pine and chestnut trees when the leaves turn yellow and red. In Tuscany, in the weekly markets of small and big towns, it is quite impossible not to encounter the aroma of porcini during in the fall. And if autumn is not your season, you will find them throughout the year dried and carefully sealed in bags to preserve their qualities.
How to prepare Porcini mushrooms?
The taste of these mushrooms, with notes of hazelnut and a smoked touch, is considered by the Tuscans and by the Tuscookany chefs as a real treat. Cook them with pasta, sauces, soups, pan-fried or grilled with butter for on Bruschetta (toasted bread), the result will always be a masterpiece that will conquer the spaces of your home and soul with its unmistakable scent.
You can enjoy them as the main ingredient of a warm soup, combined with seasonal vegetables to complete a dish that expresses all the flavors of a Tuscan autumn - and as the Tuscookany experience will teach you, choosing organic, local, seasonal ingredients is the best way to live a healthy life and treat yourself with recipes that reflect not only your mood but also the landscape that surrounds you. You can also mix them with legumes and herbs to create a perfectly balanced and highly nutritious meal that can comfort you and your guests with its earthy embrace. And what about a serving of pappardelle with porcini mushrooms? An unforgettable first course for a special dinner with the person you love. Open your mind and let your taste guide you through the flavors of this enchanting season in one of the most wonderful regions of our planet, Tuscany.
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Did you know this about Tuscan pecorino cheese?
As the Tuscookany’s chefs will confirm, the Tuscan pecorino is an incomparable cheese, with a unique character that makes it recognizable among any other dairy products: a masterpiece made with ewe's milk. Plus, it has a very long history, a tale sculpted in the landscapes of the region where the Tuscookany’s villas welcome all the travellers who love good food.
According to some records, it dates back to the Etruscans and its ancient name was "cacio marzolino" (March cheese). It was called so because its production started right in March. Probably women passed down the recipe of this fine cheese because, in a late 18th Century's record of Francesco Mulinelli, it is stated that the girls to be married brought a dowry of how to make this precious pecorino to their new family. Changes had occurred over the years because of improvements and scientific developments, yet pecorino's flavor still now comes from a traditional production that brings back to that first cheese traded by the Etruscans.
Other regions in Italy have their Pecorinos too, but the Tuscan one has a unique history and it's a main ingredient of all regional cuisine: this is why our chefs love to use it and to introduce its wonderful taste to all our guests. There are basically two types of pecorino cheese: the fresh one, that is soft and maturated for at least 20 days, and the aged one, whose maturation time is at least of 120 days. Compared to pecorinos of bordering regions (Umbria and Lazio), the Tuscan one is characterized by its peculiar sweetness and personality that discloses gradually. It tastes clean, yet slighlty flavour, sour, spicy and astringent. The whole thing in a dry, not sticky and rather crumbly bulk. Thanks to its organoleptic properties, Pecorino is a very balanced cheese, with a strong yet gentle character, with no undesired peaks and easy to pair.
Speaking of pairings, "cheese bread and wine" has been the most ancient combination and the main sustenance for farmers and peasants over many centuries. Here are some ideal wines to pair with fresh Tuscan Pecorino: white Parrina, Vernaccia di San Gimignano and Bianco di Pitigliano, and for aged Tuscan Pecorino you can choose between Brunello di Montalcino, Carmignano or Morellino di Scansano. Pecorino is very good, as well as with wine and bread - the Tuscan bread being with almost no salt at all - also with honey, mixed berries jam and, in order to enhance its spicy taste, even with chilli jam. Soft and young pecorino is delicious if eaten with dried tomatoes, because they can enhance its flavour that is not too much high and its astringent notes.
Even the rounded flavour of nuts can be perfectly paired with this extraordinary cheese; a delicious and easy to make recipe, in fact, mixes homemade fresh pasta, nuts, excellent Tuscan extra virgin olive oil, pepper and parsley. In this recipe, you must grate the cheese, chop the nuts, add parsley, salt and pepper and mix it all with the oil so to get an extraordinary creamy sauce to put on the pasta.
A curious anecdote says that on St. Anthony's Day crosses were marked in the stamps, by using some boughs, so that a cross would remain impressed in every wheel of cheese in honour of the Saint Protector of animals. You can still find some cheeses with this particular mark.
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Photo by Tuscookany cookbook "The flavours of Tuscany" page 142
La Bistecca Fiorentina! The queen of the steaks
Literally “fiorentina” means “from Firenze”. This is arguably one of the cornerstones of the Tuscan culinary traditions, and that’s why our Tuscookany chefs choose it as one of the key dishes when a special occasion comes around – like the welcoming dinner of every cooking course here at Tuscookany!
The origin of this recipe - which is really not complicated at all, as long as you have the right cut of meat - are unknown. What is known, however, is that the people of Florence have been enjoying this bistecca for at least 600 years.
In order to cook it, you need a 2 1/2 to 3 inch-thick porterhouse, cut from the rear end of the short loin, that weighs no less than 600 to 800 grams (t-bone included) and comes from a Maremmana or Chianina oxen. Seasoned with salt, pepper and a touch of olive oil, the juicy steak is cooked on a charcoal grill for no more than 5 minutes per side. Some people like to brush it with a branch of rosemary while it cooks. Simple and tender, it is paradise on earth for the Tuscan meat lovers. Enjoy it with a glass of local wine: a combination you must taste during your trip across Tuscany.
It is said that la Bistecca Fiorentina was already famous when the Medici family was in town. For those of who don’t know, we are talking about the family many historians consider the beating heart of the Italian Renaissance. “I was here when the Renaissance flourished, and I was born in the city where the Renaissance was conceived”, this is what la Bistecca Fiorentina could say. Not a bad answer to the classic “where are you from” question, wouldn’t you agree?
Here is a curiosity. Do you know where the Italian word “bistecca” comes from? From the Latin? No. From some ancient obscure language? Not at all. It comes from the English beefsteak! Now, why would the Italians use an English term to label one of their culinary masterpieces? Well, let me explain. On the 10th of August, the people of Florence come together for the famous Festa di San Lorenzo. This festa has been organized for centuries around the Basilica di San Lorenzo, which is one of the oldest - and one of the most beautiful - churches in Florence.
What happens during this wonderful feast? Apart from the religious celebrations, San Lorenzo means free food. And you know what people cook on that day? Yes, precisely: la Bistecca Fiorentina. It is said that once upon a time (we don’t know exactly when) a group of English rich men was in Florence precisely on the 10th of August. These gentlemen loved meat and they did nothing but asking for “beefsteak” all night. The people of Florence, after that evening, decided to take “beefsteak” and turn it into “bistecca”.
For some reason, I’ve always like this story... maybe because I adore this “beefsteak”! By the way, don’t call it “Fiorentina”, if you can, because that’s also the name of the football team of the city. It’s not a big deal, of course, I am pretty sure people will understand you anyway if you are in a restaurant. However, remember: Bistecca Fiorentina (or Bistecca alla Fiorentina) is the proper name of this juicy culinary masterpiece.
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Cantucci and Vin Santo- a heavenly combination which is made at Tuscookany and savored after dinner.
Photo by Tuscookany cookbook "The flavours of Tuscany" page 206
Cantucci and Vin Santo- a heavenly combination which is made at Tuscookany and savored after dinner.
The delicious Cantucci are fragrant little treats made of flour, eggs, pine nuts and almonds. They are the kings of the Italian biscotti, the representation par excellence of our love for the sweet, crunchy notes that make life worth living. Some people believe the “original” recipe of the modern Cantucci was conceived in the charming city of Prato. What we know for sure it that they are the product of ancient Tuscan traditions. Like it often happens in the Italian peninsula, where the most famous dishes come from the kitchen of the poor villagers, every recipe handed down from generation to generation has its own little variation: a personal touch, a secret ingredient, a pinch of something special grandma added because she loved it too much. That’s why some people make Cantucci with acacia honey while others choose orange blossom honey, and there are families who believe you just can’t make the real Tuscan Cantucci without sugar. My grandma always used butter and I adored her Cantucci and their soft heart, but I know many families who like them dry and rustic, and even use whole, unpeeled almonds to underline the rough texture, the perfect companion for the sweetness of the classic Vin Santo. At Tuscookany, all our chefs have their own special Cantucci recipe, and they are all delicious.
Talking about Vin Santo (literally, Holy Wine), this sweet ambrosia has an equally long story behind its sweet notes. According to an ancient legend, during the year when the Black Death invaded Italy (in 1348) a Dominican friar distributed a beverage to the victims of the terrible plague, a wine, precisely, telling them it was a miraculous drink, a holy liquid. Maybe, however, the name of this mystical wine comes for the season when the grapes were traditionally collected and the wine bottled, November, which is the month of the Saints. Whatever the truth is, the Vin Santo is velvety like a liquor, inebriating, with a lingering nutty aroma. At the end of the meal, dipping homemade Cantucci, which are crunchy and rich in nutty notes – thanks to the almonds, in a glass of classic Vin Santo it’s a celebration of a perfect contrast that creates a unique, unmistakable harmony.
This wine is great also with Italian cheese and salty recipes, which is surprisingly another element that brings Vin Santo and Cantucci together. The famous Tuscan treats, in fact, used to be cut from bread and toasted, and they were basically salty. Almonds became part of the recipe later and in the eighteenth century honey arrived, which finally turned them into a charming dessert that was both simple and refreshing. Sugar and honey functioned also as preservatives, a quality that allowed the Tuscan villagers to package and share their invention. That’s how the Cantucci entered the taverns, where travellers coming from all over Europe met their crunchiness and fell in love with them.
The Cantucci are little cookies, but it is important to underline the erroneous use of the word “biscotti”, which in the United States (and in each and every Starbucks on Earth) is used to label the classic Tuscan dessert. The word biscotto comes from the Latin panis biscotus, which means bread that was cooked twice. Historically, in fact, just like it happened with the Cantucci, many bread-based recipes used to be toasted, which made them crunchy and more durable. Then, the name began to be used to indicate little dry desserts made with sugar, honey, flour and other ingredients. However, in Italy the term biscotti doesn’t indicate a single recipe, but it is an almost perfect translation of the American cookie. This said, the fact that our Cantucci have been somehow mistaken for the representation of an entire category, the Italian biscotti, is a clear sign of their deliciousness!
The Cantucci are irresistible. In fact, Franco (the chef of the Tuscookany Italian cookery course at Torre del Tartufo) always knows where the owners have been: he just has to follow the empty cookie jars! The Vin Santo/Cantucci combination, however, carries with it also an anecdote and an important lesson. Like the count Ugo Contini Bonacossi used to say, the sweet binomial reminds us to respect the table where we sit to enjoy our dinner and lunch. Those who are unable to slow down, meditate, and taste their food, the Italian way to have a nice meal, will end up greedily dipping the Cantucci in the wine. In doing so, they will ruin the holy beverage with crumbles and pieces of almonds. As any proud Tuscan can confirm, this is a sacrilegious crime that forces the guest to drink Vin Santo soiled with pieces of cookie. If you respect both wine and cookies, however, you learn to cultivate your patience, slow down, touch the wine quickly with the Cantucci, wait enough time to let the cookie absorb the liquid and then enjoy the triumph of taste. This is how a masterpiece should be enjoyed: slowly and carefully.