If Italy is a boot, Tuscany is roughly at the knee cap and it is generally considered to be a cradle of culture. Think Florence. Think art. Think food. I try not to actually think about it too much for fear I might slip into a pleasant fugue and not return to my waking state for days.
A few years ago my mother gave me a few bottles of Extra Virgin Olive Oil bearing the name Tutta Toscana. She told me about a Texan, a Wichitan in fact, who had fallen in love with an Italian and Italy and now lived there and produced this peppery and luscious greenish gold oil. It really is a splendid oil.
Now I have been in touch with this wonderful woman, Betty Nadalini, since the birth of PIE. And she sends me recipes and good wishes and thoughts on food. As luck would have it, she and her husband, Cesare, sell the lion’s share of their oil here in the U.S. and they have family to visit and dote upon, so they make an annual pilgrimage to the states and I finally got to meet them in person. They offered to come to my home and make a simple Tuscan favorite with me and I jumped at the opportunity to taste their oils the way they intended them to be tasted.
Tuscan fare is known for its simplicity and reliance on excellent, fresh foods. This bruschetta calls for nothing more than good bread, a fresh tomato, extra virgin olive oil, a clove of garlic, fresh basil and salt. Simple, basic, high quality ingredients.
I’ve made bruschetta numerous times, and I have fussed and broiled and loaded and over-fussed and tried to innovate. And something divine slipped away in the process. The Nadalinis related to me that there are really two ways about it in Italy. There is the hands on method, where each guest picks up their toasted or grilled bread and dresses it to their liking. And then there is the alternate way, in which tomatoes are simply chopped up and mixed with a little basil and loaded onto grilled or toasted bread that has been lightly dressed with garlic and olive oil. I was reminded that in Italy, people really don’t use as much garlic as we tend to use here and they rarely use raw garlic, so restraint was recommended by my friends. And I was cautioned, and I can confirm, that salt is integral to this dish. It really makes the flavor of the tomato bloom and is not to be skipped.
Each slice of bread requires a quarter to a half of a tomato depending on which way you make the bruschetta, so plan your shopping list accordingly. Or, do as I will next time and just get a lot of fresh tomatoes and eat until they are gone. Choose a high quality bread. We used two different kinds. We used some of my homemade No Knead Bread which performed admirably, and we used a chewier, holier (if you will) bread from a local shop that actually worked a little better still. I would look for something of the latter nature. We used both Roma tomatoes and a cluster tomato. Both were great. Choose what looks the freshest.
And, here we go. I was charmed with the first method. I like the idea of getting my hands a little dirty and playing with my food. Take a few thin slices of bread and heat them in a grill pan or on a grill until they are hot and getting crisp on each side. Remove them to a platter. Meanwhile, cut a tomato into quarters. Also, have fresh basil leaves, salt and a peeled clove of garlic (cut in half so you have an exposed surface) handy. Open a bottle of extra virgin olive oil. Each person will take a slice of bread and lightly rub it with the raw garlic. Drizzle the bread with the oil. Take a tomato quarter and literally rub it into the bread. Sprinkle the bread with a little salt and garnish it with a few bits of torn basil leaves.
That is traditional Tuscan bruschetta. I love the tactile nature of the process and the ability of each person to work with their own food and to feel the ingredients.
While I was crossing my eyes in wonder over the not-at-all-subtle flavors that I had finally managed to not mask with bells and whistles, Betty had already prepared the second round of bruschetta. If you don’t want to bother with individual preparation, simply chop the tomatoes, perhaps drizzle a little oil into the tomatoes, and add a few leaves of fresh basil. Again, take the toasted or grilled bread and rub it with the cut garlic. Drizzle it with olive oil and adorn it with a pile of tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt.
I cannot overstate the simplicity of this process. Nor can I overstate how nice it is to eat a simple little meal of the freshest tomatoes and olive oil. There is something meditative about the process and enjoyment of this meal, not to mention the delight of the elemental flavors.
Why Tuscan, why Italian, why extra virgin? Well, simply put, it is a great starting place to educate yourself about olive oil. I am not an expert, by a long shot. I am on this journey too. But here is what I know. The olive growers in Tuscany take enormous pride in their oils. They ensure that one must comply with stringent standards of harvest and pressing in order to use the term “extra virgin olive oil.” There are many methods of harvesting and extracting olive oil, and the Tuscans do it the old fashioned way.
Each grower harvests the olives from the tree all at once. In many places, olives are allowed to fall to the ground and are collected after a few days once a sufficient quantity has “self harvested,” if you will. In Tuscany, olives are harvested from the trees by hand and are typically taken to the presses within 24 hours, if not a much shorter period of time. Then the olives are pressed mechanically, and only mechanically. By that I mean that no chemicals are added to speed or enhance the process.
Also, to be marketed as Tuscan extra virgin olive oil the olives must all be from Tuscany. That sounds rather obvious, but the next time you go to the grocery store I want you to spend some time reading labels on the oils. You will quickly see that very few of them are single source oils and that most of them say that they contain “quality extra virgin olive oils from Spain, Tunisia, Italy and Greece.” I’m not on a soapbox saying that you cannot get good oils elsewhere. In fact, Texas has an exciting and budding olive oil industry. However, how can one even begin learning about olive oil if you have NO IDEA the location from which it has come, how it was produced or its age?
Like wines, olive oils are often spoken of with regard to terroir. I, not being French looked this word up to make sure I have been saying it correctly and was overjoyed to learn that (for once) I was. It is pronounced “ter-wa” basically. It has to do with a sense of the earth from which an agricultural product comes, be it grapes, olives or tomatoes. Olive oils from Tuscany have a distinctive terroir. The taste of the oil informs you of the soil, the weather, the topography, etc. As you might guess, wine folks can get in a tizzy about the notion of terroir and what it actually means, but I will simply say that it means that you can taste an oil’s origin. You cannot learn this from a blended oil.
(While we are at it I might as well admit that I have been pronouncing this dish “bru-SHetta” for years and I can now say with confidence and have had it confirmed by an honest to goodness Italian that it is pronounced “brus-Ketta”.)
Olive oil is to be used fresh and new. Over time, the oil mellows and mellows and you will slowly lose a sense of the olives. The best is mechanically extracted with no use of chemicals or heat. That is what the Tuscans mean when they say “virgin” in this context. It is produced free of chemicals and heat. The “extra virgin” means that it has an acidity below .8%.
I will admit freely that I do not use $30 per bottle olive oil for all of my cooking. But when you are having a dish like this, where the olive oil is an integral part of the flavor profile, use good oil. If you are looking for Tuscan oil, make sure the bottle says that all of the olives are from Italy and that the oil was “extracted solely by mechanical means.” Not only will this mean that, by Italian law, you are getting actual “extra virgin olive oil” but that you are not being hoodwinked into paying $30 for a small bottle of old oil that is a blend of whatever a distributor could blend together for the lowest price. And, again, I’m not saying that those are bad oils, I am simply saying that if I am paying a premium price for something, I would like some guarantee that I am getting a premium product. Read your labels and you will learn a lot.
I have taken to giving fine olive oils as a hostess gift or birthday gift sometimes. At this stage of my life, I know little about wine, and olive oil can be a very special elixir, like a fine balsamic vinegar, that a person can enjoy over a period of time. I like the idea of giving a gift that will be a part of happy family meals and moments of cooking joy.
You can learn more about Betty and Cesare Nadalini by visiting the Tutta Toscana website. They actually have two different olive oils. The first uses olives from a neighboring olive grove called Poggio ai Littini which is called Tutta Toscana. And, the second is called Poggio a Mare di Toscana, which is an oil made using only the oil from their very own olive trees. You can also order this great oil from Flavors from Afar and if you live in Dallas, you can have it delivered by Artizone. Artizone is a new Dallas treasure that will actually deliver to your door some of the finest artisinal and gourmet foods Dallas has to offer. If you have not done so yet, be sure to make yourself aware of their offerings. I wish they had existed when I was still practicing law because I have a little fantasy about talking our office manager into having La Duni cakes delivered every Friday just to boost morale. I think it is a splendid fantasy, don’t you?
Someday…someday I am going to go to Tuscany to be a part of the harvest and pressing. That I promise you.
Thank you Betty and Cesare for spending the day with me.
Buon Appetito, friends.