While smiling and pointing at your fellow diners' chosen dish may work when you order, here are a few tips about words that may help you decipher a menu in Central Tuscany.
Panzanella - Thrifty Tuscan farmwives have long had many ways to make a few good ingredients feed a crowd. This excellent cold first course, perfect on a summer’s evening, is also a handy way to use an extra or leftover loaf. Make sure it is the unsalted Tuscan white bread sold in every market or bakery.
Recipe: Cut the tomatoes into large dice and place in a colander set over a bowl. Salt and leave to drain while you prepare the other ingredients. Tear the bread into chunks about the same size as the tomatoes, put into a salad bowl and moisten with vinegar. Gently press the tomatoes to squeeze out the last juice, then put the flesh in the bowl. Stir the chopped anchovies and crushed garlic into the tomato juice and then whisk in the olive oil. Season to taste. Pour on to the salad and toss thoroughly. Roughly tear the basil leaves and sprinkle on top. Allow to sit for between 15 minutes and an hour, then serve.
Fungi, where Porcino is king -The wooded hills of central Tuscany are rich in mushrooms for which pickers, resident or tourist alike, are required to have a permit. Any pharmacy will check to make sure what you have in the basket is edible, but if you have doubts, why not sample the porcini and friends you find on menus in most local restaurants. Some are likely to been collected by the cooks who jealously guard their collection spot, so don’t bother asking.
The Many Faces of Affettati - A farming culture well understands the importance of using every part of an animal bred for the table and when you order a platter of Tuscan cold cuts, you will be struck by the variety: cured and cooked ham, salami from Sienese pig or wild boar, Finocchiona, flavoured with fennel, Soppressata, made of pork trimmings, Bresaola, a cured beef fillet and Lardo di Colonnata, cured and herbed lard, to name a few.
Carciofi - These tightly leaved Artichoke heads that stand tall above their large widespread leaves can be seen in all courses of a meal except dessert. The hearts are marinated and preserved in oil and become the basis for patés, pasta sauces or meat accompaniments or the artichoke is floured and fried to tenderness or stuffed with a mixture of sausage, cheese, garlic, herbs and breadcrumbs. It even appears in the Italian liqueur Cynar (16%) served as a digestive.
Tiramisù - Literally a ‘pick me up’, this ubiquitous cold coffee-flavored dessert is worth trying in an Italian restaurant if only to see what variation the chef has come up with. In any case it will consist of coffee drenched ladyfingers layered with a whipped mixture of eggs, sugar and mascarpone cheese flavoured with cocoa. What’s not to like?