Today I am feeling nostalgic for my Tuscan life of a few years ago, so I’m sharing one of my favourite foods that I ate there – the simple bruschetta, essentially a bit of toasted bread with a topping. Hardly gourmet, yet done well, simply one of life’s greatest food pleasures in my humble opinion (and you can probably join most Italians to that cause as well).
Before we start, just a little note on pronounciation. Before I learnt Italian, I’d have sworn blind that the correct way to say it was broo-schett-a, it felt authentically Italian to me, and I’d heard so many people pronounce it that way. But one of the first things I learned in Italian class (when we all went round mispronouncing all the Italian words we ‘knew’), was that I’d been saying it very wrong all those years. It is actually bru-skett-a. The ‘sch’ is pronounced with a hard ‘k’ in Italian. So now you know, and I have that off my chest.
So, bruschetta is a simple delight, but such a simple recipe is apparently harder than you might think to pull off. I have stopped ordering it in ‘Italian’ restaurants in the UK almost (unless you walk in and can tell instantly the proprietors are first generation italians). You get a spongy slice of bread, warmed rather than toasted, loaded with tomato, basil, huge chunks of mozzarella, and hardly any flavour. I’m afraid some of the guilt for this lies with the tomato, which simply does not seem to grow into such a delicious beast in England as in Tuscany, but who can blame it with our lack of sun? But much of the guilt lies with the chefs for overcomplicating the dish, and not properly respecting the ingredients. Often you will see travesties like pear and gorgonzola bruschetta, or chorizo and cheddar. Whilst worthy flavour combinations, they have no place on a dish which started out as a snack for farmers out in the fields. Can you tell yet I get quite upset about messing with Italian food? I used to be quite amused by locals’ insistence that their way was the best way, and only traditional ingredients should be used, but since leaving and trying so much awful food that has strayed from these traditional ways, I’ve come to agree with them and find myself thinking practically as an Italian about the importance of food integrity! I think three years in Florence have turned me native.
My first experience of making bruschetta was a couple of weeks into my Italian adventure, near Siena with a wonderful family whose farm we had visited to help with the olive harvest. We spent the day raking the trees for the fruit onto huge nets, and crating them up to go and be pressed into lovely olive oil. Afterwards we were treated to a delicious lunch in the garden – a huge wooden table groaning with fantastic local food, all of it made by Giulia, her mother, or grandmother.
The pasta in fact was handmade by me, under close instruction (in Italian, which I barely spoke at that point) from her Nonna. I felt like I had landed immediately into the Italian dream!
And then I tried the bruschetta. The bread was sliced and placed onto a huge grill in the garden, and then, hot and crunchy, pulled off, rubbed with a clove of garlic, drizzled with oil, sprinkled with salt and piled high on a plate. Technically, with no toppings, this is fettunta, not bruschetta, but either way, it was one of the most fragrant things I had ever eaten – the early-pressed olive oil had a heady aroma and combined with the sharp garlic flavour, and the smokiness of the bread grilled over coals – it was perfection. It probably helped that we had done several hours of hard labour and I’d spent the past hour in the kitchen being tortured by all the incredible food smells, but I still consider that one of my favourite food experiences ever.
Her Dad told me that it was a very traditional thing for farmers to eat in Tuscany. In the old days they would take a loaf of bread into the fields, and in the evenings, slice off a chunk and toast it over their fire. They would pour olive oil from a little bottle they carried, and, because the bread there is famously un-salted (blame it on Pisa blockading salt in 1100 apparently!) they would finish it with some salt on top. The birth of fettunta. In the south of Italy, farmers would rub their tomatoes on the bread as well, and the bruschetta was born. ‘Bruscare’ means to grill, hence the name. The addition of tomatoes was enthusiastically taken up in much of the rest of Italy (though some Tuscans firmly believe that only fettunta is authentic in their region), and now the best bruschetta is just that – tomatoes, olive oil, bread, garlic and salt. No need for onions, no need for basil (though I do appreciate basil is a beautiful ingredient, and add it to everything I possibly can, for this dish, leaving it out lets the other ingredients be the star of the show). Just simple, delicious.
Enough talking then, and on with the cooking!
Classic Tuscan Bruschetta
- Sourdough bread (the best equivalent to Tuscan bread, but ciabatta can also be used), sliced into 1-2cm thick slices, 2 slices per person
- Good quality tomatoes (1 per slice of bread)
- Olive oil (preferably young olive oil (olio nuovo))
- Bulb of garlic
- Several hours before you want to eat the bruschetta, dice the tomatoes and strain them of their juice before putting them in a bowl. Add a very generous sprinkling of salt. Taste it – it should be just slightly too salty at this stage, but don’t worry, it will end up perfect. Add a generous slug of olive oil, and mix. Cover and leave in the fridge.
- When you are ready to eat the bruschetta, peel your garlic so you have cloves ready to rub on your toasted bread. Then strain your tomatoes once more.
- Then, over a charcoal grill (or under the grill in your oven), grill the bread lightly so the edges are crispy but the inside is still soft.
- As soon as they come off the grill, take a clove of garlic and rub it all over the surface of the bread.
- Pile each slice of bread high with tomatoes, then drizzle with olive oil, and serve.
Bruschetta make the perfect appetizer before a meal, especially if you’re making something Italian, or they also make fabulous party food, and go very beautifully with a glass of crisp white wine, or equally a red. I hope that you will consider making them for your next get-together, though perhaps not quite like this:
And just because I have loved this trip down memory lane so much, a few more photos from that beautiful day in Tuscany! If these make you desperate to visit this stunning place, don’t panic – you can! You can meet Giulia and her family, and learn to cook incredible Tuscan food for yourself. Check out Giulia’s brilliant blog for more details on her cooking courses, and of course for some authentic Tuscan recipes.