By Rachel Orland
Tuscany is just one of Italy’s many unique regions. Each region has its own defining landscapes, climate, scenery and, of course, food. When I first walked out of the train station in Arezzo, I was greeted by unending waves of rolling green hills covered with fields and gardens. I knew I would be in for fresh food when I saw all the farms and agriculture, andI couldn’t wait for our first dinner.
We sat down at a restaurant called Osteria di Mercanti and ordered drinks while we looked over the menu. Our waiter brought out a bowl of sliced white, fluffy bread with a crunchy golden crust. Every cuisine has their own interpretation of complimentary appetizers. Mexican restaurants have chips and salsa, American restaurants often provide rolls and, as I recently learned, Tuscan restaurants provide Tuscan bread. However, this bread was not the Olive Garden breadstick I was expecting. They provide olive oil and balsamic to go with it, but I was so hungry after my long day of travel that I couldn’t be bothered to dip it in the oil mixture. Greedily digging in once the bowl was set down, I grabbed a slice and took a big bite. It was like biting into a cloud expecting a cotton candy flavor. The salty flavor that normally permeates fluffy bread was suspiciously absent. There was no garlic butter on the crust or rosemary sprinkled on top. The crust was hard and crunchy, and the inside was soft but lacking. We all began to grab slices and one by one, confused looks dawned on all the faces at our table. Not understanding what I was eating, I began to wonder why it was flavorless. We all slowly realized that this was not America’s version of Italian bread.
This bread goes beyond a simple, saltless palette-prepper to munch on before meals. As I discovered on my travels around the different regions of Italy, the bread is unique to Tuscany and has a long history. One explanation for the bland bread is a tale of rivalry in the medieval times between the cities of Florence and Pisa. Pisa, positioned fortuitously near the sea, cut off Florence’s salt supply that arrived through the sea port in an attempt to force them to surrender. Another less exciting explanation is that all of Italy suffered a period of severe poverty, and Tuscany and all its cities couldn’t afford the tax that came with the luxury of salt. Whether from rivalry or poverty, the saltless bread has survived through the years and is still served at every Tuscan restaurant today, hundreds of years later.
While the bread is flavorless on its own, Italians are no novices at adding flavor and spice. The bread is often served with bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I have learned the patience it takes to pour some oil and vinegar onto a plate instead of just eating plain bread is worth it. Dipping the bread into this mixture adds a fatty smoothness and a piercing savoury acidity. Though the lack of salt was initially a shock, after learning how to dress it up, I’ve come to appreciate the history Tuscan bread embodies.
Editors: Grace Tipps, Aly O'Shea, Taylor Glissman
Photographer: Emily Turner