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The cuisine of Arezzo

Some anthropo-historic notes on the cooking of Tuscany – Arezzo

Original Text in Italian by prof. Franco Cardini

The poet D’Annunzio devoted the first four sonnets of his collection, La cittá del Silenzio, to Arezzo, the town of the mysterious Chimera, in a time – more than a century ago – when the invasive tourism that fills today’s Tuscany was unimaginable. However, even nowadays, besides the attraction of the frescos by Piero della Francesca or the kermesse of the Giostra del Saracino in the fall, the town that Dante had described as inhabited by “botoli ringhiosi” has remained on the sidelines, brushed but not invaded by mass tourism, isolated between the hot plane, once a marsh, of the Chiana and the forests of Casentino, with the Trasimeno lake shining in the distance and the beautiful Sienna and Perugia that have threatened its territory since forever.

It’s been said that Arezzo is Tuscan in the same measure as Perugia is Umbrian, and that actually the two cities could exchange region without losing their features: it becomes clear in Cortona, that can be considered the result of this proximity, of this emotional “contamination.” The triangle Arezzo-Sienna-Perugia is a kind of sub-region on its own, that fades between Tuscany and Umbria with a strong aroma from the nearby Latium. This theorem could appropriately be carried out when talking about food as well. And about wines. All cities are closely linked to their surrounding territory, that is obvious. However, it is especially so for Arezzo. After the soil reclamation of the Valdichiana and with the Trasimeno that is drying out, its old cuisine, rich in fresh water and marsh fish together with the game is disappearing, while the variety of the soups that have been feeding the local farmers has been getting diluted in a series of variations, all similar to one another, the so-called “panzanelle” (that in some restaurants are labeled as Tuscan Bread Salad, something that can make you smile) once mainly created to use the stale bread (because when it comes to things to eat, nothing must be thrown away) and “acquecotte” (cooked waters).

In the cooking of Arezzo, where traditions and local ingredients that come from the low plains of the Chiana and the hills of the Casentino intersect,, the simple, high quality products excel, like the aged hams and the dried salami (with some interesting experiments in the field of the cooked and even smoked ones), as well as the meats –  game too: wild boar has a prominent role, but we can also find roe deer and even deer – from the traditional barbequed and oven baked preparations to the less traditional ragout and stewed preparations where, compared to the Middle Ages, the spices have perhaps being reduced, but tomato has been added, while wine remains the constant.

A thriving traditional activity has innovatively upgraded the entire sector of the cured meats and sausages reaching very high levels in quality and variety, as well as the cheese sector with its connected range of honeys, of the fruit and vegetable sauces and of the mustards. Moreover the wines and the oils from the Arezzo territory have reached levels that have nothing to envy to those, more famous, of the Florence, Sienna and Lucca areas. But the queen of the table of Arezzo, even if it is not so prepared so often because of the length of its preparation and perhaps due to dietary prejudices, is the “scottiglia.” A very slow stew, that must be preceded by knowledgeable marinades of the meats – in lemon, in olive oil, in vinegar, in wine – and that has an infinite variety of preparations when it comes to its basis (usually a soffritto with extra virgin olive oil, garlic and fresh herbs, mostly laurel and tarragon) to which garlic, onion, potatoes and carrots are added – some love adding turnip greens or apples or peeled tomatoes, dried or fresh fruit, finely chopped or mashed in the mortar; then we need a good amount of red wine (usually Chianti or Sangiovese) that should never be of poor quality, as the stingy hearsay would recommend for a wine used to cook.

I am not suggesting to use the great wines, but better the wine, more substantial is the result. And then, the meats, that must be added to the compote of olive oil, wine and vegetables. The scottiglia is a land cacciucco: as such, it was certainly born to use, through long cooking and skillful seasonings, also meats that were considered almost waste: that were starting to be old, coming from an old animal and therefore a bit tough, etc. Precisely like in the cacciucco, prepared exactly with what was left at the bottom of the nets. In the old days, pultry was the main source: that means that the old scottiglia was mainly chicken, gander, duck, rabbit: varied game like hare and perhaps wild boar must have entered with times; the wild boar would open the door to the pig, that would later enter with great pump (but careful, that the pig of those days was much more wild and therefore similar to the wild boar than we now think).

I think it is fair to say that capon and turkey were avoided and that no poultry game was added (partridge or pheasant). Absolutely excluded were donkey or horse meats, that in Tuscany were actually not as used as in other regions. Lastly, cattle arrived: veal and beef, more and more widespread as the cattle-breeding has been developing, something not so common in the past. Also the discussion on the end result of the dish, on whether it should be a stew or a ragout continues to cause controversy: in general, one should choose the second option, that is prepare the scottiglia in vessels, better if it is earthenware, but over very slow fire and not airtight closed. Cases of scottiglia baked in the oven or cooked in a airtight closed pan (therefore stewed) are nowadays common and have been warranted by use. So, more than a dish, the scottiglia is a rite, like the preparation of the powerful medicine with a base of snake meats, the teriaca, that was once the glory of the pharmacopeia of the Serenissima Republic of San Marco (Venice). Let’s say that to be able to taste a good scottiglia is a matter of luck: to take part to its preparation is a rare privilege that must lead to a perfect experience.