The cuisine of Lucca
SOME ANTHROPO-HISTORICAL NOTES ON THE TYPICAL COOKING OF TUSCANY – LUCCA
Original Text in Italian by prof. Franco Cardini
The “historic” Tuscany, the Tuscia, is the area between the Arno and the Tiber rivers: an area that differs from the customary geo-politic-administrative borders. Lucca and its surroundings (the so-called “Lucchesia;” but also its entire north west, the mountains and the seaside, from Garfagnana to the Lunigiana) are territories that in ancient times were settled not by the Etruscans, but by the Ligurians and then by the Celts. These are areas that feel a very strong influence from their proximity to Liguria and Emilia, that have perhaps not a strong seaside flavor, but a mountain flavor. It is immediately noticeable in a dish that is a local glory of Lucca, although we know of variations from the Garfagnana and the Pistoia province (therefore an Appenine territory).
We are talking of the “necci”, thin pancakes made with wheat flour, but also with spelt or chestnut flours, lightly salted and then poured over a hot disc while a second disc closes on top, squeezing it. These are the “testi.” The pancake is ready in a few seconds, piping hot and pliable, stuffed with fresh goat ricotta and rolled up like a burrito. In the mountains, we can also find people who make these necci with corn flour.
The secret is the consistency of the batter. Lucca is an aristocratic town, proud of its republican independence, kept until the 1800s, a pride that it has passed on to its territory. In the triangle of closed coast with an ample gulf, between the Ligurian and the Tyrrhenian seas, the smaller towns consider Lucca their southern metropolis; then there are Parma to the north-east and Genoa to the north-west. This elegantly tamed “toscanity,” is reflected in its food.
The people of Lucca love stuffed pasta that they call tordelli with a “d”, not tortelli or tortellini. They make the filling with beef or pork, eggs and swiss chard to which they add parmesan cheese and, yes, it’s true, also mortadella from Bologna. On the other hand, they also like soups and/or brothy first dishes, something that likens them to the not-so-beloved Pisa, but that has a mountain flavor as well.
“Soupy” first courses, a great resource in winter and a way to fight hunger in former times, unleash the creativity. First of all, the “farinata”, that in Pisa and Leghorn is more or less like in Genoa a pancake made with chickpea flour, also known as “cecìna” and that seems to have seafaring roots and even Arabic-Berber ones (hummus, falafel), according to some, while in Lucca is the very expert result of a boiled preparation of fresh borlotti beans dressed with pork rind and well-seasoned with salt, pepper and abundant extra-virgin olive oil and then accompanied by vegetables (abundant garlic, kale, potatoes, carrots, celery, fresh herbs like rosemary, basil, parsley); lastly the corn flour is poured on the boiling preparation, while stirring in order to avoid lumping.
Each cook has his or her own secrets about the quantities and the cooking times: but here we are talking about pure artisanal skills. They “eyeball it,” follow their taste and creativity. It is the best aspect of great home-cooking. Next to the farinata is the “minestra di farro” (a soup made with spelt): although the discussion on which one was born first is extremely heated. The ingredients are more or less the same, but in addition, here we find sage, cinnamon, a couple of ripe tomatoes and it is possible to resort to dried beans, that are soaked for at least one night. The spelt must be washed for at least an hour, then it is cooked in a little water, almost toasted, in a pan and it is of course added at the end. But these are lower class soups. If you want something aristocratic, then there is the soup of the Lords of Lucca of the 14th and 15th centuries, the Guinigi.
The “marmugia of the Guinigi” is a mysterious name: it is likened to “marmitta” (pot), but also to the “marmorino”, that is the stucco obtained mixing marble powder and limestone. This is a refined affair, that starts with sophisticated vegetables: a very finely sauteed chopped onion, to which asparagus tips, peas and ground pancetta are gently mixed. The preparation is then seared for at least half an hour over medium heat, adding vegetable stock and it is served on toasted bread. My guardian angel of the Lucchese cuisine, the chef Paola Menon, enriches the preparation with tiny meatballs made with ground beef mixed with parmesan cheese and egg. Then there are the desserts: the “flan” a la Puccini or maybe the “buccellato”, a sweet anis flavored tress that comes directly from ancient Rome. But we cannot tell you everything: we leave it to you and to the pleasure of the journey and the surprise.