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The cuisine of Pisa

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

Original Text in Italian by prof. Franco Cardini

“O le cèe? – Sèmo giusti, o unn’ènno bòne? – Cucinate alla sarvia, ènno un incanto!”. (Translation: “And the blind ones? – Tell the truth, ain’t they good? – Cooked with sage, they’re a beauty!”) These are the verses by Renato Fucini, a native of the Maremma, and the author in 1872 of a collection of sonnets in the vernacular of Pisa. He is talking about the “ceche”, the new-born eels with a gelatinous appearance (and, poor them, blind, in Italian cieche, hence the name) quickly sauteed with oil and sage: the pride of the simple, essential Pisan cooking, that prides itself of being “poor” and to know how to expertly combine the sea with the land adding to the dish that aristocratic specialty of the Basso Valdarno, that white truffle that has its capital city in the beautiful San Miniato. The people of Pisa, who between the 11th and 13th centuries were the leaders of a true empire founded on the pillars of their naval-mercantile colonies between Syria and the Maghreb and emblazoned with the superb Swabian eagle, are surrounded by enemies and they are angry at everyone. They are angry at their archenemies, the Genoese on the sea in the north and the Florentines in the hinterland of the Valdarno; they are angry at their newer seafarer enemies/friends of Leghorn to whom they contend the cecìna while do not care for the cacciucco, a fish soup prepared with cheap fish only appropriate for the slaves who were rowing on the galleys; and they are angry at the people of Lucca, from whom are separated by the Mount San Giuliano, the divider between the Valdarno and the Valdiserchio but, above all, by three good centuries of wars before Pisa would lose its independence and would fall under Florence.

In the end taking its revenge on the intellectual and military prestige fronts, Pisa would become the site of the great Tuscan University (Galileo is from Pisa) and the prestigious, glorious site of the seafarers-knights of the Medici Order of Saint Stephen (however a glory that Pisa must share with Leghorn). Pisa is a sea town that lives overlooking the estuary of the River Arno, the “Bocca” (the mouth), but that still retains the monumental glory of its seafaring vocation, starting with the arsenal, and the savory fish dishes like the “cèe,” the “stoccafisso” prepared with potatoes, onions, tomato and basil and the soaked baccalà, that nowadays, because of supermarkets and freezers, is more and more getting replaced by the filet of cod, fresh or frozen. Even if the preparation of these fairly similar dishes is almost the same (one more or less long boiling with onions, potatoes, tomato: fresh herbs and a degree of spicieness obtained with hot pepper are to taste), it must be clear that it is the same cod, but that baccalá is preserved under salt while the stoccafisso, that is preserved using an original Baltic method, a sea poor of salt, is air dried.

The baccalà à la Pisana is however, actually, a delicacy, almost elegant: it requires only the pulp of a couple of tomatoes (not the skin) and two beautiful leaks, cut into rounds that must be cooked in a way to make it acquired a beautiful rosy color: the secret is to let the taste of the leak prevail over the taste of the tomato. The baccalá can be added only after ten minutes that the soup has been boiling, coarsely cut into cubes that are carefully, very, very carefully, cleaned of its bones and cooked for about twenty minutes. And so the fish prevails in this Pisan “earth and sea” cuisine.

There is however a dish that celebrates the amphibian feature of the Pisan gastronomic tradition, the most typical dish “of water” (water from the Thyrennian Sea, but also from the river, both the Arno and its various big and small navigable canals) consists in a preparation where, as it sometimes happens in dishes called “marinara” or “pescatora”, there is not a trace of fish, but there is an abundance of fragrant herbs, of spicy condiments, of garlic. It is the case of the “bordatino,” a dish that takes its name from the word “bordo”, board, since it was prepared on the ships and on the boats: actually, a variation of the farinata since it was prepared on board of the ships that transported corn. Corn flour has been, between the 1500s and the 1900s, a source of joy and torment of the Tuscan farmers and not just theirs: it has saved them from famine, but it has given them pellagra. The basis of the bordatino can recall the farinata from Lucca: beans that are properly soaked since the previous night in salty lukewarm water (but careful: white beans, not borlotti), abundant kale, a couple of garlic heads, an onion, fresh herbs and finally – pay attention! – not fresh tomatoes – we are sailing, remember! – but the good old preserve: the tomato concentrate.

Only after a long boil, regularly screaming the foam made by the beans, you will add the vegetables that you have separately chopped and sauteed and finally the kale cleaned of its hardest stalks. The corn flour is added last: basically, this is a very liquid polenta seasoned with kale and beans. But let us not forget the meat: the good stewed tripe, that the Pisans season with onion, tomato and pancetta; and the “mucco” a grilled steak of cow (mucca in Italian), of course, hence its name, but that is a crossbreed between the Alpine brown cow and the bulls of the San Rossore natural reserve. As usual, I invite you to discover the sweet delicacies by yourself, but I can recommend the “torda co’ bischeri” (the bischeri are the corners of dough that form along the outside crust: the dough is made with raisins, pine nuts, candied fruit, liquor) and the pine nuts cake (the ones from San Rossore are very famous). We must not forget that the great medieval confectionery tradition – the one that gave us panforte and ricciarelli, both glories ascribed to Sienna – has seafaring roots because it comes with the infinite variations of a mixture of sugar, spices and dried fruit (figs, apricots, raisins, orange and cedar rinds, pine nuts): that is of those foods with a high caloric content and with a long shelf life, indispensable in the long maritime crossings.

The true panforte is a recipe from Volterra, before it being from Sienna, and to Volterra, a town in the Pisan territory, it has arrived from the sea. Those familiar with the Arabic and North African sweets knows this well. With some variations (firstly the glorious cacciucco; perhaps  also the mixed drinks of coffee and liquor, the marinara punches and the “torpedos”), the Pisan cuisine and the one from Leghorn have a similar basis and common origins. I have been able to verify it directly following the advice of two lovely ladies, Maria Laura Testi Cristiani from Pisa and Olimpia Vaccari from Leghorn. It is a pity that time and space constraints do not allow us to talk about the red wines (the great Bolgheri!), but above all the whites and the rosés from Maremma, the region between Leghorn and Grosseto: who has not have the opportunity to taste them well cooled cannot know what is the joy of summer, the season that D’Annunzio begged not to declinate.