A Summer Herbs Almanac

One of the most fulfilling experiences you can have in Italy, specially in Tuscany, is summer food. Very fresh, natural ingredients, cooked in a simple and healthy manner for the sake of appeasing one’s hunger  in the best possible way, whilst sharing the pleasures of the table with family and friends. Being deep-rooted traditionalists, Tuscans have trust in their ancestor’s experience and the preparation of meals is almost always faithful to the recipes handed down through the ages. The people here have a very fine nose and know exactly what they are enhancing with which aromatic herb by keeping a perfect balance. A non Italian – or non Tuscan –would probably use them in a random way, almost always with satisfactory results. However, they completely forget that the fragrant plants are like people:  all distinctive and with their own character. A few love  to walk alone, some go along well together, others hate each other and cannot stand the smell of any other fragrant green in their neighborhood.  Being a Mediterranean country with fairly hot summers, the dishes must be nutritious, light and easy to digest, but at the same time pleasant and tasty to whet the appetite. If, in addition, they  contain plenty of vitamins and mineral salts coming from the kitchen herbs, even better! So, wherever you are, in a trattoria near “Ponte Vecchio” in Florence, next to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, in some fine restaurant in Siena, Arezzo or at the seaside, let your eyes and your nose enjoy the dish you are about to eat, trying to find out what makes it so special.

Need a little help? Pork and fish is often enhanced with fennel, whereas oregano finds its place in sauces and on pizza. You will probably distinguish the strong, warm smell of rosemary in roasted meat, stews, fish and baked potatoes. The smoother and mild taste of sage may come from pork or chicken.  Stews and other dishes with a long cooking time are often flavored with thyme. There will be no way to miss basil, the only herb used fresh, possibly without chopping the delicate leaves, because the metal of the blades alter the fragrance. You won’t find tarragon, regularly used in France for chicken and sauces, but only rarely in Italy. Marjoram, too, is not a typical Tuscan kitchen herb, whereas parsley and chives are “citizens of the world”, here mainly used for decorations. Laurel, worked in crowns, found its way onto the ancient Roman’s emperor heads, but not into many typical recipes.

For the inhabitants, regional dishes can only be cooked by “real” Tuscans and the visitors from all over the world rely on them,  laying their palates trustfully into their hands. Through excellent dishes, wisely seasoned,  these Tuscans pass on their deep love for life… and isn’t this exactly what the tourists came for?