Traditional Salt-Free Bread, The Way Tuscans LIKE IT!

Imagine the scene: you’ve spent a morning sight-seeing in Florence, taking in the gorgeous multi-colored façade of the Duomo or standing speechless in front of a Botticelli painting bigger than most cars. You’ve found a small restaurant in the city with an Italian-only menu and predominantly Italian clientele, so you’re feeling quite smug about having your lunch in a non-touristy spot. A waiter takes your order, patient with your halting Italian, and as he leaves your table you take a piece of the crusty bread he’s left you and pop it in your mouth.

And that’s when you sense something has gone horribly wrong.

You can’t quite put your finger on it, but this bread tastes… Odd. It’s unlike any bread you’ve ever eaten. You notice that the Italians sitting around you are eating the bread and not making strange faces, so what’s wrong with your palate? There’s nothing wrong with your taste buds, or the bread. The oddness you’re sensing is a bread that’s made without salt – and it’s the traditional bread of Tuscany.

Salt-free bread is normal bread in Tuscany – so much so that it’s simply called pane toscano, or Tuscan bread. It’s the rest of the world that adds the “salt-free” phrase as a qualifier. The reason why Tuscan bread is salt-free is somewhat shrouded in myth; you’ll find different versions of the story depending on the source you’re looking at, but there are two that are dominant. The most-quoted story says that during the Middle Ages salt was so highly taxed that the people of Florence couldn’t afford to add it to their food, including their bread. They kept making bread, of course, and even though the price of salt came down eventually Tuscans were used to salt-free bread by that point.

The other story is more fun because of the elements of rivalry and intrigue – it’s always nice to have someone to blame, right? This story claims that in the 12th century, when the city-states of Florence and Pisa were bitter rivals, the Pisan army blocked any shipments of salt from reaching Florence from the sea in an attempt to get Florence to wave its proverbial white flag. Florentines, undaunted, simply eliminated salt from their cooking. While salt made its way back into most recipes, the salt-free bread born during that siege remained the primary bread of the region.

Today, Tuscany’s salt-free bread is jarring to those not accustomed to it – and indeed, on its own, pane toscano can be quite bland. It’s rarely (if ever) eaten on its own, however. Most Tuscan dishes are incredibly flavorful, so the bread is a bit of an anomaly – but that means it’s also the perfect foil for those intensely flavored meals, acting as an ideal starchy backdrop that doesn’t get in the way with its own flavors.

You can enjoy Tuscan bread the way the Tuscans do, with a simple drizzle of spicy local olive oil or as an accompaniment to a rich stew, and you can also use leftover (stale) Tuscan bread in traditional recipes like panzanella, pappa al pomodoro, and ribollita. These dishes can be made with bread that has salt in it, but the beauty of using salt-free Tuscan bread in these recipes is that the bread provides texture and thickness without adding any additional salt.

Of course, if you prefer your bread with salt, that’s fine – just don’t try to tell a Tuscan his traditional bread is wrong. His ancestors resisted a Pisan salt blockade in the 12th century, so you don’t think he’s going to change his recipe now, do you?

Visitor’s Information: What to Know if You Want to Go
You can sample traditional pane toscano thoughout Tuscany, so anywhere you travel through the region you just need to get some bread, whether directly from a bakery or with a meal at a restaurant.

If you’d prefer to have the bread as it’s cooked into one of the aforementioned dishes, then you’ll need to know when to look for them – they’re seasonal, and in most places aren’t going to be available year-round. Panzanella is a summertime dish, made with fresh tomatoes, while thick soups like pappa al pomodoro and ribollita are cold-weather staples. In other words, if you’re in Italy in summer look for panzanella – if you’re in Italy in autumn or winter, look for ribollita and pappa al pomodoro.

Finding cheap flights to Tuscany from outside Europe isn’t usually as easy as finding cheap flights to Rome or Milan, but if you want to fly directly to Tuscany the main airport in the region is in Pisa – Galileo Galilei Airport (PSA). Luckily, if you find a better deal on a flight to Milan or Rome you can get to Tuscany easily by train. Milan-Florence is just over 2 hours and Rome-Florence is less than 2 hours on the high-speed Frecciarossa trains in Italy.

Tuscany is popular enough that you’ll find all manner of accommodation options throughout the region, but if you want to not only taste Tuscan bread but learn to make it, look for an agriturismo in Tuscany that offers cooking classes.

photos, top to bottom, by: fabbio, grongar, pdstahl