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Toscana, Italy

Of all the regions of Italy, Tuscany may be the area most romanticized by Americans. Particularly popular in the Southwest and along the West Coast, subdivisions with homes boasting "traditional Tuscan design" and "rustic Tuscan kitchens" bloom seemingly overnight. The culture of Tuscany runs much deeper, though, than those of the cypress trees lining the front walkways of many a "Tuscan-style" replica.

Of Tuscany's ten provinces - Siena, Prato, Pistoia, Pisa, Massa-Carrara, Lucca, Livorno, Grosetto, Florence and Arezzo - Pisa and Florence are the most recognized names. Pisa boasts the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa, and Florence (capital of the region) has long been considered the heart of the Italian Renaissance due to its nurturing of artistic and architectural pursuits. Tuscany lays claim to remarkable artists like Botticelli, Michaelangelo and da Vinci, as well as to the famous Italian writer, Dante, whose epic poetry helped pioneer the Renaissance break from literature created strictly in Latin to writing produced in the "common" languages of people throughout Italy.

When the word "Tuscany" is brought up in American conversation, the mental image conjured is usually of a lushly green countryside dotted with clay tile roofs seen through scrolling and hearty grapevines heavy with fruit. It is an image solidified by books and movies set in the region, like Under the Tuscan Sun (Frances Mayes' memoir about the trials and rewards of buying a country house in rural Tuscany). Rustic country food figures heavily in daydreams about Tuscany - breads piping hot from a brick or stone oven, bowls full of fresh and simple produce, carafes of freshly pressed olive oil, thick stews and soups, and the ever-present signature straw basket-wrapped shape of a jug of Chianti wine. While these images are largely accurate, there is much more to Tuscany than daydreams suggest.

Ancient buildings and old bridge reflecting in River Arno in Florence, Italy

While many of the other Tuscan provinces rise into familiarly rolling hills and even mountainous terrain, the provinces of Livorno and Grosetto are largely coastal and cover three-quarters of Tuscany's Tyrrhenian Sea coastline, providing more seafood in the Tuscan diet than is normally associated with the area. The single most pervasive food image associated with Tuscany is likely that of the olive tree, which grows in a gnarled profusion throughout the region. But Tuscany's climate also provides ideal soil for the grapes grown to create the region's world-renowned Chianti wine. Cattle also weigh heavily in the region's food production. Chianina cattle is one of the oldest breeds of cattle in the world, as well as one of the largest, producing prized Fiorentina beef for bistecca alla fiorentina (a T-bone steak brushed with olive oil and grilled perfectly rare).

Game meats and fowl, fish, pork, beans, figs, pomegranates, rice, chestnuts and cheese are earthy staples of the Tuscan table, and the coveted white truffle abounds in the region. Tuscan cooking is an interesting blend of dishes made from odds and ends for poor tables, as well as choosier fare created for the powerful noble house of Medici which once occupied and ruled from the Tuscany area. Osso bucco is a well-known favorite of the area, as are finocchiona (a rustic salami with fennel seeds), cacciucco (a delicate fish stew), pollo al mattone (chicken roasted under heated bricks), and biscotti di prato (hard almond cookies made for dipping in the local desert wine, vin santo). Barlotti beans, kidney-shaped and pink-speckled, provide a savory flavor to meatless dishes, and cannellini beans form the basis for many a pot of slowly simmered soup. Breads are many and varied in Tuscan baking, with varieties including donzelle (a bread fried in olive oil), filone (an unsalted traditional Tuscan bread) and the sweet schiacciata con l'uva (a rolled dough with grapes and sugar on top). Pastas are not heavily relied upon in Tuscan cooking, and papparadelle (a wide egg noodle) is one of the region's few traditional cuts. Pecorino Toscano cheese is native to Tuscany, as are semi-soft cow's milk Tendaio and mixed sheep and cow's milk Accasciato cheeses.

Soups, sauces and stews are the cornerstones of Tuscan cooking, many beginning with and relying upon the mastery of a perfect soffritto on which to build more complex flavors. A soffritto can be considered a sort-of Italian cooked mirepoix, and is a "pre-prep" combination of olive oil and minced browned vegetables (usually onion, carrot and celery) that creates a base for a variety of slow-cooked dishes. Herbs (sage and rosemary are used in many Tuscan dishes) and seasonings can be added to the soffritto as needed to bring out the unique flavors of each different recipe. Try the following Ribollita Toscana (Tuscan soup) recipe any time of year to transform your kitchen with the smells and flavors of the Tuscan countryside.