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Tradition v. Contemporary Italian Cuisine


hathor
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There is a demographic aspect to Italian cuisine which we have not really discussed.

During the first half of the century our village had 3000 people and today we have 200. For the last 50 years Italians have moved out of the country and into the cities. That is especially true in the Piedmont where the car factories in Turin practically vacated the small villages like mine. Additionally the "city" Italians tended to look forward to the future and shun the past and small town ways. This led to a big decline of the traditions and local foods and a boom of cheap, fast food.

Today people like Paolo Massobrio and Carlo Petrini are helping Italians to be proud of their roots and look with-in instead of constantly craving everything new from the US and other trendy countries. And it is working.

Italy had an image problem and part of the recuperation process is getting in touch with their roots and feeling good about their cuisine. This explains the current fascination with tradition... it's the "big new thing" here. Once this period cools off, they will have the self-confidence to experiment on a larger scale.

Excellent point.

I'm curious, are you seeing more people move back into your village? I would say the influx of people into our village is more of the stranieri buying second homes, or the Romans/Milanese buying vacation homes. Very few of the young people seem to want to stick around. Then again not being able to drive your car into town and unload your groceries can be a deterrent...espcially if you have little kids. This change in the make up of the town is something that we often talk about, and it will affect what we serve.

p.s. I'm now heading up to the restaurant to make the bread....with salt! It's unbelievable how much bread people will eat once you put salt into it! :laugh::laugh: (Focaccia, ciabatta and a pugliese style, in case anyone was wondering. I just can't bring myself to spend the time and effort on salt less bread....)

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Excellent point.

I'm curious, are you seeing more people move back into your village? I would say the influx of people into our village is more of the stranieri buying second homes, or the Romans/Milanese buying vacation homes. Very few of the young people seem to want to stick around....

Same here. Most purchases are for vacation use. There is very little property on the market here because the families tend to hang on to it unless they need the money. Property tax is almost non-existent here, so it costs nothing to keep the houses and let them sit vacant until a family member wants to use it. Additionally, there isn't much incentive to sell because the property values are very low, inhabitable village cottages can still be had for 20,000 euros.

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there IS a defect in the cuisine.

You can add bread with no salt to that list.

Perfection is a rarity in this world. No serious scholar of Mozart or Shakespeare (or Italian cuisine) would argue that every note, every word (or every recipe) is flawless. There's room for improvement, and when people stop acknowledging that, instead believing that everything has already reached its Platonic ideal and can never progress, they stop improving.

I don't understand your comment "You can add bread with no salt to that list."

Could you explain it?

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I don't understand your comment  "You can add bread with no salt to that list."

Could you explain it?

I'm pretty sure FG is saying that bread with no salt, like hathor's example of vegetables cooked to obliteration, is a defect in the cuisine. I tend to agree that there is plenty of room for improvement in both cases.

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Back at the restaurant, here's a real world experience (versus our intellectual discussion): Yesterday we got a beautiful case of pencil asparagus. I asked my Roman co-chef what he had in mind for the asparagus since he brought them into the kitchen. He gave me the 'you have 3 heads' look, and said you boil them in water. I  didn't have time to go into the finer points of my love for asparagus and he proceeded to boil the shit out of those poor little aspargus, their heads turning into a soggy mass. Now, my experience in Italy is that 99% of Italians cook all vegetables into a pile of mush and when  I've tried more 'al dente' vegetables, the tourists eat them, and the Italians don't. Italians want their vegetables to be pre-chewed.   Which is my long winded way of saying, there IS a defect in the cuisine.  So, now what? Continue to serve traditional mushy vegetables? Or just quit my whining, and save some of the crunchy, fresh tasting stuff for myself?

There are no simple answers, and I'll continue to look for balance.

:shock::hmmm::laugh:

Thanks for bringing us back to earth. Sounds tragic and I think you've pinpointed the inspiration for Gerber's baby food. On the other hand, "al dente" vegetables arouse controversy even in the States where they're popular; it might be James Peterson who writes a polemic against the trend.

...but, forgive me, Hathor, this situation is shades of the Whole Foods feast in Omnivore's Dilemma: asparagus in September? :wink:

Your concluding remark sounds as if you will find a solution. I guess the chef who buys the produce w specific preparations in mind has first dibs until you settle into enough a routine to define standards. If there are days Erba Luna closes and you do mre than sleep, I think you need to invite the Roman over and ply him with wine and vegetables cooked to your liking.

I think that one chef over-cooking asparagus isn't a defect in the cuisine, more a matter of personal taste. No more then outside of Tuscany I have never came across cavalo nero that has been cooked long enough.

Hopefully you explained the situation to him?

On the otherhand, what type of vegetables do the people you are cooking for prefer?

If well cooked vegetables continues to be problem, might I suggest "sformato"?

Saltless bread is hardly a defect in Italian cuisine, it only occurs in a few locations (Tuscany, Umbria?). Although it raises the point that I don't think that there really is a "Italian Cuisine".

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Although it raises the point that I don't think that there really is a "Italian Cuisine".

Regionalism is an important aspect to Italian food.

My neighbor (48) who was born and raised in Asti had never had pasta with tomato sauce until he met his wife (from Puglia) For him pasta always had oil or butter on it or perhaps the Piemonte sugo which has almost no tomato in it. Even pizza is a fairly recent import to Piemont.

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I don't understand your comment  "You can add bread with no salt to that list."

Could you explain it?

I'm pretty sure FG is saying that bread with no salt, like hathor's example of vegetables cooked to obliteration, is a defect in the cuisine. I tend to agree that there is plenty of room for improvement in both cases.

Adam Balic is correct. I wanted to see what FG had to say.

Pane senza sale is a very small portion of the bread that is available in Tuscany.

In the town where I live, we probably have 35 different kinds of "Tuscan bread" (whatever that means) available daily. Only one of them, pane senza sale, is saltless. The others, whether it is pane cotto al legna, pane scuro or any of the others, has a normal amount of salt.

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Only one of them, pane senza sale, is saltless.

Do you like it?

I like pane senza sale very much, depending on how it is made (well or poorly) and most importantly what it is used for. For instance, IMHO, you do not use salted bread for crostini al ginepro. The anchovies, the meat broth and the brine in the capers, provide more than enough salt for it to become noticeable, so you use senza sale. You would not use salted bread for pappa al pomodoro or panzanella because salt is added to the ingredients, so you use senza sale. You wouldn't use salted bread for fettunta because salt is added to the ingredients, so you use senza sale.

Most foreigners think that all Tuscan bread is saltless. As I said in an earlier post, nothing could be further from the truth. Even great cooking luminaries, or I should say those who think they are, make the mistake about Tuscan bread. One who fancies himself as such, Jason Epstein, late of Random House, wrote an article in The New Yorker about Tuscany. Mr. Epstein disparaged Tuscan bread because it was saltless. Clearly, Mr. Epstein was under a mis- assumption about Tuscan bread and probably wasn't smart enough to buy anything but senza sale. If he came to Forte dei Marmi and went to "Mario's", he would see that most Tuscan bread is salted and delicious.

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So you're using saltless bread as, basically, a specialty item. But was it traditionally a specialty item, or was it traditionally the mainstay of the Tuscan bread bakery? There are lots of foods available in Tuscany today, sure, but is this rich array of salted breads traditional? Or have Tuscan bakeries slowly relegated saltless bread to the status of specialty item in response to the evolving palates of people who've tasted bread with salt and rejected saltless bread for most purposes?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
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Only one of them, pane senza sale, is saltless.

Do you like it?

I like pane senza sale very much, depending on how it is made (well or poorly) and most importantly what it is used for. For instance, IMHO, you do not use salted bread for crostini al ginepro. The anchovies, the meat broth and the brine in the capers, provide more than enough salt for it to become noticeable, so you use senza sale. You would not use salted bread for pappa al pomodoro or panzanella because salt is added to the ingredients, so you use senza sale. You wouldn't use salted bread for fettunta because salt is added to the ingredients, so you use senza sale.

Most foreigners think that all Tuscan bread is saltless. As I said in an earlier post, nothing could be further from the truth. Even great cooking luminaries, or I should say those who think they are, make the mistake about Tuscan bread. One who fancies himself as such, Jason Epstein, late of Random House, wrote an article in The New Yorker about Tuscany. Mr. Epstein disparaged Tuscan bread because it was saltless. Clearly, Mr. Epstein was under a mis- assumption about Tuscan bread and probably wasn't smart enough to buy anything but senza sale. If he came to Forte dei Marmi and went to "Mario's", he would see that most Tuscan bread is salted and delicious.

Fortedei, thank you very much for this post! I've eaten a wide variety of breads in Florence (and to some degree elsewhere in Tuscany) since the late 70s. It took a while for me to appreciate small thin-crusted rolls that were served as breakfast in a program I worked for, but with dense, salted butter and preserves, they gradually became addictive.

* * *

This discussion seems to be veering away from Hathor's original query again. Fine by me, though the nattering's gotten a bit circular and seems to be about whether Italians know from cuisine or not. More relevant, perhaps, is the type of food Rick Bayless advocates in Mexican Everyday, a book that follows publications on traditional regional cooking. Designed for the busy, professional home cook, the recipes present a number of unorthodox combinations and preparations that nonetheless depend upon a formidable repertoire of traditional dishes and methods.

"Viciousness in the kitchen.

The potatoes hiss." --Sylvia Plath

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So you're using saltless bread as, basically, a specialty item. But was it traditionally a specialty item, or was it traditionally the mainstay of the Tuscan bread bakery? There are lots of foods available in Tuscany today, sure, but is this rich array of salted breads traditional? Or have Tuscan bakeries slowly relegated saltless bread to the status of specialty item in response to the evolving palates of people who've tasted bread with salt and rejected saltless bread for most purposes?

I've only been coming to Italy for only 35 years, so I can't speak to the time before then. Breads with salt, a vast array of them, have been around at least since then. As far as using it as a specialty item... not really. Certain foods go better with other foods and certainly senza sale goes better with certain dishes. I happen to like senza sale as one, but only one, of the breads from a vast variety that I can choose from. Some of my Forte neighbors eat mostly senza sale and for them it is the bread of choice.

An anology might be with wine. Certain wines e.g. gewurtztramminers, go better wth certain foods. A gewurtztramminer is not a specialty item, it is a tradional wine (of several areas), but it seems to go best with certain dishes and in fact is used as such within the area.

As far as what you said "traditionally the mainstay of the Tuscan bread bakery", it might be wise to use tradition and "Tuscany" very carefully. Broadly speaking there are a few, very few, "Tuscan" traditions. Certainly we Americans think of "Tuscan food traditions", pretty much as we think about food in Northern Italy, when in fact food and dishes from one region, and within the region, may have little or nothing in common with other regions (and in fact often don't). "Northern Italy" as a whole, is merely a geographic notation, having very little to do with a cohesive food tradition. There are exceptions of course, but generally speaking this is the case. In fact, the same dish (or bread since we're talking about that here), may bear little resemblance from Forte dei Marmi to Arezzo, from Cecina to Castellina in Chianti. Just think of the hundred (many more?) ways that foccacia is made in Tuscany. There is no traditional Tuscan focccacia. To paraphrase Tip O'Neill, all food traditions are (very) LOCAL.

It has always been very interesting to me to see Tuscan (or Italian) cookbooks in English. The best will most often say the small area within the region where the recipe comes from. The poorer books will most often omit any mention of this and simply call it "Tuscan" or Northern Italian or Lombardian etc.

And now back to start preparing part of tonight's dinner... grilled porcini (porcini from the Garfagnana gathered, not Slovenia).

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Compared to Switzerland, I can't do much but complain about Italian bread but fortunately I can bring back very good Swiss flour and do it myself and Essalunga supermarkets bake a really good chewy, crusty yellow bread, (I forget where it is from originally) for €1.50 a loaf.

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So, fortedei, we've established that ignorant foreigners writing books about Italy often say that Tuscan bread is traditionally saltless. And we have you saying that's not true: that Tuscan bread is traditionally diverse, like wine, with an array of salted and unsalted breads being paired with the right dish. I'd love to see some Italian sources to back up this claim, because it comes as a surprise to me.

The reason I think it's relevant to get to the bottom of that issue is that it makes a point about tradition. If it turns out that, historically, bread in Tuscany -- or in specific areas of Tuscany -- was saltless, but that now saltless bread is only one of many choices, paired like wine with appropriate dishes, then what we have is another good example of tradition being cast aside in favor of superior innovation. If, however, Tuscan bread has always been diverse, then that's another matter.

Not that I'm convinced that bread without salt is ever a good idea. Eating bread with salty food is no substitute for bringing out bread's flavor by incorporating salt into the dough. It's not like most breads are salty. The amount of salt is small. But it's a significant flavor enhancer, just as it is in most cooking. Maybe I've never had the best, brilliantly made saltless bread -- the one that convinces people that there's something to this sort of bread -- but as a theoretical matter it's hard to see how it could be better than the same bread made with a little salt.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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So, fortedei, we've established that ignorant foreigners writing books about Italy often say that Tuscan bread is traditionally saltless. And we have you saying that's not true: that Tuscan bread is traditionally diverse, like wine, with an array of salted and unsalted breads being paired with the right dish. I'd love to see some Italian sources to back up this claim, because it comes as a surprise to me.

"Tu proverai si come sa di sale Lo pane altrui, / You shall learn how salt is the taste of another's bread" from The Divine Comedy may establish that Tuscan bread was unsalted in the 14th century, though it may also establish that other "Italian" breads were salted. I'm not sure how far back you're looking to go, and you'd be correct in theory to want earlier references to establish "tradition" though I don't think you could generalize "Italian".

But as I understood the original post...

When does one cross the line from traditional regional cooking to non-traditional? How do you serve very traditional dishes and still push the flavor envelope? Is there any reason to cook totally traditional dishes, if you want to be a cut above a trattoria?  Can a restaurant attain and/or maintain "stars" cooking completely traditional, regional foods?

I've wrestled for 2 seasons with how to sophisticate the classic combination of melon and prosciutto. I've tried pulverizing dried prosciutto, I've tried melon sorbetto, melon aspic...but nothing comes close to the texture and flavor contrasts of the original dish. 

Whether or not Tuscan bread was saltless because of Tuscan frugality, I don't think that pulverized dried prosciutto and melon foam will ever be thought of as a "traditional Italian" dish.

I see a different issue.

I personally am not, and have never been in favor of "fusion" cuisines. I think you are in danger of taking two perfectly wonderful cuisines, and losing at least one of them. You get a French chef who has traveled to China and is inspired to use soy sauce, ginger, and scallions in his duck, and a Chinese chef who is fascinated with French ingredients and applies the traditional soy sauce, ginger and scallion treatment to foie gras, and the next thing you know, you're eating the same things in restaurants in France and China, whereas before, you could enjoy two distinct cuisines.

I think that people should definitely fuse (for many reasons), but that their traditional cuisines should remain distinct. And if any of those cuisines goes off on a molecular tangent, I hope that it won't be at the expense of people who remember how to make the traditional dishes.

Or one day, no matter what restaurant we go to anywhere in the world, the only thing we'll be offered is pulverized ginger powder, soy sauce molecules, and protein foam. Or protein beads, ginger foam, and soy sauce dust. And like an episode of Star Trek, we'll discover ancient books with photos of Lasagne Bolognese and wonder what it even could have tasted like.

Overheard at the Zabar’s prepared food counter in the 1970’s:

Woman (noticing a large bowl of cut fruit): “How much is the fruit salad?”

Counterman: “Three-ninety-eight a pound.”

Woman (incredulous, and loud): “THREE-NINETY EIGHT A POUND ????”

Counterman: “Who’s going to sit and cut fruit all day, lady… YOU?”

Newly updated: my online food photo extravaganza; cook-in/eat-out and photos from the 70's

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I found an interesting article in the New York Times and here are a couple of quotes:

....''Some people explain that in the old days salt was very expensive and the Florentines are stingy,'' said Giuliano Bugialli, who teaches cooking in Florence and in New York, ''but that is not correct. The fact is that Tuscan food is highly seasoned and has always been so and the bread, which is eaten with the main course and is an essential part of the meal, provided a better balance without salt.''

Guido Tersaghi, chef of the Hotel Minerva in Florence, who is organizing a school of regional cooking, also remarked that salt-free bread was preferable with typical Tuscan salami such as finocchiona and soprassata, which are extremely salty. The Tuscans even call the traditional air-dried Parma ham ''sweet'' prosciutto in comparison with the saltier local products. ...

also

...It is possible that this repertory evolved because the bread becomes rock hard when it dries, and appetizing use was made of the bread instead of discarding it. Florentine parsimony might not account for the lack of salt in the bread but it has dictated that every crumb be consumed. Other peasant cuisines find similar uses for leftover bread - bread pudding is a classic - but Tuscany is one of the few places where such dishes appear on stylish restaurant menus or are proudly served to guests....

It seems that salt-less bread has always been and will always be a part of Tuscan culinary heritage, like it or not.

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So, fortedei, we've established that ignorant foreigners writing books about Italy often say that Tuscan bread is traditionally saltless. And we have you saying that's not true: that Tuscan bread is traditionally diverse, like wine, with an array of salted and unsalted breads being paired with the right dish. I'd love to see some Italian sources to back up this claim, because it comes as a surprise to me.

The reason I think it's relevant to get to the bottom of that issue is that it makes a point about tradition. If it turns out that, historically, bread in Tuscany -- or in specific areas of Tuscany -- was saltless, but that now saltless bread is only one of many choices, paired like wine with appropriate dishes, then what we have is another good example of tradition being cast aside in favor of superior innovation. If, however, Tuscan bread has always been diverse, then that's another matter.

Not that I'm convinced that bread without salt is ever a good idea. Eating bread with salty food is no substitute for bringing out bread's flavor by incorporating salt into the dough. It's not like most breads are salty. The amount of salt is small. But it's a significant flavor enhancer, just as it is in most cooking. Maybe I've never had the best, brilliantly made saltless bread -- the one that convinces people that there's something to this sort of bread -- but as a theoretical matter it's hard to see how it could be better than the same bread made with a little salt.

You used the term ignorant foreigners, I didn’t use that pejorative term. I also didn’t say anything about foreigners writing about traditional saltless bread. You did. Nor did I say “that Tuscan bread is traditionally diverse.” Nor did I say anything about wine in conjunction with that. In fact, I said beware of using the words traditional and Tuscan together.

What I did say is that there are many breads available and that senza sale is one of them and that, IMHO, senza sale goes better in certain dishes than others.

Also note than salted bread was probably not an option, certainly not on a very broad scale, until after the Second World War. Salt was very expensive and was regulated in terms of availability. You can see the vestiges of this in the signs and permit numbers on salumerie store fronts. Tradition might not have been cast aside “in favor of superior innovation” (and in fact it wasn’t, because senza sale is still around). It might simply be that the cost of a raw ingredient became much less expensive.

If bread without salt is, in your mind, never a good idea, well that’s what you believe. Others may feel differently and neither one is correct because there is no “correct” answer, just a matter of taste.

I’ve written something about wine, on this site, (and others have agreed with it). I’ve done something with two well schooled wine tasters (one of whose favorite restaurant in Italy is Gambero Rosso... what a shame). Cover the labels and these two guys don’t have a clue, either as to grape or (even) country of origin. I’m sure I could do the same with Parker. Bevi Il Vino non l’etichette as we say here. I’d be willing to bet that if you tasted senza sale from a particular bakery in Rio Magno and then tasted the exact same bread from the same bakery, except that this one had salt, your batting average in terms of telling them apart would be no better than pure chance.

In Italy, perhaps not in Spain or France, tradition evolves very slowly and locally, and fads happen very quickly and disappear over the same period of time.

FG. Our closest friends in Italy, whom we’ve known for 25 years, own what is arguably the best known restaurant in the country (among foodies from all countries; certainly the “average” Italian, except perhaps the local police chief, has no interest in eating there and couldn’t afford it even if they wanted to). These are people who know that they have to have one fusion dish on the menu to satisfy the ”Guide Italiani”, but they have a visceral reaction again doing it. They realize this is not going to last because they saw it all with nuova cucina 20 years ago. Other very good friends who own what will be the next very hot restaurant (now just below the top in the Gambero Rosso), and will surpass, by far, their very good friends in Senagallia (the restaurant that puts green bread on the table… can’t remember if it is saltless or not) and will achieve the highest rankings (whatever that means)… but will eventually go flat.

Italians are different from other Europeans. Italy was unified very late compared with the others. Pisa, Lucca and Firenze are still not unified. This particular thread has not cast tradition in the context of Italian culinary history. Theory is one thing, but everyday living is another. Look locally, for if one doesn’t, this site may have many opinions, but very few of them will bear any resemblance to reality.

More to come re putting things in context.

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...I personally am not, and have never been in favor of "fusion" cuisines.  I think you are in danger of taking two perfectly wonderful cuisines, and losing at least one of them.  You get a French chef who has traveled to China and is inspired to use soy sauce, ginger, and scallions in his duck, and a Chinese chef who is fascinated with French ingredients and applies the traditional soy sauce, ginger and scallion treatment to foie gras, and the next thing you know, you're eating the same things in restaurants in France and China, whereas before, you could enjoy two distinct cuisines.

I think that people should definitely fuse (for many reasons), but that their traditional cuisines should remain distinct....

Two days ago the mother of my neighbor from Puglia brought over some stuffed red peppers. The dish was good but (as it often happens) I tossed and turned over it because it was lacking something. Today I made a fusion version of her dish but this time incorporating basmati rice instead of bread crumbs. This addition of the basmati is derived from an Arab dish called Machboos where the meat and rice are baked together. Basmati has a way of absorbing the meat flavors that I find is unique. The result of fusing it with the traditional stuffed red peppers was surprising. The rice was mixed in the ground beef and it swelled up when it was cooked. the mixture was very light and had a lovely aroma. Traditional...no, but it was a successful incorporation of traditional ingredients from two very different cultures.

I love cooking like this.

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You used the term ignorant foreigners, I didn’t use that pejorative term. I also didn’t say anything about foreigners writing about traditional saltless bread. You did.  Nor did I say “that Tuscan bread is traditionally diverse.” Nor did I say anything about wine in conjunction with that.  In fact, I said beware of using the words traditional and Tuscan together.

What I did say is that there are many breads available and that senza sale is one of them and that, IMHO,  senza sale goes better in certain dishes than others.

What you said was:

Most foreigners think that all Tuscan bread is saltless. As I said in an earlier post, nothing could be further from the truth. Even great cooking luminaries, or I should say those who think they are, make the mistake about Tuscan bread. One who fancies himself as such, Jason Epstein, late of Random House, wrote an article in The New Yorker about Tuscany. Mr. Epstein disparaged Tuscan bread because it was saltless. Clearly, Mr. Epstein was under a mis- assumption about Tuscan bread and probably wasn't smart enough to buy anything but senza sale.

and

Certain foods go better with other foods and certainly senza sale goes better with certain dishes. I happen to like senza sale as one, but only one, of the breads from a vast variety that I can choose from. Some of my Forte neighbors eat mostly senza sale and for them it is the bread of choice.

An anology might be with wine. Certain wines e.g. gewurtztramminers, go better wth certain foods. A gewurtztramminer is not a specialty item, it is a tradional wine (of several areas), but it seems to go best with certain dishes and in fact is used as such within the area.

I think my characterization of your comments was entirely accurate.

I’d be willing to bet that if you tasted senza sale from a particular bakery in  Rio Magno and then tasted the exact same bread from the same bakery, except that this one had salt, your batting average in terms of telling them apart would be no better than pure chance.

So is it your position that bread made with and without salt tastes exactly the same?

My position is that they taste different, and that bread with salt tastes better. For whatever reason -- shortage, or the old story of the bakers' protest against the tax on salt -- it seems that saltless bread was the traditional bread of Tuscany, or at least large parts thereof. I don't see why we need to try to obscure that history by making excuses about there being no such thing as Tuscany, or by saying you can go to a modern Tuscan bakery and get a lot of different breads. You can eat at McDonald's in Tuscany too, but that doesn't make it traditional. It seems to me that throughout Tuscany people have simply realized that, except perhaps in a few special cases where it's paired with very salty food, bread with salt tastes better. So the tradition was set aside in favor of something better. That's what we should do with traditions when better things come along, unless we're just masochists and want to suffer with saltless bread long after salt has become cheap and abundant.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I vote for a spin-off thread devoted to salt and bread.

Ed: Thanks for the article that begins w the great quote from Dante. I was surprised though to read that schiacciata's made without salt; with grapes, okay, but not my experience in the past couple of decades at least.

As for the explanations, I have to wonder. Seem to be searching for logic. Regarding expense in the past, when, I wonder?

In Dante's age, Florence was still in profound competition with its nearby neighbor, Siena. I was taught that the slope of the Campo in front of the town hall accommodated a massive amount of salt, stored below.

"Viciousness in the kitchen.

The potatoes hiss." --Sylvia Plath

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You used the term ignorant foreigners, I didn’t use that pejorative term. I also didn’t say anything about foreigners writing about traditional saltless bread. You did.  Nor did I say “that Tuscan bread is traditionally diverse.” Nor did I say anything about wine in conjunction with that.  In fact, I said beware of using the words traditional and Tuscan together.

What I did say is that there are many breads available and that senza sale is one of them and that, IMHO,  senza sale goes better in certain dishes than others.

What you said was:

Most foreigners think that all Tuscan bread is saltless. As I said in an earlier post, nothing could be further from the truth. Even great cooking luminaries, or I should say those who think they are, make the mistake about Tuscan bread. One who fancies himself as such, Jason Epstein, late of Random House, wrote an article in The New Yorker about Tuscany. Mr. Epstein disparaged Tuscan bread because it was saltless. Clearly, Mr. Epstein was under a mis- assumption about Tuscan bread and probably wasn't smart enough to buy anything but senza sale.

and

Certain foods go better with other foods and certainly senza sale goes better with certain dishes. I happen to like senza sale as one, but only one, of the breads from a vast variety that I can choose from. Some of my Forte neighbors eat mostly senza sale and for them it is the bread of choice.

An anology might be with wine. Certain wines e.g. gewurtztramminers, go better wth certain foods. A gewurtztramminer is not a specialty item, it is a tradional wine (of several areas), but it seems to go best with certain dishes and in fact is used as such within the area.

I think my characterization of your comments was entirely accurate.

I’d be willing to bet that if you tasted senza sale from a particular bakery in  Rio Magno and then tasted the exact same bread from the same bakery, except that this one had salt, your batting average in terms of telling them apart would be no better than pure chance.

So is it your position that bread made with and without salt tastes exactly the same?

My position is that they taste different, and that bread with salt tastes better. For whatever reason -- shortage, or the old story of the bakers' protest against the tax on salt -- it seems that saltless bread was the traditional bread of Tuscany, or at least large parts thereof. I don't see why we need to try to obscure that history by making excuses about there being no such thing as Tuscany, or by saying you can go to a modern Tuscan bakery and get a lot of different breads. You can eat at McDonald's in Tuscany too, but that doesn't make it traditional. It seems to me that throughout Tuscany people have simply realized that, except perhaps in a few special cases where it's paired with very salty food, bread with salt tastes better. So the tradition was set aside in favor of something better. That's what we should do with traditions when better things come along, unless we're just masochists and want to suffer with saltless bread long after salt has become cheap and abundant.

FG. How much time have you spent in Tuscany?

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FG. How much time have you spent in Tuscany?

Less than you. And I'm happy to defer to all your factual statements about what's going on in Tuscany, unless they're contradicted by others who've spent a lot of time there or by credible print sources.

Now I get to ask you a question: what's your point? Do you think culinary tradition should be unchanging? Or do you agree with me that culinary evolution and innovation are great things?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I personally am not, and have never been in favor of "fusion" cuisines.  I think you are in danger of taking two perfectly wonderful cuisines, and losing at least one of them.  You get a French chef who has traveled to China and is inspired to use soy sauce, ginger, and scallions in his duck, and a Chinese chef who is fascinated with French ingredients and applies the traditional soy sauce, ginger and scallion treatment to foie gras, and the next thing you know, you're eating the same things in restaurants in France and China, whereas before, you could enjoy two distinct cuisines.

I think that people should definitely fuse (for many reasons), but that their traditional cuisines should remain distinct.  And if any of those cuisines goes off on a molecular tangent, I hope that it won't be at the expense of people who remember how to make the traditional dishes.

Or one day, no matter what restaurant we go to anywhere in the world, the only thing we'll be offered is pulverized ginger powder, soy sauce molecules, and protein foam.  Or protein beads, ginger foam, and soy sauce dust.  And like an episode of Star Trek, we'll discover ancient books with photos of Lasagne Bolognese and wonder what it even could have tasted like.

Mark, can you point to a great cuisine that has been hurt, rather than helped, by fusion? We wouldn't even have the great cuisines of today were it not for fusion, because fusion is not a modern phenomenon: it is part and parcel of the history of cuisine. And it has historically improved cuisines. Look at Japanese cuisine. Do you think Japanese cuisine would be better off without the fusion dish of tempura, which is based on Portuguese techniques? Japan's encounter with the West has not destroyed Japanese cuisine. It has enhanced Japanese cuisine by giving Japanese chefs more ideas and ingredients to work with. Fusion doesn't mean homogenization. Fusion means everybody gets the same tools to work with.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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So, fortedei, we've established that ignorant foreigners writing books about Italy often say that Tuscan bread is traditionally saltless. And we have you saying that's not true: that Tuscan bread is traditionally diverse, like wine, with an array of salted and unsalted breads being paired with the right dish. I'd love to see some Italian sources to back up this claim, because it comes as a surprise to me.

"Tu proverai si come sa di sale Lo pane altrui, / You shall learn how salt is the taste of another's bread" from The Divine Comedy may establish that Tuscan bread was unsalted in the 14th century, though it may also establish that other "Italian" breads were salted. I'm not sure how far back you're looking to go, and you'd be correct in theory to want earlier references to establish "tradition" though I don't think you could generalize "Italian".

But as I understood the original post...

When does one cross the line from traditional regional cooking to non-traditional? How do you serve very traditional dishes and still push the flavor envelope? Is there any reason to cook totally traditional dishes, if you want to be a cut above a trattoria?   Can a restaurant attain and/or maintain "stars" cooking completely traditional, regional foods?

I've wrestled for 2 seasons with how to sophisticate the classic combination of melon and prosciutto. I've tried pulverizing dried prosciutto, I've tried melon sorbetto, melon aspic...but nothing comes close to the texture and flavor contrasts of the original dish.  

Whether or not Tuscan bread was saltless because of Tuscan frugality, I don't think that pulverized dried prosciutto and melon foam will ever be thought of as a "traditional Italian" dish.

I see a different issue.

I personally am not, and have never been in favor of "fusion" cuisines. I think you are in danger of taking two perfectly wonderful cuisines, and losing at least one of them. You get a French chef who has traveled to China and is inspired to use soy sauce, ginger, and scallions in his duck, and a Chinese chef who is fascinated with French ingredients and applies the traditional soy sauce, ginger and scallion treatment to foie gras, and the next thing you know, you're eating the same things in restaurants in France and China, whereas before, you could enjoy two distinct cuisines.

I think that people should definitely fuse (for many reasons), but that their traditional cuisines should remain distinct. And if any of those cuisines goes off on a molecular tangent, I hope that it won't be at the expense of people who remember how to make the traditional dishes.

Or one day, no matter what restaurant we go to anywhere in the world, the only thing we'll be offered is pulverized ginger powder, soy sauce molecules, and protein foam. Or protein beads, ginger foam, and soy sauce dust. And like an episode of Star Trek, we'll discover ancient books with photos of Lasagne Bolognese and wonder what it even could have tasted like.

Hi-Just a note to say that (as usual)markk, you have made some very good points.

Edited by Naftal (log)

"As life's pleasures go, food is second only to sex.Except for salami and eggs...Now that's better than sex, but only if the salami is thickly sliced"--Alan King (1927-2004)

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