Judy Witts Francini begins her seminal cookbook Secrets from My Tuscan Kitchen
with advice from her mother-in-law: “Spend more time shopping and less time cooking” — to emphasize the rule observed by great cooks everywhere: the secret of delectable food lies in the careful selection of the freshest ingredients. This collection of classic Tuscan dishes ranges from the rustic and humble (panzanella or pappa al pomodoro) to the exotic (cinghiale in dolceforte — i.e. wild boar with chocolate sauce– or cacciucco, the Tuscan fish soup made with red wine) simply explained with easy- to-follow instructions, all calibrated for the American kitchen. From favorite antipastos like chicken liver crostini and fettunta (known in Rome as bruschetta) to luscious desserts like pannacotta and torta della nonna, you will learn to prepare and serve delicious, authentic Tuscan meals delighting friends and family, and yourself, of course. This book offers a no-nonsense and no fuss crash course in the very basics of Tuscan eating.
In her short introduction, the author tells us that she has received many of these recipes from members of her Italian family, passed down from mothers and aunts, ordinary housewives and professional cooks. Cookbooks are a rarity in most Italian homes, except for an occasional stained sheaf of scribbled notes, held together with paperclips or rubberbands. Italian cooks tend to dispense with precise measurements or cooking times when preparing daily meals. “Quanto basta,” is the norm – as much or as long as it takes. Butter is often measured in quantities such as “a walnut,” rice by handfuls, liquid by fingers or glassfuls. Judy Witts Francini makes it easier for you to follow by translating this oral tradition into American measurements. Once you get the hang of it though, you’ll see these recipes lend themselves to the “ad occhio” approach –gauging measures and proportions by eye, instinct, and taste. At that point, she suggests, you will find that an old yoghurt container will serve as a measuring cup.
Other recipes in this collection were instead “picked up” at markets and shops, through conversations with butchers or fishmongers, or simply plucked out of the air, for wherever you go in Italy, recipes are the focus of animated discussions. Not only while waiting your turn to be served by the salumaio or baker, or while your anchovies are being filleted or your cuttlefish cleaned, but also while riding on the bus or waiting in line at the bank or the post office, all around you recipes and cooking methods are compared, often between strangers. It’s illuminating to eavesdrop on such exchanges — which can take the form of challenges, contests, barters, or selfless acts of sharing. Perhaps this is a second meaning to her mother-in-law’s advice, for if you keep your ears open as you go about your shopping, you can acquire an encyclopedic knowledge of Italian cuisine.
In addition, the author provides a list of basic ingredients, most of which are easily found at your supermarket – with the exception of the wild boar, for which a good cut of beef might substitute. Admittedly, the requirement for vine-ripened tomatoes might be more difficult to satisfy these days, even in some areas of Tuscany, unless you grow your own. Also enlightening is her explanation of a typical day in Tuscany with an hourly breakdown from the gastronomical point of view. Alas, here too, changes have occurred over the last decade, especially in urban settings, where lunch is no longer a family meal on weekdays.
Judy Witts Francini writes with authority, simplicity, and verve – and this reader wished she had provided a little bit more about herself, her life, the people and places connected to these recipes – which I am sure would make for fascinating reading. But that’s not what she is interested in –writing about herself. She is really focused on the task at hand: transmitting the basics of Tuscan cuisine. On that point, she wisely and generously advises: “The first time you try a recipe, it is new. The second time, you correct it. The third time you make it, it is yours.” In other words, cherished recipes are not something locked in a box possessed by exclusive owners, but particles in a great stream belonging to all.
Judy Witts Francini has gone on to publish other books, maintains a website dedicated to Italian cuisine http://divinacucina.com/ and has a youtube channel providing excellent videos on specific techniques. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7yncVso5NG8mDB7ObGVfKvQ1lL_ps8kx
She organizes cooking classes and gastronomical tours in Italy.
Secrets from My Tuscan Kitchen was recently made available at reduced price on amazon kindle to celebrate the tenth anniversary of its first publication.
For more cookbook reviews by Linda Lappin, see her Review of Prospero’s Kitchen, Island Cooking of Greece, by Diana Farr Louis and June Marino
and Review of Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking by Pamela Sheldon Johns both appearing in Alimentum Literary Journal.
For a guide to place, travel, and food writing, see Lappin’s prize-winning craft of writing book: The Soul of Place – A Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci.
For more on Tuscan cuisine by Linda Lappin, see Pane & Pecorino: Living the Simple Life in Tuscany @ Travelers Tales