It never fails to tickle my fancy, during these winter months, to see the familiar signs being pasted to the glass doors of bars (Italian bars - ergo - coffee shops). The ones with their own pastry making facilities. Sometimes hand written, often large black letters on A4 photocopy sheets, but always announcing the imminent arrival of "Bombolone calde alle 17.00". Hot doughnuts at 17.00.
Doughnuts? But aren't Tuscans supposed to be the purveyors of the healthy Mediterranean diet? It took me a good while to be able to slide this into place. There is even an old and very much quoted proverb for when things are not going according to plan "non ogni ciambelle viene col buco" - not every doughnut comes out with a hole. Which incidentally is odd, because the Tuscan doughnut doesn't have a hole.
Be that as it may, I discovered that hot fresh doughnuts can even break down social barriers and renew friendships. One memorable March, a surprize snow storm continuing for most of the night, left us and our nearest neighbours snow-bound. Marco and I had the whizz idea of inviting everyone to come and eat hot doughnuts. Fortunately two our our nearest neighbours ran over to help us make mountains of doughnuts for the 30 adults and children who arrived on sledges, chilly, cheerful and hungry. The happy afternoon of snow, doughnuts and renewed friendships is still talked about.
So what to make of this penchant for deep fry? Infact the nation's love of fried food extends way beyond doughnuts. I remember a visiting friend from New York once telling me how she'd been disappointed with a restaurant menu in Florence because french fries were served with everything, a sure sign, she assured me, that the chef was accommodating tourists. Not so. If food is a way to a Tuscan man's heart, fried food is on the top of the menu. Grown men will soften and their voices take on an edge of excitement when they spot 'patate fritte' on a menu. Serve them at home - big, fat and chunky, as only home-made chips are able to be, and you can barter for that odd-job that's been waiting for his attention.
Fritti misti - a pile of little golden lightly battered fried fish and squid; baccala alla Livornese - pre-fried pieces of cod steeped in rosemary flavoured tomato sauce; pollo (chicken) fritto; coniglio (rabbit) fritto, accompanied by a plate of crispy battered carciofi (archichokes) fritti; or you-should-be-so-lucky funghi porcini fritti. I've served humungous piles of "coccoli" - little balls of bread dough deep fried to light-as-air golden puffs served with oozy soft stracchino cheese and prosciutto, to strapping young Florentine rowing crew friends of our son and seen the lot disappear with whoops of joy.
Ah yes, the culinary contributions to a number of cultural traditions throughout the year keep the oil on the sizzle. No Tuscan would go without Fritelle di Riso (rice ball fritters flavoured with orange zest and a slug of rum), and Cenci (Vin Santo flavoured sweet pastry 'rags') during the January Carneval period. Fritelle di farina di castagna (chestnut flour fritters) in the cold winter months are hailed with positive joy.
In the middle of writing this, my husband has come home from Veneto and his prosecco tastings, pleased as punch to have found a culinary magazine dedicated to traditional deep fried sweet desserts from all the regions of Italy. For Carneval time. I counted them. 89. My Florentine husband was positively drooling.
Batter, in the Tuscan kitchen is an art. Every 'fry' requires a slightly different mix. It took me ages to learn that my coniglio fritto looked tired and unappetising because I was dipping the pieces of meat in egg first and then the flour, instead of the reverse. Could that really make such a difference? Get the consistency of your flour and sparkling water batter for your carciofi just a little thicker or thinner than the 'ribbon stage' and they shrivel to woody squiggles. Forget the beer in the cod batter and it's missing the zing.
Not everyone, however, loves to do the frying. I have observed that Italian mammas are divided into those who love to fry and those to whom just the thought of those unavoidable slooshes of oil over their stoves, limits them to enjoying only when someone else is doing the frying and slooshing. And how all these beautiful Italian women get away with all of this I've never been able to figure out. Are our metabolisms different? Or could the Tuscan fry be an aphrodisiac? Perhaps it's no coincidence that the little fried dough balls "coccoli" in Florence, share the same word for "cuddles". Could it be that "coccoli" are the Tuscan equivalent of English nursery food and that one coccoli leads to another. Friers be warned!
BACCALA ALLA LIVORNESE
I absolutely love this dish but eat it very rarely because I feel so guilty about falling cod stocks warnings. I never came across salt dried cod when I was in the U.K, but discovered that fresh cod fillets are not a successful alternative.
Making this dish requires forward planning. Family run food stores in Tuscany, bring out their special flat basins with mini fountains of fresh running water every Thursday morning to soak and de-salt whole sides of cod. You have to remember to reserve a piece as Friday is the traditional day to eat fish here. The alternative is to buy it encrusted in salt and to place it in a bowl of cold water for 48 hours changing the water frequently to eliminate all traces of salt.
When ready to begin the dish, first prepare the batter sufficiently ahead of time to allow it to chill in the fridge for at least a couple of hours. My Florentine mother-in-law always used to tell me that this was the secret of crispier batter. Place about 120 gms of plain flour in a bowl and with a fork, gradually whisk in sparkling mineral water. The aim is to achieve a batter that is not too thick nor too thin, but that dribbles off the fork prongs in 'ribbons'. Pop this in the fridge.
Next prepare a tomato sauce. Peel and squash a couple of cloves of garlic. Pour a couple of tablespoons of olive oil into a saucepan and add the garlic until it is soft. Then add the contents of a 400g can of good tomato pulp, and a pinch of salt. Simmer for about 15 minutes and taste for seasoning but remembering to go lightly on the salt as you've just spent 48 hours getting rid of it in the cod.
Slice the now plump looking cod into pieces of about 5cm, dip into the batter and fry in the hot oil until golden and crisp. Have a plate with kitchen paper ready to drain the cooked cod. It's better to fry just two or three pieces at a time.
Pour the tomato sauce into a low sided pan that will be wide enough to hold all the pieces of fried cod in a single layer. Add a generous amount of sprigs of fresh rosemary. This is an absoltely essential ingredient as it is the magic touch of this dish. Place the pieces of fried cod very gently skin side up onto the bed of tomato sauce taking great care not to break the batter, Simmer gently for 10 minutes then turn the pieces over very carefully and simmer another 10 minutes. Serve immediately or if you are making it in advance, after placing the cod pieces in the tomato sauce, leave the simmering stage until you are ready to eat.
Traditionally in Tuscany this beautiful dish is served with cecci (chick peas) drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper.
It is also excellent reheated very gently the day after.