When we woke up this morning, after a few days spent indoors trying to escape the massive heat wave that has hit Tuscany at the end of this crazy summer, our kitchen cupboards and fridge looked very very sad… A wasteland, basically! All we had was a couple of stale loaves of bread, some fresh tomatoes that thanks to my father’s vegetable garden are always available, and not much else…
My husband was brave enough to venture to the Coop supermarket in the nearest village, while I was left contemplating the sad state of our provisions. And then it is when I realized I had very little, but I had everything I needed to prepare pappa al pomodoro!
Pappa al pomodoro is a bread and tomato “minestra“, that is, a thick soup, and one of the oldest and most typical dishes of the Siena area. It is definitely one of the most representative dishes of the Tuscan cucina povera, the poor people’s culinary tradition.
I hadn’t made pappa al pomodoro in a long time, and it seemed the perfect choice to really get to the bottom of whatever was left of the food we had in the house before my husband came back with two large bags of fresh supplies from the supermarket.
So here is my recipe for a very authentic pappa col pomodoro, handed down to me by my grandmother!
Ingredients for 2 people
- abundant extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 1 small onion
- pepper or red pepper
- fresh or canned tomatoes
- 200 gr of stale unsalted bread
- 750 ml of broth or hot water
- salt and sugar
- fresh basil
Slice the garlic and the onion coarsely and sauté in abundant olive oil. Add pepper (or red pepper). Chop the tomatoes and add to the garlic and onions. Cover and cook for at least 10 minutes (fresh tomatoes might need 15 minutes) at medium-low heat, stirring regularly and adding a bit of warm water if the tomatoes start to dry up. Cut the bread into large cubes and add to the tomatoes. Mix and keep stirring for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the bread is well mixed in with the tomato sauce. Add 500 ml of broth or hot water and stir until the bread and tomato mix becomes a “pappa”, a mush. Cover and cook for 15 more minutes, adding an extra 250 ml of water if necessary. After 15 minutes, take the lid off, taste and add some salt if you used hot water instead of broth and a pinch of sugar if the tomato still tastes too acidic. Keep cooking until most of the liquid has evaporated and the pappa is thick. Pappa col pomodoro is ready when all the broth has evaporated and the only liquid left is some olive oil. Add fresh basil leaves and… buon appetito!
Many thanks, Gloria, for the recipe! I have always been intrigued by the local tradition here in Florence of pancotti of various kinds. But I have a few questions for you as a native Tuscan. How extensive is the terra di ribollita/pappa (and the summer variant, panzanella)? Florence, Siena and…? Do they eat such things in Grosseto, for example, or in Borgo San Lorenzo? Historically speaking, we seem to be looking at a narrow border region between la terra di pastasciutta e la terra di polenta… Pappa al pomodoro is a traditional dish but I wonder if it was eaten in Siena before the nineteenth century (when did pomodori arrive in Tuscany?) Ribollita would seem to be older, since cavolo nero and fagioli were around much longer than tomatoes. One final question: a few months ago, I overheard a heated discussion in my nearby forno about whether it was best to use pane raffermo o pane fresco in ribollita. I had always taken it for granted that “pane toscano sciocco e raffermo” was the only possibility, so I was surprised by the strong difference of opinion among women from the neighborhood.
Hi Edward, thank you for taking the time to write a comment!
I am not an expert, but from what I see on the menus, I would say that panzanella is more common in southern Tuscany than in northern Tuscany, but it can be found quite easily everywhere. Ribollita is mostly available in Florence and surroundings. Pappa col pomodoro is typical of central and southern Tuscany but I have never seen it in Pisa or Lucxa. Of course, given the offer, you can always find virtually anything anywhere.
Tomatoes arrived at the end of the 16th century and were common already in the 17th century. So even if I am sure minestra di pane, or bean soup are much older, pappa al pomodoro is older than the 19th century too.
As for the right way to prepare a dish, every household will have its own version of it. I am pretty sure that fresh bread was a rare luxury, and that these minestre were so popular also because they allowed people to use old bread, which more often than not was prepared once a week or more commonly once a month in poor families. I would say stale bread, also because it soaks up more liquid.
And by the way, polenta was very very common here to up until the 50′s. My grandmother always tells me how much she hates it because she had to eat it almost every other day!
Many thanks for the prompt and very interesting reply! I never suspected that tomatoes had been around that long and that polenta was common here at one time. I wonder if it was perhaps associated with wartime privation? Then after an interval of prosperity, it made a partial comeback as a food of choice, not merely necessity. The expansion of farro, another poor food, is especially intriguing. Years ago, I think that I only saw it around Lucca. Now, of course, it is terribly chic, even in America. I also remember, in an old fashioned trattoria popolare in the Oltrarno where I ate as a student, the minestra di farina dolce (chestnut), which could either be primo or dessert, and the minestra di semolina. A final question, that I have been wondering about for many years. The tomato-cucumber-onion-basilico panzanella is the standard dish. But years ago, I sometimes encountered a variant (only rarely, especially at lunchtime in a few rosticcerie and fiaschetterie) with radishes, cucumber, mint and chopped hardboiled eggs (presumably added at the very end.) I have not seen this in a very long time…
I guess whomever had a bit of land could grow cereals. Farro was common in the Lucca and Pisa area, but yes, now it’s very fashionable. I discovered it when I moved to Pisa to study there.
Chestnut flour was also very common in our area, because of the chestnut groves which were public. My grandmother tells me that that was the only alternative they had to polenta in the fall and she remembers it as something delicious just because it was different!
I think privation in Italy up to the 50’s and 60’s was the norm, not the exception. When I look at movies set in America in the 50’s and even in the 40’s… wow, that was another world. When I was a kid, some of my friends in the village, especially those who lived in the countryside just outside it, did not have a bathroom in their homes or water that you could drink. This was in the late 70’s and early 80’s not the 40’s!
So much has changed in so little time…
As for the panzanella, every area has its own variety. It depends on what you have. My mum always has boiled egg in it, but no mint. Sometimes radishes, but they are available for a very short period.
Ciao Gloria, ma red pepper?
pementa, peperoncino… come si dice? red pepper no? i peperone rosso non è red bell pepper?
Certo, peperone rosso dolce è “red bell pepper” – almeno in americano. Per peperoncino rosso piccante, tengo molto alla denominazione popolare “zenzero” (così, quà a Firenze “zenzero zenzero” è “ginger”.) Ti ringrazio di nuovo! È sempre prezioso avere informazioni concrete di cose vissute, invece delle solite invenzioni folcloristiche!
Zenzero per me è ginger. Pementa è il peperoncino. :o)
Strano da dire, sono passato proprio adesso dalla Coop sotto la casa e nel riparto ortaggi ho chiesto dello “zenzero”, e senza esitare un’attimo, mi hanno mandato dai mazzetti di peperoncini. E sul cartellino (rigorosamente in Italiano) della confezione di “zenzero zenzero”, ho visto scritto “ginger”. La prossima volta, cercherò “pementa” e vedremo che cosa succederà… Francamente, è una voce che non ho mai sentito e che non trovo neanche nel mio dizionario! Sarebbe un’usanza molto locale, mi sembra, ma torna il senso per via di pimienta/pimiento in lingua spagnola. Scusami, ma sono veramente un po’ ossessionato di queste cose … e il mondo è bello perché è vario!
Oh yes, pementa is the local dialectal word for red pepper, like zenzero in Florence I guess. It’s used in the Grosseto and Siena area. It’s fascinating how dialect change within such a little distance. In Italian the existing word is pimento, and I guess it comes from Spanish, yes. There is also the word pimentare, which is standard, and means to season with pimento.
The recipe seems really delicious…will try today..thanks for sharing, Tomatoes are my favorite.
I don’t know if you are still maintaining this blog, but I have a question regarding the recipe above. When you say pepper or red pepper, do you mean the spice or the actual red pepper vegetable? Thanks!
I don’t have as much time as I used to. I meant the spice.
Made it, tastes fabulous! I hope my guests of tonight will like it. Thanks for the recipe! (I found out a baguette and a hand mixer work out well for this recipe too!)