Panzanella salad is synonymous with Southern Tuscany in summer. The weather has been fantastic recently. I was worried a couple of weeks ago that we wouldn’t have a real summer this year because it’s been so wet and cold. I’m jetting off Australia at the end of the month and it’s winter over there, so obviously, I’m praying for warm weather now with almost violent dedication.
But the sun god has been smiling on me and over the weekend, Giulio and I escaped to Cala Violina. This tiny beach in nearby Scarlino sits inside a massive nature park, so it’s bordered by shady pine trees, perfect for escaping the sun. It’s name is a nod to its sand, which is made up of tiny quartz crystals. When you walk on them, they rub together and sound like the strings of a violin – how picturesque! This photo does not do this beach justice. It really is the most beautiful beach in Southern Tuscany, which might sound easy since Tuscany isn’t really famous for beach, but we actually have a bunch of award-winning beaches duking it out for the top title. Southern Tuscany’s beaches are famous for their super clean water and pristine surroundings, since so many of them are part of nature parks. And since we dip our feet in the Mar Tirreno or Tyrrhenian Sea, the water is always calm and warm. So there you have it, my insider’s tip for the day!
There was only one snag in an otherwise perfect weekend – dinner. I did not want to eat a carb-loaded plate of pasta after a day at the beach. So I drew into my arsenal of no-cook Southern Tuscany salads. A lot of people think the cuisine is the same all over Tuscany… okay, some people think Italian food is the same all over Italy, but actually, Southern Tuscan cooking differs completely from what you might find further up north.
Our dishes are a lot humbler and fiercely seasonal with heaps of vegetables and very little meat. While the rest of Tuscany was experiencing the Renaissance and marvelling over Dante and Da Vinci, we were dying from malaria. The swamplands in Southern Tuscany were only drained in the last century, so our cuisine is hardy, like the locals.
One of my earliest culinary memories of Southern Tuscany is panzanella salad. Panzanella is a bread salad with ripe tomatoes and cucumbers that’s left to soak until the bread is soggy – deliciously soggy – and full of flavour. It’s like a bruschetta, but deconstructed!
The traditional panzanella recipe is not strictly tied to Southern Tuscany. They make variations of it throughout the region. I even came across a recipe by Jamie Oliver, but with capers and anchovies, which, while I love Jamie, are absolutely not Tuscan at all. Southern Italians use capers and anchovies. I can’t even get Giulio to look at an anchovy, let alone eat one.
A classic panzanella salad should only have bread, tomato, cucumber and basil. Toss it in some red wine vinegar and olive oil, season and leave to soak.
My recipe is how we make it in Southern Tuscany, which is basically the same as the classic panzanella recipe, but with tuna and onions.
Tuna? Not very Italian right? Panzanella salad with tuna is what we call a panzanella ricca or gourmet panzanella. My mother in law loves to tell the story of how she and a friend both brought panzanella to a town dinner. Hers was finished in a matter of minutes, while her friend’s had hardly been touched. When her friend complained that she’d made a panzanella ricca, my mother in law said, sorry but that’s how I like it!
And I have to admit, the tuna and the onions really amp up the flavour of what can otherwise be a bit of a bland salad. Some Southern Tuscans use simmental instead of tuna, but that is a story for another time!
There is really nothing easier than this panzanella salad. If you can make a normal tomato and cucumber salad, you can make a panzanella salad.
The most important tip is to leave the bread to soak up the vinegar and water mixture for at least 30 minutes. You want the bread to be soft and crumbly. I would only ever use Tuscan bread in this because it contains no salt, which is ideal since the briny saltiness of the tuna is all you need. But if you can’t find Tuscan bread, a ciabatta or any good rustic loaf works.
When my mother in law makes panzanella salad for lunch, she actually prepares it in the morning and leaves it in the fridge for a couple of hours. The locals over here believe the longer you leave it to marinate, the more flavoursome it becomes because the tomatoes begin to macerate and break down in the vinegar and the bread absorbs the tomato juices along with the vinegar and olive oil.
You don’t have to do that, but bear it in mind if you are going on a picnic. Panzanella salad is the perfect picnic food since you can prepare it ahead and it will happily macerate until lunchtime. It’s surprisingly filling with all that bread and bursting with bright and light summer Tuscan flavours!
SOUTHERN TUSCAN PANZANELLA SALAD
1 loaf Tuscan bread, torn into bite size chunks
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
4 ripe vine tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 can tuna in olive oil
1 cucumber, roughly chopped
basil leaves, to serve
Place the bread in a shallow dish with the red wine vinegar and 1/4 cup water. Leave to soak for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile arrange all the other ingredients in a serving bowl.
Squeeze any excess liquid out of the bread and tear into smaller pieces with your hard. Add to the salad.
Season with good extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper and add a flourish of basil leaves to serve. Serves 4.
NB: You can prepare this salad a few hours ahead of time and chill in the fridge until you’re ready to serve. Serve with a powerful red like a Morellino di Scansano.
Looking for more Summer recipes? Try my Butterscotch cinnamon plums with limoncello custard or Mini mimosa pan di spagna (Italian sponge) cakes