Winter in Tuscany can be really beautiful. I’m not a winter sort of person. I hate the cold, especially when you have to wake up early. But this weekend, Giulio and I decided to break from our usual tradition (lying on the couch watching Netflix) to go for a walk. Makes sense since we live in such an amazing destination. On that note, it’s easy to forget just how beautiful your surroundings are. I tell people I live in Tuscany and they swoon, but after a while, Tuscany becomes just like anywhere else in the world and you forget to appreciate the very place you call home. So this weekend was a nice reminder.
Rugged up in my wool jacket with my very own pair of black wellingtons, I crunched through the forest floor with its mountains of bronze leaves like a kid… a kid on a mission. I was looking for chestnuts. No surprises there. My mind is always on food. Southern Tuscany has a bounty of seasonal fare if you know where to look. For a girl who grew up in suburban Australia, foraging is one hell of an exciting afternoon. There was only one problem. I was about five weeks too late for chestnuts. Drat. Wandering through the wilderness, empty basket in hand, no longer sounded so appealing. So I grumbled over to my parents-in-law garden and pretend I had found wild persimmons instead.
Persimmons are a truly strange fruit. If you’ve never had one, there are two types. Soft and hard. I can’t possibly describe the flavour of soft persimmons to you because my brother used to throw them at me when I was a kid in my grandmother’s garden and I haven’t recovered enough from the trauma to taste one. I have no problem with hard or Japanese persimmons, lucky. They’re crisp like an apple, but sweeter and starchier, almost a mash up between a pear and a peach and they’re gorgeous in any sort of stew, especially my Tuscan winter chicken stew.
If you’re looking for a ridiculously traditional Tuscan recipe then you’re in the wrong place. This is my take on a very famous Tuscan and olive chicken stew, minus the olives. It’s not really common to find fruit in meat dishes in Italy. That’s more of a Moroccan thing or the chicken and canned peach dishes of my ’90s childhood. But don’t judge. Japanese persimmons are bang in season and perfect with chicken. Since they’re so crisp, they don’t turn into a pulpy mess and add an amazing bite and sweetness. I whipped (if you can say whipped for something that took about an hour to cook) this up after we returned from our walk on Saturday and I can assure you, it really hit the spot.
And while you might think the inclusion of saffron is a bit strange, Southern Tuscany happens to be one of the world’s major producers. I visited a local grower a couple of years ago and picked the saffron stamens from their bright purple flowers. It was tiring work because you have to be so very delicate. Tuscan saffron is so fragrant that a little goes a long way and its copper notes are definitely needed to balance the sweet honey in this stew! Yum!
Tuscan winter chicken and persimmon stew
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 chicken, jointed into 8 pieces
1 onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 cinnamon quill
1 tablespoon honey
1 Japanese persimmon, cut into eight pieces
½ tsp each ground ginger and cumin
pinch of saffron threads, soaked in 60ml hot water
To taste: lemon juice
To serve: crusty Italian bread
Heat half the olive oil in a large casserole dish and brown the chicken pieces (9 minutes). Remove from the pan and add the onions and garlic and cook until golden (4 minutes) before adding the almonds and cinnamon quill and toasting (2 minutes). Remove everything from the pan.
Heat the remaining oil and add the honey, cooking until caramelised. Then add the persimmon and cook until golden (5 minutes). Remove from the heat, add the spices and saffron, before returning the onion and chicken to the pan. Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer until the chicken is tender (50 minutes). Add the persimmon and cook for a further 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt, pepper and lemon juice, and serve with plenty of bread.
I want to pretend Giulio and I pulled out our best cutlery to eat this, but we actually just dug in right from the casserole dish with nothing more than two forks and a bottle of red wine!