Lucca Olive Oil to Rigatino, Real Tuscany Stands Up in Mario Matassa Interview

Turning the tables on our usual practice, we run the Tuscany Contest before the Interview.

I hope you also enjoyed the rustic qualities of Chesnut Cake Alla Pistoiese Recipe excerpted from the book.

Today we serve our interview with Mario Matassa whose liner notes for Tuscany (Phaidon Press, Spring 2011) guide us through all parts of Tuscany with a conductor's mastery.

Q: Mario, even if chocolate does not fill rivers of Chocolate Valley, what are its highlights and specialties?

All of the artisan chocolatiers in the Chocolate Valley are to be highly recommended. They’re all passionate about their craft and they rely on the highest quality ingredients. However, if I had to single out one producer, it has to be Roberto Catinari. This is the man that started it all in Tuscany – at least, as far as chocolate is concerned. Being the first, way back in 1974, to open a chocolate shop in a region that was not known for chocolate, you have to admire his courage. Roberto set to work, blending his knowledge of chocolate harmoniously with the flavors of the Tuscan landscape. When I’m in the area I always look out for the rustic slabs of chocolate mixed with hazelnuts, pine nuts, almonds and dried fruits such as figs, sultanas and candied citrus fruits.  

Q: Not to make yourself enemies, pick a trio of favorites amongst the 10 regions of Tuscany?

Tuscany has it all – mountains, rugged coastline, rolling hills and beautiful historic cities – so it’s difficult to pick a favorite. If pushed, however, I have to start with an area called the Lunigiana in the Massa Carrara region in northern Tuscany, because this is where I spend most of my time. I visit nearly every weekend, from June to October, to pick mushrooms in the mountains above the town of Pontremoli. It’s not the stereotypical Tuscany of farmhouses and rolling hills, but the views are breathtaking nonetheless. The Lunigiana literally means ‘land of the moon’, and when you see the moon framed against the backdrop of the mountains, you’ll know why. This is the Tuscany of jagged mountains, fairytale castles, old stone bridges and roaring log fires.

If I were to pick a city, it has to be Florence. I mean, Tuscany is full of beautiful cities packed with art and historical treasures, but Florence for me somehow brings it all together. It comes down to that dual identity which I talk about in the book – the ability to marry the most exquisite with the most simple. It’s best seen in the cuisine. You can still order a fiorentina (porterhouse steak), one of the best steaks in the world, from practically any restaurant in the city or you can just as well cross the piazza to a nearby tripe vendor and order a humble panino (sandwich) stuffed with tripe, with a squeeze of chilli sauce. It’s wonderful that these two traditions still co-exist, side-by-side.

Finally, I’ve got to include Livorno because I grew up beside the sea and part of me, I suppose, has become genetically attached. It’s also because I’m a diehard seafood lover! I now live in the region of Emilia which is landlocked so whenever my friends and I get a hankering for seafood (quite often) we’ll get in the car and take a road trip to Livorno for a bowl of cacciucco – Livorno’s version of Italian fish soup. I mean, I’ve eaten fish soup all over Italy but Livorno’s is hard to beat. I love everything about it – the peppery chilli, the slightly stale bread they place at the bottom of the bowl and there’s always a good mix of fresh fish, some of which I sometimes have ask the waiter to identify for me (traditionally it was made with no less than 13 types of fish).

Q: You were born in Ireland, any good Tuscan brews?

I’ve had a few artisan beers in Tuscany, some of them very good indeed, but having grown up in Ireland, I still need some convincing. Whenever I go back to Belfast one of the first points of call for me is always the Crown Bar and to be honest with you, it’s not for a glass of wine. Similarly, when in Tuscany, I take advantage of what they do best – wine!
Q: Am I correct to understand that Pistoia is one of the rare places in Tuscany where cheesemakers use raw milk?

The reason I singled out the cheese makers of Pistoia is because they are a group of shepherds and cheese makers that still stick rigidly to traditional artisan methods. Their cheese isn’t as famous as the pecorino di Pienza in Siena (which is also excellent). However, this small group of cheese makers deserve recognition because they’ve remained faithful to century old methods and recipes. Cheese making with raw milk is becoming more of a rarity in Italy, but you can still find artisan producers (mostly small family run enterprises) that still stick to traditional methods. In my view, they are well worth the effort of seeking out! 

Q: What is the big difference between 'formaggio freso' and 'abbucciato'? Which cheeses from Pistoia are easiest to find in the Us and the UK?

The best cheeses from Pistoia are all pecorino cheeses, in that they are all made with ewe’s milk. Formaggio fresco is usually aged for between 7-20 days. Abbucciato is aged for at least 35 days but usually no more than 60. The cheese you’ll most likely find from Pistoia in the US and the UK will be a pecorino aged from 3 months to a year, referred to sometimes as pecorino da asserbo. The best way I’ve eaten this is served at the end of a meal accompanied with a Tuscan acacia honey and small (blini-like) chestnut flour pancakes hot off the griddle.


Q: The photo of Venanzio Vannucci and his Lardo di Colonnata striked me with their ancient ways and authentic look, what makes this Lardo special?
Lardo was the poor Italian’s cured meat. In Colonnata, it was the local marble quarryman’s staple food. In the morning it would have been boiled and drunk like a broth to ward off the cold and at lunch it was packed between pieces of bread. What makes it different from the lardo made throughout Tuscany and other parts of Italy is the method of production. The technique is completely natural – there are no artificial preservatives or additives. Added to this, the pork back fat is cured in large porous white marble vats – the marble coming from the local mines. The microclimate of the caves in which the meat is cured no doubt adds to its distinctive flavour, making this a product that cannot easily be replicated. Lardo has been produced in this area using the same family recipes for centuries. 

Q: David by Michelangelo and the marble of Carrara and its quarries, can you share the history?

Anyone who has travelled south from the northern reaches of Tuscany’s Massa Carrara region will almost certainly have noticed the gaping white marble quarries of the towering Apuan Alps from which the famous Carrara marble is excavated. The stone has been excavated from the mountains since Roman times and has gone into the construction of some of the world’s most recognised landmarks – such as Trajan’s column in Rome and Marble Arch in London. Carrara marble is said to have been Michelangelo’s favorite stone. His statue of David, a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture, was created between 1501 and 1504. It’s as much by luck as it was design that Michelangelo came to sculpt David. The commission to sculpt the statue was originally given to another Florentine sculptor, Agostino di Duccio. But for reasons unknown his association with the project came to an end in 1466. Subsequently another sculptor, Antonio Rossellino, was commissioned to carry out the work. Again the contract was terminated and for 25 years the block of marble was left untouched and exposed to the elements in the yard of the cathedral workshop. It wasn’t until August 1501 that Michelangelo was finally awarded the contract to sculpt David. Today it sits in the Accademia Gallery in Florence. A replica is now situated outside the Palazzo della Signoria, where the original was located until 1873.

Q: Tuscany now has a trendy image with celebrity spotting. Many recipes and dishes in the book are rustic, peasant fare, how do both cohabitate, what is the real Tuscany?

That’s a good question. Tuscany is ‘the’ place to be in Italy these days and let’s hope that in the future that does not take anything away from the real Tuscany. As I have been at pains to stress in the book, many of the Tuscan dishes now famous throughout the world are descendants of cucina povera – ‘peasant cuisine’. Ribollita, the famous Tuscan soup, papa col pomodoro (a tomato soup), the various crostini, the slow cooked stews were all formerly dishes of the poor. The irony is that today these same dishes are served in high-end eateries. But in the countryside, I’m pleased to say, the traditions of Tuscan cuisine still hold firm and true. That’s because, good food remains good food, no matter how fashionable it may be at any given time.    
Q: I was surprised by the 'look' of Maremma cattle, what's their origin? Can you also tell us a bit about 'Butteri' the local cowboys?

The Maremmana breed of cattle is a descendant of the bos Taurus Macroceros, a long-horned cattle which can be traced in Italy back to the Etruscan era. They once populated the Maremma area of Tuscany in enormous herds but with the reclamation of the marshlands, their numbers dwindled. Interest in the breed is currently being revived and their numbers are once again growing. The butteri, Tuscany’s answer to the cowboys of the American Wild West, once served to control the movement of the vast herbs of cattle. Their skills were legendary and the story goes that in 1890, when Buffalo Bill brought his Wild West show to Italy, the butteri challenged the legendary cowboy to a contest of skills and won!  Today, however, with the advent of modern farming methods, their function is mainly decorative and ceremonial. 

Q: What's so distinctive about olive oil from Lucca?

The olive oil from Lucca is renowned for its delicate flavor. It’s noticeably less aggressive than other Tuscan olive oils and that’s because of the high concentration of Frantoio, an olive variety that has a particularly delicate and mild taste. I find it works well in dishes where you don’t want the olive oil to overpower other flavors.  

Q: Rigatino and rabbit, what flavors come out?

Rigatino - a type of Tuscan pancetta (cured pork belly) – has a more intense flavor than traditional pancetta. The pork belly is dusted in a coat of pepper and chilli pepper when cured which imparts a spicy flavour to the cured meat (bacon). The milder flavour of the rabbit combines perfectly with the more pronounced rigatoni, so it’s an ideal combination.

Q: Does Testaroli compare n texture to French 'galettes de ble noir'?

No, not quite. There are a few important differences. The first is in the ingredients. ‘Galettes’ are made with buckwheat flour, which differs in flavor from the wheat flour used to make testaroli.  Moreover, testaroli are much firmer in texture compared to ‘galettes’ as no egg is added. The batter for testaroli is simply flour and water. Finally, ‘galettes’ once made are generally stuffed and eaten immediately. In contrast, testaroli, once made, require re-cooking.  The pancake is cut into diamonds and boiled, as you would pasta, before being dressed in a sauce (usually a basil pesto) and served. Surprisingly, even when boiled, testaroli, to an extent, maintain their original firmness and texture.
Q: Last, name the best dishes at Trattoria Mazzoni?

I’m a firm advocate of eating local traditional dishes wherever I go in Italy. This way you get to taste the best, in every sense, of what the region has to offer. Arezzo is famous for small holdings with ducks, farmyard animals and small game such a rabbit playing a large part in the local cuisine. So if you want to try something very typical of the region at Trattoria Mazzoni try the tagliatelle alla nana (tagliatelle with duck sauce) or the pappardelle alla lepre (pasta with hare sauce). When you’ve finished eating, don’t forget to pop next door to the family-run grocery shop which stocks all manner of local specialties which you can take home with you.

Thanks Marco for sharing your intimate knowledge and love of Tuscany.

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