'In Tuscany food never goes to waste'

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Judy Witts Francini (far left) with some students and her hometown of Certaldo (right). Photos: Judy Witts Francini
08:00 CEST+02:00
We all know Italy is as much about the food as it is about the climate and the people. In this special foodie edition of My Italy, The Local talks to American cooking teacher and food writer Judy Witts Francini about Tuscan cuisine.

How did you end up in Tuscany? 

When I turned 30 I decided I wanted one last big trip before I settled down. So I booked a one-way ticket to Europe and planned a month in France and a month in Italy. I thought I would end up in France but when I went to Florence to study Italian I fell in love at first sight – first with the city, then a year later with a Florentine.

I lived in Florence for 20 years – and since 2002 have made my home in the hills outside of Certaldo. The soft rolling hills and fabulous vistas make it a nice home base.

Sell the region to us.

Tuscany has a little of everything: sea, mountains, farmland, fabulous countryside and incredible cities filled with art. Good food and wine don't hurt, either.

What convinced you to become a cooking teacher and food writer?

Before I got into the food business I worked in hotels. When I left the hotel business I became a pastry chef and discovered cooking was my life. I decided to set up one-day classes and market tours since all that was available at the time were week-long programs.

If you had visitors for one afternoon where would you take them?

That’s hard to say as there are many places I could take them in Tuscany. I imagine I would probably take them to Florence for a short walking tour of the historic centre.

The entire city is an open museum – but of course you can’t come without seeing the works of art in the Uffizi gallery and I personally adore the smaller Bargello and the Specola museums. The Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella is practically a museum not to mention the Ferragamo Museum in the same building as the fashion label's shop.

I would of course pair touring the town with my favourite wine bars, gelaterias and street food.

I have a dining guide online on my website—which is written according to neighbourhood. So when you’ve finished touring you know where to stop.

Speaking of which, where are the best places to eat?

Mostly I like to hang out near home in the Chianti wine region, central Tuscany.

But Tuscany is so huge with so many different kinds of cooking and I have favourite places all over the place.

I adore the food around Lucca, also in the centre of the region. For simple Tuscan food, I send people to the Trattoria da Giulio (Via delle Conce, 45), where the menu features the region’s traditional bean soups which I adore.

For a fun lunch I recommend the Antica Macelleria Cecchini in Panzano, Chianti, where they serve burgers and a tasting menu. Macelleria literally translates as “butcher shop” but it’s much more than that. When you walk in it’s like stepping into the past.

For finer fining I recommend the Buca di San Antonio (Via della Cervia, 3), also in Lucca. They serve several classics from Lucca like farro (spelt) soup, leek pie, and specialities like wild boar and rabbit.

For a classic Tuscan menu in Florence I’d recommend the Trattoria Mario, a famous family-run trattoria near San Lorenzo market. I adore the veal chop, Lombatina di vitello.

In Maremma, in the south west, the long-horned cattle and cowboys have a whole different style of food – and of course, as it’s by the seaside it also has the best fresh fish.

You mention on your blog that there are things that every Tuscan should have in their pantry. Tell us a few of these things?

Extra virgin olive oil, fresh garlic and fresh herbs, including rosemary, sage, thyme and dried oregano. Also breadcrumbs, red wine vinegar, capers, parmesan, canned tomatoes, pasta and rice.

What is traditional Tuscan food like?

Tuscan food is famous for being a “poor cuisine” where nothing goes to waste.

In Italy, Tuscans are nicknamed “Mangiafagioli”, or “bean-eaters”. The region is also known for its “tasteless” unsalted bread which is part of the tradition from when salt was heavily taxed and salted food was only for the rich. Stale bread recipes are some of my favourite, including the ribollita soup and papa al pomodoro, which are great to have in winter. In summer, panzanella salad, which consists of stale bread, ripe tomatoes, raw red onions, cucumbers and basil is a winner. It’s very refreshing.

But most people on holiday look for traditional Florentine steaks, a two-pound t-bone steak cooked rare and shared at the table. Here the animals are only fed with grass, which makes the meat very lean and over-cooking would make it tough.

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Roast pork (arista) and potatoes are also a classic restaurant dish, accompanied by twice-cooked spinach or chard.

And of course there are the biscotti di Prato (Prato is a town near Florence), which are hard almond cookies which soften when dipped into the sweet dessert wine, Vin Santo (holy wine), made from dried grapes.

Speaking of wine, which wines would you recommend?

I adore smaller wineries like Montevertine Le Pergole Torte from Radda, Chianti.

Do any Italians ever come on your course?

Yes, but they want me to teach them "foreign food" such as Mexican and Japanese food and American sweets. They adore learning new things.

Finally, can you share one Tuscan cooking secret with our readers?

A simple secret: Most recipes say to hear the oil, then add the garlic. The garlic burns! I place the garlic in cold oil and then turn on the heat.

Judy Witts Francini is a cooking teacher, food writer and life coach based in Certaldo, Tuscany. On her website you’ll find information about courses, her restaurant guide and Italian recipes.  

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