Pappa al Pomodoro

When you think of Italy, you probably think of the tomato – tomato sauce, Caprese salad, pizza! But actually the tomato is from the Old World, cultivated by the Aztecs, who called it tomatl, brought to Europe by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century. It soon took off in Spain and Italy in particular, so that by the mid-16th century the tomato, or pomodoro (which literally means ‘golden apple’) had become a staple of what we now call the Mediterranean diet. It wasn’t until the late 18th century when Thomas Jefferson began growing his own crops in Monticello that the tomato made its way onto North American plates, though it was the great Italian immigration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that sealed the relationship between ‘Italy’ and ‘tomato’ and made it one of the most popular fruits worldwide.

Pappa al pomodoro is a peasant dish but one that can be found in homes and restaurants all over Tuscany. The principal ingredients are tomatoes and stale bread. Never one for wasting food, Tuscan recipes often call for stale – and this is important – unsalted bread. There are various reasons for the lack of salt in Tuscan bread. One theory is that the Pisans, who controlled the ports, withheld salt from their enemies, chiefly Florence but also Siena, in the 12th century. Another is that salt is expensive, and the traditionally penny-pinching Tuscans chose to save their salt for meats, not bread. The advantage? The perfect ingredient for our pappa al pomodoro!

Here we are in a site typical to the Tuscan countryside, an olive grove. We talked about the importance of the tomato to the Italian diet and identity before, but in art and myth, the olive has a much richer history because it has been a part of these lands for millennia. First cultivated in present-day Palestine and Syria about 8,000 years ago, the olive tree eventually made its way to Italy via Crete and Greece and was exploited by the Etruscans and the Romans. The olive itself has many symbolic meanings, especially one of peace. The olive was sacred to Athena, goddess of wisdom and Athens, who gifted the plant to the city. It also appears in the Bible when a dove presents Noah with an olive branch to indicate that the Great Flood is over. And in Sienese paintings of the Annunciation, rather than arrive with a lily, the symbol of Siena’s rival Florence, the Angel Gabriel holds an olive branch as he brings these good tidings to the Virgin Mary (check out Simone Martini’s beautiful Annunciation, made for Siena’s Cathedral but now housed in the Uffizi Gallery).

Olive oil production can be found all over Italy, but Tuscany’s olive oil is amongst the best, and Italy is the second-highest producer of olive oil, after Spain, ahead of Greece. Olives are collected by hand in the autumn and cold pressed into that aromatic and peppery green oil known as extra virgin. Savour it on some Tuscan bread – delicious!

Olive trees can live for thousands of years; most of these {indicate around me} are a few hundred years old. Some of the oldest are in the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem where Christ was betrayed by Judas.

Olive trees are not grown for lumber – they are far too precious. But wood from pruned branches or rotted trees can be made into fine objects. This particularly durable wood has a beautiful colour and patterned grain with natural antibacterial properties.

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