Three little words that have an ages old special meaning.
Civility Contadina Toscano! I heard those words many years ago while in Siena. I really didn’t understand the context in which they were said but at the time I felt they were as revered as when we say, “God Bless America”.
I hadn’t heard that expression for such a long time that I had really forgotten about it. If I were back in Siena, my Father’s birthplace, I doubt I’d hear them today. However, I recently read something about those very words that tugged at my heart. You must understand that although I am a proud American, born in the United States, I am also a very proud Sienese as my Dad was born in Montefollonico a province of Siena. I have visited there many times; I still have family there and my heart is there.
So reading about those three little words recently was an awakening because I got to understand what they really mean.
Civility is a very noble word that emphasizes respect and dignity. Contadina Toscana refers to the country people who work the land and embodies the origin of the Tuscan culture. The very word Civility tells you that the Tuscan people have always had great dignity and fought and prevailed against any misfortune that was thrown their way. I see that clearly now in the character of my Dad! Yes I am a proud Sienese.
And so it is fitting that I include on this page a recipe that is as old as time and signifies the perseverance and imagination. As Tuscans prevailed against poverty, floods, war, the government, wicked landowners and even the papacy, they knew how to exist with very little. And so FETTUNTA was born.
As poor as they were they always had flour and water and so they developed a simple bread baked in open ovens. If they had olive oil, they brushed it on the bread and maybe, but very sparingly a little salt because salt was highly taxed then. As times went on and times got better they added different things to this strange bread to make it more enjoyable.
Today we enjoy it freely giving little thought to its origin. My grandmother, ages ago on her farm, often made a version of this where she would take a loaf of stale bread, slice it down the middle, sprinkle it well with olive oil and scatter grated cheese evenly over all. Then she would put it under the broiler until the cheese was melted and the bread was toasted. Sometimes she eliminated the cheese but scraped a tomato over a garlic and oil saturated bread. This uncomplicated bread was delicious in its very simplicity. I wish I could remember what we called it but I know it wasn’t Fettunta. We make this at home now and pile on a myriad of things like tomatoes, mozzarella, torn basil and sometimes anchovies and we call it Bruscetta.
But years ago it probably went something like this:
Toast thick slices of stale crusty bread. Pour a little olive oil on each slice, rub with fresh garlic cloves, sprinkle with some black pepper and maybe a light sprinkle of salt. And I bet it was delicious in it’s simplicity!
TOMATO AND BREAD SALAD
In Tuscany where my fraternal Great-grandparents, Grandparents and my Dad
were born, leftover bread is never wasted as it is put to any uses. You will find it in all kinds of appetizers such as crostini and fettunata, soups like ribollita ,and meatballs, among many other things. It is also the basis for a tomato salad called Panzanella, of which there as many versions as there are Nonnas.
This happens to be one of the ways my Little Nonna made use of stale bread, and it is a family favorite.
1/3 CUP RED WINE VINEGAR – or more to taste
½ CUP EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
8 OZ ITALIAN BREAD – stale, cut into cubes
1 RED ONION – thinly sliced
7-8 CUPS water – cold
2 LBS PLUMB TOMATOES – very ripe, coarsely chopped to make 5 cups
1 CUP FRESH BASIL LEAVES – torn into little pieces
1 GARLIC CLOVE – or more to taste, minced
1 SMALL CUCUMBER – thinly sliced, optional
Pour vinegar into a small bowl and slowly whisk in the olive oil and minced garlic. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Place bread in a large bowl and pour in enough water to cover the bread. Soak for about 5 minutes, drain and squeeze out as much water as possible. Add tomato, onion basil and cucumber, if using. Toss with enough of the vinaigrette to coat. Taste and season with more salt and pepper, if necessary.
NOTE: you can make this early in the day, if you would like to. Just cover and refrigerate, Remove, and let stand at least 1 hour at room temperature before serving.
I can turn this salad into a complete summer meal by adding a can of Italian tuna (packed in oil) and a hard-boiled egg chopped.