We recently spent four days eating our way through Lucca – a little-known gem in the heart of Tuscany. And a very educational seven pounds it was.
Ask an Italian: “What is the Tuscan town of Lucca known for?” and they will tell you: tordelli lucchese, mattuffi, necci, farro soup, farinata, torta d’erbi, baccala, rovelline lucchesi…
Italians love to talk about food. That’s why Italian is such a lovely language. Every Italian will tell you that the food from their home town, and particularly the food from their Nonna’s / Mama’s cucina, is the best in all of Italy. The food from the neighboring towns…. regions… not necessarily bad, but not as good. It’s an Italian thing.
In 2009, Lucca sent shock waves around the foodie world when it announced that it would prohibit new ethnic or fast food (= not Italian) restaurants from opening in the city’s historic center. Newspapers from that time defend the regulation as an act to preserve their cultural and historical identity, and to promote foodie tourism. Others called it a new form of nationalism… anti-immigrant… racist. Since the Luccan ban, other Italian cities such as Verona and Florence have enacted their own culinary xenophobia bylaws.
It has been argued that the ethnic food ban is a response to the recent wave of immigration. And while there may be some truth to this, the reality is more nuanced. About 20 years ago, it was explained to us that for Italians, food is what binds them to place and community. No matter how fast the world may change around them, the local cuisine is the one static constant. So if you go to Rome, you eat Roman food; in Sicily, Sicilian food; and by extension, in Lucca, Luccan food.
As elsewhere in Tuscany, Luccan cuisine is focused on local fresh produce. Fresh red tomatoes (which originated in South America), rich pasta (from China), mouthwatering olives (from Asia Minor), chickens and their eggs (from Southeast Asia)…
From a food anthropology perspective, you can tell much about a culture from its food and food politics. Consider pasta in the abstract…
In Italy, pasta tells many tales. Lucca’s signature pasta dish, tortelli lucchese , has a bright yellow pasta made with lots of eggs, and stuffed and topped with a meat-laden ragu. Eggs in pasta! Meat on pasta! Once upon a time, these were the overt ostentatious signs of Luccan wealth. A foodie ode to the affluence provided by the robust silk and luxury textile production and trade that began in the Middle Ages. This wealth in turn was the siren call for top artisans and architects, who built their treasures in stone and paint that have lasted through the ages.
The wealth of the past and the foodie regionalism provided the building blocks for Luccan cuisine. Tuscan to its core.
It has been said that Lucca has the best cuisine in all of Tuscany. To learn about the food of Lucca, we took a half-day soups and vegetables cooking course with the multilingual and entertaining Chef Paolo Monti. We learned how to make a wide assortment of soups and vegetable dishes including grilled vegetables, stuffed vegetables, minestrone soup, lentil soup, beans and spelt soups, and chickpea and shrimp soup, all in true Luccan style (his secret ingredient is powdered chicken stock). It was one of the highlights of our trip.
While we thoroughly enjoyed the course, we have to admit that with our Canadian “take the best and leave the rest” palates, we were underwhelmed by much of the traditional Luccan cuisine, which is largely based on Cucina povera (“kitchen of the poor”) – as is most of Tuscan cuisine.
Cucina povera is based on cheap (except for truffles), high quality, nostrale local ingredients, (e.g., beans, vegetables, olive oil, meat and fat cold-cuts, roasted meats, fresh seafood) cooked simply, without complicated seasoning – except for herbs in large quantities. Not much to say other than it is simple edible fare, and with a glass of wine and being on holiday, life a is always good. However, not being Tuscan, we are not sure how Tuscan food is considered to be sublime.
Luccan bread is bland with no salt. While the bread is an acquired taste at least it helps balance out the very high salt added to all savory dishes (like most Boomers, we have to watch our salt intake), and has a good consistency for sopping up soup without falling apart.
Gelato, panaforte and soft torrone morbido al cioccolato aside, which all of Tuscany does to perfection, most Luccan desserts are just too sweet or a bit odd. Take for example the erbi cake: a concoction of herbs, eggs, sugar, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, rice and cinnamon, it is not unpleasant, but not sure we would try it again.
Luccan and Montecarlo red wine is dry, full bodied and easy on the palate. As in most of Tuscany, the Sangiovese grape reigns supreme in Lucca, whereas Montecarlo wines have been playing around with“foreign”French varietals such as Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon alongside local varietals.
While a lovely experience, at the end of the four days of only Luccan food, we enjoyed a foreign Canadian-style hamburger at the newly opened Eataly, the “slow food” Italian chain, in the heart of the old town.