Fresh-caught fish is the main ingredient of hundreds of delicious recipes, from the famous cacciucco (fish stew), to black rice with squid ink, dentex, gilthead, calamari, shellfish and blue fish (like mackerel) now enjoying a revival, all cooked with flair and skill.
Inland, dishes feature meat, such as beef from prized "Chianina" cattle, and game, particularly wild boar, All dishes are accompanied by vegetables. Local specialities include cheeses, honey, bread, cakes, chickpea "cake" and Livorno punch.
A tour of the cuisine is a good opportunity to discover unusual dishes, wine of the highest quality and typical products of the Coast of the Etruscans.
The local cuisine has some unique characteristics due to the nature of a land that stretches from the sea up to the hills and gives life to different culinary traditions.
The influence of the sea gives rise to the famous Cacciucco (a savoury soup consisting of different kinds of fish), triglie alla livornese, rice with squid, shellfish and mussels, cuttlefish with chard, boiled octopus and hundreds of other fish dishes variations sharing the same strong taste and a pleasant aroma.
Fresh pasta, game, different kinds of cold meat, salami, mushrooms and vegetables are the basic ingredients of the Tuscan country cooking.
Honey, bread cooked in wood ovens and a wide variety of cheese give an authentic taste. The wine and the oil produced along the Wine Road have a world-wide reputation. The legendary Sassicaia wine, made from Cabernet and Sauvignon grapes, is the very top of a list of high-quality products that have made this area the new "Eldorado of the Italian wine".
Food fairs, festivals and events
Tasting tours let you discover food and wine events along the Costa degli Etruschi. These events, set in characteristic and atmospheric places, promote traditional dishes and recipes which are really full of taste. Castagneto a Tavola - The traditional cuisine of Castagneto - also presents the sublime local wines, offers the opportunity to have dinner in local restaurants, experience local flavours and go on guided tours to wine cellars.
During Maggio Campigliese – May in Campiglia - the ancient village of Campiglia celebrates spring through several folklore events, also promoting the delicious cuisine of these places.
During the Caletta Festival (Castiglioncello) however, fish reign supreme. This is a characteristic event of sea-food cooking, which takes place in June: huge amounts of good quality fish are fried in one giant frying-pan.
In Livorno the Effetto Venezia has all the charm of the festival.
For ten days in August lights and colours illuminate the historical town district called Venice, which offers a wide choice of restaurants, inns, wine bars sheltering in historical buildings, characteristic vaulted storehouses along the canals and courtyards.
Festa d’autunno – Autumn Festival -, a festival set in Sassetta in October, gives importance to the local gastronomy in particular. The “polentata”, the soup and the chestnut festivals are events not to be missed.
In the first half of December Suvereto, an ancient mediaeval village, has for 30 years hosted a Festival, where the local cuisine, shows and exhibitions merge into a rich and varied program.
In the centre of the village a big grill is set up to cook tasty meat. Boar reigns supreme in the most traditional recipes.
The road of the doc wines, the mediaeval villages...and other marvels
Once upon a time, this was the feudal domain of the Della Gherardesca, the vast property of an historic family; endless kilometres of virtually deserted coastline, marshes rich in game, Mediterranean scrub and farm lands with huge estates which seemed to represent a world destined never to change. The hunts went on with their interminable succession of trophies. Only the token efforts of the occasional endearing old poacher would ever come near to ruffling the substantial calm of the countryside.
Tables offered simple but eminently reliable country cooking, dominated by wild boar in all its sauces and other specialities which have only recently been rediscovered by gourmets in search of the rarities of the local cuisine. Sassicaia was first released in 1970. It has since become one of the modern legends of international winemaking, and without doubt Italy’s most celebra-ted cru. It is also the catalyst of the Livorno wine boom. In the mere space of twenty years the previously obscure line of hills between Livorno and Piombino has become the new eldorado of Italian wine, bringing with it into the limelight a whole range of other local products, from honey and cured meats to the superb extra virgin olive oil which fortunately, despite becoming a prized export commodity, can still be bought directly at the farms where it is produced. This lovely, unspoilt area has seen, like many parts of viticultural Italy in recent years, the inauguration of a road dedicated to wine tourism, the Strada del Vino della Costa degli Etruschi.
It offers a route through the maze of mediaeval villages, abbeys, ancient farms and wine estates in the hidden corners of the province, in search of the atmosphere of the countryside and the flavours of the local produce, with stops naturally to savour the re-discovered culinary heritage of the area in its most authentic setting, the rural trattorie. As for the wines, the existence of no fewer than three DOCs, Montescudaio, Bolgheri and Val di Cornia, provides evidence of the growth of top quality production in this tiny zone.
The range of wines, from dry white, rosé and red to the traditional sweet vinsanto, illustrates the versatility and potential of an area where wine is making a spectacular comeback.
Inevitably it is wine which provides the common denominator for the journey which passes through centuries-old fortified villages perched on the hill tops, havens from the natural threat of the sea, but also from that of the Saracens and other marauding assailants. Rosignano Marittimo is an example, or Bolgheri whose cypress trees were immortalised by the poet Carducci and which it seems owes its name to the Bulgarian soldiers stationed there to defend it in the eighth century. Castagneto is another, a holiday destination for VIPs, but also for anyone in search of quiet, beautiful views and good food.
For walkers, mushroom hunters and lovers of the countryside in general, there are the inviting footpaths which climb from Bibbona through the thousands of acres of Mediterranean marquis of Magona. The area offers hospitality in splendid farmhouse inns. Here, as in the tiny country restaurants, you have the chance to taste traditional dishes such as Pappardelle al Cinghiale, (fresh pasta with wild boar sauce) Zuppa con lo Scalogno and on occasions the rare Testina di Cinghiale (boar’s head). It is hearty fare, but there is no doubt that the beauties of the countryside fortify one’s appetite.
The journey continues. At Donoratico there are the ruins of the tower where count Ugolino sought refuge after the defeat of Meloria.
On the winding road over the high hills of Sassetta new and unexpected vistas await behind every bend.
In the woods charcoal burners, last survivors of a vanishing race, still practise their trade. In this part of the province, despite the vicinity of the coast, the cooking remains firmly based on the produce of the hills: Tortelli di Spinaci e Ricotta con Sugo di Cinghiale , (pasta filled with spinach and ricotta, served with a sauce of wild boar) grilled meats and game, stews with olives and Pappardelle alla Lepre (fresh pasta with hare sauce). And so, possibly after a stop to buy organically grown produce from the local farms, the road brings us through enchanted landscapes to the village of Suvereto with its 13th century Palazzo Comunale and church of San Giusto. At Campiglia there is time for a visit to the mediaeval village and to the interesting archaeological zone with the remains of the ancient settlement of Rocca di San Silvestro before a reviving bath at the thermal springs of Venturina where the water, collected in a large, well equipped bathing area, leaves the ground at a natural temperature of 36 degrees centigrade.
The mistery of "cacciucco"
Culinary historians believe that Cacciucco is not only the result of the assembly of a great variety of ingredients, but also the synthesis of a great number of different recipes for a dish which is prepared in its own special way in every sea port in the world; fish soup.
There are convincing arguments to support the theory.
Devoto-Oli traces the origin of the name to the Turkish word kuzuk, meaning small, referring in this context to small fry.
Cacciucco is thus literally soup of small fry.
Another expert on Livornese cooking, Aldo Santini, suggests that the dish originated on the prison galleys of the 16th, where it was prepared to feed the oarsmen in chains, and that this soup was in turn related to even older maritime traditions, including those of the Phoenicians.
Whatever the real origins of Cacciucco, there is no doubt that in recent years the recipe has undergone changes.
There are fewer ingredients in modern versions, but they are better quality - in other words, more fish and fewer bones - which can only be a good thing.
Sassicaia, but not only. the wines of the costa degli etruschi.
It all began with Sassicaia. Without the genial intuition of its creators, Mario Incisa della Rocchetta and oenologist Giacomo Tachis it is doubtful whether the winemaking potential of the province of Livorno would every have emerged with such conviction, or its wines achieved such outstanding success. In the wake of Sassicaia has come recognition for Bolgheri and Castagneto Carducci and for the hills which straddle the border between the provinces of Pisa and Livorno.
The arrival of DOCs for Montescudaio, Bolgheri and Val di Cornia is testimony to the meteoric rise of premium winemaking in the province. It is probably however only the beginning, as new and exciting wines continue to emerge every year.
It is only a small province, but it makes great wines. They may at first sight appear similar but in fact each has its own distinctive personality.
The differences are not solely those described in the DOCs; they stem also from the diversity of the producers themselves.
Alongside vast estates there are small scale vignerons.
Modernists are complemented by traditionalists. There are winemakers inspired by French models and others by those closer to home.
The result is a gamut of styles which includes wines for every palate. Montescudaio is the most northerly of the three DOCs and stretches into the neighbouring province of Pisa (the village of Montescudaio is in fact over the border).
Here the wines are based on the traditional local varieties; trebbiano, vermentino and malvasia for the whites and of course sangiovese for the reds.
At Bolgheri on the other hand the key varieties are sauvignon blanc, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Sassicaia is an officially registered sub zone of the Bolgheri DOC. In the Val di Cornia, in the south of the province, the grape mix changes again.
The familiar trebbiano, vermentino, malvasia and sangiovese and the ubiquitous cabernets are joined here by pinot bianco and pinot grigio, local varieties such as clairette, canaiolo and ciliegiolo (one of the mainstays of traditional wine growing) and rarities like ansonica and biancone di Portoferraio.
Val di Cornia is the only DOC to include a riserva category, for reds with a minimum of three years’ ageing.
The coast: scents, colours and the cuisine of the sea
The coastline of the province of Livorno is wonderfully varied; the cliffs of Calafuria and Quercianella contrast for example with the peaceful sandy beaches of Vada and Marina di Castagneto, towns rich in history like Castiglioncello, with the chic boutiques of Cecina, the archaeological marvels of Populonia, with the sub aqua wonders of Baratti. The coast and its pine woods also offer tourism with a human dimension.
The motorway and a new trunk road make it easy to drive from one end of the province to the other. At the same time they have freed the coast from traffic, without wrecking havoc on the environment.
The towns and villages along the sea have been able to regain their natural pace of life, and not least of the bene-fits of this has been the flourishing of restaurants and trattorie which, naturally, specialise in sea food.
The contribution of the hills inland is the white wines which find perfect partnerships with fish dishes based on the finest of fresh ingredients, such as Riso alla Scogliera (made with squid, octopus, prawns and mussels), Zuppa di Arselle (mussel soup), Acciughe Fritte (fried anchovy), Polpo alla Marinara (octopus) and Gamberi in Guazzetto (prawns), not to mention the grilled fish which is always available.
Although fish dominates the scene, the growing number of specialised enoteca are gradually introducing the produce of the hills, first and foremost the great red wines of the area, but also the cheese, cured meats and extra virgin olive oil which are their natural accompaniment.
This means that even a holiday based exclusively at one of the seaside resorts can become a complete wine and food experience, a feature underlined by the string of top ranking eating places listed by all the leading restaurant guides. Not, however, that good food is the exclusive prerogative of gourmet restaurants; there are countless small establishments capable of serving memorable meals, and one of the joys of a holiday can be to track them down with the help of tips from friends and local people. There is certainly no lack of choice, starting for example from traditional prestige resorts such as Quercianella and Castiglioncello, or Cecina where the lovely pine wood provides a cushion of green between the town and the beach, or Marina di Bibbona with its imposing Medici fortress.
At Donoratico fields of sunflowers as well as another beautiful pine wood separate the town, built on land reclaimed from the marshes in the 19th century, from the coast.
Leaving behind the fishing port and famous beaches of San Vincenzo, the coast road passes the park at Rimi-gliano and then turns towards the gulf of Baratti which is overlooked by Populonia. A detour to visit the etruscan site with its necropolis, the 14th century fortress and what remains of the mediaeval walled town is no less imperative than a stop for a fresh fish lunch along the way. The Etruscan tomb of the Carri, which is almost thirty metres in diameter, demands attention although one’s gaze is easily distracted by the beautiful azure waters of the gulf, waters which in fact cover numerous Roman and Etruscan remains, and one of the most picturesque beaches of the entire coast. The road then crosses the promontory of Massoncello which stretches out into the Tyrrhenian to reach the ancient and busy little town of Piombino.
Fortified by the Medici, until 1815 capital of its own principality and later loved by Elisa Bonaparte, Piombino is full of life. Its vitality is also evident in its cooking. Recipes have not been standardised to meet the needs of a constant flow of tourists, and its eating places retain their original, healthy rustic character.
In fact simple inns predominate where, to continue a previous theme, the produce of the sea and the countryside meet, sometimes clash and sometimes go their separate ways.
One speciality above all, the famous Polpo alla Piombinese which is the trade mark of the local cuisine, will provide unforgettable memories of your visit.
The extra virgin olive oil and the tuscan “California”
Whether you arrive by train, like the poet Carducci one hundred years ago, or you choose the modern highway of the via Aurelia, the views from Cecina to San Vincenzo, in the narrow strip of land between the woods of the hills and the pines of the shoreline, are dominated by the silver green of olive trees.
The olives of the coast, nurtured by the mild Mediterranean climate and the light but fertile red soils, are green and glossy, with a dense foliage which is very different to that of the poor spindly trees that grapple with the stony terrain of the hills in the centre of the region.
Apart from the appearance of the groves, which is the result of natural conditions, does the olive farming of Bolgheri have special features of its own?
The varieties planted here are the traditional ones found up and down the region; mainly frantoio, with maraiolo, leccino, maremmano, maurino, pendolino and others in percentages which depend on the inclination of the individual grower (or more likely, the commercial availability at the moment of planting).
The structure of olive farming too has many features in common with the region as a whole; alongside traditional groves of ancient origin there are modern plantations which make use of the most up-to-date cultivation methods.
The difference is that while in other parts of Tuscany the majority of new planting dates from the period which followed the disastrous freeze of 1986, in the area around Castagneto Carducci, restructuring had already begun in the 1960s - another example of the dynamism which has earned this corner of the region the name “The California of Tuscany”.
To sum up then, there are all the conditions for quality olive farming. From here to the making of top quality oil is a short step, provided all the necessary care is taken in the various stages of the production, from the harvest to the processing of the olives.
Growers these days are fully aware of the factors which contribute to the quality of the final product and their attention to detail has resulted in the continuing development of the oils of Bolgheri towards standards which make it realistic to begin to talk about specific “terroir” character. Extra virgin olive oil of Castagneto is fresh, fruity and intense.
It is full-bodied and mild but at the same time sustained by a tasty but never aggressive pepperiness and subtle bitter almond finish.
The flavour and aroma of these oils from the Costa degli Etruschi are ideally suited to the local cooking, and in particular to fish dishes.
TEXTS AND PHOTOS COURTESY OF AGENZIA PER IL TURISMO "COSTA DEGLI ETRUSCHI"