Food and Wine

What to buy in Tuscany and Umbria

Want to bring a little taste of Italy back with you? Pick up these tasty treats.

Ricciarelli
These Ricciarelli were hand-made by Rossella on GialloZafferano.it - I'll translate her recipe soon, it looks excellent

Ricciarelli (almond biscuits)

What to look for: freshly made from a specialist shop, gooey and thickly dusted with powder; they mustn’t contain flour as it can make them quite hard. The ingredients are almonds, sugar and egg-whites. If they look dry or have been sitting in the open for a while, look elsewhere.

Where to buy: the beautiful Tuscan city of Siena is where they originated, and the best ones are picked up freshly made from pasticcerias (pastry shops).

An ancient olive tree above Casale, near Pievescola

Extra virgin olive oil

What to look for: read the ingredients list to ensure it says it’s made with 100% Italian, Tuscan or Umbrian extra virgin olive oil as bottles are sometimes labelled ‘extra virgin’, even when they’re blends of virgin and extra virgin. For an even higher level of certainty, look for products labelled with DOP (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta, which translates as Protected Designation of Origin) or IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta, which means Indication of Geographic Protection). These are subject to much stricter regulations – especially DOP – relating to the origin of the olives and processing of the oils.

Where to buy: Many of our owners make their own so you can buy the oil made from the trees around you. Ragnana is one, the estate of Montestigliano is another – please ask. Small grocers and specialist food shops will be able to steer you to the best choice, depending on your flavour preference (strong, fresh, delicate, floral, etc). Or even better, visit an olive farm, and they’ll offer you tastings to help you choose your favourite flavour. 

Pici with Squash
Pici with squash from Jul's Kitchen - delicious

Pici 

What to look for: this looks like fat spaghetti and originates in the Siena region of Tuscany. Traditionally made with just high-quality flour and water, then hand-rolled into thick strands, this is hard to find outside of Italy. Because it’s so thick and hearty, it works well with all sorts of sauces, including ragu (see my Ragu recipe here

Where to buy: You’ll find this throughout Tuscany and Umbria, but for more authentic hand-rolled pici, look in upmarket delis.

Truffles for sale at the market in San Giovanni d'Asso

Truffles

What to look for: The more pungent varieties – the white one and some of the black versions – fall into the Marmite ‘love it or hate it’ school of cuisine, and are much coveted by foodies the world over. But the milder black versions also add a unique flavour to food. Different varieties grow throughout the year, so while some type of fresh truffle is almost always available, make sure you’re getting the one you expect before you pay. And it’s worth nothing that all white and black truffles aren’t the same. While the ‘whitish’ truffle – which looks similar to the white one – is perfectly delicious, it’s not as prized as the pure white truffle. And of the black truffles, some are better for cooking, while others should be shaved over pasta or eggs. The most expensive white truffles, tartufi bianchi, are found in winter in Umbria around Orvieto, Gubbio and the Tiber Valley. 

Where to buy: Get them fresh from markets in Umbria and Tuscany, and if your preferred truffle isn’t in season, you’ll usually find versions bottled in olive oil in upmarket delis and grocers.

Pecorino cheese

What to look for: this hard sheep’s cheese varies in flavour profile, depending on age. Toscano is considered by many to be the best of the pecorinos, and you can buy it fresh from about one month old, or the aged versions – stronger and crumblier – from three months. Younger versions are creamy, mild and slightly herby, while the more mature ones rival parmesan for power. Pecorino Toscano has a DOP, so look for this on the label to be sure you’re buying the king of pecorinos.

Where to buy: Market stalls, posh delis and even the cheese desks in supermarkets. Gambero Rosso has an excellent list of good cheese shops in Florence – but your local markets will be great places too.

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