I fell in love with Livorno thanks to one of my dearest friends, Laura. Her grandmother Rina used to live there, right next to the stadium and the swimming pool. After a tough period of exams at the university we decided to spend a weekend in Livorno, a well deserved break on the coast breath some brackish air. I still remember her unrivaled tomato sauce, her love for poetry, the pride in her eyes when she was looking at her grandchildren and her fun Sicilian-Leghorn accent, which changed depending on the person she was speaking to.
As soon as we arrived, Laura’s mum took us straight to the market of Piazza Cavallotti, the more lively fruit and vegetable market I had ever seen. There we began the day with a fried doughnut dusted with sugar and so soft that it disappeared in a few bites, leaving only a sweet memory on your lips and the desire to have yet another one.
Livorno overwhelmed me with its colours and scents, with the straightforward and honest approach of people, their friendliness and their symbiotic relationship with the sea. The Mascagni terrace is still one of my favourite places in Italy: its checkerboard flooring is hypnotic and deceives the eye, dragging you directly to the sea.
Livorno is the protagonist of today’s chapter of the Tuscan tour with Ventura, to discover traditional recipes with dried fruit.
Pellegrino Artusi was not a great estimator of Livorno nor he appreciated much salt cod, which he found difficult to digest.
Yet, of all the Tuscan cities, I’m partial to Livorno. Before cacciucco, the flagship fish soup of Livorno, the food which united the multicoloured world of different people from every social class and country, peasants and merchants, slaves and consuls, was cod.
At first cods from the North arrived as stoccafisso, a stockfish dried in the wind, in the eighteenth century, when Livorno merchants began regular traffics with the city of Bergen, in Norway. The salt cod, baccalà, arrived later, as it enters officially the market of Livorno after 1850.
Salt cod is a dish for poor people, for fast days. In Livorno nowadays salt cod is cooked with chickpeas, it is deep fried, marinated in pesto, simmered with herbs, lightly fried in croquettes or cooked down in a mousse, served with leeks or tomatoes, another constant of the Livornese cuisine.
Baccalà in agrodolce – Sweet and sour salt cod
Reading La cucina livornese, written by Aldo Santini, a food journalist from Livorno who obviously had not a very good opinion of Artusi, I found also a recipe for baccalà in agrodolce, a sweet and sour salt cod with raisins and pine nuts. This recipe perfectly represents the Livornese cuisine, made of poor fish, tomato paste and enlivening influences brought by other cultures, all welcomed and absorbed by a town which is not just a melting pot, but a pot of steaming cacciucco.
Sweet and sour salt cod
- 1 kg 2,2 lbs of salt cod, previously soaked
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves of garlic
- Dried chilli
- 1 tablespoon of raisins
- 1 tablespoon of pine nuts
- 1 heaping tablespoon of tomato paste
- 250 ml 1 cup of water
- Use a cod fillet already soaked. As a precaution, when I buy salt cod which has been already soaked, I still keep it in a basin of cold water overnight and, if possible, I change the water at least twice.
- Cut cod into pieces and pat them dry well with some kitchen paper.
- Shallow fry the cod in a pan with extra virgin olive oil, turning the cod on the other side as it becomes golden. Set aside.
- Pour in a large pan a few tablespoons of extra virgin oil, then add the minced garlic and a piece of hot chili pepper to your taste: I used a one whole, which was not too spicy, and I removed it at the end, when it had already flavoured the sauce.
- Return to the pan the fried cod, then add the raisins, the pine nuts and the tomato paste dissolved in water.
- Cook over low heat for about 45 minutes, until you'll have a thick and flavourful sauce. Serve hot with plenty of fresh bread to mop the sauces.
A Tuscan tour with Ventura
- Spongata, a Jewish jam and nut cake from Lunigiana. Here pine nuts, almonds and dried figs are mashed with orange marmalade, fig jam and apple jam to create a rich spiced sticky filling wrapped in a pastry coating.
- Florentine quaresimali. The recipe is traditionally free of animal fats, so no egg yolks, only egg whites. You only need a spoonful of cocoa and a handful of hazelnuts to make biscuits that you won’t be able to stop munching away on, spurred on by the idea that they’re not really that bad for you…
- Pisa and a pilgrim cake, torta coi bischeri. This recipe has the added benefit of being quick to make and being filled with a moist filling of rice pudding, chocolate, candied fruits, raisins and pine nuts. A worthy partner to a cup of coffee or a glass of vinsanto after a family lunch.
- Buccellato from Lucca. Buccellato is considered a dessert or a breakfast sweet bread, it is made with bread dough, usually enriched with sugar, raisins and aniseed, another widely used ingredient in Tuscan biscuits and sweet loaves.