the history and evolution of an old Italian salad
We all know about Panzanella: it’s that Italian salad with bread and tomato, right? Well, it seems that it was’t always like this.
A tuscan staple food, Panzanella is commonly known as bread and tomato salad, often served with red onions, cucumber and basil. You can find various interpretations of Panzanella across the whole of Italy, and all over the world really. The history of Panzanella goes back in time to the 14th century, when this simpe salad was quite different from what we know and eat today.
The core element of Panzanella is stale bread. Back in time, bread was only baked once a week in the communal ovens, so people would have to make the most of their bread for the entire week. They soaked the stale bread in water and vinegar, and then mixed it with whatever fresh vegetables were available in the garden. The first writings about Panzanella are attributed to Giovanni Bocaccio, who wrote about “pan lavato” (literally translated as “washed bread”) in his masterpiece “The Decameron”, around 1353. Further on, Agnolo di Cosimo – also known as Il Bronzino, an Italian painter from Florence, who lived in the 16th century, referred to a stale bread salad served with diced cucumber, herbs and onions, as to a dish that would send you above the stars. Add a handful of basil and rucchetta (rocket) – Il Bronzino advised – to obtain one of the greatest pleasures of life. Bronzino didn’t mentioned tomatoes in his writings about Panzanella, as they were only brought to Italy around the 17th century. However, even more than 100 years later, tomatoes were still not available for everyone, so Panzanella was still made mainly with onions , cucumbers and herbs. Later on, in 1865 a “noble” Panzanella was served to The King Vittorio Emanuelle, while he was a guest at a castle in Chianti. The Panzanella was then made with basil, white bread and tomatoes, symbolising the colours of the Italian flag.
From the 20th century forward, the tomatoes became increasingly available, and stared to be used in cooking all over Europe. The tomatoes became so popular in everyday cooking, so that in our days you will rarely even find a Panzanella without tomatoes in it. Even more, depending on where in Italy you are going, you might find that Panzanella is enriched with boiled eggs, anchovies, tuna, capers, olives or other ingredients. However, if you want to get as close to the original, it is my suggestion to go on a holiday in Tuscany: you will not only get to experience the amazing Italian food, but also one of the most spectacular landscapes Italy can offer.
The following recipe is my interpretation of a modern Panzanella, made with heirloom tomatoes and focaccia bread. I have used 3 days old home-made sourdough focaccia, but you could really use any stale bread you have in the house. The traditional tuscan recipe calls for a home-made, thin-crusted, unsalted tuscan bread, made without any oil or fat. I find that ciabatta also works real well, or even stale bread rolls. Also, in my interpretation of the recipe, I have skipped the bread soaking step. The tomatoes were so juicy that their own juice, mixed with a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil was just enough to moisten the bread. I didn’t used the vinegar neither, as again, I thought that some of the tomatoes I used were acidic enough. As for the tomatoes, I chose the heirloom varieties as they are now in full season and way more flavoursome than regular tomatoes.
So, here it is, my modern interpretation of the traditional tuscan Panzanella:
- 500 grams Heirloom tomatoes, roughly diced
- 200 grams stale focaccia, cut in cubes
- one red onion, finely sliced
- 50 ml extravirgin olive oil (plus 10-15 ml extra, to serve)
- Maldon salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 6-8 fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped (plus 2-3 extra, to serve)
- Place the tomatoes, focaccia and red onions in a large bowl.
- Add the extravirgin olive oil, season with salt and pepper and mix them all together.
- Add the basil and give the salad a final stir.
- Leave it to rest in the fridge for at least one hour.
- To serve, splash with some olive oil and add a few fresh basil leaves.