From a food perspective, autumn is the most important time of the year in Tuscany. Many of the most highly prized ingredients of the Tuscan diet – truffles, porcini mushrooms, chestnuts, game (wild boar, duck, rabbit and hare) – are in season and are savoured as often as possible. In Tuscany food festivals (known as sagre or feste) are held all year, but in autumn they increase multifold. Most importantly, autumn is when the two pillars of Tuscan agriculture, l’uva e le olive (grapes and olives), are harvested, and the precious new wine and olive oils produced.
Grape vines and olive trees have similar soil requirements, are both adapted to growing on rough terrain, and enjoy similar climates (though olive trees are more sensitive to frost than vines). For these reasons they are often grown in tandem; in Tuscany, they have been cultivated together since Etruscan times. After the fall of the Roman Empire, cultivation of these crops decreased dramatically in the region, and by the Middle Ages it was mainly restricted to monasteries.That these two crops today occupy vast swathes of the Tuscan landscape is largely thanks to the influence of the Medici family in the 14th century. The Medici recognised the terrain’s particular suitability for olive trees and vines, and encouraged their cultivation by designating woodland for this purpose, compelling towns and councils to rent the land cheaply to local peasants. Gradually, widespread planting of olive groves and vineyards spread beyond Medici-governed areas (situated mainly around Florence) to other areas of what we now call Tuscany, such as Siena and Lucca. The Montalbano hills (where our olive grove is located) are also known as the hills of Leonardo, and in this respect these rural landscapes really have changed little since the Renascimento. In the past, our olive grove contained a small vineyard, but sadly the vines were removed and sold off long ago.
For me, one of the highlights of the autumn food calandar is a product of both these crops: schiacciata con l’uva (grape focaccia, literally ‘squashed with grapes’), a glorious combination of sweet, juicy grapes and layers of springy olive oil-bread.
Schiacciata con l’uva also dates back to Etruscan times – apparently it even features in frescos inside Etruscan tombs. Typical of Florence and Prato, it’s found (with minor variations, such as the addition of rosemary or fennel seeds) all over Tuscany, and is usually made and consumed during the September vendemmia (grape harvest). Traditionally it should be made with Canaiolo grapes (used for making Chianti), but it can also be made with uva fragola (strawberry or Concord grapes). Although the grape harvest is long since finished, having received a late batch of the latter we decided to break with tradition and make a late batch of schiacciata con l’uva: the high calorie content makes it ideal for snacking on when we’re hard at work in the olive grove.
Schiacciata con l’uva
800g sweet black grapes (with seeds)
500g plain (00 flour)
12g fresh yeat / 7g dried yeast
300ml tepid water
Approx. 120g sugar
Dissolve the yeast in the water. Add a pinch of salt to the flour and gradually stir in the liquid until it has all been absorbed by the flour, then add a tablespoon of olive oil. Knead for 5-10 minutes until the dough is smooth and springy. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover with clingfilm or a damp cloth and leave to rise for a couple of hours or until it has doubled in size.
Wash and dry the grapes. Punch down the risen dough, and gradually knead in 50g of sugar. Divide the dough in two. Roll out half the dough into a large rectangle approximately 1 cm thick. Place on an oiled baking tray. Sprinkle with half the grapes and 2 tablespoons of sugar, then drizzle with olive oil. Roll out the remaining dough, and place over the first layer like a blanket. Seal the layers together by turning up the edges of the bottom layer of dough.
Using your fingers, make dimples in the top layer of dough and cover with the remaining grapes, another two tablespoons of sugar and some more olive oil. At this stage you can leave the dough to rise again for another 15 minutes. Bake in a preheated oven for 30 minutes at 180 degrees celsius / gas mark 4. If you have a particularly sweet tooth, dust with icing sugar before serving.