This punchy chopped salad of soaked and torn stale bread, onions and tomatoes dressed in olive oil and vinegar has many variations – but how will you make yours?
“There is too much ambiguity in that terrible adjective, ‘true’, that would brand as false any variation, any inventiveness and departure from the rule.” This quote from the Italian food historian Massimo Montanari is one I come back to again and again. This summer especially, while finishing my next book (about pasta), a process that has been hard and delicious, fascinating, frustrating and ridiculous. Also driven – haunted – by a sense of responsibility towards a food that contains a philosophy of a civilisation; only not my civilisation, but one I share in.
This sense has been strongest when writing recipes. And this is how it should be. I have been writing about classic Italian recipes, some of which have histories that have filled books, that people have gone to battle over, and that are for many sacred. I want to do them justice. I am also a home cook with my own cooking mind and opinions, and I know the anarchy of ingredients and life. The result is that, every few days, I have gone into a semi-paralysis, believing that every time I was untrue to a recipe, even if it was unintentional, an Italian died. Fortunately, I have a surefire way to cure recipe-writing paralysis: I go into the kitchen and make the recipe. Because, standing there chopping carrots, you remember that the minute you start cooking a recipe, it becomes yours, regardless of whether it’s a two-ingredient sauce or three-day ragù, or if you are following vague advice or someone else’s words to the letter.
Another way is to cross-reference recipes, especially for “classic” ones that stir up strong opinions. As soon as you do, the anarchy begins; recipes both verbal and written, disagreeing, contradicting and debating with each other. Also, there is a direct correlation between the insistent use of the words “authentic” and “true”, and the level of disagreement. Some writers even disagree with themselves, which I find reassuring. There is a wonderful Roman writer called Livio Jannattoni whose many books include two about Roman food in the 1990s. They are astonishing in their detail; their clarity about the way things should be. Panzanella, for example, which he thinks has been distorted (he says it should never be eaten as a starter), consists of slices of home-style bread – not too fresh, not too stale, wetted slightly, indented with fingertips – topped with diced tomato, salt, basil leaves and good oil. No pepper. If you add pepper: stop.
Having been absolutely clear about the proper way, Jannattoni then goes on to describe another panzanella. Torn bread (four thick slices, or broken-up rusks) soaked in water and vinegar, squeezed, then dressed with salt, pepper, capers, vinegar and olive oil, arranged on a plate, topped with a pounded dressing of (three) anchovies, a clove of garlic, a pinch of red chilli and some more vinegar, and topped with two sliced, hard-boiled eggs and olive oil.
Meanwhile, in Tuscany, Giovanni Righi Parnenti explains that panzanella is a dish that dates back in the region to the 17th century and to a poem. Traditionally, it was considered zuppa di pane freddo – “cold bread soup”: that is, bread soaked in water (which explains the name pan – bread – zanella – the dish), and topped with sliced onion and cucumber. Later, as it evolved, as recipes do and should, diced tomatoes, ripped basil and olive oil were added, maybe pepper and a red-wine vinegar. Parnenti goes on to describe other versions with anchovy, tuna or sliced, hard-boiled eggs, also celery, parsley and thyme. Like Jannatoni, he describes the rich history of panzanella in different parts of Tuscany in almost sacred terms.
Fortunately, I also have a surefire way to cure recipe-reading paralysis: I go into the kitchen and make panzanella. And, as you can see from the above, you have a lot of options when it comes to the recipe, including any variation and inventiveness you might bring. Then, as you soak slices of ripped bread, or toast them, if that is what you do, remember that the minute you start to cook a recipe, it becomes yours.