May 27, 2019

How One Little Thing in the 1500s Impacted Tuscan Food Forever

Blonde Girl Hat Travel Blogger Looking Over Florence Italy

Did you know that the food in Florence has a distinctly different taste than it does elsewhere in Italy? We know, we know, regional spices always affect dishes…but what if we told you that if you were to sample a piece of bread (or pizza) in Florence, and then try the same thing in Rome, they would have uniquely different flavors? Yep, something major happened in Florence (possibly in the 1500s) and it still impacts Tuscan (and Florentine) food today!

As with many histories and recipes passed through time and culture, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when or where something originated. And as it goes with Tuscan bread, this is a highly contested subject. We’ve heard multiple things, researched through the treasure troves, and even asked an expert food historian—that said, you might want to take this with a *grain of salt.*

So, what happened and why does Tuscan bread not include any salt? Well, there are a few legends and theories.

Florence Tuscany Italy Salt Food Baguettes Duomo

Let’s start with the first explanation: the Salt War of 1540. Wait, what? There was a war over salt? If you think that sounds fake, just wait until you learn about the Great Emu War in Western Australia.

What Was Going On at the Time?

Florence Italy Street Restaurant Boutique Shadows

A little background as to what was going on:

Perugia, a city located a bit south of Florence, had been a free commune until 1370. It was then incorporated into the Papal States, but the Perugian elite continued to run their city in the way they liked, without input from the Papal States. One of the things they liked? Not paying any taxes on salt—which was used extensively to preserve food.

Well, as time went on, successive popes tried to reign in Perugia, despite resistance from the locals. However, in 1539, there was a disastrous harvest, which drove prices up in Perugia and the surrounding areas. Things were not great economically, and to add to the frustration, Pope Paul III added a new tax on salt for all of his people. This violated all the treaties Perugia had with previous popes…

So, what do a bunch of pissed off Perugians do? They rebel.

Florence Italy Salt Food Baguettes French in a Basket Vintage

Today, this is sometimes referred to as was the Salt War of 1540.

The legend goes that as they didn’t want to pay the tax or support it, they decided they would simply not use salt going forward. Now, at a time before refrigeration, that’s not the easiest thing to do—in fact, many Italian coffee “laws” are actually dictated by the lack of refrigeration (more on that later!).

In an effort to combat not using salt, the Perugians had to find other ways to introduce flavor into their food.

Now, if you’ve looked at a map and you’re saying to yourself, “But Perugia isn’t in Florence!” You’re right, it may be close-ish, but it’s technically not Tuscany, but rather just outside of Tuscany in the Umbria region. And that’s where this story sort of crumbles.

The Salt Embargo Story

Florence Italy Arno River History

While some will claim this to be an urban myth, during a food tour of Florence, a food historian at the local university declared this to be true. We thought the story was too good to keep to ourselves!

There was a historic rivalry between Florence and Pisa. During one of their (many) feuds, an army of Pisans set up a blockade on the Arno River—preventing any salt from reaching the city of Florence. To not let them win, Florentine bakers continued making bread, just without the salt. Thus the great salt embargo…which sounds similar to the Salt War of 1540, no?

Salt Was Just Too Darn Expensive

Florence Italy Salt Food Bakery Making Bread

And lastly, another account we heard goes like this: salt was a highly prized commodity in the Middle Ages, and as such, it was heavily taxed. Many Tuscans couldn’t afford salt, so they began making bread without it. And in honor of them, the tradition remains part of Tuscan cuisine today.

Florentine Food Was Forever Changed

Florence Italy City View History Food

Florence Italy Salt Food Italian Food

No one is 100% sure as to why Tuscan bread, called pane toscano, has been baked without salt for centuries, but this is for sure: it’s a tradition and it’s delicious.

We think the only way to find out the truth is for you to visit Tuscany, enter into a number of trattorias and ask them what they think! Of course, you’ll have to sample all the bread and a variety of Tuscan dishes. Report back with your findings and what Italian recipes you loved most. That’s a win-win in our book.

Let Us Know Your Thoughts

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Culture Shoque is digital destination and channel designed to cultivate relationships in your community and while traveling. By breaking down barriers and xenophobia through the exploration of customs and food, the pursuit of joy, and environmental conservation, the goal is to show that at the core, we aren’t all that different. In fact, we all stem from similar roots. It’s time to nourish them and grow together. 

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