At the hint of summer’s arrival, when the days grow longer but unbearably hotter, city-dwelling Tuscans flee to cooler places. Usually, the plan is an easy, breezy escape to the sea where working on a tan and eating copious amounts of fresh seafood are involved. One of the favourite areas is the Etruscan coast, a beautiful part of Tuscany with pretty beaches, untouched nature and, more importantly, fantastic food.
It begins at Livorno, a port city that is widely overlooked, and runs a good 60 miles to Piombino. While the rest of the coast is dotted with beaches, inviting coves, medieval villages, vineyards and olive groves, Livorno is one of those places with a rough-around-the-edges exterior but a down to earth interior. Most visitors to Livorno today only see its port as they sail in or out from Sardinia, Corsica or other Mediterranean hot spots. It doesn’t have the cultural monuments that its neighbours, Pisa, Siena and Florence, have but the real reason to visit Livorno is for the fresh, locally caught seafood, prepared in honest and simple dishes.
Cacciucco is Livorno’s most famous dish, and rightfully so, as this rich, spicy stew cooked with locally-caught fish and shellfish, red wine and tomatoes is difficult to forget. Cacciucco is the perfect example of the fact that Livorno’s food reflects its people like no other Tuscan cuisine. It is even said that the different types of seafood used in the dish (purists will tell you there should be thirteen) represent the multicultural people of Livorno themselves – a melting pot of Jewish, African, Anglo Saxon, Dutch and Middle Eastern merchants and mariners that in centuries past found Livorno the only place tolerant enough to allow a cosmopolitan community of foreigners to flourish.
This multiculturalism is an influential part of Livorno’s traditional cuisine, from the fact that everything “alla Livornese” has tomatoes in it (brought over by Spanish-Jewish traders 500 years ago and rapidly spread to gardens and kitchens throughout the peninsula) to the ultimate pick-me-up drink: the ponce alla Livornese. Adapted most likely from versions of British “punch” brought over by Anglo Saxon mariners, ponce is a hot beverage made from a shot of strong espresso, cheap rum, cognac, sugar and lemon zest. Bars along the port still prepare ponce, greatly appreciated as an after dinner digestif or to warm up the fishermen coming in from a long night out at sea in the early hours of the morning.
A visit to Livorno’s food market, the Mercato Centrale, housed in a 19th century Liberty style building, is the best way to discover the melting-pot character of today’s port city. Locally caught fish is the highlight of the market, but the butchers’ stalls also reflect the diversity of Livorno’s kitchens, from kosher meat, lambs’ heads, wild boar and horse to guineafowl and galletto livornese, the local Leghorn chicken, named after the old-fashioned anglicised name of the city.
The market sits on the edges of the old part of town known as the Venetian district, for its series of deep canals reminiscent of Venice, a part of the forgotten historical city. Not far are the walls of the Medici fortress, built as part of an “ideal” Renaissance city dreamed up by the Medici Duke. Although it’s far from an ideal city today, there is something about the unforgettably fresh seafood, the genuine nature of the people whose roots may come from any corner of the world but who are undeniably Livornesi, and a strong ponce that will win your heart over.