I’ve always had a bit of an addiction to good bread. I can remember as a toddler standing with my grandmother at her local bakery (she looked after me while my mother worked) waiting for their shop to open and taking home a still-warm bloomer loaf with poppy seeds on top. In Italian delis in Soho as a child, I bought Italian breads with my dad before ciabatta became fashionable (though ciabatta as such was only ‘invented’ in the ’80s). When pregnant with my daughter, I had a strong bread craving and would attack fresh loaves with an almost insatiable hunger. I can remember buying baguettes in France on holiday when they’d go stale by the afternoon and you had to buy more for the evening. Holidaying in Italy for the first time in the late 1970s, I was surprised to discover Tuscan bread is unsalted. But such glorious bread was it, such as I’d never tasted before, I came to love it.
Nowadays, with the coming of artisan bakeries popping up all over London (and elsewhere), a good loaf is fairly easily found. I’m lucky enough to have two brilliant independent artisan bakeries within walking distance of my home: Ruben’s Bakehouse and Your Bakery Whitton, as well as the French Paul bakery in nearby Richmond. Where once buying a loaf of bread was a straightforward affair, now there are many choices – wonderful choices! – of sourdough, Pugliese, ciabatta, focaccia; loaves with olives, perhaps walnuts & figs; sweet brioche and different kinds of baguettes; spelt loaves or rye.
It’s not surprising that I’ve been attracted to bread salads like Fattoush from the Middle East, and the Cretan Dakos salad, both family favourites and on the blog. It’s slightly strange that with my love of Italian food I haven’t for a very long time, if ever, made Panzanella. But when I was in Florence in June, it was on all the menus. The Tuscans use bread a lot in their recipes, often where pasta or rice might be used in other parts of Italy. Like other bread recipes, Panzanella is just a way of using up stale bread (in England we make bread pudding!). This is a photo of the version I had in Osteria Santo Spirito (my favourite restaurant of the trip):
I thought then, I must make this when I get home. It’s really a summer salad and the Florentines would say – indeed did say! – that it should only be made around June time when tomatoes are at their best. So I may be leaving it a little late to win their approval, but I did find the tastiest tomatoes I could. As always when making a classic recipe for the blog, I looked in lots of books on my shelves and checked on the internet to find different versions. Unsurprisingly there were many variations, with additions of capers, anchovies; some peppers grilled (Jamie Oliver) but others raw. Essentially a Panzanella has to have a good (a seriously good) bread as its base, a day or two old, not fresh, and ripe tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil; it’s a bread and tomato salad. I’ve eaten Panzanella in UK where the bread has been more like croûtons. However in Florence, I was surprised that it was quite wet and mushy – and utterly delicious! Thus I felt that was more what I wanted to aim for. The recipe that came closest to what I remembered was Antonio Carluccio’s, though I didn’t want to use anchovies nor spring onions (most recipes use red onion). I did add his olives on the basis I had some nice ones that really needed eating up, but also because I liked the idea. I didn’t want to use capers for much the same reason I didn’t fancy anchovies – too strong a flavour and you’re really looking for a nice fresh summery taste with this salad. I decided to follow Jamie’s idea of salting cut tomatoes and leaving them to drain for half an hour to collect juices because I felt the Panzanellas ( yes I had more than one!) I had in Florence had tomato juices soaking into the bread (just look at the photo above and you’ll see). Like all traditional recipes of this kind, which are about using leftovers up and not wasting food, you can to a certain extent add what you like to the basic recipe. But remember that Italians aren’t ones for complicated recipes – don’t overdo it; just a few things. Simple is often the best!
Panzanella (serves 1 as a main; 2 as a starter or side. Prepare 1 hour ahead)
- about 120g stale bread
- about 120g ripe tasty tomatoes
- 1 small or ½ medium red onion, sliced as finely as you can
- 4 large green olives (35g stoned)
- ½ yellow pepper, cut into small pieces
- 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons wine or cider vinegar
- ½ clove garlic, crushed
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- a few torn basil leaves
I had the remains of sourdough loaf I bought in Your Bakery Whitton about 3-4 days ago. I have to say it was quite stale and hard by now – partly because there was just about a quarter piece with lots of crust. However, I managed to break it up by hand; this is a rustic dish so broken pieces are better (and more authentic) than diced. Don’t be tempted to throw away the crust – that’s where so much of the flavour lies, but also it adds an extra texture to the salad. Now sprinkle over about 3 tablespoons of water, mix by hand and leave for roughly 30 minutes to soften a bit.
Prepare the tomatoes at the same time as the bread. I used 5 small-medium sized ripe but still firm vine tomatoes (about 120g, so roughly equal to the amount of bread). Cut roughly – please don’t evenly slice! Think rustic. Put in a sieve over a bowl to catch juices and sprinkle over about ½ teaspoon of sea salt. Give a little shake to coat all over with the salt. Leave, like the bread, for about 30 minutes.
While the bread and tomatoes are preparing themselves, get ahead with preparing the other ingredients. Thinly slice the red onion, roughly chop the olives and cut the pepper into small pieces.
Prepare the dressing: put the oil, vinegar and garlic in a bowl and whisk. Check taste is OK for you (I found such a huge variation of quantities from a 2 vinegar to 3 oil ratio to Carluccio putting in 8 tablespoons of oil to just 1 of vinegar! Season with a little salt and pepper but remember the tomatoes are already salted and olives can be quite salty.
Now put everything together: tip the soaked bread and the tomatoes with their juice into the bowl with the other vegetables. Tear a few basil leaves over. Then add the dressing. Turn and mix well with your hands.
Mash down a little with a fork and then leave for about 30 minutes, turning and mashing down a couple more times to really get all the juices and dressing into the bread.
It was really, really good. I loved the flavour and it made such a wonderful supper at the end of a warm day. It wasn’t as mushy as I’d had in Florence but I think that was because I’d only managed to break the bread into large-ish chunks. But it didn’t matter in the end; they’d taken up all the juices and dressing and tasted delicious.
Panzanella is generally served as a starter in Italy but is also great as a light lunch or supper. Given the nature of its origins – a rustic recipe to use up stale bread, especially when there’s a glut of tomatoes in the summer – I’d imagine it was originally a main dish. You could add some flaked tuna or cheese or even quartered boiled eggs, perhaps, but for me it was gorgeous on its own for a midweek supper. I’d rather have some cheese separately after than add too much to the salad. It’s a real taste of summer and brought back happy memories of my lovely trip to Florence a few weeks ago.