Russell Norman’s recipes from a Tuscan trattoria

UNlthough research for my new restaurant Brutto began in 2016, it’s been extremely difficult getting to Italy over the past 18 months to meet with producers, growers, winemakers and chefs. But there have been gaps in between all the lockdowns, and with them the opportunity for short trips – and doing lots of solitary confinement on return to the UK.

It’s been a hassle worth enduring. Along with my head chef Oli Diver, I’ve collected some wonderful recipes in Tuscany, particularly in Florence and Siena. We’ve had our tiny minds blown in the simplest of trattorias where dishes rarely contain more than two ingredients. One lunchtime at the breathtakingly sparse but beautiful Sostanza in Florence, per esempio, we were so taken by the food and atmosphere that we immediately booked for the following day so we could eat the other half of the menu.

Florence is well-known for its tripe and big T-bone steaks, but there are delightful iterations of more niche ingredients – lots of game, fowl and a bounty of seasonal vegetables, for instance – that made the task of putting together an authentic menu for a London audience a pleasure and a delight.

These dishes require no great skill, but they do demand high-quality ingredients. Italian regional cooking is as much about good shopping as it is about prowess in the kitchen. The Italian expression that inspired the name of the restaurant – brutto ma buono, meaning “ugly, but good” – perfectly describes the sort of food you’d hope to eat in someone’s home, rather than at a fancy restaurant. In all of the Italian regions, grandmothers are held in much higher esteem than professional chefs for the simple reason that their cooking is much more authentic (and usually a lot more tasty). And there isn’t a smear, dot, foam, microherb or pair of tweezers in sight…

The classic Florentine crostino comes only one way: with smooth, chopped chicken liver. While delicious, it’s not so good for my vegetarian friends. Fresh borlotti beans straddle summer and autumn, and Tuscans are known in the rest of Italy as mangiafagioli, or bean eaters, Dopotutto.

Prep 10 min
cucinare 45 min
Servi 6

400g fresh borlotti in their pods (o 1 x 400g tin, drained, in which case cook the beans for only 15 minutes in total)
1 large ripe tomato
1 small handful sage leaves
, tied in a bunch
garlic clove, pelato
1 small handful rosemary leaves
Flaky sea salt and black pepper
Olio extravergine d'oliva

3 thick slices sourdough, cut in half

Pod the beans, put them in a pan with the tomato, sage and garlic, add water just to cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover and leave to cook for 20 minuti. Remove and discard the sage, add the rosemary, then simmer for 20 minutes more.

Drain the beans, aglio, tomato and rosemary, and mash with a good pinch of salt and a glug or two of olive oil; discard the tomato skin. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and set aside.

Lightly grill the six slices of sourdough on both sides. Stir the borlotti, then load generously on to the toasts. Drizzle with olive oil, add a twist of pepper and serve at once, perhaps with a small negroni.

Ribollita (literally “reboiled”) is a great example of a hearty dish that, despite its humble, inexpensive ingredients, doesn’t compromise on flavour; the addition of bread creates a texture I find deeply comforting, pure. Perfect to slurp away those autumn blues.

Soak Overnight
Prep 15 min
cucinare 1 ora 15 min
Servi 4

300g dried cannellini beans
2 foglie di alloro
Olio extravergine d'oliva
1 large onion
, peeled and finely diced
1 large carrot, finely diced
1 large stick celery, finely diced
1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
Sale marino in scaglie e pepe nero macinato
1 tsp
fennel seeds, crushed
1 small handful fresh thyme leaves
1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes
½ loaf stale bread
, crusts removed, the rest torn into small chunks
1 whole cavolo nero, stalks removed, leaves roughly shredded

Put the beans and one bay leaf in a large bowl, cover with cold water and soak overnight.

Next day, drain the beans, transfer to a large pan, cover with fresh cold water and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minuti, until soft; remove any scum as it comes to the surface. Retain two large cups of the cooking water, then drain the beans.

Nel frattempo, in grande, heavy-based saucepan, heat a good glug or two of olive oil and gently saute the onion, carrot, celery and garlic for a good 15 minuti, until soft and glossy.

Add a big pinch of salt, the crushed fennel seeds, thyme and a twist of black pepper, then stir in the tomatoes, beans, half the reserved cooking water and the second bay leaf, and cook over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, for half an hour to 45 minuti. Halfway through, add the chunks of stale bread and shredded cavolo nero – they need to be submerged, so you may need to add the second cup of reserved cooking water.

Once cooked, this thick soup will improve vastly if you leave it overnight in the fridge and reheat the next day (the name means “re-boiled”, remember). Either way, remove the bay leaf and finish each bowl with a twist of pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.

When lambs are about six months old, in September or October, the flesh has a fuller, more meaty and less milky flavour. This lovely preparation adds a few autumnal flavours and a little theatricality when the individual parcels are opened, releasing a fragrant puff of steam.

Prep 10 min
cucinare 30 min
Servi 4

2 medium-sized ripe pomodori, squartato
4 small onions, peeled and halved
Flaky sea salt and black pepper
8 costolette di agnello
1 small tin anchovies
1 handful green beans, trimmed
2 spicchi d'aglio, peeled and very finely sliced
1 small handful fresh oregano leaves
Olio extravergine d'oliva

Scaldare il forno a 200°C (180Ventilatore C.)/390F/gas 6. Take four very large squares of greaseproof paper, evenly distribute the tomatoes and onions between them and season each parcel with a good pinch of salt.

Lay two chops in the centre of each sheet, top with two anchovy fillets, then evenly share out the beans, sliced garlic and oregano.

Season, drizzle well with olive oil, then gather up the sides of each piece of paper and fold tightly into sealed parcels.

Lay the parcels on a large baking sheet, roast for 20 minuti, then transfer to four plates and let everyone work out what to do.

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