What is panzanella?
Panzanella, also known as panmolle (soft bread) is a salad that is very popular in the summer as its success entirely relies on the freshness of its limited number of ingredients. The dish is derived from cucina povera or peasant cuisine, a cuisine that we have already featured when we traveled to Italy for pasta e fagiole.
What is the origin of panzanella?
The dish was first mentioned in the fourteenth century by Boccaccio in the Decameron when it was called pan lavato (washed bread).
In the sixteenth century, the artist and poet Agnolo di Cosimo, also known under the name Bronzino, dedicated a sonnet in his book della cipolla to a salad of bread, onions, purslane, and cucumbers. It is believed to be one of the first mentions of panzanella as we know it today.
The first record of tomato in Italy dates from October, 31st 1548 when the house steward of Cosimo de’ Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany, wrote to the Medici private secretary informing him that the basket of tomatoes sent from the grand duke’s Florentine estate at Torre del Gallo “had arrived safely.” However, tomatoes only became mainstream two centuries later. This is why the star ingredient of panzanella was originally onion. Tomato only started to appear in panzanella recipes in the early 1900s.
It is commonly believed that panzanella was developed out of the custom of peasants to soak their old, stale bread in water and mix it with fresh vegetables from the garden. It was typically prepared ahead of time so the farmers could take it to lunch the following day.
The bread used for the panzanella recipe is traditionally Tuscan bread also called pane sciocco, or bread without salt. The reason this bread does not include salt is that it became popular in the 1600s when salt was a rare product with a high cost. If you do not have Tuscan bread, you can definitely use another white stale bread.
Some say that the word panzanella derives from the combination of the words pane (bread) and zanella (soup bowl), while others believe it comes from the word panzana that initially meant pappa (food).
This dish, although initially a peasant dish is now widespread among all classes. A version of panzanella was even served to Vittorio Emanuele, King of Italy, by statesman Bettino Ricasoli, in 1865. The King had been invited to a hunting trip in Ricasoli’s castle in Chianti. The green of the basil, the white of the bread and the red of the tomato, as in pizza Napoletana, were reminiscent of the colors of Italy.
This fresh summer salad is close in concept to fattoush salad, a Levantine salad that also includes cucumbers and tomatoes, as well as bread, although pita bread or Lebanese flat bread is used instead of Tuscan bread.
The regional versions of panzanella
Although this salad was born in Tuscany, several regions made their own with slight variations. In the regions of Umbria and Marche, the bread is wet but it is not torn. The ingredients are therefore placed on the sliced of bread, in a similar fashion to bruschetta or pa amb tomaquet from Andorra.
Salento prepares a dish similar to panzanella with wet friselle, a bread made of durum wheat that is twice baked, instead of Tuscan bread. In Sicily, panzaneddra was made popular with the help of Tuscan-born Duke Alfio Panzanella.
In Lamoli, a small hamlet of Borgo Pace a few miles from the Tuscan border, the festival of panzanella has been organized every August since 1968. Who wants to join me?
I prepared this salad for a picnic on our terrace and the whole family loved it. Simple, fresh and colorful!
- 1 lb Tuscan bread , sliced
- 2 ripe tomatoes , deseeded and coarsely chopped
- 1 red onion , thinly sliced
- 15 leaves basil
- 1 cucumber , peeled and thinly sliced
- Salt (to taste)
- Black ground pepper to taste
- 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Soak the onion in a bowl with water and a tablespoon of white wine vinegar for 1 hour
Take the slices of bread and remove the crust with a knife.
Moisten the bread by pouring a solution of water and vinegar, a tablespoon at a time.
Once the bread is softened, squeeze it, tear it roughly with your hands and place it in a large salad bowl.
Drain the red onion from the soaking water and vinegar solution and add them to the bread.
Add the tomatoes, cucumber, and the basil leaves.
Gently mix all the ingredients with a spoon, season with extra virgin olive oil, then add salt and pepper.
Stir again, taste and add more vinegar if necessary.