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Grape expectations

(article, Liz Biro)

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“In Italy, we don’t have Thanksgiving. Instead, it’s the time of the grapes,” my friend Angelo Ciardella told me when I called to ask about schiacciata con l’uva, a light and chewy Tuscan flatbread bursting with the sweetness of grapes.

Ciardella is a cooking teacher and retired restaurateur who loves focaccia, that popular Italian flatbread best known in its savory forms: sprinkled with cheese, dotted with garlic, and brushed with olive oil. On his latest autumn trip home to Lucca, a town in the heart of Tuscany, his sister teased him about his habit of walking down the street while nibbling focaccia. 

Schiacciata con l’uva, Ciardella explained, is basically focaccia layered with sun-dried wine grapes. The raisins are sprinkled on a round of simple yeast dough that is topped with another round of dough and more raisins. 

[%image "reference-image" width=400 float=left caption="Grape bread from Tuscany is a seasonal treat."]

Many recipes call for fresh grapes, others a mixture of grapes and raisins. Either way, Ciardella is not a fan of schiacciata con l’uva: “Too sweet.” Yet he enjoys seeing the bread in bakery windows all over Tuscany during the fall grape harvest. Like the nuts and cranberries that show up on American supermarket shelves in the weeks before the holiday season, schiacciata con l’uva is a symbol of feasts ahead.

“The best time of year is when comes the grapes,” Ciardella tells me from his home in Wilmington, North Carolina. “Because you are going into the fall of the year and all of these beautiful things are coming out.” Beautiful, seasonal, perishable things like mushrooms and truffles, apples, and squash, chestnuts and grapes. 

Like Ciardella, Tuscans cherish schiacciata con l’uva, even those who may not like its taste. The colloquial Tuscan term for focaccia, schiacciata (pronounced “skee-ah-chah-tah”) means “smash” — which means that schiacciata con l’uva, loosely translated, means “smash with grapes.”

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Flatbreads and grapes have long been part of Tuscan history, each dating back to the region’s pre-Roman Etruscan roots. Along the way, someone — probably peasants — topped flatbread with grapes, and schiacciata con l’uva was born. 

Despite what may have been humble origins, the bread is “found in the fanciest pastry shop or the simplest bakery,” writes Florentine cookbook author Giuliano Bugialli in his 1984 book [%bookLink code=0941434524 "Giuliano Bugialli's Foods of Italy"]. “Even the most refined city people in Italy treasure their links with the rustic country traditions, and they are happy to serve \[schiacciata con l’uva\] after the most elegant dinner during the harvest season.”

Schiacciata con l’uva is easy to prepare, and its contrast of soft bread and juicy grapes makes it a lovely breakfast bread. Italians don’t mind seeds in the grapes, but when I make the bread, I like to use seedless red or black grapes for easier eating. Sometimes I mix in a few tart white grapes. Occasionally I’ll add golden raisins for a chewy contrast to the soft, fresh grapes. If I’m entertaining, I’ll make two loaves: one with fresh grapes, the other with grapes and raisins.

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I love schiacciata con l’uva prepared with white flour, but these days I blend in some whole-wheat flour. I like the earthy flavor it adds, along with the extra vitamins and fiber.

The last time I prepared schiacciata con l’uva, I asked Ciardella about seasonings. Bugialli’s recipe calls for fennel seed; other formulas suggest anise or fresh rosemary. Even though Ciardella dislikes schiacciata con l’uva, like a loyal Tuscan, he would hear of no additions.

“If you mix anything in,” he warned, “then you lose the flavor of the grapes.”

p(bio). Liz Biro writes about food from Hubert, North Carolina.


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