‘Have the acquacotta! It’s my specialty’, advises Ghigo, the man who, with his wife Luisa, runs the main osteria in Suvereto, a village in the heart of the Val di Cornia in the extreme northern part of the Maremma, inland from Piombino, the port for Elba, and the Costa degli Etruschi: a corner of Tuscany not of Madonnas and Crucifixions but, until a little over a century ago, of brigands and, until the last war, of malaria.
Ghigo is the nickname of Sergio Righetti, a staunch Slow Food activist and something of a village character, though he actually hails from Gavorrano, further south on the road to Grosseto. It was there that he began his culinary career before moving up to Suvereto where, in chronological order, he has run the Trattoria dei Briganti in the central Via Matteotti, the Enoteca dei Difficili (a wine cellar cum bar which he restructured and developed himself from an old barn above the village walls) and now the establishment that takes his name, L’Osteria ‘Il Caminetto’ da Ghigo, in Piazza San Francesco under a thirteenth-century bell tower.
That’s Ghigo, but what about acquacotta? The name literally means ‘boiled water’, but the dish is more than that. It is actually ancient vegetable soup and in the past was eaten in the fields as a one-course meal by shepherds and butteri, the Maremma cowboys. Recipes vary enormously round the area. The first time I ate it was at Montemerano, near Pitigliano. On that occasion it consisted of a vegetable stock with a summer vegetable garnish and a poached egg floating on top. In Suvereto, my pal Ghigo makes it the Gavorrano way – a stewy concoction of red onions, celery, stale bread, tomato, again with a poached egg on top. Tuscany in general is a great region for hearty soups, and the Maremma is no exception to the rule. Hence, besides acquacotta, Ghigo’s menu also features ribollita, made of beans and cavolo nero, the ‘black cabbage’ typical of Tuscany, and zuppa di farro, spelt soup, the stuff Roman legionaries allegedly lived on.
You’ll find all these delicacies at Ghigo’s, plus other local classics such as crostini with chicken livers, crogentina (toasted unsalted farmhouse bread rubbed with garlic and anointed with extra virgin olive oil), pappardelle, coniglio all’etrusca, Etruscan-style rabbit with wild-fennel and tarragon, Chianina beef and, for pud, cantuccini, the almond biscuits which, under a variety of different names (tozzetti, biscotti) are a favorite all over Tuscany, and vin santo, sweet holy wine. But the star attraction all year around is cinghiale, wild boar, which comes cured as ham and salami, reduced to ragù to dress the pappardelle, and stewed with olives and accompanied, even in the middle of summer, by polenta.
Suvereto’s devotion to the animal is such that in December it stages a fortnight-long festival, the ‘Sagra del Cinghiale’, with massive Pantagruelian banquets and a corteo storico, a historic pageant parade in which members of the village’s three terzieri, or neighborhoods – San Francesco, Borgo and Castello – don medieval garb and parade with carts and farm animals from the upper part of village to the main gate at the bottom. All this takes place to the beat of drums and concludes with a spectacular display by the flag throwers of the Compagnia Sbandieratori di Suvereto.
The name Suvereto derives from the Latin Subertum, ‘place of cork trees’, but today the landscape is composed almost exclusively of olive groves and vineyards. Not for nothing the village boasts the titles of ‘Città dell’Olio’ and ‘Città del Vino’. The local oil is delicate and aromatic, while Val di Cornia Rosso DOC is a full-bodied, opulent wine (the Tua Rita winery’s 100% merlot Redigoffi won the three-glass award for the second year in a row in the Slow Food-Gambero Rosso guide Italian Wines 2001).
I’ve been going to Suvereto on vacation for years. It used to take me five or six hours to get to the place from Turin, where I used to live. The motorway ended in Livorno and, from there, it was necessary to take the old Roman Tyrrhenian coast road, the Aurelia. Nowadays, thanks to the building of a dual carriageway from Livorno to Rome, I’ve whittled the time down to three and a half hours. Which is comforting, since I have to confess I can never wait to get to Suvereto!
For more information about Suvereto, see www.suvereto.net and www.valdicornia.com
John Irving is the editor of the Slow Food www.slowfood.com website
Photo: Suvereto (http://www.emmeti.it/Welcome/Toscana/CostaEtrusca/Suvereto/index.uk.html)