Once upon a time, Tuscany was regarded as a relatively poor region, although that has changed dramatically with the recent influx of tourists and their appetite for second homes and bucolic post-Renaissance lifestyles. By the time the likes of Tony Blair, Sting, Brian Ferry, et al, had decamped there for the summer seasons, a gaggle of high-end restaurants had assembled to provide them with ‘authentic’ Tuscan cuisine. Our stay close to the Tuscan walled city of Lucca was some time ago, a tad before the irreversible British onslaught, but the gastronomic writing was clearly on the wall and the soubriquet Chiantishire, had a believable ring to it even then.

Originally, local cooking traditions were firmly rooted in what Italians proudly call la cucina povera, the poor kitchen. Family run restaurants were more common than now, and economical home cooking was easily found in many of Lucca’s trattorias and osterias.

A fine example of this simple but delicious cooking, from one of the cafés we stumbled across (as did Puccini before us) is, Torta dí Verdure, and when assembled in our own kitchen, continues to provide a vivid evocation of our visit. Locating a recipe for this indigenous dish took some effort as no one in the café was prepared to disclose the ingredients. My thanks to a dogged food writer, Leslie Forbes, for revealing its secrets some time later.

She writes, “Lucca is an elegant little city rather than a town and the pleasures to be enjoyed there are naturally more sophisticated than in the villages of the Garfagnana. The lovely, well-preserved turn-of-the-century shop fronts and signs are particularly pleasing. If you’re exploring the city walls on a hot day, a glass of the local white wine Montecario Buonamico, at the beautiful Antico Caffé della Mura, is a certain reviver. Or, in less auspicious weather, find your way to Puccini’s favourite café, Café di Simo, for cups of frothy cappuccino and Torta di Verdure, Lucca’s great speciality.”

 Grateful as I am for her charming writing, and the recipe providing us with a regular manifestation of the Torta in our kitchen, I am less enthusiastic about the Montecario wines she cites. Still made predominately from the undistinguished Trebbiano grape, it certainly clears the dust from your throat on a hot Tuscan day, but for me that’s where its limited charms come to an end. I have other thoughts below.

Torta dí Verdure from A Table in Tuscany. Classic recipes from the heart of Italy (1989) Leslie Forbes

For the pastry

300g plain white flour

80g sugar

100g butter, softened

2 egg yolks

Pinch of salt

For the filling

200g zucchini, courgettes

300g spinach or swiss chard

75g sugar

5g pine nuts

30g raisins

1 egg, beaten

2 tbsp orange zest

2 tbsp grated parmesan

½ tsp cinnamon

½ tsp nutmeg

Pinch of salt

25-30g butter

To make the pastry, sift the flour on to a pastry board or work surface

Make a hole in the middle and put in the butter, sugar, salt and egg yolks and work into a soft, smooth dough with your fingertips

Cover and leave for 2 hours in a warm place

To make the filling, first chop the zucchini and spinach finely, discarding any tough stalks

Wash and drain well, then simmer in the butter until soft

Let cool and the mix well with the other ingredients

When the dough is ready, cut off about a quarter and keep aside to make a lattice top for the pie

Roll the remainder out into a large circle and place in a greased, floured flan dish

Pour in the filling

Roll out the remaining pastry and cut into strips for the lattice top

Brush with beaten egg yolk and bake for 25 minutes in an oven pre-heated to 375°F/190°C/gas mark 5 (until a toothpick put into the centre of the pie, comes out dry)

Wine thoughts

It’s difficult in the area to avoid both the local workaday grape varieties – Malvasia and Trebbiano. They are, as Brian St Pierre cites in The Wine Lover Cooks Italian (2005) the “boredom twins.” They pop up in various proportions in Montecario, Est!Est!!Est!!! and Frascati. As a welcome alternative do look out for Vermentino, increasingly and deservedly fashionable, with accelerated  plantings in the south of the region. Medium bodied with refreshing acidity and, with shades of Sauvignon Blanc, a verdant herbal flavour and bouquet. Works very well with our leafy pie. If a sweet/savoury pairing is favoured, the ‘boredom twins’ now redeem themselves; once picked, dried and raisiny, they become the luscious VinSanto, the Tuscan dipping partner for almond biscotti. A vinous volte face if ever there was one.