It’s strange the things you remember about a place.
I first visited Siena almost exactly twelve years ago from today. While my tour group and I probably spent more than 24 hours there, my recollections of the city are fleeting – yet surprisingly vivid.
From my first time there, I remembered that Siena is organized into 17 contrade (neighborhoods), a system dating back to medieval times. Each contrada has its own symbol, usually an animal, and these symbols are especially visible during the Palio, a centuries-old horse race that takes place every July 2 and August 16. In July 2000, I got to see the Palio in real life. I remember participants in colorful medieval costumes, I remember the stones of the Piazza del Campo being scattered with straw (they’re apparently covered with soil for the event, too). I remember that, for all the pomp and excitement leading up to the race, it ended very quickly.
I remembered learning that the Siennese are fiercely proud of the contrada in which they’re born. Since the hotel was the first place I slept in Siena, I considered the contrada where it was located, the contrada sovrana dell’Istrice (Sovreign Contrada of the Porcupine) to be the one I’d root for in the Palio. I bought a scarf with “my” contrada’s symbol, and cheered in joy and surprise when we won the race. That night, as we headed back to our hotel, we saw people celebrating wildly. I have faint memories of a large-bellied man with a contrada dell’Istrice scarf draped around him, sucking on a pacifier that was attached to one side.
I remembered the Piazza del Campo with its high bell tower and irregular shape, I remembered the horrendous summer heat, I remembered that many of the buildings really were the color “burnt Siena”.
I didn’t remember the inside of Siena’s magnificent Duomo (main church). Maybe since, as with many churches in Italy, you have to pay a small entry fee, our group didn’t go inside.
The Duomo's striking black-and-white-striped walls, belltower, and interior columns were inspired by Moorish architecture.
The baptistry's domed ceiling
Even the Duomo's floor is elaborate, covered in famous marble inlay mosaics.
The ceiling of the connected church library, which houses beautiful illuminated manuscripts...that are overshadowed by their sumptuous surroundings.
But the image of the high, marble-faced wall standing to one side of it was burned in my mind: it was going to be an extension of the already massive building, but so many of Siena’s population died from the Bubonic plague, that the work couldn’t be finished. More than paintings or written accounts, for me, that wall is an impressive, sobering symbol of the massive scale of human lives lost in the Black Death.
These things would probably be remembered by most people who’ve visited Siena. But there was something else I recalled, and it haunted me.
As a longtime sufferer of irritable bowel syndrome, eating while traveling is a challenge. The easiest thing is to find good, portable food that I can keep in my bag and munch on in small amounts as I get hungry, rather than all at once. As I wandered the Siennese streets during my first trip, I came upon a shop that sold muffin-shaped bread. I discovered, though, that what looked like bits of fruit or chocolate chips in it were actually small pieces of Italian sausage and cheese. It was a delicious find, and as I left the shop, I fleetingly made a note of the name of what I’d bought, figuring it was something you could get anywhere in the country.
But it turned out I was wrong. First, the name I thought belonged to the muffin-thing was “pane rustica”, which I quickly learned merely means “rustic bread” – that is, an old-fashioned loaf of bread, no meat or cheese included. I also learned that, sadly, this treat I’d found wasn’t common in Italy at all. I spent the rest of my Italian trip gazing wistfully into shop windows and never finding anything quite like it. (Not that there weren’t plenty of other delicious foods to console me.)
For twelve years, the memory of that muffin thing stayed with me. When I found out that some of my aunts, uncles, and cousins were planning a trip to Tuscany, and wanted me and the boyfriend to come along, I have to admit that after the initial excitement died down, one of my first thoughts was, “If we go to Siena, I’ll have to see if I can find that bread!”
Last Friday, we arrived in the city, a place more beautiful than I’d remembered. We walked through its wending brown streets until we came to the Piazza del Campo. My family wanted to sit and have something to eat in one of the cafes there. I told them I’d be back in an hour: It was time for me to begin my search.
I had a vague memory of the place where I’d bought the bread being fairly close to the Piazza. I chose a street that looked promising, and the boyfriend and I headed that way. As we went down it, we found several lovely side streets,
Not Photoshopped: From the steps of the San Martino church, you can see a building that seems to undulate. Many structures in the city were built like this to conform to the curves created by the Piazza del Campo.
and a number of eateries. Among them was the Pizzeria San Martino, a small, ugly place with incredibly low prices and incredibly delicious food – two things the boyfriend has trouble resisting. “We have an hour,” he said persuasively. He reveled in what he’d ordered, a gorgonzola and egg sort of pizza that didn’t look appetizing to me but that he deemed exceptional, which is extraordinarily high praise from a Frenchman who’s very proud of his own national cuisine. The sandwich we shared is one of the most wonderful things I’ve eaten in Italy: slightly salted, crisp flatbread encasing fresh tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, and proscuitto. Mmm….
And yet, I still couldn’t forget that mystery muffin.
Our search was a great way to see more of Siena, and to have some excellent food, but in the end, we didn’t find what we were looking for. The hour was up, and we went back to the Piazza del Campo to meet my family. While they paid their check, I hurried off into another street, where I found buildings delightfully decorated with the symbol of the Onda contrada (this July’s Palio winners).
But no bread.
From the start of my search, I'd known it was possible I wouldn't find what I was looking for. Things change, shops close, memories of locations get warped as crazily as some Siennese buildings seem to be.
As we headed towards the Duomo, one of my cousins told me she’d seen some people we’d passed eating bread that looked like it was stuffed with something. At that point, resigned to the fact that I’d never find what I was looking for, I just shook my head. “Thanks, but it wasn’t stuffed so much as like a chocolate chip muffin.” “Okay…” she nodded, unconvinced.
A few feet further on, about five of my family members yelled out, “Alysa! It’s the bread!”
I didn’t believe them. But they nudged me into a strange-looking shop with what appeared to be red plastic boas or garlands hanging in the doorway.
I stepped inside a cool, cramped space whose shelves were filled with cheeses and cured meats. A couple of men in white uniforms were animatedly running around, talking with customers and serving people standing at two small tables that I couldn’t believe fit inside. I looked eagerly around and thought I saw my bread – but as I got closer, I found it was only chocolate-chip biscotti. I exited the shop and nearly bumped into my eagerly waiting family. “Thanks, but that’s not it,” I told them. “No, Alysa, look at the window – it's right there!‘’ one of my cousins insisted.
The window had been blocked by a crowd before. Now, I had a clear view – and there it was: my muffin-shaped bread, and if I doubted it, a handwritten card on the platter reading, “Torta Rustica”. My breath caught in my throat. I ran back into the shop.
Torta rustica, it turns out, is indeed not a widely known Italian treat. Instead, the man behind the counter explained to me, it’s a specialty of “il maestro,” the moustachioed man in a chef’s hat who was loudly gesticulating beside him. While the small torta rustica is muffin-shaped, the larger size is sort of like a swirled-looking loaf of bread. And while the small version costs 5 euros - which is a fairly reasonable price for something that will really stick to your ribs and is made with quality ingredients by a local artisan - depending on its weight, the larger version can cost more than 12. After making sure the treat would last a while (up to seven days, the man behind the counter reassured me, even if it spent the next few hours in the hot Siennese sun), I bought a small and a large torta rustica.
The large torta rustica. Unfortunately, the small one was eaten before a picture could be taken....*
I haven’t regretted it. Now, I won’t say it’s the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted. In fact, I remember it being far more savory than it is. But its unique flavour and texture make it a wonderful treat. Back home, we still have some left – which is surprising. Because though he was skeptical at first, and a bit put off by the price (considering our excellent lunch had cost only about seven euros, including drinks), the boyfriend has ended up loving torta rustica as much as I do.
This time, I was sure to take a card from the shop.
As we continued up the sloping road towards the Duomo, I shook my head in amazement. I felt like I’d just witnessed a small miracle: a twelve year culinary quest come to a satisfying conclusion.
*UPDATE (7/24/12): My family continued to travel in Italy after the boyfriend and I went home. Now that they're back home, too, they're going through their photos. Just now, I got an email from my cousin's husband, J. (the mastermind behind the trip). The subject was "In case you forget", and there was a photo...that turned out to be of the shop window with the muffin-shaped torte rusticas! I was too excited to take a picture like that at the time, and I had no idea someone else had! I've now added it to my post. Thanks, J., you're awesome!