A culinary quest in Siena

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Of all the fleeting, yet surprisingly vivid memories I had of my first time in Siena, one thing especially stayed with me.

It left a stronger impression than the Palio, a centuries-old horse race around the Piazza del Campo that takes place twice every summer. There are huge crowds, riders in colorful medieval costumes, pomp and drama. But for all the excitement leading up to the race I saw, it ended very quickly. It always does.

I remember other things you’d expect from that first trip: the sloping Piazza del Campo with its high bell tower, the horrendous summer heat, the fact that many of the buildings really were the color “burnt Siena”.

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Not the inside of the magnificent Duomo (main church), though. Maybe since (as with many churches in Italy) you have to pay a small entry fee, I didn’t go inside.

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 amount of human lives lost in the Black Death.

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What I most remembered about Siena, though, haunted me in a different way.

As a longtime sufferer of irritable bowel syndrome, eating while traveling is a challenge. The easiest thing is to find good takeout or snack 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 Italy.

But it turned out I was wrong — and not just because Italy’s regions often boast very different cuisine: I thought the muffin-thing was called “pane rustica”, which I quickly learned merely means “rustic bread” — that is, an old-fashioned loaf of bread, no meat or cheese included. 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 my husband to come along, I have to admit that one of my first thoughts was, “If we go to Siena, I’ll have to see if I can find that bread!”

The second time I visited Siena, I was surprised to find it 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 my husband and I headed that way. As we walked, we found several lovely side streets

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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 my husband 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 — or anywhere, come to think of it: slightly salted, crisp flatbread encasing fresh tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, and prosciutto. Mmm….

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The unappealing pizza thing partially blocking the sublime sandwich.

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, sans muffin thing. While they paid their check, I hurried off to another street, where I found buildings delightfully decorated with the symbol of the Onda contrada (that July’s Palio winners).

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But no muffin.

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 as warped as some Siennese buildings seem to be.

Then, on our way to the Duomo, one of my cousins told me she’d just seen some people passing by who were eating bread that looked like it was stuffed with something.

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.

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I was in 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 would have tried some -but these were desperate times).

Leaving the shop, I nearly bumped into my 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”.

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My breath caught in my throat. I ran back inside.

Torta rustica, it turns out, is indeed not a widely known Italian treat: the man behind the counter explained to me that 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 — the larger version can cost more than 12, depending on its weight. 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.

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The large torta rustica.

I didn’t regret it. Now, I won’t say it was quite as delicious as I’d remembered. But its unique flavor and texture made it a wonderful treat.

I was surprised that we managed to come back to Paris with some left over. 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), my husband ended up loving torta rustica as much as I do.

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This time, I was sure to take a card from the shop.

As we continued up the sloping road towards the Duomo, I felt like I’d just witnessed a small miracle: a long culinary quest come to a satisfying conclusion.

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Man, I wish I had some torta rustica right now!

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