This is a Tuscan bread and vegetable salad. I had known about the dish for a number of years, but had eaten some unpalatable versions and was generally put off by the notion of eating soggy bread. Then I tried making it in Umbria using very stale bread and it was delicious. Returning to London, filled with enthusiasm, I attempted to recreate the dish in the restaurant using English bread and found it soggy again. I then tried it using breadcrumbs made from stale bread slices baked with olive oil to crisp them.
While different from the original, this works extremely well and is, perhaps, more acceptable to the British palate. What you have here is all the freshness and vitality of a gazpacho, but in a salad form. For a delicious variation on the theme, use mint instead of basil.
Preheat the oven to its highest setting. Trim any dark crust off the bread and arrange the slices in a baking tray. Sprinkle lightly with olive oil and salt.
Prepare the vegetables: dice the tomatoes roughly without peeling or deseeding them. Peel the cucumber and cut into dice about half the size of the tomato dice. Repeat this procedure with the onion(s). Peel and dice the celery and the carrot to the same size. Pick over the basil and tear the leaves from the stalks. Put all the chopped vegetables into a large serving bowl at least twice the size of all the ingredients.
Bake the bread in the oven until golden brown. It will take no more than 10 minutes. Be careful not to burn it: if you can smell it the slices are ready for the dustbin.
Remove and allow to cool until the bread can be handled. Then put into a food processor and chop until you have coarse crumbs - do not over-process. Set aside.
Tear the basil leaves into pieces by hand and add to the vegetables in the bowl. Season lightly and stir in the vinegar. Add the breadcrumbs and toss thoroughly. Refrigerate until chilled, which will take about 2 hours.
Just before serving, adjust the seasoning if necessary (remember the breadcrumbs already have salt on them). Pour over olive oil - the precise amount depends on your preference, but it is possible to put too much and spoil the balance of the dish.
Toss thoroughly and serve in chilled soup plates.
© 1993 Alastair Little and Richard Whittington estate. All rights reserved.