Capturing fresh flavours
From father to son, for several centuries, the men of the valley Nervia have passed the art of feeding a family from an acre or two of steep terraced hillside. Ask any man about his garden and he will display an encyclopaedic knowledge of local growing conditions.
Ask any woman who lives from her garden about a certain vegetable, herb or mushroom and she will explain how to make several tasty dishes from it - a delicious spaghetti sauce by melting it slowly in oil, a little starter by dipping in batter and frying or a preserve for use later as a pizza topping.
Traditional meals of Liguria are based around the great variety of fresh and plentiful produce available in the little terraced gardens or growing wild in the woodlands above. The cookery which has emerged, captures the intense tastes of fresh, seasonal produce and preserves and much of the aroma and flavour of the garden and hillside by sun drying, pickling or preserving. Vegetables, funghi, chestnuts and herbs predominate.
Here you will find simple sauces of sage and butter, basil and oil, fresh tomatoes, the essence of artichoke hearts. Freshly picked, green herbs and vegetables are sealed in a pie, concentrated in a risotto or cooked very gently to coat a little dish of spaghetti.
Little dishes are the rule. You will therefore not find great big American portions of pasta, nor will you find the powerful tomato sauces that we have come to associate with Italian food in Britain. Meals are a series of small surprises.Even the children of Apricale sit down to three different, little savoury courses for school lunch.
Food of the Nervia Valley has a number of different roots. It is influenced by the white cooking developed around the cream, butter, milk, beans and cheese of the high mountains to the north, where tomatoes have never thrived. It has benefited from produce like chickpeas and dried cod which have been imported for centuries by the ports along the Mediterranean coast and are still sold in village markets. Anchovies, mussels and other fresh fish are available from the Mediterranean and little Ape vans still come up from the coast and travel from village to village selling such produce. Plump chickens, lamb and veal have been brought from Piedmonte for centuries but for the average family meat was and still is home reared goat, rabbit or chicken. This is still supplemented by wild boar which is hunted on Wednesdays each from late summer in and around Apricale.
To have to buy oil is considered a misfortune. Most people have access to family produced olive oil and those that don’t have their own grove are paid in oil for helping their neighbours at harvest time. Homes and restaurants alike place good, virgin, olive oil on the table, as a condiment. Sometimes this is flavoured with hot peppers. Oil is sprinkled freely on pizza and pasta, or spread on crusty bread instead of butter to make a tasty sandwich.
Meals begin with anti-pasta, tasty cold appetisers such as; olive pate and salami, sun dried tomatoes, preserved peppers, little slices of warm pies and pizza using whatever is plentiful in village gardens.
People stop off in the evening after work and eat these little bites, with a glass of fizzy white wine, while they catch up with the gossip in the local bar. Order a drink just before lunch or in the early evening and try some simple examples.
After anti-pasta comes the pasta course proper with; sauces of herby pesto or fresh tomatoes, gnocchi with butter and sage, risotto with funghi or artichokes.In many homes, especially midweek, a meal will finish here, but in restaurants and on weekends or feast days, a main course of meat will follow; leg of lamb roasted on a trivet at an open fire with herbs tucked under the skin, rabbit with olives cooked slowly in Rossese wine or locally caught wild boar with polenta. Meat will be served with fresh lemons and a few little potatoes, or a bed of garlicky greens.
Lunch is usually served between twelve and one, before twelve in old-fashioned rural homes, where this is the main meal. Traditional restaurants, especially those which serve a mid-week lunch menu for workers, serve all four courses as a set menu for a fixed price at midday. They prefer everyone to sit down together, although they are beginning to get used to visitors wandering in at all hours.
If you still have a little room for something sweet and Italians usually do, you can try pansarole, the tiny, light, mildly aniseed flavoured donuts peculiar to Apricale. These are usually served dusted with sugar and accompanied by zabaglione, which is ladled from a big brass pot into little pottery bowls at the table.
If you are in Apricale in the second week of September you can enjoy the spectacle of these little cakes being rolled out, by an army of local women, cooked in great vats and eaten in huge quantities in the piazza.
‘A Ciassa’ the restaurant in Apricale square has some of the very best home made desserts: sweet panacotta, a light almond soufflé, creamy tarts topped with thinly sliced raw fresh figs, fairy light sponge cakes decorated with cream and fresh berries.
Another specialty of the Nervia valley is cubaita. A delicious concoction of crushed hazel nuts in honey syrup pressed between rice wafers.
To finish a special meal at home you can buy lovely pasticceria by the kilo. These tiny works of art are set out in rows under glass to allow you to view them all and choose your favourites.First, you will be asked how large a tray you want to fill. Then your choices are weighed, before being done up in pretty paper and tied with ribbon for you to carry home.
Choosing your menu
In the restaurants around Apricale it is usual to eat as few or as many courses as you wish according to your pocket and taste. Menus often indicate a price for two, three or more courses.
Torte Verde, (green veggie pie)
Most grocers and bakers sell green pie. Restaurants serve little squares as anti-paste. Family cooks have their own versions, depending on what is in excess in the garden and great slabs, sliced into big filling handfuls are produced for festive occasions like harvest lunches and saints days.
The proportions for the filling:
The proportions are not absolutely fixed. Courgettes are standard and strictly speaking make yellow pie but whatever green vegetables you have available will do for a filling. Grate or chop them finely, mix the raw ingredients together in a bowl with a little oil. Beat up the egg and add, this helps to bind the mixture together. Some people add ricotta and/or milk as well as the eggs to bind the pie. Whatever you do don’t add too much rice, it will make your pie heavy and loose the lovely fresh flavour. Too many eggs will overwhelm your vegetables. The purpose of the rice is simply to soak up the vegetable juices. Some people use potato (and substitute leeks, pine nuts and a little spinach for the zucchini) or dry breadcrumbs, with the same effect.
For the pastry the proportions are:
Mix your pastry ingredients very gently adding as much liquid as you will need to make a soft, pliable dough. Ideally let it rest for an hour or two before use. If you want a richer pastry you can add a little more oil but take care, your pastry will break up if it is too oily. Cooks in Liguria roll their pastry paper thin, stretching it out on an oiled baking tray, and oiling the upper side before placing the vegetable mixture in the middle. They pat the mixture into a neat, oblong shape a centimetre or so high then fold up the sides to cover. They do not worry if the pastry case isn’t entirely sealed but are happy to allow a little mixture to be exposed in places. In any case, you will need to poke a few holes in the top to let the cooking steam from the moist vegetables escape.
You can of course make a less authentic but serviceable, traditional northern European butter pastry (in the proportions half fat to flour) or buy ready made in the supermarket. Local cooks prefer a large flat pie that can easily be cut into squares.Oil pastry is strong enough to sit on a flat tray without support, whilst butter pastry is safer in a tin or dish with supporting sides.
Whatever the pastry remember to brush the upper side of the base with oil to prevent it getting soggy from the vegetable juices and use a little water or milk to help it to stick together. A little milk brushed over the top keeps the pastry soft whilst cooking. If you brush the top with oil it will be crisp, egg will help it to brown nicely.
Put your pie into a hot oven to start with (10 minutes at around 5 or 6) then turn down the heat to 3 or 4 to gently cook your pie filling for about 40 minutes.Serve it warm.
A quite different but equally tasty pie can be made with a filling of well-mashed and beaten potato, a little egg and milk, pine nuts and sprinkling of Parmesan.
A yeast pastry is used for great range of thick rough crusty breads with toppings, which are locally referred to as pizza. These thick-bottomed squares, bear little resemblance to the delicate, puffy, light pizzas served from the wood fired ovens of the pizzeria in Isolabona.
To make these squares dough is rolled out on a baking tray, half a centimetre or a little more in thickness. This is spread with various combinations of vegetables according to taste and season.A concentrated sauce of skinned, fresh tomatoes topped with olives and a sprinkling of herbs, sliced onions slowly cooked in oil until they form a thick yellow stew, sprinkled with salted anchovies and whole garlic cloves, grated courgettes melted in oil, beaten with egg and sprinkled with cheese, chopped cooked spinach, whisked with egg, milk and a grating of nutmeg. The possibilities are endless.
Vincenzo with his rustic wholemeal pizza topped with whole garlic
A wholemeal or half wholemeal pastry can be used for rustic pizza. If baked in a continental oven, which is heated from below, the pastry should be biscuit like on the bottom with a soft moist filling.
Pickles and preserves
Pickles and sun-dried tomatoes each have a place in traditional anti -pasta. To make a basic pickle, heat equal quantities of water, wine vinegar and olive oil. Don’t boil them but stir as they heat to make sure they amalgamate. Into this mix dissolve half the quantity of sugar to water by volume and add a little salt. Some cooks leave out the sugar and use greater quantities of salt.
Line up your clean jars packed with chopped and sliced vegetables. Each group of vegetables should be packed neatly into their own jar. Peel little onions and garlic, slice peppers which can be raw or grilled, baby artichokes should be steamed or boiled first, aubergines should be sliced thinly and grilled to create a lightly charred surface, funghi should be washed and dried.
Peppers can be grilled and skinned or softened on a thick-bottomed pan and have fresh basil leaves sandwiched between two slices. These pepper sandwiches can be rolled up like little red and green Swiss rolls.
For variety you may add olives, anchovies or herbs to the jars.
Rosemary and thyme are good with grilled aubergines, anchovies with peppers. Sun-dried tomato slices can be wrapped around garlic cloves.
In each case pour over the warm pickle to completely cover the vegetables then seal the jars.You may eat your peppers within six weeks although onions may take a little longer to mature.
Olive, sun-dried tomato and artichoke paste are tasty additions any store cupboard and usually appear as a part of the anti-pasta course. They are also used to make a quick and easy spaghetti sauce. The flesh of the olives, sun-dried tomatoes or pickled artichokes is mashed in a little oil to make a thick spreadable paste for bread. This operation is most easily done with an electric blender.
Sun dried Tomatoes and farinata
Plum tomatoes are best, but not essential, for this simple operation.Cut the tomatoes into slices lengthways and scrape out the pips and juice (these can go into your stock pot). Lay the tomato shells on a tray.Sprinkle a little salt over them. The ‘portabaglia’ driver, Censin, who passed away recently, made lovely sun dried vegetables. He advised that sun-dried is a misnomer, his advice was, do not put your vegetables in direct sunlight, this will produce dry and hard tomatoes. Apricale, homes have covered terraces or rooftops (loggia) with natural air conditioning built in. Hillside houses and stores have one side in the hot sun and the other in deep shade for part of each day. Buildings are designed to maximise airflows from the cool to the sunny side of the house. Air runs one way all morning and the other all afternoon, as the sun changes position. Your tomatoes should be placed in the airflow.
If you don’t have a suitable spot in the house or on the loggia, then a shady garden table will do the same job. My neighbourSanta recommends an old plastic chair with lattice seat which allows the air to circulate! Cover your vegetables with a bit of net to keep away flies and ants.
The whole process takes several days depending on the weather. Don’t forget to take your tomatoes in at night to prevent them getting damp and thus prolonging the drying process.As the tomatoes shrink, stretch them out to ensure all surfaces dry evenly. They are ready when they are a bit shrivelled but still soft.
I have found that a fan - assisted oven on the lowest setting is a good modern substitute for this air drying process. Your tomatoes can be kept in an airtight tin or box or pickled (see above).
This very simple dish can be made in any oven but is best popped into the pizza oven after the pizzas have been cooked. The story goes that the chick pea sweepings, from the boats trading between Liguria and North Africa, were collected by the poor of Genova, mixed with water, salt and a little oil and roasted in the pizza ovens to make a tasty meal, full of protein. To taste farinata, which is usually eaten with oil and black pepper, order one in ‘Il Veccio Forno’in Isolabona, where a slice of farinata is definitely something to fill that last little space.
To make your own farinata the quantities are 150g of chick pea flour to one half of litre of water and a teaspoon of salt. Beat up the mixture then let it rest in a cool place. It should look something likea thin pancake batter. Stir it with a wooden spoon. Oil a shallow tin, heat it in the oven as you would do for a Yorkshire pudding, pour the mixture in to the tin to the depth of a rather thick pancake and place in a very hot oven. The pizza oven cooks the base of the dish, whilst toasting the top and makes a particularly crispy brown farinata with a nice creamy inside but a passible farinata can be made in the oven at home.
Pasta with Simple Fresh Sauces
Home made pasta
Egg pasta is made by hand in local family run restaurants and in more traditional homes too.
The basic pasta mix is one egg cracked into one ounce of flour then kneaded together, to make a soft dough. You can do this kneading in a machine or by hand, but whichever way you do it don’t over knead. It is ready when it holds together in a firm but not too hard, elastic ball. The dough should then be allowed to rest in a cool place for two or three hours.
Your pasta dough can then be rolled very thinly on a cool well-floured surface with a floured rolling pin. The marble or slate worktops found in many Ligurian homes are ideal for this task. The pasta is then ready to be cut into all sorts of shapes. Strips and squares for layering into dishes of lasagne or rolled through the traditional little tagliatelle making machines and covered in sauces made with fresh vegetables and herbs melted in olive oil.
Pasta cut up roughly into little squares and boiled in a broth made from chicken, celery and carrots is a local speciality, which is usually on the menu at ‘Il Portico’ in Castel Vittorio. These misshapes are called ‘maltagliata’ and if you find them on a menu, they are a good sign that your pasta course has a base of home made egg pasta.
Try broad beans, mint and pecorino cheese or the local long and curling trombetti courgettes, sliced wafer thin, and cooked in oil with garlic, as a change from the usual tomatoes and basil or herb pesto.
Big knobbly tomatoes are the best for sauce, they are so much tastier and so much less fiddly to skin. But you can make a sauce with any kind of tomato. Little ones can be baked with the skins on then squeezed by hand or blended.
To skin your tomatoes nick the base of the tomato with a sharp knife in a cross. Place the tomatoes in a deep basin and pour over boiling water. Leave them to cool, then run them under cold water. The skins should have split, allowing you to catch the pieces of loose skin and strip the tomato flesh.
Chop the tomato pulp. Melt a couple of knobs of butter in a thick bottomed pan. Add a fat whole clove of garlic, salt and pepper. Cook gently until the tomatoes, and their fresh flavour are a little concentrated. Take out the garlic clove.
Pour over your spaghetti and serve with a sprinkling of grated Parmesan.
All kinds of garden vegetables such as courgettes and broccoli are turned into pasta sauces by inventive local cooks.The basic technique is simple.Cook your chopped fresh vegetables gently in olive oil, until they melt into a tasty soft green mixture.This concentrated essence of broccoli or courgette will be even tastier with the addition of a little white wine towards the end of cooking.
Serve with a sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan cheese.
A good use for left over ripe gorgonzola cheese. Melt the cheese in a little milk or cream and pour over your pasta.
Home made pesto
When basil is plentiful in the garden pick the fresh leaves and mix it in the following proportions.
Purists combine all of the ingredients with a pestle and mortar. If using this method it is easiest to start with the basil and oil.Or simply pour oil, chopped garlic and basil into a blender, blend then add the finely grated cheeses with roughly the same effect! When mixing the pesto with your pasta it is usual to moisten the pasta, pesto mix with a drop of the water in which your pasta has been cooked.
Lasagne al pesto
You can use your homemade pesto to make a delicious pesto lasagne, but this dish will also be tasty with a jar of good local shop bought stuff.Pesto is manufactured in both Isolabona and Dolceaqua. To buy local, check the jar labels in the shops or visit the little old fashioned oil shop on the left as you enter Dolceaqua from Apricale or the old mill in Isolabona.
To make a creamy pesto lasagne, you should assemble the following ingredients:
Choose a suitable square and shallow ovenproof dish into which your layers of lasagne will fit without too much fiddling about. If you are using home made lasagne you will not need to soften it. If not then soften you shop bought lasagne in boiling water, drain and lay it on a clean tea towel.
Make your béchamel by melting the butter gently in a small thick bottomed pan and sprinkling in some plain flour, then stirring with a wooden spoon to make a paste. Gently add milk until you have a nice custard thick, white sauce, not too thick, because your lasagne should absorb some of the liquid and the finished dish should be soft and creamy.The exact amounts of sauce neededwill depend on your dish size. The proportions for béchamel are an ounce of butter to an ounce of flour and a half pint of liquid. A little cream in your sauce will make the end result richer but isn’t essential. Most grocers sell ready made béchamel.
Oil or butter your dish and spread the pesto on the strips of pasta, (quite thickly, like jam on bread) then lay the pasta to cover the base of the dish, cover this with béchamel sauce and a sprinkling of parmesan, then another layer of pesto covered lasagne and so on. Finish with a layer of sauce and sprinkling of cheese. In Liguria this dish is preferred creamy rather than cheesy.
If you like a more cheesy dish, a layer of Fontina D’aosta cheese will melt nicely, Pecorino will give it a piquant flavour but in Liguria they generally serve this dish soft and creamy. Occasionally a thin light layer of potato replaces one pasta layer.
You may bake this immediately but it will be much nicer, with the lasagne soaking up all the flavours, if you leave it for a few hours. Bake your lasagne in a medium/hot oven until the whole is bubbling, coloured on top and soft. Let it rest and firm up for a few minutes before serving, so that you can slice it more easily. You may add a little chopped spinach between the layers or thinly sliced courgette.
If you want to sample a fine creamy Lasagne al pesto the family run restaurant Terme (not part of the hotel of the same name) in Castel Vittorio has a perfect example. ‘Da Delio’ makes a lovely dish which is a bit similar in texture with layered potato, béchamel and funghi. Start this off by soaking your dried funghi overnight in some of the milk and cooking it as you make the sauce, again you can buy a commercial version of funghi béchamel.
Pasta course menus always include gnocchi, which is usually served coated with pesto or a butter and sage sauce.This sage sauce is simply melted butter with a few sage leaves infused in it and is much, much nicer than it sounds. Of course you can buy good gnocchi in fresh pasta shops and local grocers often have some, but it is a very easy thing to make.
The ingredients are potatoes, flour and eggs. The proportions are half the quantity of flour by weight, this is added to a pot of very well mashed potato and one beaten egg per 500 grams of potatoes is also added. Roll it into a long finger thin sausage on a floured surface then leave to rest for a while before chopping into little bite sized pieces.
When dropped into salted boiling water the pieces will be ready to be fished out of the water with a perforated spoon once they rise to the top and float. Ligurian households have wide pans and big perforated spoons to hand for the task but surprisingly they don’t usually posses potato mashers!
Garden herbs, olives and garlic with rabbit
Hillside and garden herbs with garlic and olives are vital ingredients in any oven or pot roast. Little potatoes are roasted in oil with whole cloves of garlic and olives. Meat with a layer of skin and fat, for instance chicken or lamb, has little bunches of mixed herbs and garlic inserted between skin and meat before roasting in front of the fire or putting into the pizza oven.
Most gardens have bushes of rosemary, bay and sage. Wild thyme can be found all over the hillsides, giving off a pungent aroma as you tramp through it.
For a pot roast of rabbit or wild boar the herbs go into the marinade in which the meat is soaked, then cooked. Too make a traditional pot roast rabbit the ingredients would be roughly as follows.
The lady butcher in Isolabona will have local rabbits, ask her to chop one, or a half of one for you. All of the ingredients should be marinaded for a few hours prior to cooking in a slow oven. Before putting your ingredients in the oven take out the meat and olives. Brown the meat in a pan using a little more oil. When the meat has some colour put all the ingredients, except the olives, into a covered casserole dish. The meat doesn’t have to be covered in liquid, the liquid is simply there to soften and flavour the meat. But if you find your casserole gets a bit dry add some water or more wine. Turn the meat about half way through the marinating and also during cooking, to ensure the flavours are distributed. The olives go in ten minutes before serving. Some cooks use very little wine and a lot more oil, others use a whole bottle of wine. In which case they may take out the meat before serving and thicken the gravy with a little flour. Some add a little piece of hot pepper to the marinade.
Roasting meat in front of the fire
The Ligurian hearth is built in the coldest corner of house. It consists of a flat slab raised off the ground to about kitchen counter height. The fire when lit is spread against the back wall of the hearth. The large hearth cuts down on wood chopping and by heating the stones of he house all the way up towards the chimney provides a primitive form of central heating.Many houses will place a bench in the garden outside this heated wall allowing those working in the garden to sit outside with a soothing heat on their backs. A Very welcome comfort when a cold wind blows off the mountains and backs are stiff from reaching up and shaking olives down during the picking season.
Inside the house the broad canopy which catches and directs the smoke and flames upwards, acts as a handy place to hang all kinds of cooking pots and implements but also items for roasting.
A Joint of meat or a chicken will cook in no time if hung from the hearth canopy or placed on a trivet in front of the flames. Before roasting handfuls of garden herbs such as sage, thyme and rosemary along with garlic and must be tucked under the outer skin, sealing in their flavour and ensuring the outer skin of the joint browns and crisps.The meat needs to be turned very regularly to prevent the outside burning before the inside is properly cooked. Properly cooked in this part of the world is pink and juicy for lamb and beef.Meat cooked this way will have all the juices sealed inside. It is therefore necessaryto hold the meat over a platter whilst slicing to catch the juices which can then be poured over the meat slices before serving.Meat cooked his way is salted after cooking as salting before roasting will dry the meat.
Ligurians would claim this salad as their invention. Given that up until the time of Napoleon 3rd, Nice used to be part of Italy and that both places speak the same dialect and share the same cultural roots it seems logical that the distinctive food of Nice is distinctive because it is more Italian than French!
Along the coast you will find lots of different versions of this classic salad combination. It brings together all the good ingredients of the garden with tasty produce from the coast. Including lettuce hearts, olives, hard boiled eggs, anchovies and tuna with a good dressing of olive oil. Some add tomatoes and other green salads, others artichoke hearts also chopped peppers, sliced onion or chives, there is no fixed mixture for the ingredients.Throw what you have into a large bowl. I notice that when Italians eat salad they like a big bowl of green stuff flavoured with tasty bits rather than the other way round.