I’ve been shamefully neglectful of this blog in recent weeks. It’s not much of an excuse, but I’ve been travelling pretty much non-stop since the beginning of June – Transylvania; Cumbria; Paris; Venice; Liguria; Cambodia; Caithness. A little work; all fun. I find it difficult – no, impossible – to write while I’m on the road. Too busy looking at what’s going on around me, eating and drinking.
The trip to Liguria was to walk from the mountains to the sea. I’ll return to this epic presently, but it began with a monumental lunch –
On a fine day in June, John Irving, the Sage of Bra, Rory Gibson, the Hero of the Herbert River Gorge, Alessandro Lanteri, the local fixer, and I gather for lunch at Il Castagno in Mendatica.
Mendatica in the Val d’Arroscia in the Ligurian Alps. It’s a small village swaddled in forest – chestnut, oak, beech and pine that spread in a thick pelt over the surrounding mountains. There are about 200 permanent residents who grow to 10,000 over the summer months. It’s not beautiful or picturesque in itself, practical, sensible, down-to-earth, fitted for its position, tumbling down the crest of a steep slope with a fine church at its centre. If Mendatica is famous for anything, it is as a centre of la cucina bianca, white cooking. It’s a far cry from the vivid, tomato splashed dishes of the coast about 40 minutes away.
La cucina bianca, explains John, who knows about these things, is muted in terms of colour – beige, pink, brown, mushroom, cream – but is mighty in terms of flavour and hefty in terms of substance. It’s the consequence of the region’s isolation in the eons before roads and motor cars. People tend to cook what grows easily and naturally in their area. Tomatoes, melanzane, peppers, and fish and the other staples of coastal cooking weren’t readily available up in the mountains, but potatoes, leeks, turnips, onions, garlic, wild mushrooms and chestnuts were.
‘And there’s bread and pasta, cheese and butter and cream,’ John goes on. ‘And meat tends to be rabbit or lamb.’ The brightest colours come from wild green herbs, wild spinach and chicories that people still pick in the surrounding hillsides.
Rather different, I say, from grilled fish and meat, lots of tomatoes and simple vegetables in oceans of olive oil, dainty pasta, a pizza if you’re really hungry, jolly ice creams that most Brits think constitute the Mediterranean diet.
John points out that although Italy has a long coast line, ‘most of inland Italy is made up of hills and mountains. Until recently most of the population was bound to the land, and if you work the land day in, day out, you don’t want petite dishes in the minor key. You want stuff that fills you up and gives to energy for the next day’s labour, particularly if you lived in the mountains.’ Until recently life around here was dominated by la transumanza, when the herders drove their sheep and cattle up to the rich pastures up in the mountains in summer before returning to their villages in winter. They wanted simple, filling dishes they could make out of ingredients ready to hand.
John, Rory and I aren’t exactly horny-handed sons of the soil or mountain men, but every prospect pleases.
This is what we eat:
Brusso con patate (fermented ricotta with potatoes)
Brigasca sheep’s cheese and olives
Pan fritu (deep fried sourdough dough)
Patache ‘n ‘ta foglia (potato, leeks and porcini with garlic baked in Brigasca ewe’s milk)
Fungi porcini fritti (deep fried porcini mushrooms in breadcrumbs)
Friscioi (vegetable fritters).
Raviore (a kind of ravioli stuffed with wild spinach and marjoram dressed with butter and sage)
Tagliatelle con ragù di funghi (tagliatelle with wild mushroom sauce)
Salsiccie con zucchini e carote (sausage with trombetta zucchini and carrots)
Maiale con fave (pork with broad beans).
Dolce e frutta
Torta di male (apple cake
Glasses of Arquebusa, a local digestivo made from local herbs including tansy, (so beloved by medieval cooks in England). I’m reminded that digestivi are more medicinal than they are pleasurable.
Afterwards Rory says that he wasn’t prepared for the gastronomic onslaught. He thought that the antipasti made up the entire lunch, and perhaps went at them too vigorously, whereas I knew we were just getting started.
Perhaps it’s just as well that he and I are setting off the next day to walk from Mendatica to Oneglia, or from the Mountains to the Sea, as I like to style it more romantically. Sensibly, John drives back to the coast.