Over the last few weeks, I’ve been gradually putting together the story of the walk that my friend, Rory Gibson, and I made in Liguria back in June. It’s given me the chance to relive that splendid perambulation, so much easier than actually doing it, of course. I’ve already posted a short blog about the end of the adventure. Here’s another, from near the start.
And so it was on a fine day in June John Irving, the Sage of Bra, Rory Gibson, the Hero of the Herbert River Gorge, Alessandro Lanteri, a local trencherman, and I gathered for lunch at Il Castagno in Mendatica in the Val d’Arroscia high in the Ligurian Alps. Mendatica is a small village of some 200 permanent residents, swaddled in a forest that spreads in a thick pelt over the surrounding mountains. It’s not beautiful or picturesque in itself, practical, but 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, very different from the vivid, tomato-splashed dishes of the coast about 40 minutes away.
La cucina bianca, John, who knows about these things, explained is muted in terms of ingredients and colour – beige, pink, brown, mushroom, cream – but is mighty in terms of flavour and hefty in terms of substance. It grew out 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. In those days 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 went 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 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, I said.
John pointed 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 seemed very pleasing, and this is what we ate :
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 sage and butter)
Taggiaen co-o tocco de funzi (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.
I noticed Rory wilting about halfway through He confessed 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.