I found this old picture of my younger self, at the age of 1 or 2, comfortably sitting in a box eating a chicken drumstick, and I tried to recall that moment, unsuccessfully. 30 odd years are a long way down memory lane. However I started to think about the food I used to eat as a child and all these memories turned out to be a proper culinary journey, both of my infancy and of the region I originally come from.
Liguria is a county in northern Italy, narrow and long, shaped as a bow: the whole southern border is coastline while the northern border is naturally defined by the arch of the Alps and Apennines mountains. Its cuisine is of humble and peasant origins and simple in its own way, but extremely tasty.
These memories however include also a few Emilian dishes, because one of my grandmothers was a keen and expert cook from the Reggio Emilia area and you couldn't think of anything richer and tastier than an Emilian meal. I'd like to share this with you because some of these foods are really delicious and famous worldwide, whereas others are less popular, but worth being known. I hope you enjoy it and that you won't feel too hungry afterwards!
COLAZIONE E BISCOTTI (BREAKFAST AND BISCUITS)
The biscuits I cherished the most were quite simple, but at the same time so nice, that I even craved them during my pregnancy !
In fact, my one and only craving were biscotti del Lagaccio (Lagaccio biscuits), big chunky hard and crunchy biscuits, which look like toasted bread slices. They are not particularly sweet, but have a slight hint of aniseed and fennel seed. They are ideal to dip into tea or hot milk.
My grandma instead, used to buy for us, form a local patisserie, caporali biscuits, made with loads of eggs, (judging by their yellowish colour), and so soft they would melt in your mouth. Lovely old stuff!
ANTIPASTI & CO. (STARTERS & CO.)
A selection of cured meats was a classic, the most classic starter for our festive dinners. However in Italy there are some occasions in spring (Labour day, the Easter Monday and the 25th April, our Liberation Day) when families and groups of friends go out for a "scampagnata" (picnic in the countryside). In these 3 occasions in particular, Ligurian people banquet with salame, fresh fave (broad beans), pecorino sardo fresco (fresh Sardinian sheep cheese). When I think of spring, these 3 ingredients come immediately to my mind. They complement each other and when eaten with some fragrant bread and accompanied by some wine, you cannot ask for more! You can hardly find this cheese anywhere else in Italy, so it's a very local and peculiar experience! It's a fresh cheese, not hard but not too soft either and slightly salty. This is a very fresh culinary memory of my spring bank holidays.
In addition, there is also "cima", a pocket of beef belly filled with diced vegetables, eggs and all sorts of meaty fillings, then sewn with a giant needle and cooked for hours. It has to be eaten cold and sliced. It's a very elaborate process to make at home and to be honest I have always liked the one from the shops better!
I PRIMI (FIRST COURSES)
I have always been a pasta lover, in all its shapes and with all sorts of sauces. But pesto is my first love. The original, the one and only, is Genoese. You need the basil from a village called Pra to have the top quality pesto. Basil has to be processed with some pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, olive oil and a bit of garlic. And the most amazing thing you can do with pesto are the lasagne al pesto. I remember my grandmother, who was an incredibly talented cook, preparing the most incredible pesto lasagne. To die for! Rich and creamy and super tasty. You need an awful lot of pesto and besicamella, though, to prepare them, otherwise they are too dry.
Another pasta dish of my childhood were my grandmother's home made cappelletti, cooked and served in chicken broth. They are a smaller version of ravioli and are stuffed with Parma ham, Parmesan cheese, nutmeg and other ingredients I'm not too sure about (meaty stuff I'd rather pretend is not there!!).
The funny thing is that they are quite filling and rich, but it was a tradition to have them at Christmas, in the evening, as a "light dinner", after having had a lunch of 10 starters, 3 different pasta dishes, 3 meat courses, fried vegetables, fresh fruit salad, cheeses board, panettone and dried fruits.... We could have skipped meals for a whole week after such a banquet, but we had the cappelletti for dinner, to top it up!
FOCACCIA E FARINATA (UNTRANSLATABLE!)
Genoa is famous for its focaccia. It's not bread, it's not pizza, it's focaccia! Flour, yeast, some salt and loads of oil. In Genoa you can find thousands of small bakery shops baking focaccia all day long and back in the days it was an ideal afternoon snack for me, sometimes breakfast material as well!
A cup of caffelatte and a slice of focaccia. The dimples you see in the pics are the best part, they collect all the oil and salt and it's heaven in a mouthful. The more dimples on the surface, the tastier.
Focaccia al formaggio di Recco (Recco cheese focaccia) and farinata (made with chickpeas flour and oil) are also local recipes and produces. They are a proper meal and I remember coming back from the beach at weekends and my parents stopping at the focaccia place to buy our dinner there. I can still, mentally, smell the delirious perfumes coming out from those parcels filled with focaccia and farinata! Oh happy days!
I SECONDI (MAIN COURSES)
Even though I am not a fan of meat and I always go for safe and plain bets (chicken fillets, beef steaks and little else), and even though my mum is basically a vegetarian, she used to cook tripe, and I loved it. In Genoa's old town, which is a maze of narrow old lanes, there used to be tripe shops, which you could smell from miles away.
These old shops where all made of marble floors, marble counters, with all those whitish intestines hanging from giant hooks. Instead of being disgusted, I loved the shops, the smells and the taste of fresh tripes and I used to steal some of those long strips from the paper cone they were wrapped in. This really proves that if you are used to something from a tender age, you won't know any different and you get to like everything, eve gross stuff! Anyway, my mum cooked it in a lovely sauce with tomato, olives and potatoes. Uninviting to the eyes, but heaven in your mouth!
During our Sunday lunches out, a typical order was fritto misto: mix of fried things. Usually it was fried fish, in an incredible variety of fishes and seafood. But it was often accompanied by fried meat, fried vegetables (artichoke, porcini mushrooms, zucchini, pumpkin, anything really!) and fried custard, A symposium of delight and fats!!!
CAKES AND SWEETS FOR SPECIAL OCCASIONS
My birthday cakes; just like everyone else's, used to came from the most popular patisserie in Genoa: Panarello. The cake everyone went for was called torta Margherita, Margherita cake, and it was extremely simple and plain, but at the same time so soft, light and tasteful that is was much better than any other more elaborated cake. It was a round disk, not too thick, sprinkled with white sugar in a net-like pattern. Unmistakable! And a safe bet!
From the very same bakery is the most renowned and famous Genoese Christmas cake: Genoese pandolce (sweet bread). It's the Genoese version of panettone, just less risen than the Milanese one, filled with candied fruits, raisin and pine nuts. This cake as well is extremely simple, not too sweet, but at the same time packed with flavour, an unique flavour. You knew straightaway it could not come from a different shop!
It seems that grandparents always carry candies in their pockets for their grandchildren and mine were no exception. Their candies were not exactly the newest on the market or the coolest, but nonetheless they were always well received! The Rossana, Selz soda fizzy ones and pine drops were the usual fixtures. It's really difficult to find them nowadays, but every so often I bump into them and it's like diving in the past.
My grandparents didn't buy them in supermarkets, but in tiny old fashioned and incredibly interesting spices stores (drogherie. Some of them are still going strong in Genoa), with old wooden furniture and giant glass vases and jar containing candies, chocolates and spices. The real old fashioned thing, which I found so magic and tempting!
If one could judge childhood just by the food eaten and consumed, I'd say mine wasn't bad at all!