Tuesday, 21 September 2010

LONG WEEKEND IN LIGURIA, Part 1

The church at Triora
The road from Arma di Taggia snakes up the steep valley of the torrente Argentina. The landscape, which is lush and green with deciduous trees and those tall thin cypresses that are so characteristic of Italy and the southern Mediterranean, is striated with farmed terraces: swags of vines, grey-green olive trees, fruit trees, maize, climbing beans. In the villages that cling to the sides of the valley nearly every house has a strip of garden that is given over to vegetables: knobbly green-and-red tomatoes, curly pale green zucchini, bulbous orange squashes and pumpkins. One has the sense of people making the best of the landscape which limits more conventional farming. It is no accident that this region of Italy is famous for its very distinctive and unique food.

 
Liguria is the narrow region of Italy just across the border from France and the chic resorts of Nice and the French Riviera, bound by the sea to the south and the mountains to the north. Its most famous city is Genoa, while Portofino, further down the coast towards La Spezia, is the holiday destination of choice for the celebrities who people the pages of Hello! The mountains rise almost straight from the sea and provide a dramatic backdrop to the beautiful beaches and chic resorts. You need only drive inland a few miles to be in the Maritime Alps.

Molini di Triora is about two-thirds of the way up the Argentina valley, and it clings proudly to the mountainside, despite its falling and ageing population. From the top of the village, the views down the valley and across the mountains are breathtaking, banks of carefully terraced fields tumbling down towards the sea, the spreading fruit and olive trees, the rugged hillside. Molini, like the other villages and hamlets that nestle in the folds of the mountain, is like a tiny, model Bethlehem, the church atop the village, a handful of houses cast around it, higgledy-piggledy.

In the Hotel Santo Spirito, there is no menu (actually there is, but I only noticed it, pinned in the foyer, when I was leaving). The husky-voiced, black-haired patrona comes to your table and, with hands very formally clasped behind her back, announces "antipasto!" and you nod enthusiastically and await the delicacies of the day - and each day it is different. In fact, there are two courses - cold antipasto consisting of Russian salad, porcini mushrooms marinaded in olive oil, half a tomato stuffed with the freshest homemade pesto, a slick of creamy ricotta flavoured with garlic and onion, and vitello tonnato. The hot starters are little discs of deep-fried cheese, or a slab of torta de verdura, the local vegetable tart made with ricotta, chard, potatoes and herbs, a circle of frittata. All is accompanied by a local wine and rustic rye bread which is made up the road in the local bakery.




Cold antipasti
As her assistant (possibly her sister or her daughter) clears away, the patrona is back to announce the pasta course. Here, the pasta is freshly made, virtually to order, and comes with a choice of pesto or mushroom sauce. The pesto is so fresh and vibrant, you can virtually taste its "greenness". After the pasta, if you've still got room for it, is the main course - rabbit, wild boar, goat, venison, chicken, simply cooked and served with fried potatoes or fluffy polenta. Pudding is usually a sweet tart, or homemade sorbet, or Zabaglione icecream, and complimentary local Grappa, the bottle left on your table from which to help yourself.
Gorgonzola dolce
In the shop with all the witches (the area is rife with legends of witches and fairies), the lady owner gabbles away to me in Italian and I understand about one word in twenty. She exhorts me to try her grappa, and violet and rose liqueurs, which are like drinking sweet perfume. Then a selection of very pungent cheeses. I buy chocolate pasta (to be served only with butter and sage) and trofie, another Ligurian speciality artisanal pasta, a bottle of violet liqueur (which I'll use in cake-making, or for a very special Kir Royale) and soft amaretti biscuits, which are also special to this region.

sausage with fennel

Back at the flat, I eat gooey Gorgonzola dolce straight off the knife, and pink tongues of sweet proscuitto. Tomorrow night I am going to the restaurant with the giant plastic mushroom outside, where, I am promised, I will experience a true celebration of Ligurian cuisine.

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