A welcome return to a favourite place, Molini di Triora, a "miniature Bethlehem" which clings to the side of a mountain some 20 miles inland from Sanremo and the Italian Riviera.
|The gorge at Loreto, near Triora|
The road from Taggia, on the coast, snakes up the Valle d'Argentina in a series of hairpins and unnervingly blind corners (especially if you meet the Triora-Sanremo bus coming the other way!), through hamlets, villages and small towns, past olive groves and terraces growing almonds, walnuts, beans, tomatoes. There's no room for traditional pastures in this mountainous landscape and so the locals make do, growing fruit and veg wherever they can. Almost every garden has sunflowers, bean canes, zucchini and tomatoes, while the woods offer good "wild food": mushrooms, rabbit, boar and deer.
|Sign to mushroom hunters at Loreto|
The region is famous for its food - and rightly so. Its capital, Genoa, is the city of pesto, that slick pungent green sauce made from pounded basil, sharp pecorino cheese and pine nuts. On the way up to the village, torn, flapping posters advertise food festivals: stokafisso (salt cod) in Badalucco, chestnuts in Andagna, funghi in Triora and snails (lumache) in Molini. There are hand-painted signs directing you to olive oil sellers or to small-holdings selling 'produtto tipico' (local produce) such as dried porcini mushrooms, bottled fruits and vegetables, cheese, cakes made from chestnut flour, and grappa.
|Bought at Sanremo market|
The Argentina river carves its course right through Molini: sit outside at the Bar Regina del Bosco (Queen of the Woods) and you can enjoy a stunning view down the valley while sipping an early evening apperitivo. With your drinks you'll be served nibbles - stuzzichini - of cubes of focaccia, tomato bruschetta, local ricotta, salami and olives. At the Hotel Santo Spirito, there is no menu. The Patrona brings plates of hot and cold antipasti, then the lightest pasta, followed by carne, usually a rich stew of meat (venison, rabbit or boar) cooked slowly in red wine with rosemary and juniper berries. The vino rosso della Casa is ruby-red, made locally, fruity and fragrant.
|Focaccia rising in cafe in Molini|
On the first morning, while having breakfast of coffee and torta verde, I watched the cafe owner put the finishing touches to two big trays of focaccia before she delivered them to the village bakery (which is open 7 days a week) to be cooked. Later, in Sanremo, a handsome riviera town, full of belle époque elegance, designer shops and a bustling port, I wandered the aisles of the market: piles of knobbly green and red tomatoes, bunches of yellow courgette flowers (for stuffing), shiny purple aubergines, bags of deep crimson sun-dried tomatoes, oils and vinegars, huge porcini mushrooms, small mountains of pine nuts, rough wedges of Parmesan and snow-white mounds of ricotta. I bought cloudy olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes (unbelievably sweet), Limoncello and a hunk of parmesan. Lunch, taken at a pavement restaurant near the casino, was fritto misto - mixed seafood dusted in flour and deep-fried. Simple yet delicious.
|Fritto misto for lunch in Sanremo|
Dinner at Ca'Mea, just outside Badalucco, was just as memorable second time around. You arrive, you are seated and almost before you have unfurled your napkin, the first of 12 courses arrives: tomato bruschetta, raw mushrooms sliced over raw steak, baked cheese, mushrooms with cream and potatoes, mushroom risotto, mushroom tagliatelle, the tenderest tiny lamb cutlets. All washed down with Ca'Mea's own red wine. Pudding is a choice of fruit with ice-cream or tiramisu, which is not some fluffy pumped up version with soggy sponge, but is stiff and creamy - and served in an enamel chamber pot. The bill for two? 70 Euros.
|Porcini and other funghi at Sanremo market|
Drive further up the mountain and turn left just below Triora. Continue to Loreto where you get a fabulous view of the gorge. There's a trattoria here, an unprepossessing little place on the roadside with plastic tablecloths and strip-lighting. As at Ca'Mea, there is no menu. Course after course comes from the small kitchen: homemade salami, cured beef, tiny lacy pancakes filled with mushrooms, polenta with venison stew, rabbit with porcini mushrooms, sliced and dusted in polenta and deep-fried. The 10-course lunch took two and a half hours!
|Aubergines at Sanremo market|
|Courgette flowers at Sanremo market|
Fly to either Nice or Genoa and hire a car. Nice is closer, but a more frenetic entry point, plus it can take up to 2 hours to collect your hire car. There is a good autostrada along the coast. Exit at Taggia and follow the signs for Triora. There is only one road up the mountain!