Italy: Venice

Venice, with the bell tower, Piazza san Marco and the Doges' Palace in the foregound
Venice, with the bell tower, Piazza san Marco and the Doges’ Palace in the foregound

Venice was the first stop on our ten days in Italy, and one of the most remarkable. Everyone knows, of course, that ‘Venice is built on an island in a lagoon’ (or words to that effect) but in my mind, at least, the lagoon was relatively small and the island had some open spaces, perhaps even some high ground. I was wrong on all counts. Venice proper is a smallish, very low, island jam-packed with buildings and riddled with alleys (no real streets) and canals wide and narrow.

The Grand Canal
The Grand Canal

Continue reading “Italy: Venice”

Liguria: pesto

Pesto class in Levanto

The day before we toured the Cinque Terre (previous post), we were treated to a brief foodie excursion: a talk about pesto and the chance to try making it. The venue was the back room of a classy, if touristy, fine-local-foods shop in Levanto and our teacher was its owner. We also sampled the local white wine, a variety which never makes it out of the region because the production is so small and the demand so high, and limoncello, a liqueur new to me but (apparently) not to the rest of the world.

Back to the pesto. Our teacher called it a regional classic and Claudia Roden (see Italian Delights) calls it “the prince of Ligurian dishes” so we were obviously in the right place. The recipe is quite simple: crush and mix pine nuts, salt, parmesan or pecorino, and basil; add olive oil and you’re done. Some versions, including Roden’s, add garlic as well but it is not traditional in all parts of Italy. (In fact, we discovered that garlic was not as prevalent in Italian food as we had expected from our Australian experiences. Then again, we were always in the North and perhaps it is used more commonly in the South.)

Recipes vary; of several I checked on the web, the closest to what we were taught is Jamie Oliver’s, here. His call for ‘handfuls’ of ingredients matches her style, too.

Traditional variations

  • Garlic: none, up to 3 or 4 cloves
  • Black pepper: not usually used
  • Cheese: parmesan, pecorino sardo or (for a stronger flavour) romano
  • Pine nuts: usually very lightly toasted, not browned; sometimes not toasted at all
  • Walnut or almond oil instead of olive oil

Varying the basil, cheese or oil doesn’t seem to make much difference to the end result as this (somewhat too exhaustive) blog post concludes. On the other hand, it did find a noticeable difference between the traditional mortar-and-pestle technique and the quick-and-easy blender method.

Non-traditional variations

  • Replace half of the basil with baby spinach to make a less full-flavoured pesto, or replace all of it with rocket, purple (Thai) basil, tomato or spinach; your favourite search engine will find lots of recipes.
  • Walnuts or cashews instead of pine nuts

One more thought, for the experimentalists in my audience: the basic pesto method is so adaptable that the list of pesto-like brews is potentially inexhaustible. Parsley and chickpeas? Coriander, Thai basil and cashew? Why not throw in a chilli or two while you’re at it? Serve it over rice or as side dish with curry? Have fun, but calling the result ‘pesto’ in front of a Ligurian chef may be dangerous to her/his health, or yours.

Liguria: the Cinque Terre

Liguria is a narrow, rugged sliver of Italy’s north-western coast centred on Genoa, and is famous for the “Italian Riviera“, especially Portofino and the spectacular scenery of the Cinque Terre.

We spent a couple of days in the Cinque Terre (literally “five lands”). In one whole day we walked from Manarola up to Volastra, a small hilltop village, and down again to Corniglia where we had lunch and several drinks (it was a very hot day – 38C), then took the train to Vernazza, had a swim and a granita, took the next train to Monterosso at the North end of the Cinque Terre and  swam again before taking the train back in the other direction to see Riomaggiore at the Southern end.

By then, unsurprisingly, it was evening and we had fish and chips from Tutti Fritti in the main street (yes, that’s a free plug, but the place deserves it for selling the best fried seafood I’ve ever had). If you want to know more about the famous walks in the district, this wikivoyage page will answer most of your questions; all I will do here is post a few photos to whet your enthusiasm.

Looking up from Manarola to the terraced hillside and the beginning of the hiking path

Continue reading “Liguria: the Cinque Terre”

Italian delights

Nearly two weeks of my recent holiday were spent in Italy. It was my first visit to the country and we spent ten days zig-zagging from Venice to Rome on a small-group guided tour. There was a lot to see (and I will try to share some of it here in due course) but I found myself thinking about the food more than I had expected – after all, we have a strong Italian culture here and can eat good Italian food anywhere from Port Douglas to Hobart. The tour brought unexpected revelations and insights, though.

The first was regionalism. Italy is tiny but is still not ‘a nation’ in the way Australia is. Each region of it was politically separate from its neighbours until the nineteenth century and each still has its own dialect and kitchen culture today, dictated in part by what the land produces and in part by its (long) history. We travelled through the Veneto (Venice), Liguria (La Spezia and Cinque Terre), Tuscany (Florence) and Umbria (Perugia) to Lazio (Rome), seeing and tasting the differences as we went. I will now return to Claudia Roden’s excellent The Food of Italy (1990), which is organised by region, knowing why that approach makes so much sense. (The other book I will return to with more understanding is A Taste of Venice – at table with Brunetti, recipes by Roberta Pianaro illustrating Donna Leon’s delightful novels.)

The second was how Italian dinners are organised, not in our appetiser – entree – main – dessert pattern but in a longer sequence which separates components we would normally serve together. This formal meal structure (condensed from Wikipedia) is the basis of restaurant menus:

A drink (often wine), sometimes with a small amount of food, e.g. olives, crisps, nuts, cheese.
The antipasto is a slightly heavier starter, usually cold, often cold meats and melons, etc.
Literally the ‘first’ course, it consists of hot food and is usually heavier than the antipasto, but lighter than the second course. Non-meat dishes, especially pasta or soup, are usual.
The meat course – and not much beside the meat will appear on the plate. The primo or the secondo may be considered more important depending on the locality and the situation.
A contorno is a side dish and it’s commonly served alongside a secondo. It usually consists of vegetables, raw or cooked, hot or cold. They are always served in a separate dish, never on the same plate as the meat.
A fresh garden salad ; may be omitted if the contorni contained many leafy vegetables.
Formaggi e frutta
An entire course is dedicated to local cheeses and fresh seasonal fruit. The cheeses will be whatever is typical of the region.
Dessert, e.g. tiramisu, zuppa inglese, panna cotta, cake or pie.
Caffè and Digestivo
Coffee and grappa or another ‘digestive’ alcoholic drink.

This is obviously a big meal by anyone’s standards and a shorter version (e.g. Primo, Secondo and Formaggi e frutta) is more usual in daily life, but we were treated to an elaborate wine-tasting lunch in an Umbrian village and it followed the traditional pattern faithfully … for at least two very pleasant hours.

Lunch in Spello
Lunch in Spello*

Here in Australia, the Primo and Secondo categories have blurred together, so that a pasta dish is often our main course. Probably as a reaction to that, we add far more sauce to our pasta than the Italians do. Our ‘Spag Bol’, for instance, will normally be a meat course with perhaps a quarter as much sauce as pasta, while theirs would have just a spoonful for flavour.

The third surprise was just how much of each Italian meal consisted of carbohydrates in one form or another – bread, pasta, rice (risotto), maize (polenta) and beans – and fresh vegetables. Meat plays a rather small role, despite the prominence it is given by being served unaccompanied.

No surprise at all was the fact that Italian food in Italy is, in general, no better than Italian food in Australia. It’s a cuisine which depends so much on the quality and freshness of ingredients, and we can and do eat very well indeed.

* Thanks to Yvonne (intrepid traveller) for the photo.