As a teenager, I used to go skiing in the Alps, in Valle d’Aosta, the austere north-western part of Italy, crowned by dramatic peaks. On a sunny, crisp, late winter day, coming down the slopes was exhilarating. And exhausting after a few hours of fun. By late lunch, I was starving. We would generally find a safe spot and have a picnic – a slab of focaccia, stuffed with ham or mortadella, a coke and some chocolate. The local alimentari down in the village used to sell a great focaccia and I indulged often. I have never come across a bakery or alimentari in Italy that does not sell focaccia, though not perhaps always as good as the one I used to buy up there in the mountains. Now that I think of it, this is a little curious, because focaccia is actually specific to Liguria, in the north-west of Italy, but it has become a national food in the past few decades.
It is only in Liguria, however, that I have come across the lesser known focaccia d Recco, which is not a focaccia in the conventional meaning, but a flat bread, stuffed with cream cheese.
“Onions. An excellent thing, the onion, and highly suitable for old people and those with cold temperaments, owing to its nature, which is hot in the highest degree, sometimes moist, and sometimes dry. The most desirable of the many varieties are the white onions, being rich in watery juices. They generate milk in nursing mothers and fertile semen in men. They improve the eyesight, are softening, and stimulate the bladder. Headaches, which are sometimes caused by onions, can be cured with vinegar and milk. Those suffering from coughs, asthma, and constrictions in the chest, should eat boiled onions, or onions baked under the embers, served with sugar and a little fresh butter”
This passage is by the XI Century Baghdad doctor Ibn Butlann whose book Taqwīm as‑Siḥḥa (تقويم الصحة Maintenance of Health) was translated in Europe as Tacuinum Sanitatis and became one of the most important books on hygiene, dietetics and exercise, from the Middle Ages well into the Renaissance (the picture and text in the gallery are from the English edition of the book, The Four Season of the House of Cerruti, 1984, available on http://www.archive.org). Onions are indeed excellent and without them much Italian cooking would be lustreless.
A mystery cake: it is called mantovana, meaning from Mantua (in Lombardy) but it is in fact a speciality of the Tuscan town of Prato. It is a buttery and eggy cake with a tight, tender crumb, subtly perfumed with lemon zest and topped with almonds and pine nuts. There is no baking powered in the batter and this makes for a rather flat cake. It is one of those cakes that Italian 19th century cook books would define as da credenza, i.e. a dresser cake, one that that home cooks would keep in a dresser, on a platter or on a cake stand, covered by a napkin – as I do. It really is ideal with a mid morning coffee or with an afternoon tea.
It is very easy, and immensely pleasurable, to fall into the spell of the Mediterranean – the vibrant colours, the shimmering sea, the warmth of its people, the gnarled olive trees, the intoxicating sweetness of its figs, the lusciousness of its vegetables…
When it comes to Italian food then, there is a misconception that it is all olive oil, garlic, basil and tomatoes, so to speak. In fact, at least one third of the Italian peninsula, from the plains of Emilia Romagna up to the Northern Alps, is bathed in butter and lard and cooks much of its food, at least traditionally, “in bianco” – that is to say, without tomatoes. This homely supper dish, which emanates from the Emilia Romagna repertoire, makes the point.
The calendar says it is spring. We moved the clocks forward, magnolias and camellias are in bloom, the days are longer and brighter and, with some luck, the sun is less reluctant to pay us a visit – well, up to a point of course, we are in the UK after all.
Visiting my local market a few days ago though, I was reminded that from a culinary point of view, we are not out of winter yet; we are still in the infamous “hungry gap”: plenty of winter vegetables (celeriac, cabbages, leeks, carrots, cauliflowers) but no new, spring crop in sight. For asparagus and globe artichokes, beans and peas, patience is needed – a few more weeks to wait.
No point in whinging: time to find new ways to use those brassicas and root vegetables. This Neapolitan pasta with cauliflower comes in handy: cauliflowers, with their pale green, tender leaves hugging their floral heads, are still plentiful and of good quality.