Liguria, our focus for today, is a region in northern Italy known for good food, particularly olives, olive oil, and basil. Because the weather in Liguria is cooler than it is in Tuscany, the olive oil from there is evidently lighter and more subtle than the spicy Tuscan olive oil. I will need to do my own tasting to confirm.
We started with an antipasti of focaccia di recco con crescenza, which was a stuffed focaccia, filled with crescenza, which reminded me of cottage cheese. Fernando's approach to making focaccia was very different to what we'd learned with Luisa and it was interesting to compare the results. Luisa mixes only yeast, water, and flour and quickly works it into a sticky dough that she puts on a pan with olive oil. Once it has risen, she uses her fingers to push out the air and heavily salts the top of the bread. Fernando put the salt and oil into the dough itself and had us work it until it was much firmer. Once it rose, we used a device to make consistent holes in the dough. The result was a much lighter and fluffier bread, but I prefer the crunch and the salty top of Luisa's recipe. And to think that a mere two weeks ago I didn't even know I had focaccia preferences! The difference in style is partly the chef's preference, but it is also regional. Fernando is from Naples, where they put salt in their dough, and Luisa is from Tuscany, where the bread is famously unsalted. Interestingly, Fernando shared a folk story to explain that Tuscans don't salt their bread because they weren't able to trade for salt back in medieval times and so learned to make do without it. The more practical reason I had heard was that unsalted bread takes longer to rot and so the stale bread can be used in other dishes for a longer period of time.
Our primi piatto was linguine al pesto di basilico or pesto pasta with a twist – the inclusion of string beans and potatoes. There are many variations on pesto across Italy but the traditional Genovese pesto is basil, garlic, pine nuts, and olive oil and this is what we prepared. We learned to never cut basil (or other leafy greens) with a metal knife, because it oxidizes the leaves and we were told that pounding out the sauce by hand with a mortal and pestle creates a richer color than doing it with a blender. After ten arm-numbing minutes of attempting to play by traditional rules, we resorted to modern technology. It did change the color a bit but it seemed like a fair trade to me and to my tricep. Unlike most other pasta dishes, where the pasta is added to the saucepan over a low flame, pesto is never heated (or it will turn brown) so the pasta, beans, and potatoes are mixed together off of the stovetop.
The secondo was buridda di baccala, or salted cod fillets sautéed with potatoes, carrots, celery, onion, olives, and anchovies. The preparation was colorful and the presentation beautiful but the dish was a bit fishy for me. I have not yet managed to condition myself to like anchovies from a jar, with their tiny little bones and overpowering flavor.
Dolce was panettone genovese, a cake made with raisins, candied citrus, lemon zest, and the usual suspects: eggs, flour, vanilla, baking powder, milk. The smell of the cake baking wafted over us as we ate our meal and we served it with a sweet orange glaze, made by candying orange peels. The cake was lighter than I had expected given the ingredients and had a subtle and interesting flavor.
The regional cuisine made for a varied and interesting menu with bright colors featuring prominently. It seems that a trip to Liguria will be in order at some point before too long – in addition to sampling the food, I need to understand more about the subtleties of local olive oil!