LIGURIA, A CORNER OF PARADISE
4 January 2013
Like I said in an earlier posting it’s great to be with the kids, and Manhattan is certainly a fun place to ring in the new year, but it has meant that we haven’t followed our usual pattern of spending Christmas and New Year in Italy. Normally, we would all congregate in Milan, pass Christmas there, and then head for Liguria. Milan is quite depressing at year-end; it’s grey and cold and wet, and everyone’s left for somewhere else. But Liguria, especially our little bit of it just south of Genova, is lovely. The crowds of beach tourists have vanished, but the days are still mostly sunny, the temperature is mild, the sea is blue
the bougainvillea is still flowering
the church’s campanile is awash in festive colours
… It’s a corner of paradise.
When we get off the bus, our routine is always the same. We walk up to the apartment, drop off the bags, and then head down to the village centre for dinner. There is a restaurant there that we always go to, where we order its specialty: focaccia col formaggio. For the uninitiated, this is a mass of melted soft cheese held very slightly between two very thin strips of flatbread.
The cheese is held so slightly by the flatbread that it is an art to pick up a piece and bring it to one’s mouth without half the cheese ending up on your lap. For the first couple of times, it’s safer to use a knife and fork.
Described like this, it doesn’t sound like much, but I can assure you that focaccia col formaggio is absolutely delicious, so famous now in Europe that the local authorities have applied for, and received, the EU certification of Protected Designation of Origin; in other words, no-one else, anywhere, can claim to make focaccia col formaggio.
The key to a good focaccia col formaggio is of course the cheese. Originally, the locals used a highly local cheese, prescinsêua (as it is known in Genoese dialect) but high demand for the focaccia over the last several decades outstripped the meagre supply of this cheese. Local restaurateurs switched to stracchino, a very similar cheese from Lombardy. Luckily, it was generally agreed that stracchino makes an even better focaccia. However, its use is currently creating a bit of a crisis. The obtention of the EU certificate was seen as vital to protecting the brand; however, it requires the use of local ingredients, and as any Italian will tell you a Lombard cheese is definitely not local to Liguria. So makers of focaccia col formaggio are now switching to crescenza, a cheese made in a valley behind Genova. But aficionados are whispering that the resulting focaccia is not so good. We await the unfolding of this drama with baited breath.
Feeling a little homesick, we tried to make focaccia col formaggio for the first time ever over the weekend. Our daughter did a massive search for stracchino and eventually tracked some down in a shop in the upper east seventies. We thought we were home and dry. That’s when we discovered that how you make the flatbread is equally important. It must be very thin; ours wasn’t thin enough and we ended up with a strange sandwich of two biscuits with clumps of unmelted stracchino in between. We are also still discussing if the oven wasn’t hot enough.
Hope springs eternal. We will try again, but not any time soon. Perhaps we will be back in Italy next year and can simply eat it as we always have, at our favourite restaurant in Liguria.
Coast and sky: http://www.liguriawebtv.it/wp-content/uploads/portofino1.jpg
Focaccia col formaggio: http://www.ansa.it/webimages/foto_large/2012/3/15/1331830684301_Focacciadirecco.jpg