Monday, August 6, 2012

The Study Of Liguria

I think one thing when Liguria comes to mind: olive oil. I think this mainly because of pesto which is where it originated. Folks, I can eat pesto with a spoon, no joke. I love it that much. When you can find really good pesto too, it's like manna from heaven. 

Liguria is made up of hills and mountains only, no plains. 90% of the economy in Liguria is based on tourism due to the amazing climate and food. You may be most familiar with Cinque Terre which are the five towns that sit along the sea and are connected only by walking paths. This area has gotten hugely popular for tourism in the past few years and let me tell you, it's just beautiful. The area has been influenced mainly by latins, africans, arabs, spanish and austrians so you can imagine the interesting cuisine that comes from the region. The city of Genova is referred to as 'la superba' because the city intertwines commercial relationships with the orient due to large imports of spices. Back in the old days, spices meant luxury so things like nutmeg, pepper, sesame, ginger, cloves and cinnamon were considered as valuable as precious stones. Merchants during the Italian maritime republic in the middle age instituted the earliest forms of capitalism. They utilized gold coin and developed new accounting operations and that stimulated technological improvements. Maritime republics were then able to turn The Crusades into profitable business. Isn't it interesting to think of the beginning of how capitalism really began? It's not something many of us consider these days because we're just so used to the world we live in and what we have. 

Ligurian cusine is traced back to three origins: onboard, inland and coastline cuisine(s). 

With onboard cuisine, the galley on ships was not well equipped so provisions had to last a long time. They used things like crackers, tomato sauce, anchovies, tuna preserved in oil, oregano, thyme and garlic. Usually, there were a lot of soups and fish broth made due to the nature of being on a ship. Garlic was widely used as well because of its medicinal and antiseptic qualities which people thought could be used to fight the plague. Upper classes, however, abolished it totally because of the bad smell. Even though Liguria is hugely coastal, its fish cooking traditions aren't very distinguished as you could see in the use of fish like anchovies. 

The inland cuisine consisted of things like polenta and herbs of all kinds. Herbs are a serious matter there too because old Ligurians say that they should never be collected at night (who's out at night collecting herbs anyway, can I just ask?!) because the moon takes away from the plants' virtues. I'm not even sure what that means but it sounds all philosophical-like. Anyway, herbs are huge there, especially basil, because of the aforementioned famous Ligurian pesto. In some areas, the traditional pesto is actually made with walnuts (ew) instead of pine nuts. Also, the original pasta used for it is trenette which is soooo good. It has this very unique chewy texture that's addictive.

Lastly, there was the coastline cuisine which is characterized by fish, some meat and fresh veggies. The most famous coastline dish is called torta pasqualina which is a pie filled with boiled chard, milk and cheese in a puff pastry with one egg inside. It's supposed to be 33 layers to symbolize the age of Jesus when he died and the egg symbolizes new life with the resurrection. Focaccia is also huge in Liguria, two types in particular. You've got recco which is topped with cheese and sardenaira which is topped with anchovies, tomatoes, olives and olive oil. I'd take down either, that's for sure. 

One other thing to note about Ligurian cuisine is that, on Christmas Eve, a dish called cappon magro is served which is a "salad" of boiled fish, covered with veggies and dressed with garlic, chile, capers and parsley. How insane does this thing look:
I can't say I'm chomping at the bit to try it but I bet it's actually amazing. 

Chef Luca Baldin brought his quiet sensibilities in the kitchen to us on the day of our demo and I enjoyed him. He was seemingly quite shy but he conveyed himself through his food and it was all terrific. He brought a crazy fruit with him for us to try called chinotto which is a type of orange. It's so bitter that you actually cannot eat it on its own, it has to be candied. It's also the most expensive fruit you can find so it was that much more of a treat for him to share it with us. I normally don't start with dessert (he did a creme brûlée of sorts) photos but how cool is this before and after:
The flavor is strange so I wasn't a big fan but I also don't like candied fruit, either. That combo doesn't fare well for giving this fruit a chance, eh? 

Like all the chefs we've seen, they usually do a pasta dish native to their region or restaurant. Whenever there's a chance to help make the pasta, I like to jump in because I'd really love to get better at it. You wouldn't believe how delicate pasta making can be sometimes (look back at this guy's teeny-tiny tortellini) and it can get frustrating. This shape that seems so easy to make was giving me the hardest time so I literally got some hands on help, haha:
Gavino tried as well and he was definitely better than me:
Chef Luca's creations weren't as artful as some we've seen but man, did they taste good:
At the end of the demo, he threw together - and I literally mean in a few minutes flat - the absolute best focaccia I (we!) have ever eaten:
I thought Chef Antonella's was fabulous and this was absolutely to die for. He did plain and onion and both were so addictive that I had five big pieces. Yes, five and yes, they were big. I found my happy place, for sure. Thank you for sharing that with us, Chef Luca! That made the entire day and demo that much better.

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