29 July 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: Fantastic Farinata

SARONNO, ITALY - It’s these long and lazy hot days of summer that set me dreaming of the Italian Riviera. I long for those bygone days when we would set off from Genoa Nervi for Santa Margherita Ligure to eat heaping plates of fried fish, or Recco for focaccia al’ formaggio, focaccia with cheese. And sometimes we would head for Savona, on the other side of Genoa, for my favorite, the delicious and totally irresistible farinata, the poorest of all poor man’s food.

Freshly Baked Farinata

In the narrow carruggi of Genoa’s historic center there are any number of hole in the wall farinata shops. Along with farinata they also sell stuffed vegetables like zucchini and tomatoes that have been hollowed out and filled with flavored bread crumbs. They may also sell French fries and other things but to tell you the truth I never really paid attention to what other things they had, my focus was always on the farinata.

Farinata is nothing more than chick pea flour, water, olive oil and salt, mixed together into a loose batter and baked on a round pizza pan in a very hot oven. After it is cooked, it is roughly sliced into pieces, piled high on plates and…. devoured.

There is regular yellow farinata, made with traditional chick pea flour, and white farinata. I don’t know what the white farinata is made of, and I’m not all that interested in finding out. The only thing I really want to know how fast can they bring me a plate of the stuff. 

I must confess however, it was not love at first taste. I lived in Genoa for quite a few years not really giving much thought to the bevy of farinata shops I passed every day. It wasn’t until the day Tracy and Daniele got married in Savona that I became a farinata fanatic.
Savona City Hall

My conversion to farinata almost didn’t happen. The day of their wedding a horrific storm came in off the sea and brought Savona to its knees. The wedding ceremony, which had taken place in the City Hall, went off as planned but because the streets of the city had turned into rivers, we were stranded there. It was late afternoon before the rain stopped, but once it did it didn’t take long for the roads to become passable once again. The reception was on.

The trattoria was at the end of a long and winding road up on the top of a hill high above Savona. There were many slippery patches and a few times I thought we were going to slide right off the road into the ditch. But the problems of the day were soon forgotten for when we got to our destination the tantalizing odor of freshly baked farinata greeted us at the door.

It is such a simple dish, just chickpea flour, water and olive oil baked in a thin pancake and eaten with your hands but it is the one thing I crave when I’m sitting at home in land bound Milan.

Legend has it farinata was created in 1284 on board a Genovese ship on its way home after winning a sea battle against Pisa. They hit a severe thunderstorm and several barrels of olive oil and sacks of chickpea flour tipped over and got mixed together with the salty water from the sea, making a gummy batter.

The Genovese, who have duly earned their reputation for frugalness, scooped up what they could and when the sun came out they put the bowls of batter out on the deck to dry. Then they gave the bowls of dried batter to the crew to eat. It didn’t taste bad but when the ship arrived back in its home port, someone got the idea of baking the batter in an oven.

From those humble beginnings to today, farinata has managed to keep it’s position at the top of the list of really good things to eat in Liguria, along with pesto and trofie and all the other delicacies of la cucina povera.

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