16 May 2013

AUNTIE PASTA: Erbe della Riviera Ligure

CHIAVARI, Italy – Walked into my favorite greengrocer the other day just in time to see the owner coming in with an armful of fresh marjoram. I had never seen such large stalks of marjoram in my life, they were at least two feet long, but then again my experience with growing marjoram is limited to the 7 or 8 inch stems of my herbs in a pot windowsill garden.
Then I noticed he had also brought in a fresh supply of bay leaf branches and piled them up over in a corner. I have some of their bay leaves in my kitchen that I bought a few weeks ago. They are tied together with some kitchen string and hanging up to dry. Now I have to find a container that is large enough to hold them and still fit in my limited kitchen space. I would have bought some of their marjoram as well if my own little plant wasn’t growing like the weed that it is and producing more marjoram than I can possibly use in a year.

I also bought oregano yesterday, a bouquet of dried Sicilian oregano sealed in a plastic bag. When I got home I beat the (sealed) bag of oregano against the table for about 15 minutes until all the leaves came off leaving behind the dried oregano buds clinging to the top of the now bare stalks. Then I cut the bag open and put the leaves in a container. It didn’t seem to be such a large bouquet when I bought it, but I sure got a good supply of oregano from my small investment.

 Herbes de Provence
There was a time, in my early years in Italy, when I spent many a weekend in the south of France. I always envied the French for being so clever at maximizing whatever they have, and the merchants in Nice for being especially clever. I would look at the bright lemon shaped soaps and the ribbon tied bags of ‘herbes de Provence’, and wonder why the Ligurians didn’t do something similar. Maybe not soap, but how about ‘herbs of the Italian Riviera,’ or something more exotic like ‘erbe della Riviera Ligure.’ That would work.  

I was very sad when I learned that the ‘herbes de Provence’ is just a generic term for herbs found in Provence, typically savory, fennel, basil, thyme and lavender leaves, and   the herbs in the cute little bags don’t actually come from Provence, or even from France.  Most of them come from central and Eastern Europe, North Africa and China. And no one could explain the presense of lavender leaves as the French, especially those from Provence, don’t use lavender leaves in their cuisine.

But that’s not the point. The point is I thought the Ligurians could easily create a thriving cottage industry producing equally adorable ribbon tied sackettes of herbs that are grown in Liguria and could have the DOP designations to prove it. (See: Auntie Pasta PDO, DOP, et all http://thisitalianlife.blogspot.it/2010/02/auntie-pasta-pdo-dop-et-al.html for a PDO, DOP primer). Why they, the Ligurians, didn’t take advantage of their natural bounty was a mystery that puzzled me for quite a while.
Parsley, Basil, Marjoram and Thyme
Then I figured it out. The reason they never did it, nor will they ever do it, is because they use more fresh herbs than dried herbs. Oregano may be exception to the rule, but even the Ligurians bow to the Sicilians when it comes to growing flavorful oregano. Oregano is one of the few herbs that actually tastes better dried so that would work as an herb product, but like I said, the Sicilians have the corner on that market. The herb most associated with Liguria is basil, but dried basil tastes like sawdust and dried parsely isn’t much better. Actually most herbs taste better fresh.

The story still goes round expat circles of the American who used to drive to Nice, some 96 kilometers (120 miles) from Genova, to buy dried parsely from the grocery department of Galleries Layfatte. When asked why, she explained that she had asked every greengrocer in town for dried parsely but there was none to be had. They only had fresh parsely.

But fresh or dried, Italians generally don’t use a lot of herbs in their cooking. And they rarely mix and match. They may use garlic and rosemary for a roast, or oregano, garlic and red pepper for a spaghetti sauce, but they don’t have a large jar of ‘Italian’ herb mix sitting by the stove. They try to bring out the flavor of whatever they are cooking and create a balance between their ingredients and the herbs and spices.

Today’s recipe is called Canata, it’s a typical recipe from Lazio and it is another example of the simple deliciousness of Italian cuisine. It is very similar to Tuscany’s panzanella and like most authentic Italian recipes it’s a little short on details, but you are all used to that by now, right? There is also a Ligurian version of this summer favorite and probably a version for every other Italian province as well. On the plus side, the ingredients are few, the taste is big, and it’s super easy to make.
Serves 4
4 tomatoes
4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
Rustic bread, at least three days old, cut in slices (cibatta is ok*)
6-8 fresh basil leaves
Vinegar (red wine or balsamic)
Salt and pepper
Wash the tomatoes in cold water, cut them in half and rub them on the bread slices. Then cut the tomatoes into smaller pieces, put them in a large salad bowl, drizzle them with olive oil, a little vinegar, salt and pepper. Tear the bread (by hand) into bite size pieces and add them to the tomatoes. Tear the basil (by hand) into smaller pieces and add it to the salad. Mix all the ingredients together making sure the bread is well coated with the juices. You can do this with a large spoon but it’s better if you use your hands.

Suggestions: If your bread is really stale, but really really stale, you might want to dampen the pieces with a little water to soften them before adding them to the other ingredients. However if the bread isn’t stale enough, it will turn to mush if you dampen it with water. You can also add other vegetables to this salad, such as celery or sliced artichoke hearts, the ones that have been preserved in oil.

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