05 September 2013

AUNTIE PASTA: Val' Fontanabuona

CHIAVARI, Italy – Went to an artisan slash food fair on Saturday up in Val Fontanabuona, a rather long valley in the Apennine Mountains behind Chiavari. The artisan pavilion had some really nice things including handmade furniture, jewelry and textiles including a beautiful white 100% cotton bedspread that I could kick myself for not buying. But, as usual, my focus was on food.
 Hello, My Pretty
Like Chiavari’s monthly Mercato di Sapori, the food exhibitors were primarily food producers from Liguria and regions nearby, but I’ve never seen food like this. The first thing I spotted was a full size stuffed boar standing on a mound of smoked wild boar meat (cinghiale), donkey (asino) sausage and smoked deer meat (cervo). Cinghiale wandered through Italy’s dark woods and rough, piney mountains long before the Etruscans were here. They are the oldest of the old and much respected as Pietro Tacca’s famous 17th century bronze sculpture of a boar, Il Porcellino, in Florence’s Mercato Nuovo shows. They are also very tasty.

Just around the corner there were a couple of cute guys in gray tee shirts standing behind a counter piled high with salami and specialty meats from Tuscany, Prato to be exact. The gray tee shirts had been carefully chosen to match their primary product which was prosciutto cured in ashes. The technique of curing ham in ashes slows down the curing process producing a sweeter, more tender product.
 What We Have Here is Something Really Special
Now there are two types of prosciutto in Italy. One is prosciutto cotto, which is known as boiled ham in the States, but since it is cured and not boiled here in Italy, it is just called cooked ham.
 Well Look Who's Here
The second type is prosciutto crudo, which is known as prosciutto in the States, and that prosciutto is the type of cured ham most often paired with cantaloupe. Prosciutto crudo has been made in Italy for a very long time, about two thousand years, and its production is tightly controlled. Don’t let the word crudo fool you though. This ham is meant to be eaten as is, for it isn’t really raw, which is what crudo means in Italian, but cured, like lox.
 The Boss was in Charge of the Prosciutto Cured in Ashes
They were also selling porchetta – roast pork that was so delicious I’m still dreaming about it, as well as mortadella di Prato, an ancient product which was first produced in the 16th century. It sort of got lost over time but now, thanks to the Slow Food’s efforts to revive Italy’s food treasures, it is back on the market.
Mushrooms? We've Got a Few

Across the way from the cute guys, the mushroom lady was standing behind the largest display of dried porcini mushrooms I have ever seen. But they were not what caught my eye. Next to the barrels of olives, which she was also selling, I spotted a barrel of garlic that had been peeled and flavored with spices.
 Spicy Garlic
Next to the garlic there was a barrel of lampascioni, which look like small onions but are actually wild hyacinth bulbs. They are part of the traditional cuisine of Calabria, Basilicata and Puglia where they stew them in a little oil with thyme, oregano, hot red pepper and salt, or fry them and then lightly crush them with the back of a fork and mix with beaten eggs for a lampascioni frittata.
One stand offered homemade orrechetti and taralli from Puglia, another had sheep’s milk ricotta and goat salame, and at another stand a father and his two teenage daughters were selling really delicious tomato marmalade and other jams and jelly that his wife makes.

Being surrounded by all that food was making everyone hungry and the restaurants and stands were doing a bang up business. The last time I looked, the stand selling focacette with cheese and frittelle dolci was under attack and the ladies rolling and filling the focacette – which are little focaccia – were rolling and filling and baking them as fast as they could. 

 Busy Hands are Happy Hands
Focaccia, which is usually associated with Genovese cuisine, is actually made throughout Italy, and has been since the days of the Etruscans. You may not always recognize it as focaccia because the shape is often different and it is called by different names. The name focaccia originated with the bread the marble workers in Carrara ate back in the days when Michelangelo would go to Carrara to choose marble for his statues. It was called focaccia di cavatore back then, the cavatore being the quarry workers. 
 Worth Waiting For
In Naples focaccia is shaped like a ring and called tortana, and in Venice it’s sweet and it is called fugassa, which is similar to fougasse, which is what you would call it if you were French. Here in Chiavari it is just plain old delicious melt in your mouth focaccia, which is just fine with me.
 Would Someone Take That Sign Down - Please?
 Ahh this Italian food, it is a wonder unto itself and it keeps me, and the rest of the world, under its spell. And for you food wonks out there, you might be interested to know that the country Italy exports the largest amount of its food products to is France.

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