From Liguria with love, and an abundance of Focaccia and Pesto!

I love focaccia. My husband is Genovese which pretty much makes it compulsory to love focaccia. I also love pesto. I love pesto with pasta, on bread, with a bread stick dipped in it and any which way it comes. But visitors be warned! A weekend trip to Liguria can see even the most ardent fans of focaccia and pesto reach overdose proportions and risk exploding after one last Monte Pythonesque “wafer-thin” portion!

Last weekend we headed for the surf town of Levanto, nestled between the better known Camogli and Porto Fino to the west and La Spezia and Lerici to the east. I should set the scene early and start by saying that the only reason for heading to a surf town is the presence of waves and unfortunately the presence of waves in Italy usually comes hand in hand with bad weather. Stormy skies equals big waves.

Liguria is the closest coastal region to Milan and is mobbed in the summer months by both Italians and tourists. The irony is that Liguria is actually tiny and represents just 1.18% of all of Italy but that doesn’t stop its picturesque and colourful towns and beaches filling up. Space is literally at a premium with many opting for the private beach clubs to guarantee themselves a sun bed.

Our weekend was slightly more low key with surf board and body board in hand and a patch of the public beach secured we hit the waves. So where does food enter into all of this you might ask? Simple. Try a few hours of water sports to see how much of a hunger you build up and then the significance of focaccia will become clearer. Focaccia is simply put “rocket fuel” for the locals. My husband was raised on the stuff and to this day still dunks focaccia in his cafe latte every morning at breakfast. His nonna (grandmother) is approaching ninety years old and swears by focaccia and milk, regularly indulging in the odd midnight feast when hunger gets the better of her!


Focacceria’s literally line the streets of Liguria each offering a range of traditional focaccia; plain, onion, olive, rosemary, sage, cheese as well as local specialities or seasonal varieties; anchovies, pesto, caprese with mozzarella and tomato, mushrooms and not forgetting nutella. A day surfing means a focaccia picnic on the beach and buying for the two of us plus a hungry friend, Andrea, meant boy-style portions. Twenty euro’s later and weighed down with the traditional “plain” olive oil focaccia, onion focaccia, rosemary focaccia, Bresaola and rocket focaccia, caprese focaccia and some nutella for dessert I made my way back to the beach and our improvised picnic.

Later on Saturday evening we headed to Camogli where we would be spending the night with the aforementioned nonna at her holiday home and low and behold what greats me as I walk through the door, a dinner fashioned out of more focaccia. After our customary starter of pasta pesto we had a plate of “summer focaccia” with tuna, capers, boiled eggs and salad leaves sprinkled on top for a colourful concoction. Delicious, yes! But still focaccia! And it didn’t stop there as having slept with a full focaccia stomach I then awoke to a breakfast of hot milk and yes, more focaccia! Lunch was once again spent at the beach with a portion of mixed onion and olive focaccia and a more summery tomato focaccia and as we climb on the train home Nonna extends her arm and passes me another half kilo of focaccia to take back to Milan!

Meanwhile, I’ve said very little about Liguria’s other great export, pesto. Pesto originated in Liguria and is most often used as an accompaniment to pasta or gnocchi dishes and more specifically with trofie pasta which is the local speciality. Unlike manufactured pesto, the local homemade pesto’s are a beautiful rich green in colour thanks to the sun and the quality of the local basil and most Ligurians make their own or if they’re very lucky like us, have a nonna who makes it for them.

We eat pesto on bruschetta, we spread it on focaccia, we dip our grissini in it and best of all when we return tired from a weekend away we pull it out of the freezer and dollop it onto our pasta for a quick fix dinner. If you didn’t already know, the great thing with pesto is that it can be frozen and each time you use it simply top the jar back up with olive oil and pop back in the freezer. After tasting Nonna’s pesto my mum has become a convert to making her own and now cultivates enough basil in her conservatory to make a few big jars each summer taking pesto from Liguria to Surrey, England and beyond!

Recipe for Nonna’s pesto

Ingredients (as with many grandmothers the emphasis is on using the eye!):

1 big bunch of basil

1 pack Pine nuts

Grated fresh parmesan (generous helping)

1-2 anchovies (optional)

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Preparation:

Strip the leaves from the basil and put in blender with pine nuts, grated parmesan and anchovies. Blend whilst adding in the oil until it reaches a pesto-like consistency. Decant into a jam jar and cover with olive oil. You can keep in fridge or freezer but it is important that each time you use a spoonful that you cover with olive oil to preserve the pesto.

Recipe for classic Focaccia

Ingredients:

500g Manitoba flour

40g beer yeast

275g water

15g salt

20 -30g olive oil

Rock salt

For variations add in chopped sage or black olives or sprinkle with rosemary or chopped onions.

Preparation:

  1. Pour the flour onto a clean work surface and create a well in the centre.
  2. Mix the water and yeast and pour into the well and with a circular motion start mixing the yeast mixture into the flour.
  3. Add in the oil olive and lastly the salt (important to leave salt to last as impedes the action of the yeast). Combine together to complete the dough and knead for a couple of minutes then leave to rise for an hour.
  4. Roll out the dough and place in a rectangular baking tray and leave to rise for a further 45 minutes. Before baking prod with your finger to give it the typical focaccia form and sprinkle with some rock salt.
  5. Place in a heated oven at 240C per circa 8 to 10 minutes.

 

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