Eating & Drinking: Haven from the global kitchen

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The Independent Culture
TESTAROLI is one of the most exciting new dishes I have eaten in my life. It is both rare and everyday. It tastes very old, yet very avant-garde. It is one of a kind. What do you mean, you haven't heard of it? Of course you haven't heard of it.

To experience testaroli for yourself, you have to fly to Milan, and catch the train to Genoa. Then you catch another train to La Spezia, the town that marks the southern full stop to the Ligurian coastline known as the Italian riviera. Now you have to get a local train to the village of Sarzana in the Lunigiana region, which sneaks its way over the border into Tuscany.

I would recommend that you stop in the square for a coffee and a slice of sweet onion focaccia, to catch your breath.

From here on, you need an uncle who has lived in the area all his life. I immediately adopted Mario Guelfi, who was raised in Sarzana, and now owns the genuinely good Ciccio seafood restaurant in nearby Bocca di Magra, at the very mouth of the Magra river.

Without an uncle, it will do you no good asking for testaroli. They will just look at you strangely, shake their heads, and move off. And that's just in Sarzana, its home town. In the next village, they may never have heard of it at all. My new Uncle Mario, though, will take you at breakneck speed up winding roads to his home, where the testaroli has been baked in his hand-made oven, fired by olive wood, and tended by the modest, hard-working Uncle Andrea.

Testaroli is a huge flat round pancakey thing made from wholemeal wheat dough. Since Roman times, it has been cooked on hot slate in flat earthenware discs known as testi. It bakes until firm, is then cut into bite-sized pieces, and boiled in simmering water like pasta, until it softens. Uncle Mario dresses it in the famous Ligurian pesto, made from his sweet, home- grown basil.

What makes testaroli even more delicious is the realisation that there is practically nowhere else in the world you can eat it. There are no testaroli bars in Venice Beach; and no testaroli- to-go corners in our local supermarkets. There is no Testaroli Haven, Planet Testaroli or Testaroli King.

You will barely find it in an Italian food reference library. It doesn't rate a single mention in Carluccio's Italian Food, and is nowhere to be found in Anna Del Conte's marvellously comprehensive Gastronomy of Italy.

We live in a world where slow-cooked salmon with porcini risotto and black pudding appear on the one plate, and where it's considered OK to serve harissa-spiced poussin on Chinese cabbage with a mirin-infused jus.

The most popular restaurant in Shanghai is German. In Taipei, they're all eating Italian pizza. McDonald's now rules Rome and the queues outside the KFC in Beijing are longer than those outside the venerable Qianmen Quanjude Peking Duck restaurant.

So testaroli has become a symbol for me, a shield held high against the onset of the global kitchen.

Another weapon in my armoury is the memory of Uncle Mario's farinata, a flat, chickpea flour tart, flavoured with olive oil and pepper and oven- baked until crisp and golden outside, and meltingly soft inside. Dating from pre-Roman times, it is traditionally cooked in a special wrought- iron baking dish.

The reason so many of these local dishes are not known outside the area is because of the relative isolation of the Ligurian coastline, fringed by the sea, and hemmed in by steep mountain sides.

Feeling proud of myself for unearthing one of the last bastions of real regional cooking, I found myself boasting across a table to the New York food critic and author Jeffrey Steingarten, self-billed as the man who ate everything. Farinata, I reckoned, is one thing he would not have eaten.

Wrong. He apparently loved the stuff so much on his last trip to Liguria that he lugged two incredibly heavy farinata pans back to America.

Omigod, America. Farinata burgers, anyone?

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