FOOD & DRINK; RUGGED CHARM

The Mediterranean Diet: Part Two

In the second week of our exclusive excerpts from Flavors of the Riviera, the acclaimed book by America's leading food writer, Colman Andrews, Michael Bateman goes east along the Riviera to Liguria. Here he finds the part of Italy from which the so-called Mediterranean Diet has emerged. Far from being a culinary regime abundant with olive oil and fresh fish, the only plentiful food of the region is ... the chestnut

THE PEOPLE of Liguria have the greatest life expectancy of any region in Italy. Their longevity is higher than almost any people in the world (with the exception of Japan and Iceland), and they are also among those with the lowest incidence of heart disease. It seems a good enough reason to examine their diet, which is what Colman Andrews has done, though not with the aim of proselytising. The truth of their diet, and this is not the accepted view, is that it is meagre.

Colman Andrews, editor of America's leading food magazine Saveur is a gourmet, and he points out that hundreds of years of not eating well is what brought them to this admired state of health. Given the choice, Colman Andrews is quite certain they would have preferred anything but "the Mediterranean Diet". They would have indulged to excess. He quotes the Genoese proverb; Manja a crepa pansa, literally, eat until your stomach bursts.

The Mediterranean Diet, as we think of it, is, he suggests, a convenient Western myth. "According to a romantic notion now current in gastronomic circles," he says, "these people ... have fed themselves for centuries through an admirable, time-honoured nutritional system known as the Mediterranean Diet which goes something like this...

"'Whole gardens full of vegetables, glorious fruit straight from the tree, copious quantities of grains and legumes, very little meat or animal fat, an abundance of just-caught seafood (simply grilled or roasted, then dressed in delicate olive oil and scattered with fresh herbs), a bit of crusty home-made bread, perhaps some wine, everything fresh and bright and perfect, and in commendable moderation.'"

This is a very attractive idea, he says, but it sounds more like fantasy. "It is not the way they have traditionally eaten around the Mediterranean or at least that portion of it that encompasses Liguria and Nice." Historically, the Catholic Church played its part, ordering periods of fasting and abstinence from meat and other animal products. "Their diet was not elected as a moral or nutritional choice." Certainly meat here has never been abundant. But neither was fish - as Liguria's rugged shoreline, yielded little in any quantity besides anchovies. The favoured seafood for those who could afford it was stockfish, long-lasting air-dried cod imported from Norway, a little of which went a long way. The land is good for olives but even olive oil is used in moderation, being a precious resource for trading essentials. Grain does not grow easily in the steep, narrow valleys here.

So much for the myth of the abundant Mediterranean Diet. "These are regions that have always been poor at heart," says Colman Andrews. "The single most important source of nourishment in the mountains was probably, and you could win a bet on this ... the chestnut. The people do eat plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit. But much of the food consumed here, even by the wealthy, has always been preserved - dried fish, dried pasta, cured ham and sausages."

A pretty convincing argument not to pursue the food of the region, Colman? But that's how it is with these food intellectuals. Having knocked down the Mediterranean Diet he then proceeds to prove that the cooking of the region is absolutely superior and delicious.

Liguria is one of the oldest inhabited areas on the planet by all accounts. Its roots extend some 30,000 years. Then, in pre-Christian times, it emerged as a considerable empire in its own right, reaching from the Pyrenees to the Adriatic.

By the 15th century the Ligurian capital Genoa was one of the great Mediterranean trading ports and the one from which Christopher Colombus set sail for the Americas. He returned eventually with peppers and tomatoes and other future delights for the Italian table.

Genoa is renowned for Genoese sponge, its assorted pestos, used in minestrone and on various dishes of freshly-made pasta, lasagne and gnocchi.

While salade nicoise has become a famous dish the world over, the typical salad of Genoa, Cappon Magro, has not, probably because it takes too much time and trouble to prepare in small quantities. It is a delicious pyramid of shellfish, fish, bottarga (pressed tuna, or grey mullet roe) or anchovies, combined with cooked vegetables such as cauliflower, carrots, peas, beans, Swiss chard, salsify, beetroot, artichoke hearts, potatoes, olives, capers. Colman Andrews' research also includes the use of imported air-dried stockfish, an uncompromising food which, unlike salted dried cod needs days of soaking to reconstitute it.

The shortage of raw materials has historically led Ligurian cooks to use ingenuity to make the most of humble resources. Dishes are based on chestnut and chickpea flour and farro (the ancient wheat grain also known as spelt).

These and other grains are used to make gruel and soups. One such porridge is Messcuia, which combines chickpeas, wholewheat berries, and white beans, drizzled with olive oil. The grains are used together and separately in tarts and pancakes, such as farinata (the same crisp pancake made of chickpea flour known as socca in Nice).

Colman Andrews unearths a class of "flatbreads", too, which he calls protopasta. These are grains which have been soaked and boiled for hours before being dried and hearth-baked into panbreads, pre-dating forms of pasta. Bread dough is a subject in itself - little pieces of fried dough, sugared or salted, constitute fritelle, eaten everywhere. Not what the purist would expect from the Mediterranean Diet?

This week Colman Andrews, who introduces his recipes below, shares some typical tastes from Genoa and Liguria. Pasta e ceci, is a dense, satisfying chickpea and pasta soup. There's an authentic recipe for focaccia and a rabbit dish seasoned with olives. Castagnaccio is a tart using chestnut flour.

FOCACCIA

Focaccia appears in almost every part of Italy. The Ligurians seem to have a special gift for it, however. They also seem to have more variations on the basic theme than other Italians. Simple focaccia of the sort described below, sometimes with even more olive oil added - so that it almost drips out when you pick up a piece - is particularly appreciated for breakfast along the Riviera di Ponente. But there are numerous refinements, both on the coast and in the mountains. This is a basic recipe, worked out by trial and error, which yields a reasonably Liguarian-tasting basic version.

Serves 4-6

1 tablespoon salt

450g/1lb flour

7g/1/4oz active dry yeast

125ml/4fl oz extra-virgin olive oil, plus a little extra

250ml/8fl oz warm water

Mix one tablespoon of salt into the flour in a bowl. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and allow to stand for about five minutes, then stir in the olive oil. Add the yeast mixture to the flour and stir in well with a wooden spoon, adding a little more water if necessary, until ingredients are well mixed.

Turn the dough out on to a floured work surface. Coat hands with flour, then knead dough for several minutes until it has a firm, smooth, elastic character. Form dough into a ball and place in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover with a towel. Place in a warm place to rise for one and a half to two hours, or refrigerate and allow to rise for six to eight hours.

Turn dough out onto a floured work surface again and shape roughly into a flat disk or a rectangle with your hands and a rolling pin. Place in a lightly oiled round or rectangular baking pan, make regular rows of slight indentations across the entire surface with your finger or the end of a wooden spoon. If you want to add any extra ingredients, then now is the time to do it. (Variations include focaccia with broken pieces of black olives worked into the dough or with whole black or green ones pressed lightly into the surface. There is focaccia made with white wine instead of water. One variety of focaccia has grated Parmigiano or pecorino mixed into the dough. Some has rosemary or sage either mixed into the dough or sprinkled on top.) Cover with a towel and allow to sit for another hour at room temperature.

Preheat oven to 450F/230C/Gas 8. Brush top of focaccia lightly with olive oil and season with a bit more salt, then bake in middle of oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until crust has turned golden- brown. Serve the focaccia warm or at room temperature, cut into wedges or squares.

PASTA E CECI

CHICKPEA AND PASTA SOUP

The town of Quiliano, in the hills west of Savona, is known for its Granaccia - an uncharacteristically dark and hearty (for Liguria) red wine, made from the Grenache grape. On our way to visit a few of Quiliano's handful of wine producers, the heroically proportioned Savonese gastronome (and tourist official) Giuseppe Robatto took me to lunch at the town's Da Tina travatoria. Here we tucked into a robustly satisfying chickpea soup - basically ceci in zimino but with pork, tomatoes, mushrooms and pasta added. It pleased me so much I had to ask for the recipe, and it was freely given. This is my slight adaptation. The basic recipe below may be enriched by adding a piece of pancetta or pork to cook with the chickpeas.

Serves 6

450g/1lb dried chickpeas

1 small onion, finely chopped

I small celery rib, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

2 flat-leaf parsley sprigs, finely chopped

extra-virgin olive oil

4 leaves Swiss chard, with ribs, finely chopped

salt

175g/6oz crushed canned tomatoes

2 small potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced

115g/4oz short pasta (tubetti)

Place the chickpeas in a large bowl with enough water to cover and leave to soak overnight at room temperature. Drain the chickpeas and rinse them thoroughly, then place in large pot with water to cover. Bring the pot to the boil, then cover it loosely with a lid, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for about two hours. Add more hot water if necessary during cooking to keep the chickpeas barely submerged.

Meanwhile, in a frying pan, cook the onion, the celery, the chard leaves, garlic, and parsley slowly in olive oil for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring frequently. Then stir in the canned tomatoes and cook for 10 minutes longer. Set this soffritto aside until the chickpeas have cooked for two hours, then add the soffritto to the pot and let the mixture cook for another hour, uncovered.

If using, add the pork or pancetta to the pot. Finally stir in the raw potatoes and the pasta, and continue cooking, uncovered, until both are cooked through, which will take about 15 to 20 minutes.

CONIGLIO CON OLIVE

RABBIT WITH OLIVES

With slight variations, this dish exists all over Liguria - a natural combination of two plentiful regional ingredients. San Remo claims a version of its own, under the name coniggio a-a sanremasca, and something very similar is known in other parts of the region as coniggio a-a carlonn- a, meaning rabbit in a careless or haphazard style. This name may well have been applied to the dish precisely because it can be made with many combinations of ingredients, as long as the rabbit and olives are present in the dish. Here's a version containing a bit of everything.

Serves 4

1.1-1.4kg/2lb 8oz-3lb rabbit, cut into 8 pieces

1 onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

extra-virgin olive oil

3 sage leaves, minced

2-3 sprigs of thyme, whole

2 small sprigs of rosemary, whole

115g/4oz pine nuts

60g/2oz capers, drained

500ml/16fl oz Ligurian Vermentino or other dry white wine

30-40 Nicoise or Taggiasca olives, pitted

Fry the rabbit, onion, and garlic in a large skillet in olive oil over a medium-high heat, turning rabbit frequently until it browns on all sides. Add the sage, whole thyme and rosemary sprigs, pine nuts, and capers. Lower the heat and cook ingredients together for two to three minutes, then add the wine, cover, raise heat, and bring to a boil. Immediately lower heat to a simmer and cook, covered, for 30 minutes. Add olives and salt to taste and continue cooking, still covered, for 10 minutes more.

CASTAGNACCIO

Castagnaccio is a curious thing, part tart, part pudding. Some people find it unpleasantly gummy, and it is certainly an acquired taste. I wasn't terribly fond of it at first, but I've come to enjoy its earthy, but sugarless, sweetness. In addition to the ingredients listed below, some recipes call for fennel seeds some call for rosemary, but none calls for sugar. In the Lunigiana, where it is also known as pattona, castagnaccio is made with only chestnut flour, oil, water, and salt, and then smeared, after cooking, with stracchino or some other cheese, or even served with salami or sausage. A sparkling white wine is said to be the ideal accompaniment. I adapted this recipe from one found on a package of chestnut flour I bought in Ventimiglia.

Serves 8-10

450g/1lb chestnut flour

l.8 litres/3 pints milk

60g/2oz pine nuts

140g/5oz golden raisins

grated peel of 1 lemon

2 teaspoons salt

extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 375F/190C/Gas 5.

Sift the chestnut flour into a mixing bowl, then pour in milk, in a slow, steady stream, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Stir in pine nuts, raisins, lemon peel and salt.

Lightly oil a shallow round baking dish or pan (a paella pan works perfectly), then bake in the oven for about 50 minutes. Allow to cool to room temperature before cutting it into wedges to serve.

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