Flash in the pan
A couple of years ago, while in Genoa, a wine-producer friend of mine offered to take me for lunch to a typical Genovese restaurant. A series of unfortunate events over the previous couple of days had resulted in me feeling particularly undernourished and, without wanting to sound too dramatic, close to starvation. A combination of delayed planes, wrong turns on the roads and catastrophic lateness had meant that I had eaten virtually nothing, except for a packet of crisps and the odd biscuit at motorway service stations. Here I was in the foodie paradise of Liguria and I had managed to savour, quite frankly, absolutely nothing.
So, when my friend asked me to lunch, I jumped at the opportunity. We met at her apartment and she led me through the tiny alleyways that make up the centre of the small, ancient town of Genoa. We arrived at the tiny Antica Sapesta Torte e Farinata restaurant just after midday to find queues of people already gathered outside. It looked as if it could seat no more than 30 people. My heart sank, as it seemed as if there were perhaps twice that many waiting impatiently to be let in. Could it be possible that, for what seemed to be the umpteenth time, I'd miss out on a proper meal? My friend Manuela patted my arm and said she would speak to the owner and see what she could do.
A few minutes later she returned and said that she had secured a table and that if I didn't mind waiting 15 minutes or so, we would be fed. Buoyed by the promise of food, I readily agreed. It turned out that we waited no more than 10 minutes before we were led past an old, yet very beautiful, wood-fired oven to a small table in the centre of the restaurant. A waitress arrived at our table and asked what we would like to eat. Farinata plain or with gorgonzola, and a simple zuppa Genovese, with a generous dollop of pesto, was all that was on offer.
We started with a shared bowl of soup, warm and comforting, laced with the olive oil of Liguria and a generous dollop of pesto. We followed it up with one plain farinata, and one covered with delicious, melting, sweet young gorgonzola. It was my first taste of farinata - a crisp pancake made of chickpea flour baked in huge black pans in wood-fired ovens. It was simple, plain, poor man's fare and quite, quite delicious.
Genoa and its surrounding region of Liguria is traditionally poor. The landscape is rugged and in many places steep, making it difficult to grow many vegetables. But olive trees thrive here, and Liguria produces a gentle green olive oil that is one of my favourites.
I loved the lunch I had that day because I loved the fact that I was tasting something I had never tried before. I adore simple, unpretentious food more than anything. And I am not a fan of very smart restaurants - in fact, if I am honest, I often don't enjoy the restaurant experience at all. Complicated, fancy food leaves me cold, as does formal service. I like hustle and bustle when I eat, and food that you can happily drag your bread through without feeling self-conscious - as well as good company and lots of laughter. So this lunch was perfect. (omega)
On my return home, excited by what I had tasted, I set about trying to make it at Petersham. Since then, farinata has appeared on our restaurant menu from time to time. Often we serve it just plain with a little sea-salt and a drop or two of olive oil - it's perfect to have alongside an aperitif. And sometimes we serve it accompanied with one or two other things - it is particularly good with finely sliced Parma ham or, better still, sweet gentle Speck and young pecorino. Or, as they do in Genoa, with gorgonzola or quickly sautéed mushrooms bound together with a tablespoon or two of crème fraîche, Dijon mustard, freshly ground black pepper and plenty of chopped parsley.
I imagine, although I haven't tried it, it would be delicious with a well-roasted chicken and a simple salad of bitter winter greens. Here is the recipe as we serve it at Petersham.
Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, off Petersham Road, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627
We buy really high-quality chickpea flour from La Fromagerie ( www.lafromagerie.co.uk), but you can find it in most good delicatessens or Middle Eastern shops.
225g/71/2oz chickpea flour
4tbsp extra-virgin olive oil (preferably Ligurian)
A little freshly ground black pepper
225ml/71/2fl oz sparkling mineral water
A few sprigs of rosemary (optional)
Place the chickpea flour in a bowl, pour over the olive oil and add the salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add the chopped rosemary, if using. Next, whisk in the mineral water - mix it until the batter is smooth and leave it to sit for 20 minutes.
To cook, heat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas6. Place a large non-stick pan over a medium heat and, when hot, add a tablespoon of olive oil and swirl to ensure that the base of the pan is well covered.
Gently ladle in the batter, turn the heat down slightly and cook for a minute or so, before removing the pan to the oven. Bake without turning for 10-15 minutes, or until the pancake is thoroughly cooked through and golden brown. Remove and serve while still warm. With whatever you choose to serve it with, a sprinkling of salt is essential.
Cavolo nero with farinata
500g/1lb cavolo nero
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
250ml/ 8fl oz chicken stock
100g/31/2oz finely grated Parmesan
3tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and black pepper to taste
2 farinata (see above recipe)
Cavolo nero is a big, inky-black leafy cabbage from Tuscany. First remove the leaf from the stalk and discard the stalk. Place a large pot of well-salted water on to heat and, when boiling, add the leaves from the cavolo nero and cook for around 8 minutes. Drain and refresh immediately under cold water. Put the cavolo nero in a blender and purée it.
Next, pour one tablespoon of the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and sweat the chopped onion until it's translucent, then add the cavolo nero, chicken stock, salt and pepper, and cook for three minutes over a medium heat. Finish by adding the Parmesan and the remaining olive oil. Spoon into soup bowls and serve piping hot with the farinata.
Farinata with gorgonzola
100g/31/2oz gorgonzola dolce
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil (Ligurian is best)
Follow the original farinata recipe, putting it into the oven for 10 minutes just before you're ready to serve it. Around three minutes before the point when it should be ready to eat, remove the farinata from the oven and crumble the gorgonzola over the top. Then, put it back in the oven until the gorgonzola melts. When bubbling and golden, take it out of the oven and serve piping hot.
Take both the farinata and slice each one roughly into 120g (4oz) pieces. Place each one on a plate and add a sprinkling of sea-salt and drizzle of olive oil. Serve immediately.
Farinata with Speck
6 slices of Speck per person
Follow the original farinata recipe and when cooked, divide it, still warm, between four plates. Next, pile the sliced speck on top and add freshly ground black pepper and a sprinkling of sea-salt.
Q&A: Skye answers your culinary queries
Whenever I try to make marmalade it doesn't set and always remains terribly liquidy. Is there a secret to getting a better consistency? Diane Osborne
At Petersham this year we have made strawberry jam, apricot jam, burnt-fig jam and all sorts of marmalade, so I have spent plenty of time experimenting. The secret to making any jam or preserve is quick cooking. Bring it to a furious boil very quickly and then let it boil on a high heat for around 20 minutes and that's it. I made the mistake many times of doing slow cooking, letting it bubble away for hours, but this was always definitely when I had my worst results.
Now that blood oranges have come into season, can you give me any ideas for how I could use them? R Maynard
Blood oranges arrive in December but it's always best to wait until January for the better ones. One of my favourite ways of using them is to peel and slice them into pin wheels. Then warm a couple of tablespoons of honey in a pan with a branch of bruised rosemary (just smack it a few times with the back of a knife). When it's warm, spoon the honey over the blood oranges and serve. It's a very simple, palate-cleansing dessert and the flavour of the honey doesn't interfere with the flavour of the oranges.
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