Saturday, 12 November 2011

Genoa - Acciughe to Stoccafisso

Adding sugar syrup to
pistachio dragees
at Romanengo fu Stefano

Just back from a short trip to Genoa, which unfortunately coincided with a massive two day storm, but that's another story.  I thought you might be interested in my food experiences in this capital of the region known as Liguria.  Located in the coastal centre of the narrow strip of land bordering the French Riviera, Piedmont, Emilia Romagna and Tuscany, the Italian city of Genoa is about a 90 minute drive south of Milan.  It bridges what locals refer to as the Riviera di Levante and Riviera de Ponente. Tumbling down to the Mediterannean Sea, it was home to Christopher Colombus and the banking houses which bankrolled the Spanish conquest of the Americas.  The people are proud without being boastful and, you won't find any grand statements of their past glories.  They wear their heritage lightly.  That's not to say Genoa isn't an attractive city.  The architecture is imposing rather than flashy.  The people are friendly and helpful but interact with a formal politeness which is charming.

With the Mediterannean to the south and the Maritime  Alps to the north, Liguria has an enviable micro-climate. Olives, citrus, hard and soft fruits, chestnuts, pine nuts, mushrooms, chickpeas, vegetables such as artichokes and chard, and herbs grow particularly well.  The three foods you will see again and again are pesto (mostly using basil but sometimes other herbs), focaccia (or fugassa) and chickpea farinata (a thin, crustless savoury tart/pancake, known as Soca over the border in France).  A dish of Trofie pasta with basil pesto, a Levante speciality, is on most menus, and take-away farinata shops abound.  Genoese locals like their focaccia or fugassa quite thin but crisp outside and fluffy within and take it with a morning cappuccino.   If you'd prefer something sweeter for breakfast, and I'm afraid I do, then breakfast at Fratelli Klainguti Bar Pasticceria on Piazza Di Soziglia.  Its history goes back to 1826 when two Swiss brothers, who were trying to get to America, missed the boat and stayed on to open a Pasticceria instead - the caffe was good and the Kranz delicious.  Another speicality of Genoa is the pandolce cake studded with pine nuts and candied fruit.

Despite its proximity to the sea, apart from anchovies (Acciughe) and air-dried cod (stoccafisso - more pungent than salt cod), of which they are very fond, the Genoese have a great love of vegetables.  In particular chard and bitter field greens (preboggion) which they use in tarts (torta salata).  Their similarity to ancient pastry dishes of Greece, Turkey and Persia speak of the influences of past trading links.  Tripe and rabbit are popular too.  A big feature of Genovese cooking is the wood-burning oven and you will see them in many of the trattorias, making for cosy meals.

Sugared Marzpan
Genoa is full of small food businesses that have been around for generations, and they are still there for good reason.  One of the oldest and best is the confetteria Romanengo fu Stefano, who I managed to catch on their short visit to London last month.  Producing seasonal candied fruits, including the rare chinotti, a locally grown rather bitter citrus fruit which is transformed by sugaring (and can also be found locally as a soft drink) and chestnuts, syrup-filled dragees, chocolates, marzipan sweets, delicious sugar coated pinenuts and aniseed.  They also make a sensational rose petal jam, delicate syrups of orange blossom and an intense wild cherry.

I was lucky enough to be shown around their factory on Viale Mojon where the fruits and nuts used arrive mostly from Ligurian growers, suppliers for generations  No artificial preservatives are used and everything is hand made in small batches using decades old equipment and molds.  The skills of the craftsmen and women is essential to the processes involved and it was a joy to see.  Needless to say, the aromas were heavenly and the tastings - no doubt helped by the fact the products were just made - amazing. The purety of the fruits and fruit syrups shine through, rather than just tasting sweet as many such products do. 

Sugar coated cinnamon bark
at Romanengo fu Stefano
The first batch of sublime soft almond torrone, which is only made in November and December, was cooling as we passed by.  Invited to sample it, I can honestly say it was without doubt the finest I have ever tasted. 

The original Romanengo shop is in the Caruggi area of Genoa nand has been since 1814.  Dive into these medieval alleways off the beautiful Palazzo-lined Via Garibaldi.  The Caruggi and adjoining Molo areas, descending to the port, are the best places to go to get a handle on Genoese food.  The numerous narrow streets are home to hundreds of Pasticceria, Tripperia, Drogheria, Salumeria, Alimentari, Gelateria and Enoteca along with Restaurante, Trattoria, Taverna, Osteria and Caffe.  You will never go hungry in this area.  Ristorante La Berlocca on Via Soziglia, for one, proved a good lunch stop for a dish of Minestrone and a plate of Stoccafisso with onions, potatoes and olives in front of the wood-fired oven.

Another must-see is the Mercato Orientale (meaning in the east of the city rather than any reference to the orient).  There are several food markets but if you can visit only one, I recommend this one on Via XX Septembre which operates every day except Sunday.  Check out the lovely fish and vegetable stalls and the trader who specialises in tomatoes and chillies/peppers.  The streets around the market are good for food shops too - the Vias Vincenzo, Galata, Colombo and also Piazzaa Colombo.  There is a lovely fresh pasta shop (its name escapes me for reasons which wiil become clear later); Cremeria Colombo for artisan ice creams made only with ripe fruit, high quality milk and cream and natural flavourings; Eto Oleo Granoteca for olive oils and dry goods and Gerolame Pernigetti-Gamalero for dry goods (both on Via Galata); and the grocery store, Chicco Caffe.

Fritture at Sa Pesta

Trattoria Sa Pesta on Via Giustiniani is listed in the Slow Food Guide to Genoa and proved to be a good recommendation for dinner.  The atmosphere is laid back, the room simply furnished, and the food straightforward.  We ate Farinata layered with Strachini cheese, Verdure Ripieni (stuffed vegetables), and shared an excellent dish of Fritture of fresh anchovies, baby squid and other small fish.  With half a litre of local red wine and coffees the bill came to 35 Euros.

The following evening Trattoria Rosmarino  just off Piazza de Ferrari (you can't miss the the huge fountain) proved friendly and welcoming and served local food with a bit more refinement.  The highlights were an antipasti, Sformato - a fantastically light artichoke (carciofo) souffle with a goat cheese sauce - and  pasta dish of Trofie, made with chestnut flour and served with basil pesto genovese.  Although not listed in my guides we had a good time here and the service was excellent.  My view could be coloured somewhat by the fact we were struggling to find any restaurants open after a day of constant heavy rain which caused the centre of the City to be virtually closed down.  So bad was the freak weather that the next morning the area around the Mercato Orientale was a mud bath and many of the shops remained shuttered all day.  Disappointing but it only meant we would be returning to see what we missed.

The Riviera's steep, terraced terrain does not allow for much grape growing but the wine produced is generally light and fruity.  Varieties have small yields and require hand-harvesting so local wines are relatively expensive.  The main grape varieties for Ligurian white wines are Vermentino and Pigato, and the main red is the Rossese.  They are, however, very acceptable to my, admittedly untutored, palate.

Look out for words such as Tipico, meaning local or regional; Genuino, meaning genuine, authentic; Naturale meaning wholesome, without artifical flavourings etc used particularly in ice cream making; Cucina casalinga meaning home cooking.  If you plan a trip to Genoa I highly recommend David Downies book "The Italian Riviera & Genoa".  It's a weighty tome but it proved invaluable on our trip and it's stuffed with useful information.  The only regret was we didn't have time, or the weather, on our side to do it justice.

Pietro Romanengo fu Stefano
Via Soziglia 74R
16123 Genova
and also at Via Roma 51R, 16121 Genova (they have a small number of select stockists around the world.  In London you can buy some of their products at La Fromagerie on Moxon Street, Marylebone).