When we teach Italian cuisine in the Bon Appétit Culinary Center, I try to focus on the regionality of the ingredients and techniques of the many areas of this food-fabulous country. Today in Liguria was no exception.
We began our tour in Portofino, the charming and colorful village with brightly colored multi-story buildings that hug the tiny harbor. The story goes that these buildings were intentionally constructed close to one another so the women and children could escape the ravages of pirates when their men were away fishing. Hard to believe that such beauty comes from necessity.
After a short ferry ride to Santa Margherita, we had the chance to take a short stroll through the daily open market.
It was small, but everything was so fresh and inviting. I had to try the small eggplants, which I was told to hollow out and cook in olive oil, then stuff with the inside eggplant meat, cheeses, meats and herbs. Again this reminds me of how lucky we are to have the culinary center on the ship to try out impromptu recipes!
Santa Margherita is known for the beautifully painted facades on the buildings. Some of the window frames are painted on in the same style as the real window frames, causing one to look closely to try to determine which are real and which are painted. It is a beautiful seaside town, and with the heat today, we could tell that children and adults alike were planning to spend the day on the small beach here, soaking up the sun and final days of summer.
From Santa Margherita, we took a short bus ride to the town of Recco for a pasta lesson and luncheon. In Liguria, there is a particular focaccia that is a specialty of that region (and the city of Recco) and is worth the pilgrimage to this modern little suburb, which makes up in personality what it lacks in charm. The pesto of this region is also quite unique, due largely to the sweet Ligurian basil that is grown here.
We pull up to the fourth generation restaurant that hosts our tours and are greeted by the family Labrador and one of the twin brothers who now manage the family restaurant and hotel. Marco, the chef who has been making pasta for 30 years, greets us and asks us to take a seat as he begins his demonstration. Marco is a gentle soul, who speaks very little English but talks with his eyes and his hands, as we try to follow along with this obvious master craftsman. He starts with fritter batter and zucchini, telling us that when this is done, it will go in the fryer to make some welcome treats for us. And true to his promise, a few short minutes later he is pouring us some sparkling wine, and we are enjoying these hot, salty “friscieu.”
Next, Chef Marco makes pasta and rolls it out with his manual pasta maker with ease and a sheepish grin that suggests, “You, too, could do this with 30 years of practice!” Everyone gets a chance to get in the game. Here is one of our guests doing an admirable job of rolling pasta.
The next step is the ravioli, the filling for which he shoots from a pastry bag at lightening speed.
Susie Heller, the famed chef and culinary producer (think of the French Laundry and Bouchon cookbooks) and personal media manager for Jacques Pépin and Julia Child, accompanied us on the trip. Here is Susie with her Leica camera trying to catch Marco’s quick hands. She decides to go from photo stills to the video function on her camera. Smart move, Chef Susie!
With some of the remaining dough, Chef Marco shows us how to hand-cut pasta into angel hair, fettuccine and pappardelle. He looks at us and says, “Easy!” – which we think he must have mixed up with some other English word (i.e. “practice”).
Next comes the ultimate humiliation – trofie. This is a pea-sized ball of dough that you roll out to make a twisted pasta, as you see below. The last time I visited with Chef Marco, I did about as well as I did on this visit. He does know I am a chef; I am just not sure if he believes it or not. Feeling humiliated at not being able to make a respectable trofie, I am pulled aside by one of the daughters who confides in me that there is a woman who makes trofie for the restaurant, and she is the only one in town who has mastered this pasta-making technique to Chef Marco’s level. And she has been doing it for 50 years! I think I feel better…
Chef Marco then makes pesto for us by hand with a mortar and pestle, and we all marvel at how the basil is so delicate and sweet.
Ligurian basil leaves are quite small by comparison to Genovese basil. (Genoa is a neighbor about 30 miles from Recco.) It’s really all about terroir…
Lastly, Chef Marco is to make the focaccia that he and his restaurant and his town are famous for. He takes a kilo of Manitoba flour and 400 grams of water (and a pinch of olive oil and salt) and makes a masterpiece of dough that stretches out as thinly as paper and the size of Montana (under his skilled hands).
Chef asks for volunteers to stretch out another ball or two of dough. Three of our guests have a go at it – all tearing a hole in the paper-thin dough within seconds.
“Guess we’d better keep our day jobs!” was the rally cry from these troops. The focaccia dough is placed on a large copper pan, then topped with fresh stracchino cheese and another layer of dough.
The final product is something to behold and needs to be enjoyed immediately out of the oven. (Who are we to argue with tradition?)
After all that work with Chef Marco in the kitchen, we sat for a delightful lunch in the family restaurant. Primi was the ravioli with a delicate walnut sauce.
Secondi was the trofie with pesto, green beans and potato, a specialty of this region.
The main course was a fresh-caught snapper with olives and a light butter sauce.
Jacques Pépin says that his favorite meals are not defined by the food per se, but by the food AND the company with whom one enjoys the meal. Nothing could have been truer for me. I met a lovely couple on this tour, Neil and Karen, who own a wine storage business in Napa.
They accompanied Chef Susie and me on this tour, and the joy of meeting my friend, Chef Marco, and sharing his passion for pasta making (and pasta eating) was a blessing.
Enjoying great food and wine is what we are all about at Oceania Cruises. Sharing our passion for the culinary and wine world with our guests and friends makes days like this one, on the Ligurian coast, memorable treasures.
Executive Chef, Bon Appétit Culinary Center