It was October by the time we reached Camogli, located on the west side of the peninsula of Portofino, Liguria, northern Italy. The days were still warm but it was not exactly swimming weather. Mischa didn’t take much convincing: it was her only opportunity to swim in the Mediterranean sea. It was the icing on the cake for Mischa.
Whereas the cherry on top for me was choosing a restaurant. It always is.
Focaccia is one of the culinary delights of Liguria and what better place to try a lovely green oily version than in the Cinque Terre. The five villages of this area, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso, perch precariously along the edge of the Ligurian sea and at the base of steep terraced hills. These towns are connected by a wonderful little train which travels through tunnels carved into the mountains, with an occasional glimpse at the wild sea through gaps in the tunnels along the way. They are also connected by walking trails and by sea.
I first tried green oil drenched, salty focaccia in 1985 in one of these towns. Other Ligurian specialties from that era included spaghetti al pesto, spaghetti con vongole and a very young dry white wine that I can still taste. Above the five towns, with colourful houses that tumble down to the sea, a steep walk takes one to a rural district with spectacular views of the coast. In those days, the towns petered out quickly: rural life was still in full swing: steeply terraced vines were well-tended, the tall irregular trellises constructed of hand hewn wood. Vineyards then led to further terraces of olive groves above.
I haven’t returned to the Cinque Terre since then- I don’t wish to spoil good memories. The terraces are now, apparently, poorly maintained and the vines untended: there is more money in tourism than farming. The area was also severely damaged by floods and mudslides in 2011. It is very popular and heavily touristed in the Italian summer months. The Cinque Terre National Park and the towns are now a Unesco World Heritage Site: there are attempts to preserve the unique aspects of this area.
I follow Carol Field’s recipe when making focaccia, however I tend to use left over pizza doughthat has been rising for another day in the fridge.
After returning the once risen dough back to room temperature, I roll it into a rectangular shape to suit the size of my baking tin – in this case, a tin with sides, such as a old fashioned lamington tin.
The tin is well oiled, the dough is pressed in with fingers and left to rise again under a damp cloth. The damp cloth trick seems to produce the right moist texture that I recall from all those years ago. The cloth needs to be very well dampened but sit slightly above the dough so that it doesn’t stick.
After 40 minutes or so, the dough is dimpled by pressing indentations with your fingers. These will catch the oil. Very therapeutic and a good task for little ones.
Lots of Extra Virgin olive oil is applied, followed by salt crystals (coarsely ground sea salt or rock salt), then sage leaves are pressed onto the dough.
The focaccia is then baked in a preheated oven, 220c, for around 20 minutes or until it looks done.
Cool, remove from tin, and slice into rectangle pieces or slices. I guarantee that the bread will not have time to go stale. It doesn’t hang around for long.
The green olive version from Liguria is also rather nice.
This forms part of Leah’s The Cookbook Guru, where we are spending a month or two looking at one of my favourite cookbooks, Carol Field’s The Italian Baker.
And I hope it brings back a few travel memories for my three children, who will always remember Signore Andrea P. Poggi, and that screaming cat below the sea wall at Vernazza!