Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Paris City of Night (the thriller) is set in the last days of a snowy, cold year in Paris... with murderers and madmen and secret agents running amok (I've never actually written that before, and it feels good). Here's the jacket copy of the thriller. People keep emailing me and saying, "I can't believe it, Paris is just like the city in your novel, I mean, the snow, the crazy traffic, the murderous types..."
So, to warm you up, wherever you may be...
Paris is alluring and seductive, but by no means benign, as Jay Grant well knows. Orange alerts make people trigger-happy. Red and black alerts are worse. They transform the City of Light into a hellish City of Night...
December 26: Madeleine Adelaïde de Lafayette, celebrated Résistance and Free French hero, former CIA deputy chief of station in Paris, is found dead in her mansion fronting the Eiffel Tower. Few know she was a key player in the misguided Allied effort to fight Communism by smuggling Nazis to freedom. So was William Grant, Madeleine’s favorite operative, also recently deceased.
December 28: As the countdown to New Year’s Eve flashes from the top of the Eiffel Tower, vintage photography and Daguerreotype expert Jay Grant, "son of a spook," races to piece together a deadly picture-puzzle. Why were Madeleine and his father William murdered——and whose side is the CIA really on? Someone is trying to kill Jay before he can crack a code embedded on a set of Daguerreotype plates and flush out terrorists plotting to attack Paris. Persuing Jay through the menacingly dark City of Light are a shadowy recycled Cold Warrior, a sexy Homeland Security officer, and his father William's aged, fanatic former colleague, a man whose mission is no longer beating the Commies but battling radical Islam, even if it means destroying parts of the city he loves...
"A wild ride through the dark side of Paris."——Diane Johnson
"A fast-moving, atmospheric thriller. Best to start reading this one early in the evening... unless, that is, you don't mind losing a night's sleep!" —David Hunt, best-selling author of The Magician's Tale
"Unputdownable——a real page-turner. No one should miss this." —Anton Gill, author of the world best-selling series The Egyptian Mysteries
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A Fine, Simple Meal in Camogli at La Rotonda
Camogli rivals the Cinque Terre these days when it comes to desirability. The less I say about this magical seaside resort the better—the crowds are growing by the year, and the last thing any authentic town needs it to become like the Cinque Terre (gorgeous, but a theme park of tourism). Camogli isn’t famous for its restaurants, though it does have a few good ones (I list a couple in Food Wine Italian Riviera & Genoa, but there wasn’t enough room in the book to include all of them).
One of our favorite very simple eateries in Camogli is La Rotonda, on the seaside walk—below the walkway, in fact. Take the staircase down from the southern end of the promenade and you’ll find this aptly name rounded restaurant with wrap-around windows perched just above the waves. You’ll also leave La Rotonda a little rounder than when you entered, though that isn’t to suggest the food is heavy. It isn’t.
Focaccia al formaggio—that cheese-filled, thin, luscious form of focaccia usually associated with Recco—is the house specialty. We always have it. La Rotonda is designated a “Focacceria” and not a restaurant, but such categories are meaningless in Italy. You can get good seafood antipasti (anchovies in lemon juice!), classic first courses of pasta or risotto, and fresh fish. I love (and of course ordered as I always do) the small fry—fritto misto. It’s composed primarily of squid, calamari and tiny red mullet, their tiny eyes staring at you as you gobble them.
What surprised me this time around were the desserts. We usually skip them. But the display case caught my eye as I went to wash my hands after the fritto misto. I asked, as I usually do, which of the cakes, pies and puddings were made in house. “All of them!” replied the cheerful waitress, who was authentically cheerful.
The locals come here for the focaccia al formaggio, as noted, and despite the location there really aren’t many tourists, especially out of season. We spotted a couple of business people we know in town, plus a table with three city gardeners, and a romantic couple. Democratic or egalitarian is how I’d describe the clientele (no Berlusconis or other oligarchs were present—the tables are too small, the settings too simple).
Food is the main attraction for us but the view is splendid, as long as you like crashing waves, frescoed facades, a Baroque church, and a medieval castle, not to mention cliffs and terraced hillsides, with villas wrapped by groves of olive trees. The comfort level is acceptable. This is not a posh restaurant, as noted, but the chairs don’t give you an ache in the posterior, either.
Back to those incredible desserts: on offer was a perfect house-made apple pie, a lemon-and-pine nut pie, a strawberry pie, a variety of puddings and fresh fruit salads, and an impressive, gorgeous millefoglie—what the French call millefeuilles—made with goopy chocolate and heavy whipped cream and of course the finest, crispiest, translucent dough in many layers.
All the desserts had been made that morning by the young chef. We succumbed. Guess which? I was sure Alison would take the apple pie. But because she saw me making saucer eyes at the millefoglie, that’s what we wound up with. To die for? Yes, though we felt invigorated instead of dead. Italians don’t feel like dying when they enjoy a meal. There’s not much sin or suffering involved. And since I’m genetically half Italian, I seem to be immune to dying over luscious food (knock on wood).
The bill came to a little under 30 euros per head. We could’ve eaten less. But we’d hiked about 10 miles that morning. And what the hell, we are on vacation.
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Sunday, December 26, 2010
Tonight we’re having chicken done in the style of the Italian Riviera, that stretch of craggy coast we can see way down below. Hereabouts this recipe is supposed to be made with rabbit, and is called coniggio a-a carlonn-a or coniggio a-a sanremasca or coniglio alla ligure for those who prefer proper Italian to Genoese dialect. Replace “coniggio” or “coniglio” with “pollo”—chicken—and you have a dish that’s doable anywhere, even in countries where Bunny is a pet.
Interestingly, the term “a-a carlonn-a” basically means that even an idiot can make this dish. Chicken for Dummies.
Put in the simplest of terms, for dinner we’re having chicken parts fricaséed with herbs, pine nuts, olives, white wine, and olive oil.
Here’s what you need to make Ligurian chicken for 4 hungry souls:
A 2.5-pound free-range chicken cut into parts
An onion, big or small
A fistful of pitted green olives
Two fistfuls of pitted black olives, preferably taggiasca olives from Liguria but anything will do
A fistful of pine nuts
A couple of cloves of fresh garlic
Half a dozen sprigs of thyme or, better, fresh rosemary
A cup of dry white wine
A couple of tablespoons of excellent, extra virgin olive oil
A pinch each of salt and pepper
There are 1,001 ways to make this dish, and the truth is, it comes out great any way you do it. In my now antique cookbook Enchanted Liguria, I give a complicated recipe with guaranteed great results. But the following method is nearly as good, and a lot more straightforward. The essential thing is to pour off the chicken fat.
tktk cover image, see liguria2
No worries—it’s out of print.
1) Brown or sear your chicken parts over high heat in a big nonstick skillet, turning twice, about 5 minutes. Pour off the grease.
2) Meanwhile, use a sharp knife or a mezzaluna to mince together the onion, the green and black olives, the pine nuts, the garlic, and the herbs.
3) Toss the mixture in with the de-greased chicken parts, pour in the wine and let the alcohol evaporate, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Add the salt and pepper.
4) Reduce the heat to a minimum and simmer, covered, for about 45 minutes. Add hot water (or chicken broth) if it looks like the chicken is getting dry. You want plenty of sauce, because you’re going to serve this with potatoes—boiled, mashed, baked, whatever. And don’t let anyone tell you that the Ligurians don’t eat potatoes. They do, and how.
Make your chicken ahead and it’s even better the next day. We didn’t, but we’re not worried. The leftovers will be delicious tomorrow.
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Pandolce is one of the Italian Riviera’s culinary icons. It’s found from the Cinque Terre near Tuscany, to Genoa, all the way to Ventimiglia on the border with France. Ligurians call pandolce “pandöçe” in their challenging, tongue-dislocating dialect. For lack of a better description in English, you might reasonably call it a Christmas fruit cake.
(photo copyright: AlisonHarris.com)
Pandolce comes in two basic formats. The old-fashioned one, made in bakeries or at home (by about 10 people in the entire region) is tall, porous, airy and leavened twice, and has a round or dome-shaped form. It’s the Riviera’s answer to Milanese panettone.
The other Ligurian variety, which everyone mistakenly calls all’antica (it’s much more recent in invention) stands only a few inches high, is dense and heavy and fabulously good: take a look at the pic on this page (by Alison, of course).
Both types are studded with pine nuts, raisins and candied fruit, and though both are made year round these days, they’re always at their best—fresh and full of goodies—in the Christmas season. Here in Liguria the holidays stretch from late December through Epifania (Epiphany, January 6), which is also known as La Befana. (La Befana is the frugal, good witch of yesteryear who brings kids wholesome little presents, but has largely been outdone by obese, imported Santa with his huge, expensive, fattening, bankrupting presents).
On my personal top-ten list of best pandolce-makers I would include the following: Panificio Maccarini (in San Rocco di Camogli; larger specimen in photo above), Pasticceria Revello (on the seaside road in Camogli), Panificio Pasticceria Fratelli Terarolli (in Luni, near the Tuscan border), Confetteria Rossi (in Genova), and, of course, the inimitable Irma Pestarino and her family at Pestarino (in the main alleyway in Santa Margherita Ligure; small “baciccia” pandolci in photo above). None of these has ever paid me to write advertising copy, by the way.
If you’ve been following this blog, by now you’ll know where to find the complete list of pandolce makers—plus hundreds of restaurants, gourmet food shops, focaccia makers, chocolate makers, winemakers and more, more, more. (If you don’t know, click here).
For the handful of intrepid home bakers willing to do some hard but pleasant work, and wait for the results, here’s a free recipe for pandolce, the classic leavened Ligurian Christmas cake that some fundamentalist locals still make at home, a loving ritual. (The recipe is adapted from my book, Enchanted Liguria. As you’ll know by now, it’s out of print—meaning, hey, no worries, this is free free free! Like everything on the Internet! Gratis! Why should writers or photographers earn a living off their work anyway? Royalties? A thing of the past! Writers and photographers -- we’re all citizen writers and photographers now -- should give everything away, and live like air ferns, letting Google and others in the corporate profit-sphere deal with the messy business of money... Am I being ironic? Never!)
Assemble the following ingredients:
About 1 and 3/4 oz. brewer’s yeast
About 7 cups of all purpose flour (that’s a kilo, by the way), plus extra if needed
Patience—you have to wait 12 hours or more for the yeasty mother to be ready!
2 to 3 tablespoons orange flower water
About 1 cup Marsala or other sweet wine suitable for cooking
2 sticks of unsalted butter, melted
About 1 cup sugar
1 ounce fennel seeds
3 1/2 ounces pine nuts
5 ounces raisins
1 cup mixed candied fruit
A pinch of salt
Milk, warm, a few tablespoons at a time (you might need up to 1/2 cup of it)
Now, have fun, and remember this is a two-day process (bye bye, busy Internauts):
1. Stir the brewer’s yeast into a cup of warm water and add as much of the flour as the yeasty water will absorb. Kneed and let sit, covered, in a warm spot, for about 12 hours. Use this as your pasta madre (i.e. a mother or leavening agent).
2. Pour the remaining flour into a mound, dig a crater into it and add the mother. Drizzle in the orange flower water and Marsala and add the melted butter. Kneed slowly, with your fingers and palms, adding the the remaining ingredients, about 6 minutes total (kneed too long and the dough will get rubbery). Add milk by the tablespoon if necessary to keep the dough moist and just elastic enough to handle.
3. Shape the dough into a round loaf, set it in a greased round oven pan about 8 inches in diameter, drape a dishcloth over the pan and let the dough rise for about 12 hours.
4. Uncover your pale, risen pandolce loaf and score the top of it with a knife to make a triangle (or some other shape to your liking). Bake in a preheated hot oven at 425F for about 1 hour, until the pandolce is golden brown, and a toothpick or spaghetto (that's singular for spaghetti) when stuck into it comes out dry. Let the pandolce cool to room temperature before serving it.
Goes great with coffee, tea, dry white wine, sweet dessert wine such as Ligurian Sciacchetrà…
Happy New Year! May your Epiphanies be manyfold! Buon anno nuovo e buona Befana!
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Saturday, December 25, 2010
Until today I’d only ever enjoyed the espresso, cappuccino, snacks and amazing wines at Da Nicco. This upscale, panoramic caffè-bar-hangout is just off the Via Aurelia—the old coast road that runs the length of Liguria. From the deck and inside tables you can see all the way back to Genoa, a breathtaking view. But this time around we met an extraordinary animal, and learned a tidbit of unusual French history.
The animal was what its owner called a “dogue de Bordeaux”—an old breed of dog from the Bordeaux region. To me it looked like a cross between a mastiff and a bulldog (that made sense, since a bulldog is a “bull dogue” in French). In fact, the other name for this hound is French mastiff.
At the shoulder this specimen of “dogue” stood almost as high as my hip, and though I’m not a particularly tall person that translates to a very large pooch.
“His name is Zeus,” said the owner, an affable if roughshod guy in his 50s. Alison asked if Zeus’ wife was named Juno, but somehow the joke was lost in transition and translation from the Greek to the Roman pantheon of gods. Zeus seemed like a mild-mannered fellow, a fact for which we were very grateful. “He weighs 55 kilos,” said the owner, straining to leash and restrain Zeus, who simply wanted to make friends. Fifty-five kg is Alison’s weight.
“Just don’t give him any Pinot Noir,” I said, patting his jowly head. “May I call him Cabernet?” I added. This time the joke broke through the language and humor-barriers.
Funnily, after 25 years living in France, I’d never run into a “dogue Bordelais”, and I said so to the dog’s owner.
“They were used in the Middle Ages to draw the small carts on which cadavers were piled,” Zeus’ owner explained cheerfully. “Then the royal court adopted them, in the 17th century. Louis XIV. If you go to Versailles you’ll see them shown in certain paintings.”
This took us by surprise. We’ve been to Versailles umpteen times, and we take tour guests to the chateau (on our Paris, Paris Tours). But we’ve never seen a “dogue Bordelais” in a painting out there. We promised the owner and his dogue that we’d be sure to check carefully, and would report back next time we came to Da Nicco.
In the meantime, we bought half a dozen bottles of fine Italian wines—no Bordeaux or Burgundy either—and finished our perfect cappuccini (Illy coffee). It was drizzling but we could still see the sweep of the coast below, from Recco to Genoa.
Friday, December 24, 2010
Sometimes you need that critical distance, the view from afar, to understand the perplexing phenomena of the day.
Some of the most astute, clear-eyed critics of Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, are outside, for instance. The Economist magazine once ran an impeccably researched, revealing cover story on “Il Berlusca,” as Italy’s richest man, who not only controls government but nearly all the country’s media, is known irreverently.
Likewise, American or French commentators often get Berlusconi right, while a solid half of Italy’s political pundits slaver and suck up to their fearless leader, who happens to own or control three-quarters of the print and television media in this country. On the other end of the spectrum, Italians naturally get caught up in emotional debates that sometimes detract from the critical effect.
Debates rage around the maddenning, multi-faceted, authoritarian, skirt-chasing national embarrassment, a septuagenarian seemingly afflicted by satryism, a loose cannon who has trouble keeping his pants hitched in the presence of comely teenage girls. Not since the porno-star parlamentarian Cicciolina has Italy been at once so proud and so mortified by a politician.
The fact that Berlusconi reportedly delights in dragging to court anyone who dares to criticize him in print or otherwise is yet another excellent reason why so many dissenting voices in Italy struggle to make themselves heard: the essential, critical distance between them and a court house is lacking. If you’re a hack, you can’t hope to take on a litigious, prickly billionaire.
Now it’s time for a parallel.
We Americans are talented at seeing the faults in the political or social systems of other nations. Without hesitation we call Russians “oligarchs” or Italians and others “mafiosi.” We instruct other nations on how to run their elections, without seeming to realize that what we Americans desperately need is electoral reform. How else to roll back our oligarchic “democracy,” which is becoming less democratic by the day?
No, we’re not always great at looking at ourselves with candor or clear-eyed skepticism.
(photos of Cicciolina: BBC World Service and current.com)
(photos of Palin: sodahead.com and eddihaskell.blogspot.com)
Take Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. Isn’t she the Cicciolina of America? Any thinking person sees her as the national embarrassment of the century. Embarrassing? Most Americans don’t seem to care what the rest of the world thinks of them. Happily, Palin doesn’t have the money or the power of a Putin or Berlusconi—not her own money and power. But she might one day. Silvio Berlusconi, like Palin, had powerful backers.
Now for the connection.
As we enjoy our lighthearted Christmas holiday on the Italian Riviera, we’re reading an unputdownable novel, Journey by Moonlight, written by the Hungarian Antal Szerb and published in distant 1937. (My Hungarian is rusty, so we’re reading the excellent translation by Len Rix). The novel is set primarily in Italy, with some scenes in Paris—so we feel at home in its pages. The book has a surreal, magical-realist quality, ante litteram: think Milan Kundera meets Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Last night as Alison read aloud the following few lines, she paused and caught her breath. We stared at each other, and we both realized at the same instant that the prescient Szerb had unwittingly elucidated the mysterious, enduring popularity of the world’s many Palins:
“In the deepest stupidity there is a kind of dizzying, whirlpool attraction, like death: the pull of the vacuum.”
Thursday, December 23, 2010
At our local post office in San Rocco this morning we arrived with a box of sea biscuits to send to a friend in New Jersey. He’s become an addict. We were intending to wrap the box in packing paper before mailing it, but the friendly woman running the tiny, one-window post office told us that wrapping boxes and sealing them with lead “piombini” was no longer necessary. It used to be Italian law, a total nightmare.
“Oh, we’ve evolved,” she said cheefully. And then she spent about 20 minutes carefully taping up our tattered, secondhand box, making sure to leave room for the address. We told her the box was full of gallette from the Maccarini bakery. She said, “You don’t have to tell me what’s in the box!”
But we figured, what the hell, with the fear factor, which seems to be the rule everywhere else in the world, we were better off revealing the contents. A pair of locals, waiting their turn, insisted they weren’t in a hurry. Together we watched the post master tape up our box, and we all talked about sea biscuits, the snowy weather, recipes, terrorism, and fear.
“New Jersey?” exclaimed the post master, noticing the address for the first time. “People eat our biscuits in America?”
I confirmed they did, and told her and everyone else in the post office—there was a crowd by now—about the sea biscuit in the Seicento painting in Haarlem, and how we sent a bag of biscuits to the museum’s director. Each and every customer from San Rocco beamed with pride.
One day in the mid 1990s when Alison and I were creating the first edition of “The Irreverent Guide to Amsterdam” (later hijacked and handed to someone else, but that’s another story), we wandered into the fine arts museum in Haarlem (the original Haarlem, now a suburb of Amsterdam). Lo and behold, in a Seicento painting—a beautiful still life—there was a sea biscuit. It looked exactly like the ones still being made in San Rocco di Camogli. We asked to see the museum director, and pointed out this curious fact to him. He was thrilled—he had no idea those sea biscuits were still being baked.
When we got back to San Rocco from Amsterdam, we mailed a bag of gallette to the museum director, and he wrote back with eternal thanks. An art historical mystery had been solved: until then, no one was sure what that strange biscuit was.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Everyone knows about the focaccia of Genoa and the Italian Riviera but who remembers the region’s hardtack? Sea biscuits? Those hard, dry crackers that sailors used to take with them on long journeys, because normal bread got moldy within days?
In Italian sea biscuits are called “gallette” (the same word is used for the surf-worn, flattened stones you find on beaches). There used to be hundreds of bakeries up and down the coast of Italy, and in America too, that made sea biscuits. Now only a handful in Liguria continue the tradition, and only one makes gallette in the old-fashioned way, meaning the way they were made in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
That bakery is called Panificio Maccarini. It’s been around since the 1890s, and it’s in San Rocco di Camogli, 23 kilometers southeast of Genoa (on the road to La Spezia and Tuscany). Maccarini’s sea biscuits are about half an inch to 1 inch in thickness, highly porous, and as hard as a rock on the outside. If you’ve ever wondered what the meaning of “bone dry” was, this is it. They seem to have a kind of shell, like a sea creature. It’s this rock-hard exterior that preserves them: they last for months and months. We use gallette to make the Liguria seafood salad Capponadda (it’s not the same as the Caponata of southern Italy). We use them in soups (especially ciuppin’, the ancestor of San Francisco’s cioppino seafood stew). And Alison, who has good strong teeth, likes to snack on them as is.
There’s a twist to this dolphin’s tale. San Rocco is named for Saint Roch, the helper of plague victims, according to the church of Rome. When he was himself dying from the plague, a saintly dog took pity on him and brought him a loaf of bread—no one would approach him. That loaf is represented in many paintings, especially those of the Seicento (17th century), as a sea biscuit. So whether you’re a freethinker or a Catholic it’s only right and natural that the Maccarinis continue to make Saint Roch’s sea biscuits, with the church dedicated to this friend of dogs and plague victims looming above, 50 yards from the bakery.
At Christmas time, the Maccarinis decorate their fir tree not with Santa Claus but with miniature gallette. I wonder if, after the holiday season is over, they use the gallette in their soups and salads. Not really. Actually, those mini-sea biscuits probably last about 100 years. As long as they don’t get wet, gallette are perennials.
Practically abutting Santa Margherita Liguria is Rapallo, a slightly bigger and better-known seaside resort. Like Santa, Rapallo has two excellent focaccia-makers (the half dozen others are fine, but nothing special). Despite the cold weather, we had remarkable ice cream at Frigidarium, one of our favorite places on the Riviera, then ambled over to Panificio Fratelli Castruccio on Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi. Both are near Rapallo’s tiny though fearsome castle, which has the Mediterranean as a moat. Castruccio’s focaccia is classic—crisp outside, tender inside, pleasantly oily, and with the right amount of salt. Perhaps even better, despite the lousy location, is the focaccia made by the Bolelli family at Panetteria-Pasticceria Tigullio. It’s on busy Via della Libertà, which is an ugly, straight street parallel to the river (it’s the main road to the autostrada). I wasn’t carrying my caliper, but I did use my thumbnail measuring device to confirm that both these bakeries still bake focaccia with approximately quarter-dollar-sized pocks.
More on classic Ligurian focaccia from Genoa, soon. And then there’s the famed focaccia with cheese—con formaggio. We revisited a favorite Riviera restaurant that still makes it so fabulously well that we wonder if it’s even better than the best from Recco.
And what do you think? firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday, December 20, 2010
Santa Margherita Ligure is as famous for its frescoed buildings as for its focaccia, but since you can’t eat frescos even though they look downright edible, the focaccia is what most visitors rightly remember (and the fish and pesto and other delicacies too). Though Recco is better known for focaccia, Santa, as the locals call this seaside resort, nonetheless has two top focaccia-makers. Only an expert would notice the slight difference in the quantity of olive oil and salt, or the size of the moonscape craters on the surface (bigger in Recco). One of the two bakers here goes out of his way to make sure the dough is slightly softer in the center than it is around the edges. That’s why connoisseurs order their slices accordingly.
Good luck finding theses bakeries: Fiordiponti is on a back road, Via Ruffini, on the Portofino-end of town, near the arcaded square called Piazza Fratelli Bandiera. Pinamonti is closer to the train station, down an alley near the Lido Hotel.
Try both and let me know which you prefer. email@example.com
Sunday, December 19, 2010
Photo: copyright Alison Harris
From the homeland of focaccia… Rocky the Italian Riviera is, and yesterday it was also sunbaked. But today it’s raining, sleeting and snowing again. Gorgeous nonetheless. The shades of gray are amazing—a world of slate, from sea to shore to mountaintop. Teetering olive trees, some still being picked. The world’s best olive oil—sorry Tuscany (and elsewhere), the real Ligurian thing is just the subtlest, the most perfumed and delicious anywhere. And yes, despite 16 years of Berlusconi in Rome, and the unstoppable spread of factory farming, the world’s most irresistible flatbread still comes from here.
We’ve only been back a few days but have already dropped by our usual focaccia-source favorites along the stretch of coast southeast of Genoa, between seductive Sestri Levante and Recco—wreck-oh!, bombed to oblivion by the RAF and USAF in the Second World War.
Recco may be homely to look at but it’s a study in how to make and eat the ideal focaccia.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, in cookbooks and articles, the authentic item is crisp outside without being tough, porous and tender inside without being undercooked, and is more or less half an inch thick. Forget the 2-inch stuff laced with Parmigiano or other delicious but unneeded ingredients, the stuff baked up and down the coasts of America these days.
Look for telltale moonscape surface—the marks of the bakers’ fingertips—and you’ll be on the right track. Despite rocket science and social media, no one has yet figured out why Ligurian focaccia is so good. And the mystery of why it’s so great on the Sestri Levante-Recco coast also remains.
In my book (literally and figuratively), Panificio-Pasticceria Moltedo in Recco still wins the best-focaccia contest. Crisp, unctuous and flavorful, this is the quintessence of focaccia. Of their two bakeries the original one practically under the railway viaduct continues to produce the best focaccia of all.
But rival Tossini (two locations, on Via Trieste and Via Roma, plus other outlets in Rapallo, Avegno and Santa Margherita Ligure) is a close second. Their focaccia has a slightly cake-like consistency, and it’s preferred by many locals, usually because it’s made with less olive oil.
We’ll be in Santa Margherita Ligure and Rapallo in coming days, and will report back. In the meanwhile, feedback, please! firstname.lastname@example.org
Friday, December 17, 2010
It was a mere -6C in Paris when I left day before yesterday. Commuter trains packed. Everyone but me coughing, hacking, sick--and incapable of keeping their germs to themselves. Such generosity! So unlike the French!! To Milan, where the trees near the airport were encased in ice: a mere -8C!! and then by train, through mountains and out of tunnels into the light... the sun of the Mediterranean? No! Sea and snow--no sun. As I write it's -5C in the vicinity of Genoa. The snow is ankle-deep, the wind bending the umbrella pines like inside-out umbrellas. This local Genoa weather site is slightly optimistic. Will Santa be able to negotiate the slushy streets? Happily, the focaccia is as delicious as ever, and the pesto too. I did the unthinkable and applied the pungent green sauce to pansoti--pasta purses stuffed with field greens and Parmigiano. The locals cringe: pansoti are to be eaten only with walnut sauce! That's a lot of nutty nonsense.
Food Wine Italian Riviera & Genoa is in many bookstores here. And it appears that another writer has come up with a rival to Food Wine Rome. The free market of books!
Saturday, December 11, 2010
Out and about on a Paris, Paris Tour with another small group of discerning visitors, people who know and love Paris and live here part of the year... Too cold to do a full-length tour but we did explore the interior of Saint-Paul's. Most people pass by this church and shrug. "What's so great about it?" The facade is dirty, and some of the stone detailing is wrapped in netting in case it falls off. But St-Paul's is Paris' first and only true Baroque church, and when you step inside you begin to appreciate why it's great. Atmosphere! Secrets!! Ask me about this place and its connections to the pre-Revolutionary series of Louis--especially Louis XIII and Louis XIV--and I'll give you an earful. There are some amazing architectural details (and some totally un-PC sculptures), and each has a tale attached.
We also did my favorite stretch of what was the ancient Roman road of Paris, which morphed into the Triumphal Way, and is still around (now threatened by the rumored arrival of a McDonald's franchise on the corner of the Rue de Rivoli--god preserve us!). I'll be posting more on our tours here whenever I can. The tours website (also a blog) is www.parisparistours.com
Friday, December 10, 2010
Look at the left-hand portion of this map and you'll see the wall of Philippe Auguste, one of our destinations. The other image shows the Hotel de Sens.
Last night we braved the snow and ice and gave one of our night-time tours of the Ile Saint-Louis and Marais to noted author Paul Bogarde, a leading expert on light pollution. He's researching a new book about light, and asked me to share my insights about the City of Light--the history of Paris lighting, the secrets of why Paris got its nickname, the reality of light in the city today...
We cruised the island, enjoying the night-lighting of various bridges, and I showed Paul where many literary salons had been held, and pointed out the road where Retif de la Bretonne, the famed writer who invented the genre of night-time prowls, lived in the 1780s, near the Seine.
Then we did the Marais, best known nowadays for fashion boutiques and museums, but actually one of the city's best neighborhoods for night-time strolls. Paul had read in "Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light" about the Place des Vosges and other Marais spots, and had enjoyed my descriptions of them in the chapter entitled "Nightwalks".
But first I took him to the Hotel de Sens, one of the city's last "medieval" townhouses (see image--pretty much rebuilt in the 19th century, but what the hell...), and the 12th-century city wall built by Emperor Philip Augustus.
Nearby it we trolled one of Paris' darkest, most atmospheric streets, and walked down one of the narrowest medieval alleys left in town. It was a magical walk. I'm looking forward to reading Paul's book--in a couple of years.
Thursday, December 9, 2010
Snow and Paris have a complicated relationship. Yesterday we experienced a remarkable snowstorm. I've seen a few here in the last 25 years. This time the snow came heavy and fast, and stuck. It only started to melt late this morning. So we had a good 10 hours of pristine white. Now Paris looks like Victor Hugo's "Lutetia, City of Mud", though the sun has come out, for the first time in about 10 days. The light is back.
My ambivalence about snow in the city comes out in Paris City of Night, my thriller. Here's an excerpt. This is the dark side.
"Paris was jammed. After 2,000 years the locals still didn’t know how to handle rain or snow. The city hadn’t been designed for a million motor vehicles, and had become a nightmare for drivers. His friends couldn’t understand why he rode a motorcycle in Paris winter weather. The truth was, after boarding school in Vermont, he rarely felt the cold, and he still enjoyed dicing with traffic. Illusory freedom, he reflected. Most freedoms were.
A moat ringed Paris’ spiderweb of streets. He rode west on the Boulevard Péripherique, a beltway built in the 1970s to separate the City of Light from the banlieue. The suburbs. They were blightsville, a no-man’s land scattered with housing projects for the working poor, many of them from Algeria, an ex-colony that had never fully emerged from decades of civil war. Jay hoped he’d stay inside the moat for the duration. He’d done a pretty good job burying his past. But maybe not good enough."
Now here's the lighter side, from Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light (which is being reissued, by Broadway Books, next April):
"Il fait beau, c’est le printemps, ran the lusciously enunciated, taped dialogue at the Pompidou Center’s language laboratory. “The weather is beautiful, spring is here,” I repeated, joining my own to a dozen eager voices as snow fell beyond the windows. Wherever I went that first April in Paris—now three decades ago—through sleet, rain, wind and snow, I would cheerfully say my bonjours in grade-school French, adding with a wink c’est le printemps."
That was in 1986, when it snowed on April 5 and again on May 9. With luck we won't have a repeat. Climate change?