Travelogue 3: Cinque Terre
We spent the next day and half recovering from our Parisian walk-a-thon by relaxing at the villa in Cairanne. Somewhere between the time we arrived in France, and the day we left for Italy, I also decided to make ratatouille (first time!). I can’t really remember which day it was, but I was inspired to create this simple French dish, because, on the flight from Toronto to Paris, Air France (not a bad airline, apart from luggage problems) gave us the ability to select movies from a long list of available features. We chose Disney’s Ratatouille – in part because I’ve never seen it, and because I felt I needed a crash course on contemporary French culture (and what better source?)
The problem was – I had no eggplant or zucchini on hand. All I had was some tomato, cucumber, onion, garlic and red bell pepper. Close enough. The cucumber can replace the zucchini (with less cooking time) and as for the eggplant, well – a little extra pepper and tomato never hurt anyone.
To make ratatouille, you saute onions and garlic until the onions are soft. Then add the tomato and pepper (and zucchini + eggplant) and fry them until soft. Then add your cucumber (or not) and lower the heat, add a few tsp of herbes de Provence, salt and pepper, and simmer the whole mixture until the peppers are softened, but not mushy, and the mixture thickens as the liquids cook off. One of the Provencal cookbooks suggested adding a pinch or two of fresh, uncooked chopped garlic and stir it in just before serving, to add a fresh pop. How you chop the ingredients doesn’t seem to matter, unless you prefer it to look a certain way; it’s a very basic dish, so anything goes. It was deliciously simple, and could be used as a side dish, or a main course, even – such as the filling for a savory crepe.
But enough France for now – we’re going to Italy! My brother and his wife had planned a short, two-night visit to Cinque Terre. They were staying, specifically, in Manarola and we decided to tag along, staying nearby in Riomaggiore. The 5 villages of Cinque Terre are part of a National Park, and together constitute a UNSECO World Heritage Site. Anuja and I had honestly never heard of this place before they invited us along, but a quick internet search had us very intrigued and excited about the visit.
It was good that we were excited, too, because the ride there was pretty awful. Or, well, parts of it were amazing and beautiful, while other parts were bordering on nauseating. The highway essentially followed the coastline almost all of the way around from Marseilles to Genova, and southward to La Spezia. Following the coastline, in this case, means driving through mountains – as in, directly through mountains. We passed through at least 20-30 tunnels, and the entire 7 hour drive was done on winding roads at maximum speeds of 130 km/h. Needless to say, my stomach did not enjoy the constant lurching from side-to-side, only aggravated by Italian drivers forcing us to weave and change lanes constantly. There was no danger of throwing up, though, since I’m on a 26-27 year streak of keeping every single thing down, bad or good. Still, I needed some rest-stop time, for sure, and Italian rest stops are not nearly as enjoyable as the French ones, in my limited experience. Most of them appeared to be 70’s diner-themed and favouring the microwave as their weapon of choice. I cannot begin to tell you how disgusting the mushroom, brie and mayo panini was. Curiously, at the same place there was a large chocolate section and Anuja found a 5 kg container of Nutella (unpurchased by her or I) and could not stop staring at it. Nutella is her Kryptonite, and Europe has much Nutella. I also ate an apple in Cannes, and you didn’t.
The reason why Chris was keen on Cinque Terre was obvious to me. The Ligurian region is the home of pesto, limoncino, focaccia, olive oil, basil, and if there are two things my brother loves (apart from his wife, I suppose), it is Italian food, and high-quality olive oil. He loves olive oil enough to get it shipped from Greece – he has a connection to a grower there through work, I think, so visiting Liguria and experiencing possibly the best pesto in the world? This appeals to him. It also appeals to me.
The villages of Cinque Terre exist, basically, nestled in the very small valleys of a sheer rock face on the Ligurian sea. After a steep climb up the hills, and an equally steep descent into miniature twisting roadways, we arrived in Riomaggiore. We walked from the parking lot area (top of the hill) down to our hotel (bottom of the hill near the town square and marina) – great, more stairs and hill-climbing. This vacation turned into a real work-out. The town itself is absolutely amazing – the main streets are virtually the only roads in the town but on each side of the road, the buildings climbed the terraced hills in multiple layers and levels. Walkways, stairs, archways, and tiny lanes wind their way through these levels – a virtual maze of centuries-old architecture and city-planning. It was beautiful.
The first night we climbed down the incredibly steep hotel stairs to street-level and settled on a nearby restaurant for one single reason – fried calamari was on their specials menu, and I had been talking up how badly I wanted some calamari in Italy. It did not disappoint. Wow. Calamari, as most people know, can be very rubbery if overcooked. Most of the calamari we have in Toronto probably comes out of freezer, as well, and that doesn’t help. This calamari, in Riomaggiore, was the most tender, delicate, and fresh I’ve ever had, period. It was so tender you could cut it in half with the side of your fork. On the side were only a few slices of incredibly fresh lemon (grown in the region, naturally). Perfect simplicity. Anuja ordered a chestnut pasta (chestnuts also being a local product) with pesto, tomato and clams that was glistening with olive oil. For a shared dish, we picked out oysters stuffed with bread crumbs, Parmesan, herbs and spices, sitting in highly flavourful tomato/seafood sauce (that we mopped up with bits of bread).
It was all fantastic. Things like oysters and clams are things I would not usually order (or even try) but how many opportunities will I get to taste seafood fresher than this? It reminded me of one of my fondest food memories – getting the most delicious chili crabs at a restaurant in Malaysia that was built on stilts over the same beach they collected the fish and crabs from. There is simply no better way to eat seafood than this. The pesto was vibrant green (a sign of being freshly made – preserved pesto darkens very noticeably), rich in sweet olive oil and relatively light on cheese, we thought. The pasta itself was remarkably light-tasting – there is something about freshly-made pasta that sits much lighter in the stomach. One day I’ll look into that. After dinner (and an obligatory limoncino shot – which packed quite a punch), we walked/climbed down to the water’s edge for seaside gelato before retiring to a cafe for coffee. I went into this leg of the vacation not expecting much from Italy, but I could already feel a renewed love and respect for proper Italian cuisine.
The next morning we had a late breakfast of pizza. We had to. Anuja got pesto pizza. This really was the birthplace of pesto – it is literally everywhere, in everything. Later on in the afternoon, we visited a tiny focaccia shop run by a friendly Italian woman (who was busy in the back room chopping fresh tomatoes for sauce). She had a wide range of focaccia on display but also had English signs (poorly, but charmingly translated) saying she would make fresh pasta to order. That sealed it – I ordered meat ravioli in tomato sauce, and Anuja picked a pesto lasagna. Pesto lasagna! I tried a bite of hers and it was interesting and very different from what lasagna meant to me (I’ve never really loved lasagna – I find Western-style lasagna to be too dense and gut-busting). It was very light, for one – again, the pasta and oil that you would expect to feel heavy was not – and was filled with ricotta, pesto and olive oil. I am very interested in recapturing this concept one day. My ravioli was like ravioli anywhere, except better – light pasta, thin sauce that was deceptively full of taste, and pleasant bites of meat, all sitting very pleasantly at the bottom of my stomach. The food just tasted better here – no bloated, painful stomachs, no preservatives and additives. Just good quality food.
That evening we took the Via Dell’Amore to Manarola to eat dinner with my brother and Meredith. We shared a saffron shrimp linguine and grilled king prawns. Anuja is insisting I share the photograph of the prawns because she was disgusted by them. They still had the heads (and eyeballs) attached, you see. So, to get at the meat, you had to break the heads off, pick off any legs and antenna you didn’t want and crack open the actual shell. It was a lot of work, and we paid a fair amount of cash for these five giant prawns. Ultimately, it probably wasn’t worth it, but the prawn meat we did get was tasty. The saffron linguine was bright and rich – definitely a winner.
After dinner, we ordered coffee. Now, for anyone who may not know this already, Europeans don’t do coffee like we do it here in North America, and the Italians are the undisputed masters of European coffee. The biggest difference is obviously the lack of milk – milk does not come with coffee there, unless you order it “American-style”, or cafe au creme, or cafe latte, or whatever special drink actually includes milk in it. Most of these begin as espresso, as well, so the “coffee” you get is almost always much stronger than, say, Tim Hortons’ double-double. I prefer this. I love strong coffee. To me, it’s not worth drinking if you can’t taste it (and Tim Hortons coffee, to reuse the example, tastes like water to me) so I was in heaven sipping strong coffee, sans milk and with only a small dash of sugar. Don’t get me wrong, I do love good coffee with cream, but I wasn’t about to refuse Italian coffee from the source. Anuja, on the other hand, had no problem ordering “breakfast coffee” (the waiter said with a barely concealed smile) and had no problem enjoying it. What can I say? Even the best cannot please everyone.
The next morning, after check-out, we grabbed some products from a local shop – Ligurian olive oil and a jar of local pesto. It was tourist-y, probably, but we simply could not resist; we were so impressed with the food we had there. Then it back on the road, heading west to France. Before we got back to the villa, though, we were planning a brief pit-stop in Marseilles – to visit their North African Market.