Paradise is a word never to be employed lightly, it being too special to be devalued by mis-use. I’ve been in touch with a man who uses the ‘paradise’ word with every last gram of passion and meaning that it is due – and I am touched. I’ve found a book that will sit beside me for time to come – one which I will open pages at random to be delighted. I don’t normally gush, but with this work I am.
When we read Nancy Harmon Jenkins saying: ‘Recipes from Paradise is a delight, full of the seductive charms of Liguria…………’. Then Lorenza De’ Medici explains: ‘Recipes from Paradise is the first book to unearth the treasures of this gastromic paradise (Liguria)’. New York’s Union Square Café chef/owner, Michael Romano, then throws in: ‘I strongly encourage everyone to embark on this…….delicious tour of little known Liguria’.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins and another Italian friend with Abruzzo roots but living in LA, Adri Barr Crochetti, both quite independently of one another put me onto ‘Recipes from Paradise – Life and Food on the Italian Riviera’ by Fred Plotkin – a writer and opera afficianado who has the good fortune to split his time between New York and his Ligurian ‘paradise’, the little fishing port of Camogli which he’s called home since 1988 – “I found Camogli by accident, in 1973 when I was 17. I had intended to visit Portofino. By mistake I got off at the wrong railway station – Camogli – and chose to stay there. It was love at first sight”.
We too have a great affection for Camogli and can share a fond memory from the tiny community of San Rocco that sits above. Maundy Thursday, around eight years ago, we were there and decided to hold onto the time spent in paradise by taking food home for the Easter Feast.
We bought ribs of Piedmontese vitellone which I asked to be left on the bone, chined and trimmed. Others in the shop seemed interested, if inquisitive, as I mangled my way through my little ‘kitchen ‘ Italian to help the butcher do as I wished. He asked how I would cook the joint and whether I’d be using rosemary? I nodded and smiled – explaining it was to take centre stage at our Easter Day feast with friends in London.
Without as much as a goodbye, the butcher left the shop with around 7-8 waiting customers now collected behind us. He was away a good 5 minutes, but there was none of the huffing and puffing we’d be having in London. He reappeared smiling with a large bunch of young rosemary from his garden. With fresh trofie and a tub of the brightest of green Pesto from the shop next door, we left happy for Genoa airport.
Camogli and Liguria are special by any reckoning and Fred Plotkin’s passion for this paradise is infectious. Asked why it differs from other Italian regions, he says: “I tend to read literature more than guidebooks for my cues about the nature of places. Byron, Shelley, DH Lawrence all loved Liguria. Dickens did not find it so hospitable and loathed Camogli which he called ‘piratical’.
“It struck me that a region that evinces such divergent emotions must be more interesting than places that everyone swoons over………….(and) I think that Ligurian food is among the best regional cuisines in Italy.”
On Camogli, versus the more popular Cinqueterre down the coast which he feels have today become “badly over-run and de-natured by mass tourism they cannot support”, he told me: “If you visit (Camogli), spend two or three nights in a hotel, walk gently through the town, exploring its byways, patronise its restaurants and eschew fast food.
Dickens, writes Plotkin, spent a year living in Genoa and later published a small volume called Pictures from Italy.
Plotkin has recorded his affection for the sharp, if subtle culinary nuances from town to town throughout Liguria. He respects the great recipes, as with ‘Classic Pesto’ (Pesto alla Genovese), ‘Ancient Pesto’ and then Pesto’s from Recco, Sori, Valpolcevara, Dolceacqua, the Levante and Ponente and more – each has its twist and each he has tasted many times over.
Pesto is a Plotkin passion: “I am a very devoted cook. I prefer to to prepare my own dishes rather than dining out……………….the dish I constantly make in season is pesto. The Ligurians have the best basil anywhere. I make it in a mortar and pestle so the flavours combine gently…………….this (for me) is pesto at its unrivalled best.”
Just about every recipe is introduced with personal anecdotes – note-taking would come second nature to Plotkin whose day job is to write about Opera and keeping his book ‘Italy for the Gourmet Traveller’ up to date.
On the one for the complex Cima Ripiena (Stuffed Veal Breast), he reveals ‘….from a recipe given to me by Laura Rossana, a smiling fruit and vegetable seller at stand no 54 of the San Remo market. He closes the lengthy recipe with ‘According to Laura, cold wine toughens meat while hot wine makes it more tender’. With most he says something of the origins and need for attention to every detail if one is to get near to replicating each dish.
The sections on culture, other writers, painters and composers who’ve visited Liguria from Monet and Mark Twain, Flaubert and Wagner, to a delightful historical two pages on ‘Cats and Dogs in Liguria’. It’s all here in the 480 pages which close with notes on the Liguria Larder – from Basilico and Bietole, to Porcini and Olives (taggiasca, of course – Liguria’s exclusive variety for which we must credit Benedictine monks from Sardinia who settled in the tiny village of Taggia, near Imperia).
When Fred Plotkin gets home to Camogli from New York City, I asked him what he does: “I would do my daily routine. Be awakened by the waves. Go for a long morning walk, buy a newspaper……… stop for a coffee…………..sit for an hour reading, dozing, thinking, writing notes…….then walk to the Via della Republica to see what fruit and vegetables look best and buy them……………then stop at the Camogli Fisherman’s Cooperative and buy a fish that was swimming an hour before.
“Home to cook………..some writing and a late afternoon walk with fresh baked focaccia to nibble on. Another hour at another café, a walk on the rocky beach and home to make pasta with opera on the radio. Then a late night stroll, write all night or until the waves have lulled me to sleep. Rise next morning and repeat the process, joyously.”
Wouldn’t we all like to live our lives like Fred Plotkin.
When asked what he specially looks forward to as the season’s unfold, Plotkin says: “Above all, the fragrances. The original title of my book was ‘La Cucina Profumata’ (The Perfumed Kitchen).
“This is a region with more flowers that any other in Italy, especially roses. The sea air is both fresh and briny. Lots of fruit grows……………..including the gorgeous strawberries in Arenzano, peaches, apricots and more. They add a sweetness to the air.
“The herbs that grow wild offer a tang that mixes with the salt and the floral………………all these smells are natural and real and make evident how wonderful Nature is at creating fragrances that laboratories and perfumiers cannot achieve.”
Pesto is never far from my mind and a ‘phone call with Roberto Panizza – Genoa’s crowned ‘King of Pesto’ – had us sharing words about Plotkin’s book. Panizza was clear: “Fred Plotkin is a good man who knows our ways and our kitchen”. I swear his voice rose in pitch with excitement.
This is praise indeed from someone who is acknowledged across Italy as the expert on the traditions of genuine Ligurian cucina and its gastronomy.
Timely too, because his Pesto Rossi goes on sale in Marks & Spencer (London) this week. First to stock it will be the M&S Deli’s at Marble Arch, Kensington High Street, Hampstead and a few others more.
As I’ve reported before, this is the near DNA identical recipe for the Pesto alla Genovese that’s made in 5 kilo batches, in the giant 16th century mortar with its pear wood pestle, every morning at his restaurant – ‘Il Genovese’ on the Via Galata. For sure Fred Plotkin will have supped there and know the taste that is so different to other so-called Pesto’s on sale in the UK which we call ‘industrial’.
Last word here to Fred Plotkin talking about Liguria’s great port: “The region is full of treasures and pleasure……………its capital, Genoa, is a city of great mystery, culture, commerce and valour. It (too) is not easy to understand right away, but it grows on you.
Bravo Fred Plotkin. Thank you for sharing and recording in your literary rich and culinary fulsome book your affection for ‘Paradise’. Has he another book planned on Liguria?
I urge you to find a copy* of ‘Recipes from Paradise’. I urge you too to visit M&S for a jar of Pesto Rossi’s Pesto alla Genovese (£3.29 for 85g) and imagine you’re lunching at ‘il Genovese’ just a few steps from the Mercato Orientale so loved by Plotkin.
PHOTO CREDITS: Shots of Camogli and Trofie with Pesto by Fred Plotkin. All others by Joy Davies©
FOOT NOTE: ‘Food Wine: The Italian Riviera & Genoa’ by David Downie comes well recommended – ISBN: 978-1-892145-64-2