Cibo di Strada (Genoan sustenance!)

In the UK it’s often seen as a sign of someone’s lack of class if they are seen leaving a branch of Gregg’s the bakers munching into a freshly bought pasty straight out of its bag. It’s “chavvy” or common to do so in many people’s eyes, possibly because it is an impossible task to achieve with dignity.

In Genoa a similar act is commonplace, and seemingly not seen as common.

Wherever I go on my Italian travels I try to eat some of the local specialities like cicchetti in Venice, or tortelloni in Bologna.  In Genoa the obvious first choice is trofiette pasta with fresh pesto (so much more vibrant than the jars that sit in supermarkets), but you can hardly snack on that as you walk the Genovan strade.

Luckily there is another Ligurian speciality to fill the gap (and your stomach).  Focaccia.  Now to be fair, this is hardly exotic fare; it’s fairly ubiquitous outside of Italy; I even make it myself on occasion.  In Genoa however you can’t walk more than a few metres in any direction without encountering a focacceria, ensuring that the bread is always at its freshest.  It’s also topped with cheese, tomato, or olives, as well as combinations of these staples.  There is even black focaccia, made with charcoal flour to aid digestion.  I stuck with the traditional ingredients.

Yet neither focaccia nor trofiette al pesto formed the most memorable food experience of my trip.  Again there are plenty of supplier to choose from, but all my research suggested that the place to try farinata was from an old hole in the wall establishment called Antica Sciamadda.  (Sciamadda is a local dialect word meaning “flamed”).

I couldn’t wait to try this chickpea pancake, and so made it one of the fixed points of my first day’s itinerary.  As midday approached I headed down towards the port with my mouth watering.

It was closed.

To be fair it was Sunday.

The following day I was in the vicinity again, and as the day was much colder and wetter than before seeing the yellow light emerging from windows that had been firmly shuttered before was a life saver.  I rushed in and asked for farinata.

They had none… but luckily only because it wasn’t yet ready. I spent the time wisely and ordered a selection of the other deep-fried snacks that they make there and a slice of quiche (torta salata).  This might be street food, but I was glad of the shelter so grabbed one of the few stools at a counter inside which gave me the perfect chance to view the farinata being made.

A thin batter made from chickpea flour, olive oil and seasoning is poured into a huge flat pan which is then manoeuvred into a fierce oven in a compartment alongside the burning wood, so that the heat is conducted along the roof of the oven to cook the pancake.  The pan itself has no handles and so the baker(?) rotates it using long steel poles to ensure an even distribution of heat.  Such a thin flatbread cooks very quickly and the pan is soon withdrawn, but must cool a little before serving.

I was asked how many pieces I wanted.  Having no idea how large they would be I opted for two, which proved the right decision given what I had already consumed.  There was no carefully measured wedge however.  Using what appeared to be a wallpaper scraper the large disc was rapidly carved into smaller pieces and unceremoniously dumped onto a polystyrene plate for me.

No frills, no fuss, but no quibbles from me.  It was just what I needed, even if I didn’t eat it on the street.  I wasn’t the only one!


Food (Habana 24)

As I’ve previously mentioned, Havana isn’t a place to come in expectation of great culinary expectation, which isn’t to say that you won’t find moments of magic. Of the three restaurants in the 5* Hotel Nacional, even the most expensive struggles to make something as straightforward as a Salad Nicoise. The irregularity of ingredient supply is surely something that this business could overcome, but if a lack of expectation has removed the demand…

HavanaThere are a couple of exceptions to this mediocrity, one of which is to eat in a paladar.  These are small privately owned restaurants which may not even stretch to having a written menu and are approved by the state for up to 12 covers.  The best are in Miramar and Vedado according to my guide book, and so as I spent the majority of my time elsewhere I didn’t try them this time but this one was recommended to me.

I did however try the alternative.

Strolling down Obispo on any given afternoon and you’re likely to hear a clear contralto ringing down the street. “Mani” she sings out, repeating the word a few times before going on to complete a short refrain which presumably extols the virtues of her wares. Like the street sellers in “Oliver”, her song is part of her trade.

"Mani" seller, Havana
“Mani” seller, Havana

Mani, by the way, are warm and slightly salted peanuts, served in a paper cone, and they are just one of a number of street foods that can be found here, most of which rely upon those ingredients that are plentiful; sugar, flour, pork, and occasionally fish.

You want a taste of Havana? Take to the streets.