Marco Polo discovered pasta at Kublai Khan’s court in China and brought it back to Europe. Catherine de Medici brought forks, artichokes, peas, asparagus, broccoli, truffles and sorbets to France and changed the way her adopted country ate and cooked forever. In the 1600s, the frail crown duke of Savoy was cured of his ailments by breadsticks. Tiramisù was invented as a ‘pick me up’ for courtesans in the 17th century.
These are just some of the stories or myths Italians are fond of narrating about foods and recipes from their country. Historians may frown upon the practise but even Gillian Riley, who gives Catherine de Medici and the food myths surrounding her a thorough demolition job in The Oxford Companion to Italian Food, concedes that these anecdotes bring a human touch to the plain facts. Its legends like these that demonstrate how much Italians care about ingredients and cooking.
The creation myths surrounding farinata, an unleavened oven-baked flatbread made of chickpea flour, are some of my favourites. There’s one which traces its origins as far back as Ancient Greece and Rome. Soldiers in need of a quick and cheap meal would prepare a batter of chickpea flour and water which they would then cook on their metal shields out in the hot sun. The other is about a chance discovery by Genoese sailors after the maritime republic defeated its archrival Pisa in the Battle of Meloria in 1284. On their return journey, the Genoese ships were hit by a storm. The ships’ provisions of oil and chickpea flour were overturned and soaked with salt water. The sailors’ supplies were limited, leaving them little choice but to eat bowls of salty chickpea paste. Some of the sailors refused to eat this paste and left their bowls out on the deck exposed to the sun. The sun-baked mixture was found to be more palatable. Once they were back on dry land, the sailors perfected the batter and baked it in an oven. They called this oven-baked pancake l’oro di Pisa (Pisan gold), in mockery of the defeated Pisans.
Naturally, there is little basis in fact to prove these legends. However, most people agree that farinata originated in Genoa. And it was from this port city – one of the great seafaring powers of the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance – that this flatbread went on to be introduced to regions within the maritime republic’s sphere of influence. Look out for socca along the Cote d’Azur in France, cecina or torta di ceci along the Tuscan coast, fainè in northern Sardinia and belecauda in the southeast of Piedmont. The names may change but the essential ingredients (chickpea flour, water, salt and olive oil) and method for making them are identical.
Turin has also adopted farinata as its own. In fact, a slice of this nutritionally-dense pancake was my meal of choice when I first moved to the city and was commuting between companies as an English teacher. Like those weary soldiers from Antiquity, I didn’t always have time for a sit-down lunch and often went to the closest panificio to buy a bread roll and some farinata, for a quick and filling lunch-to-go.
Though best-known in the north west of Italy as a street snack, it can be made at home too. It’s taken several years of on and off experimentation but I think I’ve finally worked out how to obtain the golden, crisp and flaky-topped farinate of the professionisti. Firstly, there’s the batter’s water to flour ratio. It should be 3:1. If this looks disturbingly thin to you while you’re whisking, please, please refrain from the urge to add more flour. It will set once it’s sizzling in the oven, I promise! Secondly, you’ll want to set your oven to a high temperature. Woodfired ovens (which can reach temperatures of over 400 degrees Celsius) are often used to bake the best farinate so your domestic oven should be set close to its maximum temperature. Finally, there’s the material of the baking tray. Tradition calls for farinata to be cooked in a round tin-lined copper tray called a testo. After trying out a long line of baking trays in a variety of materials (ranging from aluminium, non-stick and a specially treated steel), I finally forked out the money for one of these hefty trays. There’s no point in arguing with the purists on this one. That reddish piece of round metal now proudly hanging in my kitchen is an extraordinarily efficient conductor of heat. The farinata won’t stick to it either. So, for best possible results in a domestic kitchen, invest in a testo![i]
Ingredients for a round baking tray with a 30cm diameter (serves 2 generously)
- 100 g chickpea flour
- 300 g water
- olive oil
- salt, to taste
- black pepper
Put chickpea flour and salt in mixing bowl. Add water in a slow and steady stream to avoid forming lumps. Whisk until batter is smooth. Leave batter to rest for a couple of hours. Pre-heat oven to 225 degrees. Pour olive oil into baking tray ensuring that the base is covered. Pour farinata batter onto tray. Stir batter and olive oil so they are evenly distributed. The batter should be about 3-4 mm high. Bake for about 20 minutes or until farinata has begun to pull away from the edges of the baking tray and has formed a nice golden crust on top. Slice farinata and serve hot with some freshly ground black pepper on top. Buon appetito!
[i] If a copper tray is not in your budget, the next best material to use would be the specially treated steel Italians call ferro blu, followed by aluminium and non-stick. If using these materials, the baking time will be longer (around 25-30 minutes). N.B. All links to products I’ve just made are entirely non-sponsored!