“Visitors to Liguria may perhaps be classified into six main groups; the fashionable, the ultra-fashionable, and the would-be fashionable: the once fashionable, the unfashionable and the anti-fashionable” Jasper Moore. The Land of Italy (1949)

It was some time ago that I first travelled the by-roads through France to northern Italy. Behind me were school trips with overzealous teachers and package holidays with overprotective parents – yet to come were the many solitary commercial flights to Europe.

Earlier that year I had been granted a scholarship from the Slade School of Art. The remit was to cast my gaze over early Renaissance statuary, almost all of which was fortunately still in Italy, and provide a comprehensive thesis on my return.

On this particular trip I felt the cool, exciting winds of independent travel.

I had piggybacked a ride down to Liguria from Paris with a colleague, Nick, who had just left the Royal College of Art and owned a glamorous but battered late ‘40’s Mercedes convertible. With him was his new best friend, fittingly named Livia; presumably after Caligula’s nonna. They had decided to enact a low-cost Grand Tour.

As we meandered  through France together, unaided by the rigours of maps, let alone satellite navigation, we were unsure as to whether the residents of the villages we sped through were hailing our rakish British escape to the bohemian excesses of the riviera, or scorning Teutonic buffoons turning up late for the occupation of Europe in a battered staff car. Their vocal greetings were indistinguishable from some of the alarming engine noises that emanated from the Mercedes. I prayed silently that we would at least make it to the Mediterranean.

Nick and Livia intended to drive down to Genoa, move on to greet her sister in Santa Margherita, then undertake a few sybaritic weeks in Portofino before driving on through Tuscany. Mine was a more detached schedule that involved being dropped off somewhere warm, taking in an inexpensive break by the sea, then drifting south through Italy.

As the pre-Euro exchange rate in the mid seventies had lots of zeros attached, the scholarship provided more lira than Garibaldi could shake a stick at. With this bounty I was packed off to seek enlightenment in the museums and piazzas of Italy. My patrons had anticipated that I would be undertaking little else but fervent study the moment my feet touched warm Italian soil.

Meanwhile, once in Liguria, as we cruised the beaches of the Mare Ligure, it soon became clear that Santa Margarita and nearby Portofino, breathtakingly beautiful as they were, were no place for a student’s budget, even one as generous as mine. They weren’t particularly well endowed with Renaissance statues either.

Mountainside houses had clearly been snapped up by incomers. Smaller fishing boats had long ago been nudged aside by smart yachts, and small beach side Tavola Caldas and Osterias, inevitably replaced by high-end Ristorantes. Cars were virtually forbidden and Nick’s was understandably banned from entering on condition alone. Principal rite of arrival was expected by sea, and offshore yachts sported flags of many expensive nations.

Like Wagner and Dickens before me, I tried in vain to immerse myself in the cultural life of the Italian Riviera, but my otherwise opulent stipend showed signs of immediate protest. A week’s generous budget could comfortably disappear in a day and I had managed the simultaneous knack of sitting on a very expensive beach whilst getting out of my depth. I had not seen any art either

Fortunately I was to discover that local residents, who, unlike me, had long ago shunned the gussied up eateries, made an early start outside the many backstreet bakeries. Here, amongst other culinary jewels that I would only discover years later, one could purchase fresh, warm Focaccio. Though now widely made throughout Italy, Focaccio began its life in Liguria’s capital – Genoa. Sold whole from bakeries or cut to convenient slices by wandering beachside vendors, this olive oil based salt dough is the Ligurian equivalent of the pizza in Naples The choice of toppings tends to be restricted to onions, rosemary or crushed rock salt and I used to alternate during the course of the day. Even with an ice cold Peroni changing hands at four times its retail price, my collegiate budget was temporarily granted a reprieve

I managed to remain on those very expensive beaches yet live almost entirely on delicious bread for days. Like Dante’s descent before him, I felt I had reached Jasper More’s sixth circle. If I had not studied any art as yet, at least I had attained temporary membership of the ‘anti-fashionable’.

But as the town FAX machine provided me with a smudged missive from the Slade School enquiring as to the educative qualities of the trip so far, it was clearly time to set off south in search of bronze and marble sculpture. Belin che Fougassa, the daily shout of ‘fresh bread’ had been something of a lifesaver, its echoes remained with me on that journey.

Focaccia al Sale from The River Café Classic Italian Cookbook (2009)

750g Tipo ‘00’ flour

1 tbsp finely ground sea salt, plus extra for scattering on the top

2 tsp easy-blend yeast

150 ml extra virgin olive oil, plus 50 ml or so for cooking

Mix the flour and finely ground salt together in a large bowl

Tip the yeast into a cup of warm water at room temperature and stir

Mix the yeasty water into the flour, along with the oil, and refill the cup with water

Begin to mix with one hand, keeping the other clean for the moment

There will not be enough moisture to make a cohesive dough, so, bit by bit, add more water until you can knead it

Knead for about 10 minutes

Leave the dough for about an hour covered in a warm place, until doubled in size

Lightly oil an oven tray about 25 x 35 cms

When the dough has risen, roll it out to fit into the tray and brush it lightly with oil to keep it from drying out during its second proving, which should take about 30 minutes

Heat the oven to 200°C

Sprinkle coarse sea salt over the focaccia

Mix another 50 ml or so of oil with 50 ml of water in a jar and pour this over the focaccia before putting in the oven

The focaccia is ready after about 25 minutes, when it is golden in colour

Wine Thoughts

Down to Umbria and the plateau-elevated jewel that is the city of Orvieto. For many years the wine, named after the city, was decidedly so-so. A convenient blend of white grapes, featuring Trebbiano as the dominant partner. Recent moves to elevate one of its other blended varietals; Grechetto, has moved it up a few notches. Some wineries are beginning to make pedigree, single variety whites solely from Greccheto, the best expressing hints of peach and apple on the palate. If you can lay hands on a bottle alongside some warm slabs of onion napped focaccio, you will have yourself a fine yet simple lunch. For those with a little more time and some leftover bread, a Panzanella  salad would also work well with these refreshing whites.