White Cuisine Mendatica, August 19, 2017

Mendatica is a tiny mountain village of the Arroscia Valley, located above the Province seat of Imperia, Italy. The village is known for its livestock farming culture. The White Cuisine festival celebrates the frugal, yet highly nutritious local shepherd diet, mainly consisting in starchy foods, cheese and vegetables such as garlic, leeks, radishes, potatoes, chestnuts and wild herbs that can be found along the pastures. The common feature of these foods is their relative lack of color, from which the term "White Cuisine" is derived.

A view of the village of Mendatica: it's still early for the party, so tables and seats are still empty. A few people enjoy a chat by the "Ruggi" (dialect for "streams") fountain.
A life size diorama shows elements of a lifestyle practiced up until not too long ago: traditional shepherd clothing is set alongside furniture still present in many mountain cottages. The suitcase may symbolize the semi-nomadic herding lifestyle.

Several stands are set up along the village: food stations where people stop along the way to sample specific dishes. To do so, they can either purchase a forfait ticket to enjoy the full tour, or simply pick and choose whichever station they'd like, albeit for a small fee.

The purchase of the forfait ticket includes a pouch where one can place its ticket alongside drinking cups. Every fringe of the ticket corresponds to a specific food station. Each paper fringe must be broken off and given to the host when ordering a meal.
Amidst the final preparations, Mrs. Paola and Carmela move a flower vase out of the way, minutes before the beginning of the festival.
The volunteer cleaning team on patrol: these young folks kept the alleys nice and tidy throughout the entire event.
Shortly after taking his portrait, Mr. Ferrari wanted my opinion on his "grappa", a very strong moonshine distilled from either wine, grapes or grape stalks. If barrel aged, it turns into cognac. Enjoying "grappa" is an acquired taste, certainly not for the faint of heart. Mr. Ferrari's "grappa" was surprisingly smooth. He told me he made it directly from wine, rather than the much rougher flavor obtained from grape stalks.

As soon as the first visitors start wandering around the village, the food stations are ready with their meals. In just a short amount of time, lines of people have already formed, eager to be served.

The "sugeli" station: small gnocchi-like pasta made with water and flour, which is served with "bruzzo" cheese, a strong fermented ricotta, and a few crushed nuts. Fabrizio sets up a few pans, as pots of water are about to boil behind him.
As soon as the water is boiling, it only takes about two minutes for the "sugeli" to cook. Fabrizio makes sure the pasta isn't sticking to the strainer. Once all afloat, the "sugeli" are ready.
Once ready, the "sugeli" are strained and poured into the pans, shortly before being seasoned with "bruzzo" cheese.
Once seasoned, the "sugeli" are served to the multitudes of people waiting for their share.

The mountains surrounding the village are not very high. The territory is very steep, however, with strong vertical gaps. The morphology of the land has played a major role in shaping the lifestyle of its people, thus their diet. Nature's harshness is compensated by its delicate gifts: the quality of the grass grazed by goats, sheep and a few brave cows provides nourishing cheese. The efforts of men, who built dry wall terraces on which to cultivate the rocky soil, have been rewarded with the premium ingredients that define the white cuisine today.

A staff member of the culture and tourism committee of the village of Buggio pours some grated Padano cheese in a bowl, which will go on top of their prized "gran pistau" (dialect for "crushed wheat"): a slow cooked soup with the addition of pork rind, bayleaf, onion, garlic, carrots and celery, then strained and sautéed with leeks and garlic.
As a final touch, another staff member completes the dish with a mustard based secret sauce. The "gran pistau" is one of the oldest recipes of the White Cuisine, due to the use of animal fat, which was commonplace before the cultivation of olive trees, introduced in the late Middle Ages; olive oil is in fact available as a vegetarian option.

It was customary for shepherd families to cultivate small patches near their Summer huts or cottages. Very few vegetables can grow at an altitude of over one thousand meters. Some brought chickens with them for a few eggs a day, and the availability of flavorful wild herbs made it possible to put their meals together.

Mr. Canarini carefully flips the "pan fritu" (dialect for "fried bread") sticks as they emerge from the pot. Simply put, "pan fritu" is fried pizza dough, cut into delicious finger sized bites.
As easy as the recipe can be, nailing it can still be tricky. Thanks to their experience, Simona, Arianna and Alberto (from left to right) have it down to a science.
A young girl proudly displays the finished "pan fritu" bites before serving them to the hungry crowd waiting outside the kitchen.
Just outside the kitchen, the "pan fritu" is given out in small paper bags.
Most tables are full, but other people don't mind eating while standing: some dishes of the White Cuisine were meant to be easily carried by shepherds while minding their herds.
A lady quickly reheats several squares of "turta de patate" (dialect for "potato pie"). This is one of many variations of a baked dish also known as "turta vérda" ("green pie"), "turtùn" ("big pie") as well as many other names, according to each village. This dish is not exclusive to the White Cuisine, but it's a staple of Ligurian cuisine in general: its common features are two layers of dough, separated by a filling of seasonally available vegetables, sometimes with the addition of boiled rice, depending on where it's made.
A young lady serves a slice of "turtellu" (dialect for "round pie"), another variation among the many available for the renowned Ligurian vegetable pie.
Enrica, Maria Luisa and Paola (from left to right) are busy plating the "patate in ta' foglia" (dialect for "potatoes in a pan"), thinly sliced potatoes baked in a delicious mixture of milk cream, grated parmesan cheese, finely chopped leeks and a pinch of salt and pepper.
Micaela proudly displays a sample of "bruzzo" cheese, "aglié" (a garlic infused potato/mayonnaise blend) and "panissa de gasce" (dialect for "chickling polenta"), the latter of which can sometimes include dried peas.
Not only food: the White Cuisine festival also hosts a roster of talented musicians. Here in the picture are the "Trés trés bon": Belisario Fauzzi (in the back), Lorenzo Herrut-Girola, Caterina Battaglia and Roberto Bonazinga.
After much eating and drinking, there's nothing better than a warm cup of "brodu d'erbe amare" (dialect for "bitter herbs broth"). Mr. Luigi and Mrs. Ivana provide the digestive benefits of a fairly simple egg drop soup with chopped borage, nettle, swiss chard and wild mountain herbs. It was originally intended for the elderly, people suffering either flu or colds, as well as mothers of newborns who might have had trouble digesting solid foods. Its health properties make it a popular choice among hangover remedies.
Members of the Sport Club of the town of Albenga smile at the camera: they are responsible for the delicious "friscioi de mei" (dialect for "apple fritters") station.
The "friscioi de mei" are a beloved dessert: thin apple slices are coated in batter, deep fried and then sprinkled with white sugar.
Plating the sweets: a lady is taking care of the "turui", caramelized hazelnuts in a honey glaze spread between two wafers. The recipe may have slight variations, according to local customs. They are usually served on Christmas.
As the evening goes on, people roam the alleys back and forth, often indulging in a few more helpings.
Cheers! Or as in this case, chairs. This group of friends came up with a silly, yet ingenious idea to carry their good stuff around.

The White Cuisine festival, in the end, is a great way to celebrate a precious culinary heritage, as well as the efforts of a rural community, willing to disclose their culture through a fun event for people of all ages. Kudos to the Municipality of Mendatica, and the work of all who make this event possible every year.

It's rather late, but as long as food is concerned, people keep gathering at the stations until all stocks are gone.
Created By
David Tinius Rossi
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