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.