Many moons ago – it seems like a lifetime ago now – I lived in Genova (Genoa) Italy for a couple of years. I was young, up for fun, and briefly, untethered (I met my Italian husband there so that soon changed!). Everything was intriguing, challenging and polarising. I tried things not only that I hadn’t eaten before (pesto; it was 1975 and this was weird green stuff back then), but things I’d never heard of or imagined eating such as pork lard rolled into little curls, horsemeat and boiled gristle. Many things that are commonplace today, were pretty out there back then (not suggesting that boiled gristle ever caught on – that was a shocker). I wrote about the food, the travels and the people in magazines such as Cuisine and More, and in Viva (NZ Herald) and other publications during my 33-year career as a food editor. Naturally enough, I developed hundreds of recipes. In 1991 I wrote a book long now out of print called Julie Biuso Cooks Vegetables, a soft-cover book of over 300 pages with no photography. Very few publishers would publish a book like that now, too risky a punt, yet, in 1992 it won a Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Award (the ‘Watties’ were the top literary awards in New Zealand at the time and have morphed into the Ockham Awards). People possibly read more about food then than they do now and filled in the gaps with their imagination. Now we want photographs. We want to know what a dish looks like before we decide to make it. However, my favourite books are the ones full of words, rather than pictures, maybe with some line drawings, books such as the stupendous Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat.
I was thinking back to when I first ate the curious combination of salami, broad beans and feta, and I was right back in the little seaside trattoria in Genova with its red-checked tablecloth and warm evening glow of candlelight, and it was a lovely memory. And so to page 24 in Julie Biuso Cooks Vegetables. As an author I don’t often read back on things, or not for years anyway, and it was like reading this anew. I’d change a few things here and there, but not much, and I thought I would share it here.
There can be no simpler start to a spring meal than this rustic Genoese offering. The first time it was suggested to me, I was a little sceptical, but nonetheless intrigued. However, I quickly became a fan.
It was many years ago, in an old trattoria in the seedy part of town near the port of Genova, that some friends and I were persuaded to try something other than the house specialty of freshly caught fish. We were presented with a carafe of ‘gut-rot’ red wine, a slab of salty, pungent, white sheep’s cheese, a calico-wrapped log of coarse-textured salami stuffed with black peppercorns and reeking of garlic, and a basket of freshly picked young broad beans.
Our host sliced some salami thickly, crumbled the cheese and snapped open a few broad beans and told us to try the three ingredients together. The combination, I can tell you, is quite remarkable.
The young beans are delicately nutty to taste, and milky, though slightly astringent. The sweet-hot fat and spice of the salami chases the astringency away, then the tang and salt of the cheese bite into your mouth, alarming the taste buds but finishing with a lingering saltiness which makes the mouth salivate, begging for the milkiness of the beans to soothe it. And so it goes on. Before you know it you will have devoured great quantities of all three, not to mention copious draughts of any rough red you may happen to serve with it.
Choose a well-seasoned, coarse-textured salami, preferably one with chunkier pieces of fat, but avoid hot-spiced ones flavoured with chilli. The cheese should be fresh, tangy-sharp and crumbly in texture. Reasonable substitutes are a good Welsh Caerphilly, a dry (not crumbling) low-salt feta, or perhaps a white Cheshire cheese. The broad beans must be young and fresh. A youngish, lively Chianti goes well with this, as does a new Beaujolais. But a gutsier wine, providing it is red, will not be out of place.