Hunting Wild Figs in Liguria
After a couple of days driving around Piedmont, we arrive in Liguria. We have explored the steep wine country around Canelli (and drunk some gorgeous wines with Alessandra Bera, who, along with her brother Luigi, runs Vittorio Bera e Figli—precariously positioned on a hillcrest between two steep valleys), poked around Asti and Alba, and struggled in the tide of churchgoing tourists in Turin. Either as a consequence of this breakneck itinerary, or of the lack of sleep, by the time we have completed our descent from the Alps to the Mediterranean, I am wretchedly sick with a cold, my head in an analgesic haze.
But rather than diminish, the gauzy effect of a stuffed head has only made my memories of Liguria the more impressionistic and vivid. There is an uncanny, vacant charm about beach towns out of season, and my own absentness only heightens this impression—all my recollections of Liguria are ethereal and filled with a seaglass light.
The beachside and promenade in the small town of Varigotti are just a long, narrow strip at the foot of the steep hills that follow the coast. We pick up Carla, the mother of the woman who owns the house we’re renting. Carla lives in a squat little house of her own just off the promenade and is putting the finishing touches on a lunch of pasta with piselli for her grandson when we arrive. Having dispatched this task, she bundles us into our car and directs us up the hill to our house for the next couple of days. As we ascend, she points out the place where there was a fire some months ago. She asks Marlene, our sole Italian speaker, about where we’ve been travelling so far. She seems to approve of our course through Piedmont, but she saves her special approbation for our arrival here in Liguria—she indicates the scenery with a lavish sweep of her hands and with gestures of delectation, as though all around were some fine comestible scene.
The road through the hills is sheer and winding, and we have to stop often to negotiate tight passes with other cars making their way down to the shore. The hillside is covered with spare, dry, brush, and groves of huddled Taggiasca olive trees. Carla tells us about her daughter. She’s lived everywhere—Brazil, the US, and now she’s back in Italy. She breaks off from her account to tell Marlene to turn down a grassy road and points out a shaded parking bay beneath a tree.The house is a short walk away, lying, as on a shelf, to the side of a rocky path, surrounded with wild gardens of fig and wild fennel. From the balcony we see the Mediterranean spreading out far below in deepening grades of blue.
We take a quick break on the balcony for a light lunch. It strikes me that even the supermarket cured meats here seem to be of a superlative quality; I drape some pancetta on a crust of bread and smear half a purloined fig over it. I realize I could happily eat just this for lunch every day of my life. Dangling our feet over the balcony edge, we decide that after lunch we’ll head down to the beach to get a swim in before it gets too late.
My few clear memories from Liguria are of the ocean. Though it is late in the season, the sun is sharp and I’ve never encountered water so blue and still. I swim far out, enjoying the saline clarity and the salutary effect of the ocean water on my sinuses. Off in the distance, a caravan of cruise ships skirts away from us to some more popular holiday port. Back ashore, we spread out on the shingle to nap in the sun, lulled asleep by the heat from the radiant pebbles on the beach.
The sun is in its last quarter when we wake up. Mike leads Laura and Marlene in an impromptu yoga session, which seems to get everyone’s energy up.
We stop at a small farmers’ market in a parking lot and pick up some vegetables for dinner. There are mighty, ridged cuore di bue tomatoes. I find the similarity in name to the American beefsteak tomatoes too good to resist and we buy two, as well as two bunches of delicate scorzonera—black roots, or salsify, though this variety is sharply tapered unlike the elongated, cylindrical sort you often find in the US.
We have less luck with fresh fish. The one fish seller in town is closing his doors as we hurry down the alley to talk to him. He is apologetic, but all he has fresh are mussels, and he seems more inclined to close shop for the day than show us his mussels. We try our luck at the supermarket. and emerge with some promising-looking orata, a couple of links of a local sausage, and a parcel of cow-and sheep’s-milk robbiola.
it is nearly dark by the time we get home for our now daily aperitivo. Laura opens a bag of taggiasca olives and Mike produces two small bottles of premixed aperol spritz as Marlene and I get ready for dinner. It’s been a little over a week since we’ve cooked a meal of our own. We take turns with the little prep work we have to attend to, trading places every now and then between the bright orange kitchen and the cobalt darkness outside. I venture into the plot next door for handfuls of fennel fronds and a stack of fig leaves to to wrap our fish in. There’s a strong breeze even in this hidden crook in the hillside, and the air is full of an inexplicable aroma of white flowers and honey.
When it’s time to eat, we sit down with a bottle of sparkling Barbera from our visit with Alessandra Bera. We’d imagined that it would last us till we got back to New York, but the setting seems too perfect not to drink it now. We open up the grilled fig leaves and tuck into the orata, aromatic with crushed red pepper and fennel. We squeeze sour-sweet grilled lemons over the well-charred sausages. Someone is in charge of disposing of fig leaves and clearing the antipasti from the table. Laura tosses grilled radicchio with a pine nut pesto while Mike pours wine. We fumble for plates and glasses in the inky dark. Way below us, a sailboat has anchored in the bay, swinging slowly about its mooring as the night wears on. We make plans for the next day: a raid on the fig trees nearby, maybe. Perhaps a drive to Cervo to the seaside restaurant owned by three old retired friends where the off-menu pastas are to die for. Also there’s a vineyard nearby that Mike wants to check out. The wine and my cold have each done their part: I feel insulated from everything around me and ready for sleep. Already the view seems to be disappearing in a cottony fog. I retire for the night and fall asleep, buoyant on the night sounds drifting in the window and the buzz of plans being laid.