Like all border towns, Ventimiglia attracts hordes of shoppers in search of a bargain. This mostly involves cheap alcohol - can someone explain why Pastis costs less in Italy than in the south of France? - and handbags or sunglasses that come with fake labels and the risk of a hefty fine should the border police decide to do one of their frequent spot checks.
For me, though, Ventimiglia is all about mozzarella. Yes, I know, mozzarella is produced outside Naples and has been the subject of scandals involving buffalo grazing on garbage-strewn land. For the purposes of this post I'm going to expand my definition of mozzarella to include a knock-off sold by a certain local cheesemaker in the Ventimiglia market hall, somewhere in the middle of the small farmers' section. Such is the lusciousness of these springy white pillows that I can't say mention the name of this town without Sam exclaiming "I love you mozzarella!".
Made with cow's milk, this mozzarella might not be the real thing but what it lacks in authenticity it makes up for in artisanal character. At its best (ask for a round one that is nice and cremosa, creamy) it has soft, burrata-like richness, with an irrestistibly stringy texture - when we don't eat it plain or with tomatoes, we tear it into pieces to scatter over a pizza or fat purple beans baked in tomato sauce with chard or, if I'm very lucky, kale. Yesterday I chose the twisty version pictured above, which didn't collapse in the same satisfying way when cut. The enthusiastic cheesemaker gave me a long speech about how to eat it, the gist of which was "solo olio di oliva". Herbs or peperoncino are permitted, but no salt as the cheese is already salted.
The same cheese stand has other wonders: a stunningly fresh ricotta, which I can imagine eating in the morning with honey or fig jam, and a firm, subtle-tasting tomme made with a mix of different milks. It's the mozzarella, though, that gets Sam and me out of bed early on a Saturday morning to catch the train for a scenic 45-minute ride along the coast. Friday is the most popular day for shopping in Ventimiglia because of the sprawling market of clothes and bric-a-brac in the town center, but I prefer just about any other day of the week (except Sundays when the market is closed) so that I can concentrate on food.
Once I have satisfied my urgent cheese needs, I complete the Ventimiglia ritual by visiting the small farmers for marinated olives and vegetables that are hard to find in Nice. Spiky artichokes, broccoletti and all kinds of chicory (the familiar red version of which is radicchio) are in season at the moment, and occasionally I leap at bunches of kale (cavolo nero), which inexplicably has never caught on in the south of France. I then make my way quickly through the rest of the market, perhaps stopping for the local version of socca (a salty chick pea flour pancake), called farinata on this side of the border. Here, it's thicker than in Nice and has a creamy texture inside.
Next, I head to the organic shop Naturalia at Via Roma 10 for inexpensive flours, grains and pasta, plus some oddities like L'Origine: l'alimento degli gnomi (food for gnomes!), a mix of different grains colored with nettles, red beets and carrots that looks like orzo and cooks in 6 minutes. Could anyone but the playful Italians have come up with this?
My last stop if I'm not having lunch in town is the appropriately named Bar Canada next to the market, where I can sit in the sun in mid-winter and sip a well-made cappuccino while an ambitious street vendor successfully hawks Mary Poppins-style umbrellas under a brilliant blue sky.
I'm usually so loaded up that I'm anxious to head home and unpack my basket, but when I decide to stay for lunch my favorite spot is the family run, southern Italian-influenced Il Giardino del Gusto at Piazza XX Settembre 6C. It's not the best food I've ever had in Italy, but it's certainly good enough to keep my spirits high and the friendly waitress Maria speaks flawless English and French, which makes it ideal for visitors.
Then it's time to get back on the train, where the suspicious border guards and their dogs haven't yet sniffed out my fake goods.
Happy New Year and may 2012 bring you mozzarella cremosa and other good things!
13 comment(s) on this page. Add your own comment below.
Rosa, I missed your food writing over the summer. Ventimiglia sounds like a place I would love to visit and retrace your footsteps. Unfortunately, I'm landlocked in the desert southwest, home of the carne asada burritio and huevos rancheros. Maybe someday I will return to Nice for a visit and you can play tour guide.
Hi Jim, good to hear from you! The kind of food you eat sounds good to me too. I need to explore some Mexican-inspired veggie options for Sam. Hope to see you back in Nice someday!
we fondly remember the food and market at Ventimiglia. we spent a week in Apricale once, about 30 min into the hills from Ventimiglia. in the middle of town, to which you can only walk, the church steeple has a bike on top of it, and one of the restaurants in the piazza serves an amazing pesto lasagna.
Dear Rosa, a friend of mine in Nice told me I HAD to read your blog so here I am! :-) I'm so happy you adore mozzarella too. This artisan version sounds marvelous! I look forward to learning more from you in the days ahead. :-)
Krista, I've just been perusing your blog, admiring the pictures and enjoying the stories. I hope we'll have a chance to meet someday! Having my own garden is a dream at the moment. In the meantime, I have mozzarella to console me.
I didn't know that Mozerella was edible - truly. The only stuff I have ever seen is in the grocery stores where you are supposed to buy the rubbery lumps for lasagna. Such is the gormand's life in California's central valley :-). Nice, here I come.
Norine, I'm sorry to hear that! I would have thought you could find good mozzarella in California, but I suppose it depends where you live. For the authentic stuff look for the words "mozzarella di bufala" on the packet, which show that it's made from buffalo milk. Good luck!
I am a cooking lover , heard this blog from one of my friend , I 'd like you to share more cooking writing with us ,thank you!
Hi Rosa, I love mozzarella too and your description of the market at Ventimiglia has made me determined to go there! I have 2 of your books for les paresseuses as a way of learning more French and delicious recipes simultaneously and I love the way you make them all so easy. I have a request - please could you tell me what the abbreviations c.à.s and c.à.c are short for in French and what are their translations into English. Many thanks.
Thanks for dropping by Trish! I'm so glad you enjoy the cookbooks. C. à s. means cuillère à soupe (tablespoon) and c. à c. means cuillère à café (teaspoon). That should help with your measurements!
thanks very much Rosa, I'm using my measuring spoons so I'll do 15ml for the cuillère à soupe and 5ml for the cuillère à café - and will learn the French words too!
I also like to go to Ventimiglia from Nice to shop for fruits and vegetables. I would like to suggest that you visit the Curti pastry shop. It has an amazing variety of small cakes --- the best that I have ever eaten. It is on via Cavour just a bit to the right after you go down from the train station.
I've also heard that the place is very scenic. It should be fun to visit and sample authentic mozzarella there