as opposed to “What is farinata?” which is what usually confronts me when i say things like “man, i’ve been really into farinata lately,” or “have you ever had farinata?” or “hey, you want to come over for some farinata?” because no one seems to know what it is, and for that matter, nor did i, until i ran across a recipe for it one day and was like “hey, that seems just like socca.”
the plot thickens, i know.
so to clarify, after the orgy of comma-spattered obfuscation that is customary around here, we must go to Nice, of all places.
the fall of 2008 quite improbably found me aboard a cruise ship in the Mediterranean sea, and one of our ports of call being Villefranche-Sur-Mer, where as there is little to do besides see Cocteau’s chapel (which was closed) and you know, enjoy the French fucking riviera, we decided to hop the train over to Nice, which we heard was okay. and i’m happy we did; happier still that my travelling companion had the wherewithal to learn a little about the place beforehand, because as a result we spent much of our day wending our way down charming winding streets in search of what the 4 pages i had torn out of some past-due Lonely Planet assured us was a must-try of Niçoise cuisine – socca.
if you’re as confused as i was by the name and its distinctly un-French sound you shall remain so because i have yet to sort out its origins, and you may be still further confused by the fact that it’s basically just made out of chickpea flour and olive oil – not exactly the first ingredients to spring to mind when one thinks of staples of French cooking. i could refer you to the wiki article but i shan’t because it won’t tell you much more than this: socca is a chickpea flour-based sort of flatbread-cum-crêpe that has a faintly fermented taste to it and is cooked on ginormous pans in big wood ovens. it is a street food and therefore 1. greasy as fuck, and 2. delicious.
where we ended up, thanks to the directions of native niçoises (“keep going down this way, and you’ll see so-and-so’s socca, but don’t go there, you got to keep going, to such and such other place, for the real, the best socca in Nice” is a faithful paraphrase) was a big lunch counter type joint in an old stone building (duh) that consisted of an open kitchen dominated by the aforementioned giant wood ovens and staffed by an assortment of beautiful/young or old/indestructible frenchwomen who scraped piles of blistering hot socca onto paper plates for you, along with whatever other snacks and some tartare sauce, according to your order. the establishment had no seating proper, but for the price of a drink you were welcome to have a seat at one of tables of the apparently unaffiliated bar of the same name (which escapes me, lamentably) directly across the street (a distance of, i might add, not more than 7 feet). at as generous portions of beer and chilled rosé for 3€ you’ll ever find, i couldn’t recommend it enough, if only i could remember any of the details requisite for a proper recommendation.
this is also where i believe i first tried pissaladière, which is the niçoise/provençal/ligurian(apparently) pizza or sometimes puff pastry topped with (often caramelized) onions, olives and anchovies*, and is Probably One Of My Favourite Things.
anyway, back to farinata, which is effectively the exact same thing as socca, except made by Italians, and more likely to involve rosemary, and (hold onto your ever-loving hats) when i made it for the first time at home tasted (i swear to god) exactly like KFC skin.
WHOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA AM I RIGHT?
well, i know i’m right about the skin thing, because it was the two other people with me at the time who put their fingers on it, but if you’re the type of fool who finds the idea repulsive, or to be fair, finds the reality repulsive (because skin-eating is kind of weird, but we all know that KFC skin is delicious, in reality), don’t worry about it, because put it out of your head and i guarantee you that crap is delicious. cut the oil, even, and it makes for a slightly less overwhelming snack, more suited to flatbread-type activities, like scooping up other good things.
so here’s a recipe, from………i really don’t remember, sorry, and it’s all in metric, which is useless to me since i don’t own a kitchen scale, and if the “tastes like KFC skin” was what sold you, chances are you don’t either, no offence, but it’s pretty convertible if you’re comfortable with wingin’ it.
300 g chick pea flour (this is easy to find at middle eastern grocery stores, btw)
1L tepid water
1t fresh ground black pepper
1T sea salt
~110 mL olive oil
carefully whisk flour into water so as to avoid lumps, add salt & pepper, then let sit 2 hours. skim the foam off the top of the batter and discard, add olive oil. next take a cast iron skillet (with an oven-proof handle, because that’s where it’s goin’), pour on ~1T more olive oil, and throw it (just the pan) into a 450º oven until the oil is just smoking. remove, pour in batter so as to create a (crêpe) thin layer, and replace in oven, for about 10 minutes, till the top is browning and the edges crispy, but the middle still a little soft.
this recipe is for a pretty huge batch, so using my Giant Brain, i converted it roughly into something like a 3:1 water to flour ratio, with around 1 T olive oil per cup water as a general, necessarily tweakable to taste guideline. hopefully that helps.
here, perhaps more helpfully, is David Lebovitz’s socca recipe, which i haven’t tried, but eyeballing it just now i feel like i should. and i mean, he’s a professional and all, so he probably knows what he’s doing.
having sorted that out, to get back to the original question, where does all this “who” nonsense come from? well, as i was leafing through C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Proposes A Toast” (which i haven’t read, nor its precursor, but believe me it’s on the list), this passage caught my eye:
Oh, to get one’s teeth again into a Farinata, a Henry VIII, or even a Hitler! There was real crackling there; something to crunch; a rage, an egotism, a cruelty only just less robust than our own. It put up a delicious resistance to being devoured. It warmed your inwards when you’d got it down.
who could this Farinata be, i asked myself, so diabolical as to share a spotlight with Henry VIII and Hitler? could he be the namesake of my beloved snack? and if so, what dark secrets might teem behind its greasy veil? what ignominy?!
as it turns out the man, Farinata degli Uberti, is of no discernible relation to the snack. an Italian noble and anti-papist who did some stuff or whatever, but more importantly, disbelieved in the afterlife and, according to Boccaccio (according to wikipedia) “maintained that happiness consisted in temporal pleasures . . . was fond of good and delicate viands, and ate them without waiting to be hungry; and for this sin he is damned as a Heretic in this place.” not only damned, he and his wife had their bodies exhumed and burned by Inquisition goons as a sort of punishment for heresy by posthumous execution, which is basically the most fascinating blasted thing i’ve heard of all day (an “it is not enough for justice to be done, it must be seen to be done” sort of thing, perhaps? i’m a look into it. see also, the Cadaver Synod.). he turns up in The Divine Comedy too (you know, in hell) but even all this seems thin grounds for suggesting that he should serve as such substantial fare for demons as Hitler, say. for want of more information, i’m going to leave all this at a reference back to my earlier passing discussion of dandyism/refinement/Hannibal Lecter/the sins of refinement and indulgence in earthly pleasures. i mean, on the one level it all seems absurd that enjoyment of the feast of the senses should be a sin (God’s Work being Good and all), but if you think of it as a statement, by way of lifestyle, of the rejection or irrelevance of what God has to offer (spiritual immortality being the big 52¢ carrot), then it’s pretty profound stuff.
excuse me while i go eat an entire pizza.
* this is another example of defining elements of dishes being left by the wayside in subsequent permutations. anchovies specifically, which i am happy leaving out of/off of my pissaladière, despite the very name deriving from pissalat, a type of anchovy paste – itself derived from the latin piscis for fish. take that, small fry.