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A New Year on the Italian Riviera

Whether new or old or ancient or merely a continuation of time immemorial, the year 2011 AD as marked on our calendars got off to a luminous start at midnight + 1 second. We were treated to bombastic fireworks and dramatic night-lighting of the seafront houses, churches and medieval castle in Camogli.

Here’s the view from Ristorante Da Rosa, perched on a cliff on the western edge of town. While a packed house of locals scarfed down Maria Rosa’s seafood, pesto, Pigato and much more, feasting in honor of Saint Sylvester (a nice pretext for a chow-down), this year we stayed home. We ate succulent pork chops and potatoes, and zingy Zemin, that inimitable Ligurian chard-and-chickpea soup. It is much much better than it sounds.

Here’s a thumbnail recipe of the easiest kind, for four servings of Zemin.

Combine in a large pot:

About two pounds of chard (the younger and more tender the better – we use old-fashioned beta vulgaris chard, which is like perpetual spinach) or spinach, roughly chopped
Two 16-ounce cans of chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans), rinsed twice (or 1 pound dry garbanzo beans, which you’ll need to soak for at least 12 hours and rinse thoroughly before using)
Two large onions, roughly chopped
Two or three cloves garlic, hand crushed, green shoots removed
A couple of tablespoons of excellent extra virgin olive oil
A pinch each of salt and freshly ground black pepper
A quart and a half or so of cold water

Bring the ingredients to a boil any way you please and then simmer, covered, for about an hour, adding a cup or so of water about halfway through.

Place one galletta (a sea biscuit or hard tack) or one slice of stale bread into the bottom of a large, deep soup bowl, one per person (in theory there are four of you). Ladle in the soup. Drizzle in more olive oil if you like, and if you really want to pull out all the stops, grate some Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano on top. (Some people make Zemin with chili pepper flakes instead of black pepper, which is swell; and some put in a chunk or bits of pancetta or bacon, which is also swell, but the rich, spicy flavors compete with the chard).

Made with this recipe, Zemin is as easy to digest as it is to make. Read on and you’ll understand why ease of digestion was particularly important to us on this New Year’s Eve.

We watched the Camogli fireworks not from Da Rosa this year but from another, more distant, much quieter angle, within a few feet of our bedroom.

There was rhyme to our reasoning. Early to bed… The next morning, on the First, we were up way before dawn—at 5:45am. We started our New Year’s hike as soon as we’d finished breakfast: crumbled gallette (those sea biscuits again!) with milk, local honey and plump abate pears. Plus caffelatte and lots of water. Lots. Of water.

Because we knew we’d soon be sweating, despite the cold. It was near freezing—in the 30s Fahrenheit. I figured the first leg of our hike would take us a good 9 hours. It did. All of it up and down. But that’s in the next installments.

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One Comment

  1. Jenny Snyder

    This is a fabulous piece! As always, you make me want to get on a plane and go experience it all for myself. And it’s a place I would never have thought to go. The recipe also sounds amazing. I think I will declare today my own St. Sylvester’s!

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