by Maria Sole Ferrero
MONACO. It is possible that this culinary specialty be born in the village of Castellar, above Menton. There, the competition to award the best Barbajuan is annualy held in Provençal costume during the Fête de L’Olive at the end of March. A bit of history could clarify the origin of the recipe: it happened that in 1847 the territories of Menton and of the neighbouring Roquebrune, then belonging to the Principality of Monaco, rebelled against the Monegasque domain. The riots were promptly tamed by the Sardinian-Piedmonts soldiers in force in the Fortress on the Rock, at the request of Prince Florestan I of Monaco. In 1848, following the first Italian war of independence, the two villages declared themselves “free towns”.
Then, by virtue of political agreements and plebiscites, in 1861 they passed to France. Henceforth, the French Emperor Napoleon III paid 4 million gold-francs to Prince Charles III of Monaco. He also promised the establishment of a railway station in the Principality on the Marseilles – Ventimiglia line, and the construction of a coastal road. In return, the Grimaldis agreed to renounce forever any right over the two towns. Well, after 170 years since that fateful 1848 year, at the end of January 2018 Monaco, together with Italy and France, has signed the application for the inclusion of the territory known as “the Mediterranean Alps” on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This agreement represents a marvellous historical moment of sharing equal intents on behalf of territories that were contested for centuries, and covering an area of about 200,000 hectares.
The arch of the Mediterranean Alps is characterized by rocky landscapes and breath-taking views, by the dominant presence of the olive tree and by terraced vineyards. As you go up from the seaside, the Mediterranean bush let place to beech and larches. The spectacle offered by the old villages, all well preserved, perched on the ridges or clustered on the coasts of the mountain, remains intact. Finally there is no shortage of culinary attractions, such as in Castellar, but also in Piedmont and Liguria, where barbagiuai is the name in Ligurian dialect given to a dish of fritters stuffed with Swiss chard, pumpkin, cheese, and other ingredients characteristic of the Ventimiglia hinterland’s cuisine, and especially of the Val Nervia. The name of this fritter derives from a certain uncle (barba in both Liguria and Piedmonts’ dialects) John (Giuà), who was the inventor cook of this recipe. The taste quality of the dish results in the contrast between the sweet of pumpkin and herbs and the strong taste of the bruss, a fermented “ricotta” cheese typical of the Imperia’s hinterland. Let’s say that the bruss is the true protagonist of this dish! The bruss, in Piedmont bross, in Liguria brussu, sometimes Italianized in bruzzo, is a derivative of milk similar to a creamy and spreadable cheese with a very strong taste, especially popular in Piedmont and Liguria. The Liguria version differs from the Piedmont’s one, because it is obtained from the “ricotta” of sheep, and / or cow, and / or goat, opportunely left to ferment in special containers in cool, damp and dark places, and stirred gently and carefully every day, from the bottom to the top. The Piedmonts’ version is traditionally obtained from the fermentation, also appropriately controlled and rinsed, of the leftovers of one or more local cheeses, soft or semi-hard from Cuneo, Langhe, Monferrato, such as Toma, Raschera, Sora, Alta Langa, Murazzano, Roccaverano, etc. In the Liguria version there is a variant, which consists in adding and stirring at some point of the fermentation, a modest quantity of blue cheese, such as natural “gorgonzola”. The lactobacilli resuming their activity, they give the bruss more complex and interesting scent and taste. The bruss owes its origin to the need, typical of rural culture and in particular of the poorest areas, to make the most of every possible food. In ancient times it was produced by fermenting crusts or pieces of other cheeses (often also mouldy) in a distillate like the grappa, which the farmers produced on their own. After mixing the mixture, a creamy product with an intense flavour was eaten on bread. A classic combination of the Liguria version of the bruss is the one with the Triora’s bread. It is also used to season pasta or polenta, to flavour soups or on baked potatoes. The most suitable wines to accompany the bruss, at least in the Langhe’s version, are robust reds such as Nebbiolo or Barbera or, for a combination enhancing the spicy flavour, a sweeter wine such as the “passito” Erbaluce di Caluso. The most prestigious bruss is Slow Food presidium with the name of “Bruzzo della Valle Ligure of Arroscia”. Currently it is on sale at markets specialized in typical products but it can be made at home as well, by fermenting fresh cheese (e.g. robiole and tomini with grappa or brandy). It is also marketed for export in plastic containers or in glass jars.
HEREBY THE RECIPE OF THE BARBAJUAN
Servings: 20 pockets
Ingredients for the pastry
200g plain flour; salt; 50ml olive oil; half 1 egg, beaten; 50ml water; vegetable oil for deep frying.
Prepare the pastry
Sift the flour and salt into a bowl – Add 50ml olive oil and 2 tbsp. of egg and blend with a fork – (Reserve the rest of the egg for the filling) – Add just enough water to bring the pastry together into a firm dough – Turn this out on to a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic (about 5 minutes) – Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.
Ingredients for the filling
15ml olive oil – 30g onion, finely chopped – 30g leek (white part only) finely chopped – 2 Swiss chard leaves (green parts only), shredded and chopped – 50g fresh spinach, chopped – pinches of dried oregano, crumbled – 50g “bruss, or bruzzo” cheese – 30g freshly-grated Parmesan cheese – The remainig beaten egg from the pastry.
Prepare the filling
Whilst the pastry is chilling, heat 1 1/2 tsp of olive oil in a skillet over a medium heat and sweat the onion and leek until they are golden (roughly 5 minutes) – Add the chard, spinach and oregano and fry until the chard is very tender (about 10 minutes) – Transfer the mixture into a bowl and mix in the cheeses and the left over egg from the pastry – Season and set aside to cool.
Roll the dough out on a lightly floured work surface to about 2mm thick – Use a floured 6cm round pastry cutter and cut into as many rounds as you can – Gather the scraps, re-roll out and cut again. You should end up with about 20 circles – Place 1 tsp of the filling in the centre of each pastry round and brush the edges with the egg white – Fold the dough over to form a semi-circle and press the edges with the ends of a fork to seal – As you complete each pocket, transfer it to a baking tray lined with foil – Note: at this stage you can freeze the pockets and then thaw before cooking, or you can cook them right away – Pour vegetable oil into a deep pan (you need at least 4cm) and heat to fry – Working in batches, add the pockets to the oil and fry until brown and crisp (about 5 minutes).
Transfer the pockets of pastry to a plate lined with kitchen towels using a slotted spoon and serve like in the image below .