Monday, October 17, 2011

Tuscan street food

A ‘five and five’. If there is a better name for a street food, right now I can’t think of it. The ‘cinque e cinque’, more commonly known as cecina or torta di ceci [chickpea cake], is a specialty of the Livorno region in Tuscany. It is also made in Liguria where it is known as farinata.

Cecina consists of a very liquid batter of chickpea flour and water which is allowed to sit for up to four hours. A thin layer, like a pancake, is poured into a large round shallow baking pan which is preheated with plenty of oil and cooked quickly in a very hot oven. Originally it was made by local pizza makers and the best ‘five and five’ is still that which is made in wood burning ovens. The ‘five and five’ got its name from the practice of buying 5 cents worth of chickpea cake and five cents worth of bread. The cake was eaten between the bread like a sandwich, hot with plenty of freshly ground black pepper.

Other types of street food made from chickpeas include panissa (or paniccia or panizza), a polenta made with chickpea flour which is allowed to cool, then sliced and fried. It’s especially popular in and around La Spezia. In Sicily, a delicious version is made called panelle. Slices of the chickpea polenta, flavoured with fresh parsley, are deep fried and served between pieces of bread, with a good squeeze of lemon juice.

Cibo di strada, or street food in Italy, should not be conflated or mistaken as fast food. There are important differences. To begin with, Italian street food specialties tend to be grounded in the local culture. The ‘five and five’, for example, may well be a Tuscan specialty, but it is only made in a small geographic area of the region. Also, good Italian street food, unlike fast food, is seldom mass produced. It tends to be the reserve of small groups of skilled artisans. And, finally, all good Italian street foods are served with a generous dose of tradition and a good story. Next time you are in Livorno look out for the little wooden plaques placed outside bakeries and pizza shops saying “‘5 and 5’, sold here today”! Alternatively, try the following recipe for yourself.

Chickpea cake

Serves 4
Preparation time: 5 minutes + 30 minutes resting
Cooking time: 15 minutes

500g chickpea flour
350g water
5 tablespoons olive oil
Salt & freshly ground black pepper

Place the chickpea flour in a bowl, add the water and a teaspoon of salt.  Whisk together well and set aside. Allow the batter to rest for at least 30 minutes.  Preheat the oven to 250ºC.  Place the oil in a 30cm round baking tin and place in the oven until smoking hot.  Remove from the oven carefully and pour in the batter.  Place the pan back in the oven for 10-15 minutes until cooked.  Remove from the oven and top with plenty of freshly ground black pepper.  Cut into pieces and serve in a bread roll.  Not strictly traditional, but I like to eat it hot with a couple of thick slices of tomato, mozarella and a generous spoonful of pesto sauce.

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