The James Vasey ‘Fiction For Foodies’ trilogy gives the ancient mountain village of Seborga a parallel life, shining a light on its Templar past, local cuisine and wines, as well as pathways to a sustainable future.
On two occasions in my life, synchronicity has conspired to provide me with the right book that bridges that void between the inquisitive mind and the material world of the exterior. The most recent of these happened after we had entered lockdown in 2020.
At the end of January, before the first lockdown, Natalia and I had been looking at apartments to rent in Bordighera on the Ligurian coast. We came back to London undecided on the apartment but still keen to explore.
But then COVID happened and we were stuck in London. In mid-May, I received a book to review under the subject title Fiction For Foodies, ‘Cooking Up A Country’ by James Vasey. I was intrigued by the genre but then startled by the location of the drama.
|Ian Davenport Art For sale, London, UK - 'Poured Lines, Water-based household paints on aluminium. View more works at Alan Wheatley Art, St James's London.|
Vasey’s novel ‘Cooking Up A Country’ is set in a tiny mountain village behind Bordighera, called Seborga, perched at the top of the valley that runs down to the sea. With Google Maps Satellite open I marvelled at the closeness of the two places and delved into Vasey’s tale of food, wine, and Templar Knight mysteries.
The Templar connection to the area and especially Seborga is much stronger than I knew. It is documented that the Knights of the Temple founder, Bernardo di Chiaravalle created the first 11 knights of the order in the town in 1117.
Myth & Legend Restored
Throughout the last thousand years, the history of Seborga has many curiosities. One is that the monks here were regarded as princes. This has been brought back to life in recent decades and plays a central role in Vasey’s tale, where the Prince of Seborga, upon discovery of an ancient manuscript, finds himself at odds with the Italian state in trying to assume control of his Principality’s fate.
The views from the town stretch down to Menton, Monaco, the Bay of Nice and, on clear days, as far as Saint Tropez. On the other sides, it is surrounded by forested mountains with muddy tracks zigzagging away into the dense greenery. One of these tracks, the Passo del Bandito, winds over the closest peak, leading to the coastal amphitheatre-shaped town of Ospedaletti.
View of Seborga and the valley towards France from the Paso Del Bandito
In the time of COVID, Seborga has been very quiet when we have visited. I have slowly come to know some of the places that Vasey sets his story in. Walking across the piazza in Seborga it is eerily deserted. In his books, there is a buzz with Seborgan royalty, local Ligurian country-folk, tourists and, at times of high drama, VIP's from Rome. Importantly it is the food and wine that runs like a thread through the books.
In the short while we have been here, the books have acted as a guide, highlighting local history, wine grape varieties and food types. Vasey has done his research well, making the foodie element an unmistakable theme.
The dishes are fabulous. We have been cooking them here ourselves (menus/ingredients for each dish mentioned are included at the rear of the book) with fresh produce bought from the markets in Ospedaletti and Sanremo.
The wine descriptions are accurate and honest. The Rossese di Dolceacqua grape variety is well profiled; its' normally light colour and bright acidity making it good for tackling some of the heavier mountain dishes. Although I still generally opt for the Langhe DOC Nebbiolo’s, if a local is recommended, I'll go for it. The local Vermentino is more than palatable, as is the Pigato that we regularly enjoy.
Volume 3 in Vasey's series will soon be released |
Volume 1 & 2 are available here.
I have read volumes one and two of the series and enjoyed them very much. I have the bias of being here and feeling an extra level of absorption. Although Vasey weaves the templar mythology into a contemporary setting, he also uses the reality of how tough it can be for the local economy to survive.
This is the Riviera dei Fiori or Riviera of Flowers. The vast commercial greenhouses (called serre) that lie, often dilapidated, around the coastal hills are relics of more prosperous days. Some here still provide the herbs and cactus but many lie empty and dysfunctional. I have seen one higher up our road with solar panels inserted along the top. Innovation is creeping in.
Vasey’s tackles the climate and environmental issue as something that can be adapted to for the benefit of the local community. There are real issues here that make this prescient. The third book, according to the press release, places more emphasis on these challenges.
If you like Italy and hold her dishes and wines in a certain reverence, then you will like these books. They romantically and cleverly weave the plot lines together, managing to simultaneously look back a thousand years, keeping one eye on the future and never losing sight of lunch.
*As an aside, my other serendipitous book experience was to do with Byzantine art. In February 2008 I had been scouring the internet looking for books that had images from the St Catharine’s Monastery at the top of Mount Sinai. Finding nothing of much value I answered the door at my office at Great Suffolk Street in Southwark only to be handed a cloth bound book titled ‘Saint Catherine’s Monastery'. It was a thank you present from Central Saint Martin’s college for helping them with a small task. It happened to be the last book they had published covering the restoration of the Monastery library and included the picture plates I was looking for.