Barba Juan, or Barbagiuai if you’re over in Liguria translates as ‘Uncle John’ and the relevance of the name for this delicious, local dish remains a mystery for most. In his book ‘Flavours of the Riviera’, Colman Andrews offers one or two possible explanations, and the one that seems most plausible is that in Nice years ago the term barbajouan meant simpleton. Whilst Barba Juan was indeed a simple dish incorporating produce available locally, this is perhaps not the most satisfying term to use to describe it.
So what is Barba Juan? It’s often described as fried ravioli though most recipes use a much heavier dough mix than is typical for pasta. Small pockets of a pastry-like dough were stuffed with vegetables and cheese, with the addition of rice and ham being quite common too. These little pouches of tastiness were then shallow-fried in olive oil. The result is more like an English vegetable pasty than anything to do with ravioli, in my opinion, and the author of ‘The Cuisine of the Sun’, Mireille Johnston, has them down as pastry turnovers.
The pastry is usually made from flour, olive oil and a little egg, adding water where necessary to form a smooth dough. I was intrigued, however, by a recipe from the province of Savona in Liguria which suggested using the local Vermentino wine to bind the dough and I have given details in the recipe below (it works!), but you could use water instead.
In the winter months, the main vegetable used for the filling would be some form of squash (which I favoured for my experiments with the recipe), whilst in spring and summer, chard or spinach were more common ingredients (that will follow – watch this space……). Jacques Médecin, writing in ‘Cuisine Niçoise’, informs us that this latter, summertime version should be called boussotou.
Barba Juan are not difficult to make – the dough is easy. As a canapé, they’re perfect! We munched happily on our ‘pasties’ on the terrace on a sunny, early Spring evening with a glass of Rolle bien sûr!
Barba Juan / Barbagiuai
350g butternut squash, chopped into large chunks and roasted in a little olive oil
1 egg, beaten
40g grated parmesan
A small handful of chopped oregano
200g plain flour
40ml olive oil
Dry white wine or water to bind the dough
Mix together the filling ingredients – squash, ricotta, egg, parmesan and oregano – using a food mixer or a hand-held masher. Keep cool in the fridge.
In a bowl, bind the plain flour and olive oil then add wine or water until you have a smooth, heavy dough. Leave the dough to rest in the fridge, wrapped in film, for an hour or two.
When you are ready, roll the pastry out to 2mm thick and cut with a round pastry cutter that is 7cm in diameter. This will make canapé-sized turnovers but you could make larger ones to serve as a starter or for a picnic lunch.
Place a teaspoon of filling on each circle of pastry, brush the edges with a little water and seal.
Fill a large frying pan with olive oil to a depth of 3cm and heat it up until hot. Add a few pasties at a time and turn them over part way during cooking, ensuring that they are beautifully browned on either side. Serve as soon as possible.