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D - 46: Liguria - Hilly Seafood Paradise

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

`In our journey to discover the cuisines of our 2020 sailing we finally arrive in Liguria our place of departure on 11 July. With the steep mountain slopes almost precipitating into the blue Tyrrhenian Sea, Liguria is a place for hardy people. Scratching a living from the mountains and the sea was never easy.

Agricultural Map of Liguria

But whilst arable land is rare, nature gave Liguria other assets. The limestone seafloor from the Tethys Ocean which forms the first mountain chain when looking from the sea provides the perfect soil for olive trees. The granite further inland where the hills merge with the Apennine is ideal for chestnut. The temperate and wet weather from fall to spring keeps the hills watered and covers them in a lush green. The fresh erosion sediments from the rivers attract sea life and fish to the coast. We find ourselves in perfect hilly seafood territory.

Liguria does not have the diverse cultural past of Sicily. The earliest people we know were living there were the Etruscans whose writings we still cannot decipher. By 600 BC, a few Greek colonists settled on the shores bringing olive trees, grapes and domesticated animals from the Levant. It then became part of the Roman Empire for over 700 years and was fully Romanised. From Charlemagne’s crowning (800 AD) to the Renaissance it belonged for 700 years to the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations which was as Italian as German. Liguria’s culture is thus firmly Italian in culture but oriented towards the sea.

The same can be said of its cuisine. What better illustrates this then Spaghetti al Pesto, Liguria’s most famous dish. The pasta has its origins in Sicily as we have seen two days ago, Basil is a leaf imported from tropical Asia or Africa, olive oil comes from the Levant and the pecorino cheese is made from sheep milk, also an import from the Levant. The only local ingredients are pine nuts from the local pine trees and sea salt.

Basil growing in the garden in Chantrou

Homemade Pesto: chopped Basil and Pine nuts on olive oil with grated Peccorino and Parmesan cheese

Have to admit that eating pasta with fresh pesto is one of the pleasures of life. And so easy to prepare. A perfect dinner that can be made in just 30 minutes.

Minestrone is another dish apparently created in Liguria. We never know whether these tales are true but Minestrone was made from leftover vegetables which were boiled in a pot with stock. Since living in the hills is tough and requires careful management of resources, the carcasses of slaughtered animals were boiled in saltwater to extract the very last bit of nutrition left. Et voilà. I make minestrone still the same way – albeit I do not slaughter animals nor do I boil bones to make stock.

Cappon Magro (fasting day Cappon)

We cannot talk about Ligurian cuisine without mentioning Cappon Magro, a dish Ligurians ate on Fridays and during Lent when the church forbade the consumption of meat. Built on hard biscuits drizzled with olive oil and saltwater – biscuits are a holdover from Genoa’s maritime time – the dish is layered with vegetables, sea food and eggs. It is again kind of a leftover food - same as the Spanish Paella where rice replaces the biscuit. Tried to find out whether the Spanish had a hand in its creation but could not find anything.

No description of Liguria’s cuisine is complete without talking about Focaccia the flat bread that is best eaten fresh from the oven. It is still sold all over Genoa and the town’s staple food. It can be eaten with a spread, dipped into a sauce or with a topping of cheese or sausages. But it is also good just by itself. Call it fast food if you want. It is easier to eat than a burger! Am sure we are going to leave Genoa with some Focaccia on our boat!

Focaccia bread which no Italian restaurant can do without

The last dish to mention today are Trofie which are either made from imported wheat (thank you mariners!) or local chestnut flour. After the Spanish brought potato to Europe in the 16th century, some Trofie are also blended with potato mash – as gnocchi are. You could call Trofie just another pasta – as the other 1’300 in Italy. But there is no Ligurian restaurant that would not serve them.

Trofie al pesto

Now that the blog arrived in Genoa, I will continue tomorrow with a comparison what Venice and Genoa had in common and what made them different.

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