Enchanted Liguria

David Downie, in his book "Enchanted Liguria," describes the cuisine of one of Italy's most fascinating culinary regions.

By David Downie

Published December 22, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

The Genoese flag, a field of white emblazoned with the red cross of Saint George, lacks something fundamental: the trinity of basil leaf, mortar and pestle. Nowhere is the identity of Ligurians more clearly seen than in the culture of food and nothing is more distinctly Ligurian than pesto. Dock-workers and bluebloods are as deft at making it as famous chefs and even more inclined to discourse on the poetry, politics and history of the luscious green sauce. Stroll down a bustling street in old Genoa and ask anyone you meet how to concoct it and soon you will be engulfed by a crowd of impassioned pesto experts. "What is that scent of alpine herbs mixing so strangely with the sea spray on the Riviera's cliffs," asked writer Paolo Monelli in a florid, 1934 essay on the region. "It is the odor of pesto: that condiment made of basil, Pecorino, garlic, pine nuts, crushed in the mortar and diluted with olive oil. ... [It] is purely Ligurian; it speaks Ligurian; the mere smell of it makes your ears ring with a dialect at once sharp and soft, full of sliding sounds, of whispered syllables, of dark vowels."

Monelli could have been writing today. An apocryphal tale has it that when Pope John Paul II visited Genoa in 1990 basil and olive oil were slipped by a local priest into the Holy Water with which the city was blessed. Pesto remains the touchstone of Ligurians, a bastion as solid as the Apennines that protect the region's gastronomy from the perceived onslaught of barbarian influences. Manning the defenses are members of the Confraternit` del Pesto (Brotherhood of Pesto), an association created in 1992 to uphold the authenticity of the sauce. Its militants include distinguished poets, writers, gourmets from all walks of life and basil-growers based in the western suburbs of Genoa, where the plant is said to excel thanks to the soil, sun and air. However, despite the admonitions of well-meaning Pesto Brothers, no two Ligurians will agree on the origins of the condiment, how old it is and how it is best made. Are pine nuts necessary? Not if pesto goes into minestrone alla genovese, the city's celebrated thick vegetable soup. What about garlic? It should be measured in cloves, say those who like pesto strong; others blanch their garlic or avoid it altogether. Can authentic pesto be made with anything but a mortar and pestle? The word pesto means "crushed" and the anti-frullatoristi, a faction dead-set against food processors and blenders (frullatori), would rather die than eat a mechanically blended sauce. The arcana of pesto-making extends to the origin of the basil and the color and texture of its leaves, the ratio of Parmigiano to Pecorino and the suitability of incorporating other herbs like parsley and marjoram -- heresy to purists. The trouble is, no one has yet defined purity in pesto's perfumed realm.

This obsession is more pedantry or eccentricity. It is indicative of the passion and particularities of the Ligurians themselves and of their cooking, which changes, like their dialects, from village to village, from the Levante in the east to the Ponente in the west and from coast to interior. This culinary campanilismo -- my village knows best -- means that there is no unified Ligurian cuisine but rather a group of common ingredients and techniques used to make a core of dishes in similar ways throughout the region. Nowadays all Ligurians eat local variations of pesto; focaccia (a flatbread with olive oil); farinata (a chick-pea flour tart); rabbit with olives and herbs; rockfish and anchovies in soups, stews and tarts, or stuffed, fried or grilled; stoccafisso (dried cod); ravioli or other filled pasta; vegetable tarts and stuffed vegetables; pandolce (a coffee cake with candied fruit) and a score of other pan-regional dishes. In San Rocco di Camogli you can buy olive-pulp bread which until recently was found only in Levanto, where it was invented centuries ago, and La Spezia's mesc-ciya (a soup of chick-peas, white beans and winter wheat) is now popular in Genoa.

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Similarly, every serious kitchen from Sarzana on the edge of Tuscany to Ventimiglia bordering France will be stocked with local olives and oil, pine nuts, salt-preserved anchovies, fresh and pickled vegetables like zucchini, chard, tomatoes and eggplants, white beans, chick-peas and preserved mushrooms, and the region's ubiquitous herbs -- basil, marjoram, parsley, thyme and rosemary. Herbs are the basis of nearly every dish and could be said to define Ligurian cooking, distinguishing it from other regional Italian cuisines. The second defining trait is leanness; it approaches what local food writer Bruno Bini, echoing historian Jacques Le Goff, calls the diet of the Golden Age of Antiquity, which was based on vegetables, fruit, olive oil, wine, fish and grains.

Less poetically perhaps, modern dietitians consider the region's food as typical of the so-called Mediterranean diet. It is no coincidence that this term -- it does not mean a weight-reducing regime but rather a way of eating -- was apparently coined in the 1940s by Dr. Lorenzo Piroddi, a physician who studied the eating habits and health of American POWs during the Second World War and compared them unfavorably to those of his fellow Genoese.

A loosely codified Ligurian cuisine indeed exists in upscale restaurants, bakeries and delicatessens throughout the region, but local specialties remain firmly rooted to their villages. Ask a home cook or trattoria owner from Sarzana about the Ponente's barbagiuai (plump ravioli stuffed with pumpkin, puried white beans and spicy, fermented brusso cheese, cooked on hot stones) or sardenaira (a kind of pizza topped with anchovies, tomatoes, onions and black olives) and you will be met by the same blank stare that you would receive in Ventimiglia if you inquired about the Levante's testaroli (a crjpe-like pasta usually dressed with oil and grated cheese) or spongata (a shortbread pie stuffed with jam, dried fruits and nuts). Many Genoese, living halfway between Sarzana and Ventimiglia, would not recognize any of the four, or dozens of other localized dishes for that matter.

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What most people now think of as Ligurian is in fact Genoese cooking with a twist. The city has for centuries adopted and adapted the region's favorite foods, flanking them with made-in-Genoa creations. Most of the truly Genoese dishes can be traced back to the city's maritime past. To cite one well-known example, minestrone with pesto (the sauce's earliest recorded use) was reportedly first served to returning sailors desperate for vegetables and herbs after months at sea. Within living memory the soup was dispensed from "floating kitchens" in Genoa's port and is considered one of the city's unassailable inventions, though similar soups are popular all over Italy.

This is not the whole story, of course, since Genoa's food has always varied from one end of the city to the other and among social classes. In the past only wealthy Genoese, many of whom had country houses or farms in what is now Piedmont, regularly ate beef, for instance. Via Macelli di Soziglia in Genoa's historic district, where the wealthy once lived, has long been given over to butchers' shops. For centuries the diet of the upper classes closely resembled that of their European peers, a sort of early Continental cuisine. So lavish were Renaissance feasts that in 1484 Cardinal Paolo Fregoso established restrictive sumptuary laws regulating the use of sugar in cakes, candies and sauces, and codified what sorts of foods could be eaten at celebrations within the city limits; it was this law that prompted many rich Genoese patricians to build their villas outside the city in territory not covered by the cardinal's edict.

A favorite recipe of the meat-eating Genoese was, and still is, involtini (tomaxelle): thin, tender slices of veal filled with a delicate stuffing of ground veal, porcini, pine nuts, marjoram and garlic, then simmered slowly and topped with fresh tomato sauce. Vitello all'uccelletto (vitella a l'vxelletto), easier to prepare, is another perennial and exquisitely Ligurian dish made with shredded veal sautied with fresh bay leaves and white wine. In his charming book "Cucina e Santi (Cooking and Saints)," Genoese poet Vito Elio Petrucci recalls how until recently the less well-to-do Genoese, able to eat meat only on special occasions, would regularly fry up onions to trick their neighbors into thinking they were preparing a sumptuous meal. In fact they were probably eating tripe, the organ meat of the working classes and for centuries a favorite of Genoa's city guards, gli sbirri, after whom the gutsy tripped da sbora stew takes its name.

Only in this century have Genoa's city limits extended beyond the old ramparts, encircling what used to be autonomous villages with their own specialties. Imagine a large American city in which the food and language changed every few miles, say from Battery Park to the Empire State Building in New York. Then imagine that most of that food was unavailable in the Bronx or Brooklyn, let alone Boston or Philadelphia, and you begin to get an idea of the Ligurian culinary universe. This is not to suggest a comparison with the United States and its innumerable ethnic cuisines but to underscore the mind-boggling complexity of this ethnically homogenous region's culinary culture.

Most of Italy is mountainous and surrounded by seas. What applies to the peninsula as a whole is doubly true of Liguria. The region's spectacular topography and myriad micro-climates account for most of its culinary fragmentation; history and the celebrated reticence of the Ligurians explain the rest. Faced by a threatening Mediterranean and entirely hemmed in by the steep, arid Alps and Apennines, the region lacks the land resources of its neighbors. Their plains and rolling hills produce abundant grain and pasturage for cattle and therefore milk, cheese and meat. Ligurian Riviera cities have always had easy contacts with other seaboard regions, but the interior -- called the entroterra, as if it were something distant and vaguely threatening -- was poor and isolated until the postwar economic boom. "It was a cuisine made of labor and patience and the love of aromatic herbs," wrote the nostalgic regional writer Vittorio G. Rossi a few decades ago. "It was a cuisine of lean folk who lived on lean land -- sea cliffs and terraces hewn by hand from solid stone -- and lean olive trees." Rossi beautifully echoes Diodorus, who in the 5th century B.C. spoke of Liguria as "a hard, sterile land" where men and women "live a hard, uncomfortable existence full of hardships and toil. Their physical efforts and the sobriety of the foods they eat have made them wiry and tough."

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Paradoxically it is this leanness and sobriety that led to the extreme inventiveness of Ligurian cooks, particularly those from the entroterra. Narrow mountain valleys linked only by footpaths, mule tracks and winding roads forced those living there to depend almost exclusively on local foodstuffs. Where chestnuts grew in the mountains of Levante, for instance, the so-called Chestnut Civilization developed, in which the trees provided shelter, fuel and food for animals and people. Any number of chestnut-flour dishes were invented, from fresh picagge matte pasta, originally dressed only with vegetables and lard (pressed between slabs of marble), to naturally sweet castagnaccio cake with pine nuts and fennel seeds. While most of Liguria produces no cheese, high pastures where goats and sheep could be raised allowed shepherds in the Ponente, and in areas in the Levante behind the seaside town of Recco, to produce limited amounts of it. This led in turn to recipes for barbagiuai ravioli or focaccia al formaggio, a succulent flatbread with fresh cheese sandwiched between paper-thin crusts. Cheese focaccia is now Recco's flagship dish, the object of gastronomic pilgrimages from far and wide; the local ducks have become fat and unable to fly from feeding on it and are a tourist attraction themselves. Another highly localized specialty comes from Dolceacqua, near the French border: crava e faxeu. It is made with tough but tasty milk goat which, at the end of its productive life, is sautéed with onions and white beans and spiced with hot peppers.

The mountainous land imposes severe limits on farming and ranching. Though for centuries returning sailors hauled sacks of prized manure and compost back from Tuscany not much of it made it inland and the soil there is uniformly rocky. The climate on the coast is mild year-round, but in the entroterra it becomes progressively colder the deeper the valley and the higher the elevation. Vegetables that grow well in the lowlands do not necessarily thrive on the mountains. Ligurian valleys, inhabited for millennia from sea-level to three or four thousand feet, yield a number of different kitchen-garden crops in a single growing season. This means that for every micro-climate there is a micro-cuisine.

It is easy to see why fresh seafood was unavailable in remote areas only miles from the sea. Elderly fishmongers I know recall how they once met boats on the shore and carried basketfuls of fish on their heads up thousands of steps to coastal hamlets, some of which remain accessible only on foot. Those living in the entroterra had to make do with salted anchovies, dried or salted cod and other easily transportable preserved fish. Because of these long-standing traditions, even today you will not find fresh fish on an authentic entroterra menu, though you may drive on a good road to a comfortable restaurant and be served on a panoramic terrace with sailboats on the horizon and the smell of sea in the air. Similarly you will rarely find wild mushrooms or game on seaside tables, though wild boar, hare and porcini are seasonably plentiful only minutes away in the interior.

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Inevitably the region's intricate history has shaped the cooking too, though it would be fanciful to trace most of today's particularities to ancient roots. Except for generalized references to leanness, no documents relating to local food exist before the Middle Ages. Yet the Ligurian tribes of antiquity almost certainly had distinct eating habits, some of which may have left a mark. For example, cooking on hot slabs of slate -- ciappe in Ligurian dialect -- was a common technique used until recently wherever the stone was available, particularly in the Val Fontanabuona behind Chiavari and Lavagna. A handful of restaurants still offer mutton, goat or tuna cooked in this way and seasoned with aromatic herbs. Similar stone-cooking techniques appear in parts of southern France, formerly within the territory of Ligurian nomadic tribes. In the Sarzana area, on the edge of Tuscany, locals have been using flat, earthenware disks to make a variety of grain and pasta dishes (panigacci or testaroli, for instance) since pre-Roman times. The disks, called tèsti, are still sold in specialty shops in the area. Utensils similar to contemporary ciappe and tèsti were employed in antiquity for making breads, focaccia and possibly chick-pea farinata in other parts of the Mediterranean basin. A thousand years later, in the 10th century, the Emperor Berengarius II divided Liguria into three units following ancient boundaries. That division corresponds roughly to the linguistic, administrative and culinary zones of Levante, Genoa and Ponente still evident today. Some contemporary Ligurian cookbook writers, including Bruno Bini, split the region's recipes into three distinct groupings following this tri-partite plan.

While scarce resources fostered inventiveness, it was neglect by the outside world that preserved the authenticity of Ligurian food down the centuries. Culinary historians point out that few Ligurian recipes appear in the world's first modern cookbooks, which were compiled and published in Italy in the late Middle ages and the Renaissance. While anonymous chefs in Tuscany, Piedmont and Naples busily turned out their region's libri di cucina the Genoese remained aloof. Liguria's first comprehensive regional cookbook, La Cuciniera Genovese, was written by Giovanni Battista Ratto in 1865. Largely unaltered since, it is the bible of Genoese cooks and is currently available in its eighteenth edition at every Ligurian bookstore worth its salt and pepper, though Ratto's book remains relatively unknown outside the region. This is due in part to the fact that at the turn of the century much of Italy came under the sway of celebrity cookbook author Pellegrino Artusi (1820-1911), whose "La scienza in cucina e l'arte di mangiar bene" ("The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well"), published in 1891, sanctified the cuisine of Artusi's native Emilia-Romangna and that of Tuscany, long considered Italy's aristocratic cuisines (along with that of the House of Savoy in Turin). Artusi essentially created an "Italian cuisine." Anyone who has experienced Italy more than superficially, however, knows that no such cuisine exists beyond the restaurants of famous chefs and international hotels. In any case Artusi did not approve of what he doubtless considered impoverished, meatless, creamless Ligurian food and gave only a few recipes from the region in his book. They include ravioli and rolled veal scallops (tomaxelle in Ligurian dialect). Not suprisingly these comforting dishes have long been popular throughout Italy, though no one thinks of them as Ligurian.

Neglect, poverty and reticence have been a blessing in disguise. You can count dynamic Milan's authentic regional restaurants on the fingers of one hand; legions of self-styled trattorie Toscane and pizzerie Napoletane have colonized the world with standardized Italian food. On the contrary Ligurian cooking remains distinctive and not always to everyone's taste. I recall dining with a group of well-traveled Americans, Canadians and Australians at a restaurant in Sestri Levante where we sampled numerous local specialties. None was recognized by my fellow diners and while most of them enjoyed their meal, several were dismayed by the heady aromatic herbs, the whole baby squid and octopus, and several spiny fish. "This isn't a fish," exclaimed one, "it's bait."

David Downie

David Downie is Salon Travel's correspondent in Paris.

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