It was a cuisine made of labor and patience and the love of aromatic herbs.
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.
— Vittorio G. Rossi, nostalgic of his native Ligurian cuisine
Before traveling to Liguria, I was happy to find out that the region was a great place for vegetarians, like me. Ligurian food is known as la cucina profumata, or “fragrant food.” Although fish is clearly a key ingredient to many of Liguria’s dishes, the region’s most prized culinary achievements is pesto (recipe below). The name comes from pestare, “to pound”, for the mortar and pestle that is used to grind a creamy blend of extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, pine nuts, cheese and basil that comprise the green sauce. The small-leaf basil, king of the Ligurian kitchen, grown in the region’s hills is considered by many to be the best in the world, and pesto was invented primarily as a showcase for that singular flavor. As pesto has a long shelf life, this flavorful sauce was very appealing to sailors at sea. The wild herbs that grow on Liguria’s sunny seaside hillsides are the basis of nearly every dish. They are used in sauces called tocchi or used to stuff pasta because they are said to add a “touch” of taste to a meal.
Genova’s geographic positioning enabled it to influence much of what the rest of the country ate. With ancestors who had once inhabited southeastern France, it is believed that Ligurians had explored foreign tastes long before Christopher Columbus opened taste buds to the New World. New types of pastas made by the Genovese quickly spread to other Italian ports and cities. Today, popular pasta that is usually paired with Ligurian pesto includes trenette (a flat, spaghetti-like pasta), gnocchi (potato dumplings) or trofie (twisted pasta). Other local delicacies of the region include oven-baked focaccia and farinata, chickpea flatbread.
Of all the foods in the cucina italiana, pizza is the most emblematic of Italy and can be found everywhere. But Italians worry that pizza’s image abroad has been distorted. According to traditionalists, there are but two kinds of pizzas. The first is pizza marinara, with tomato, garlic, oregano and olive oil. The second is pizza margherita. Legend has it that not long after Italy became unified in the late 19th century, a chef from Naples decided to celebrate the arrival of the new Italian queen Margherita by designing a pizza in her—and the country’s—honor. He made a pizza with tomato, mozzarella, and fresh green basil—reflecting Italy’s red, white and green flag. This gave birth to the modern pizza industry and since then, an array of toppings has found their way onto pizzas.
Pesto alla Genovese
2 cups tightly packed fresh basil leaves
2 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons pine nuts
1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano cheese
2 tablespoons freshly grated romano cheese
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
salt to taste
Lightly mash the garlic and wash and dry the basil leaves. Place the garlic, basil, pine nuts and salt into a large marble mortar. Using a hardwood pestle, grind all the ingredients against the side of the mortar. When you have a green paste, add the two cheeses and mix them evenly. Lastly, add the oil in a thin stream.
Pesto can be added as a topping to any kind of pasta. Dilute the pesto with a tablespoon of the hot water that the pasta was cooked in, so that it spreads easily. Pesto should not be heated. In Liguria, pesto is sometimes added to boiled potatoes and string beans. Buon appetito!
Recipe excerpted from In Love In Italy, by Monica Larner