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The Italian Riviera: Italy’s vegetarian heartland

The Italian Riviera: Italy’s vegetarian heartland

by Nancy Anne Harbord 09 June 2016

Nancy Anne Harbord travels to beautiful Liguria and discovers a local cuisine that's rich in fresh vegetables, rich pastas and farmhouse cheese.

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The beautiful, rocky coastline of Liguria – also known as the Italian Riviera – stretches from the French border in the east to Tuscany in the west, taking in fishing villages, famous resort towns and the historic city of Genoa. The maritime Alps separate Liguria from the northern Italian provinces of Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna, creating a narrow strip of land between mountains and sea. Olive trees stretch as far as the eye can see, and tiny ancient villages perch precariously on mountainsides.

The western stretch of the Ligurian coast (the Riviera di Ponente) is famous for its production of flowers; greenhouses sheltering all kinds of plants and fields of vegetables dot the landscape. Continuing on past the port town of Genoa, the eastern half of this province ­– the Riviera di Levante – is characterised by its turquoise coves and dramatic cliffs. This stretch is home to the stunning Cinque Terre, a cluster of five tiny, pastel-coloured villages that are unreachable by car and now form a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The numbers visiting this beauty spot have grown so large in recent years – 2.5 million in 2015 – that this year a ticketing system has been introduced to severely restrict numbers.

The unique landscape of this region creates a warm microclimate that supports ingredients more typical of southern Italian climes. In Liguria, as in the south of Italy, produce such as garlic, citrus fruits, tomatoes, artichokes, pine nuts and basil grow abundantly and form the base of many dishes. Unlike other northern Italian cuisines, olive oil (not lard or butter) is the primary cooking fat and the highly regarded olive oil of the area, olio di oliva della Riviera Ligure is PDO protected.

The region is home to its own breed of artichokes, carciofo spinoso di Albenga – which are native to the Mediterranean basin and star in many of the local dishes. With a spiky exterior and soft, tender hearts, they are often eaten raw – shaved into salads and seasoned with Parmesan.

Artichoke
Liguria is home to a special kind of artichoke, known as carciofo spinoso di Albegna
tomatoes
The warm microclimate means vegetables and fruits grow in abundance

Go west

The mountains of western Liguria are filled with wild herbs, which sustained the region’s farmers for millennia and are thus found in many traditional recipes. Familiar greens such as dandelions, watercress, rosemary and sage grow in abundance, and there’s a vast array of exciting plants of less renown – pettine di Venere (an intense fennel-like herb), Pimpinella (with flavours of walnut and anise) and grespino (a bitter salad green), to name but a tiny selection.

With space to rear animals largely unavailable in this landscape, meat is used sparingly. Cheeses are typically imported from nearby regions and the cuisine is far more centred on grains, fruits, vegetables and nuts than in other parts of the dairy-rich north. Vegetable-packed pies, torta verde, filled with chard, artichoke, spinach or courgettes and wrapped in a thin olive oil pastry are available by the slice in every bakery, bar, corner shop and café. The iconic torta Pasqualina, a huge Easter pie stuffed with copious amounts of chard, artichokes, ricotta and whole eggs sports a flaky crust, traditionally made with thirty-three thin layers of dough, representing the thirty-three years of Christ’s life.

Farinata
Farinata i s a local flatbread made from chickpea flour
Lemons
Ligurian lemons are famous throughout Italy, as are cedro, another lesser known citrus fruit

Chickpeas also feature strongly here, as they do in nearby Provence in the south of France, and are used in the local farinata ­– a mixture of chickpea flour, olive oil and water that’s baked into a thin, deeply savoury flatbread. Liguria is said to be the historical birthplace of focaccia, and all kinds of billowy breads are made in the bakeries. The pizza of the region is also rooted in tradition – typically thick, sold by the slice and topped only with tangy tomato sauce, oregano and anchovies.

The exception is focaccia col formaggio de Recco, an indulgent speciality famously produced in the seaside town of Recco, to the east of Genoa. Wafer-thin layers of dough are stretched and stuffed with local stracchino cheese – the crispy baked crust shattering to release its oozy contents – perhaps the best example of a simple cheese sandwich.

Pasta
Pasta of all shapes and sizes can be found in Liguria, but the most famous is pesto alla genovese, made with local basil
image
Salsa di noci is made with walnuts, cheese and cream

Speciality pastas with all kinds of fillings, shapes and sauces grace every restaurant menu and are served regularly at home, with each small town and village proclaiming its own favourites. Sauces like the famous basil pesto alla genovese, made withLiguria’s prized basilico Genovese DOP and the creamy salsa di noci, rich with walnuts, cheese and cream. Popular pasta shapes include corzetti, discs of fresh pasta stamped with patterns and designs, or trofie – thin, twisted spirals of pasta typically served with pesto.

Like many regions of Italy, Ligurian cuisine reflects the history and people of the land. A history of hardship, but one which bore the creative, healthy and lip-smackingly delicious vegetable-based dishes still eaten today. Although not vegetarian by design, the traditional food is a delight for those eating meat-free. The crowds pour into Liguria in the summer, but the climate ensures that all seasons are worth a visit. Not least the spring when those famous, spiky artichokes are ready to harvest.

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