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The complete foodie guide to Liguria

The complete foodie guide to Liguria

by Great Italian Chefs 29 May 2019

This mountainous region in the heart of the Italian Riviera is jam-packed with incredible fresh produce, iconic dishes known the world over and stunning seafood from its abundant shoreline. Discover more about one of Italy’s most underrated provinces.


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There aren’t that many parts of the world where striking, jagged mountains and turquoise, warm seas can be seen in the same place, but the little crescent-shaped Italian province of Liguria is one of them. Home to Genoa, one of Italy’s largest cities and historically one of Europe’s largest city-states thanks to its harbour (which saw ships come from all over the world), it features beautiful little fishing villages – including picturesque Portofino and Cinque Terre – all along its coastline. Further inland, terraced farms produce some of the best olive oil in the country, before the mountains take over and mark the Piedmontese border.

There’s Piedmont to the north, Emilia-Romagna to the east, Tuscany to the south and France and Monaco to the west, but Liguria still retains its own very distinct feel and culture. The region’s stunning scenery, warm climate and beautiful beachside resorts have led it to be known as the Italian Riviera, making it one of Europe’s most popular holiday destinations. There are notable similarities between the Italian and French Rivieras – the gentle pace of life, love of vegetables and pleasant climate – but Liguria retains a love for Italian staples like pasta, focaccia, fresh vegetables and olive oil too.

As with anywhere you go in Italy, food is an integral part of the local culture. That's especially true in Liguria – as the birthplace of pesto, it’s earned its place in the Italian culinary hall of fame, and the wealth of incredible ingredients grown and reared in the region makes eating well incredibly easy. As previously mentioned, Liguria makes some of the best olive oil in the world – local Taggiasca olives are DOP-protected to maintain quality – and with a coastline that spans nearly 300 kilometres, it’s also home to an incredible bounty of seafood.

Planning a trip to the Italian Riviera soon, or just fancy some inspiration for dinner? Check out some of the flavours and specialities you shouldn’t miss when visiting the area.

Ingredients and flavours

Genovese basil PDO

All other types of basil pale in comparison to the verdant, deep green variety grown in Genoa. It’s so good that it has its own PDO protection, which ensures only basil from the local area can be called Genovese. The very best supposedly comes from Prà, a district to the west of the city, but taste any fresh basil grown in the region and you’ll find it far more sweet and flavourful than the packaged bunches in the supermarket. It is the key ingredient of a proper pesto.

Pasta

Some of Italy’s most unique pastas come from Liguria, and the region has a tradition that more than matches up to the pasta heartland of Emilia-Romagna. This is the home of ravioli and triangular pansotti, as well as coin-shaped corzetti, flattened trenette (which sits somewhere between linguine and fettuccine) and the rare, highly unusual mandilli de saea – a veil-thin pasta sheet, named after the Genovese term for a silk handkerchief. By far the most common though are trofie – little hand-rolled pasta twists that come slathered in pesto Genovese.

Prescinsêua

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A bit like ricotta but softer in texture – think thick yoghurt – prescinsêua is stirred through sauces, used to top toast or most famously sandwiched between two thin slices of focaccia to create the local delicacy focaccia di Recco. It’s one of Liguria’s most famous cheeses and, because of its fresh nature, can be hard to find outside the region.

Bread

You can find focaccia all over Italy, but focaccia Genovese is the original and still the best – at least according to Ligurians! The focaccia most of us are used to seeing – thick, soft and spiked with rosemary – is just one sort of focaccia (focaccia con il rosmarino); in reality there are dozens, all with different flavourings. Focaccia Genovese is thinner – around two centimetres thick – and only flavoured with salt and olive oil, but there are other regional specialities too, including the aforementioned focaccia di Recco (baked with soft cheese in between) and sardenaira with anchovies or sardines on top.

Olive oil

You can find fantastic olive oil all over Italy, but the delicate olive oil made in Liguria boasts a reputation that far outstrips most of its peers. Most of the region’s olives are grown in Imperia – the mountainous province in the far west that borders France. Olive trees grow thick along steep, terraced groves here, and are harvested in mid-November to be pressed into liquid gold. Taggiasca olives are called Cailletier across the border, and often find their way into a salade Niçoise. They contain fewer free acids than most olives, which results in a very fresh oil with low levels of bitterness – in fact, many Ligurian olive oils are said to contain sweet marzipan notes.

Meats

The hills and mountains of Liguria means large-scale meat farming isn’t as prevalent as in other areas of Italy, but the need for filling, warming stews to keep mountain villagers happy through the winter months means it’s still on the menu. Rabbit is particularly popular, as it’s abundant and doesn’t require acres of farmland to rear, but veal can also be found on most restaurant menus.

Seafood

Seafood is taken very seriously in Liguria – after all, Genoa was one of the most important ports in the Mediterranean for hundreds of years. All the usual fare can be found in the markets, but the Ligurians particularly love their sea bass, mussels and seppie, tiny little cuttlefish that are cooked simply and eaten as a snack or main meal.

Vegetables

Northern Italy tends to have a rather colder, alpine climate, but Liguria's unique landscape creates the perfect climate for 'southern' vegetables to grow in abundance. The region is home to copious amounts of tomatoes, olives, garlic, artichokes and more, all of which contribute to a diet that leans heavily on vegetarian dishes.

Famous dishes

Pasta alla Genovese

Pesto is Liguria’s gastronomic gift to the world, and while we’ll happily slather it over chicken and stir it through any pasta we like, the Ligurians are rather more selective; they make pasta alla Genovese, which combines slices of boiled potato, green beans, plenty of (handmade, fresh) pesto and trenette pasta. It’s a speedy, simple dish, as you can cook the potatoes and beans in the same water as the pasta, which makes it great for weekday dinners. Don’t get it mixed up with La Genovese sauce, which confusingly is a meat-based pasta sauce from Naples.

Focaccia Genovese

Known in Ligurian dialect as fugassa (very similar to the French fougasse), focaccia Genovese is recognisable via its thickness (usually between one and two centimetres) and its golden, dappled crust – a result of the mixture of oil and salt it is brushed with before baking. Focaccia Genovese started life as a humble flatbread and retained its popularity in the city as it was inexpensive, nutritious and had a long shelf life. It’s a little more of a delicacy these days but still just as utilitarian – Ligurians will happily eat a piece of focaccia with their morning coffee, a small glass of white wine in the afternoon and alongside an evening meal.

Pesto Genovese (basil pesto)

Verdant basil pesto is one of Liguria's great gifts to the culinary world – a fresh, umami-laden sauce stirred into pasta by millions of students across Europe. What's the best way to make it though? A hundred different recipes suggest a hundred different methods – two Michelin-starred Andrea Migliaccio suggests blanching the basil first, then blending with the garlic, olive oil and pine nuts, finishing with the Parmesan before serving.

Focaccia di Recco

Like many of the best things in Italian cooking, focaccia di Recco was born out of simple necessity. Food was especially short during the Third Crusade, and with just flour, water, oil and prescinsêua available to them, the locals of Recco were forced to adapt. They created a flatbread with a cheese filling to sustain them, and thus, focaccia di Recco was born. The crispy, cheesy flatbread tends to be made with stracchino these days (prescinsêua is not very easily available) but it has been an important part of Liguria’s gastronomic tradition for nearly 800 years.

Cappon magro

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This has to be one of the most elaborate dishes in all of Italy, and was originally cooked at Christmas by the fishermen of Genoa. It’s thought they couldn’t afford an expensive capon chicken – which was what more wealthy Italians would serve at the table – so they would get seafood instead and present it in an elaborate way, hence the name cappon. Magro refers to days when Catholics would traditionally not eat meat – Christmas Eve being one of them.

The dish is essentially a salad containing the best fish and shellfish available, hard-boiled eggs and vegetables, laid on top of toasted bread or crackers rubbed with garlic and soaked in vinegar or water. The whole thing is dressed with a thick herby sauce and brought to the table to share.

Corzetti

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These little discs of pasta dough are the perfect example of artisan produce, as they’re still made fresh in specialist pasta shops all across Liguria. What makes them unique are the different designs embossed into the dough by specially made wooden corzetti stamps. These not only make the pasta circles nice to look at; they also create edges and grooves for sauce to cling to. Corzetti is typically served with pesto or sauces made from walnuts and mushrooms.

Pansotti

Pansa’ is the Ligurian word for belly, which seems apt for these little pot-bellied triangular ravioli! Ravioli themselves also originate from Liguria, but pansotti are far more interesting and unique. Traditionally they’re filled with a mixture of wild herbs and greens (this can include rocket, dandelion, wild chard, spinach and more) and the often-present prescinsêua, before being finished in salsa di noci.

Condiglione

The bond between Liguria and Provence is clear to see when you look at a bowl of condiglione – often it is just a border crossing away from being a salade Niçoise! The contents of the salad change depending on the season, but for the most part, condiglione is a salad of onion, tomato, pepper, anchovy, salted olives, garlic, boiled egg, tuna and plenty of Ligurian olive oil. What better to enjoy on a sun-kissed afternoon by the Ligurian Sea?

Farinata

This unleavened chickpea pancake originated on the Ligurian coast but can be found across Italy in many other guises – it’s called cecina in Tuscany and panelle in Sicily (the dish has even made its way to nearby Nice, in France, where it is known as socca). It can be deep-fried until crisp (which is what they do in Sicily) but in Liguria the batter is poured in a pan and baked for just a few minutes, leaving the centre nice and soft. All that’s needed to make it is chickpea flour, water, salt and oil, with the Ligurian version featuring a few rosemary leaves scattered on top. It’s an incredibly simple dish that might sound a little bland, but when cooked properly the creamy texture and sweet flavour is a delight.

Castagnaccio

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A cake free from gluten and dairy sounds very modern and on-trend, but this chestnut cake has been baked and enjoyed in Liguria and Tuscany for centuries. A combination of chestnut flour, water, pine nuts, raisins and olive oil is baked into either a thick cake or thin torte and topped with honey, ricotta or orange zest.

Salsa di noci (walnut sauce)

Salsa di noci (or walnut sauce) is often slathered over pasta or gnocchi in Liguria, giving it a rich, creamy, satisfying flavour. There’s no cooking required whatsoever, so as long as you have some pasta in your cupboards, you can whip up a meal from scratch in as long as it takes you to boil some water! Combine white bread, walnuts, Parmesan, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper in a blender and blitz to combine. Feel free to try other nut combinations too; the Ligurians often add pine nuts.

Fava bean pesto

It’s not unreasonable to assume that every green sauce you see in Liguria is some form of pesto Genovese, but fava (or broad) beans are also popular here too. They’re held as somewhat of a lucky charm by many – farmers believe keeping the beans in their pockets will encourage a good harvest, and they’re traditionally seen as apotropaic objects, capable of warding off evil. More importantly, they make an absolutely delicious pesto – just blitz them with Parmesan, Ligurian olive oil, salt and pepper and spread over bruschetta for a typical Ligurian snack.

Torta pasqualina

Torta pasqualina is popular all over Italy – particularly over Easter when it's eaten at family gatherings – but it originally hails from Liguria. The most important aspect of the pie is the eggs baked inside – they symbolise rebirth and should be cut into when you're slicing it up to share out amongst your guests.

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