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Episode #133: Delicious Products To Try in Liguria

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Many visit Liguria to admire the villages of the Cinque Terre but most people don’t go beyond. Explore further and you’ll find a gorgeous region where hills and mountains rise up from its beautiful shoreline and the food is truly unique and delicious, even for Italy. Liguria is a region with a special terrain and climate that creates these incredibly unique products.

Show notes

We talk to Ligurian-born and bred Enrica Manzoni, founder of the delightful A Small Kitchen in Genoa – a bilingual food blog where she shares recipes and food stories from the Italian Riviera.  Enrica hosts cooking classes in her home kitchen and organizes food tours in Genoa and culinary retreats in Liguria. She also runs online cooking classes featuring the dishes from her region and loves to share the wonders of this lesser celebrated region. She has joined us previously on episode 106, sharing the lesser-known places to visit in Liguria. Here, Enrica gives us insight into some of the best and most iconic products Liguria has to offer, many of which you will only find upon visiting the region.

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. The three pillars of Ligurian produce are Extra Virgin Olive oil, wine, and basil

Wine

Liguria is very rich in varieties, in wine producers, and labels, but the production is small due to the amount of land we have. As the wine producers are predominantly small – none of them has enough product to sell abroad, which is why people outside of Italy do not know about Ligurian wines. So when people are visiting the area, it’s a unique opportunity to taste this wine, because you’re not going to be able to get it anywhere else. And of course, it matches the food perfectly, because that’s just how it’s done

  1. White wines:
    • Vermentino, which is the Ligurian Vermentino, not the Sardinian Vermentino which creates a fresh white sparkling wine, with a flowery and herby flavor
    • Pigato is the variety predominant in the province of Imperia and Albenga. It’s a strong white wine – with a high degree of alcohol and a strong character and taste
    • Bianchetta is a wine produced in the back country of Genova. It is a very old wine, a light white wine, very good to have with Focaccia
  2. Red wines:
    • Rossese grows in the west Italian Riviera, the most famous which has the DOC certification is Rossese di Dolceacqua. Dolceacqua is a charming medieval village in the mountains of Imperia
    • Ormeasco is another, the most famous of which is Ormeasco di Pornassio. This is also a wine with a strong taste and usually accompanies meat and game
    • Granaccia is a grape variety, mainly cultivated in the inland of Savona
    • Then there are other DOC certifications that do not actually match with indigenous varieties but represent wines produced in a certain area. The wine of Coronata – the hill in the back country of Genova, which was devoted to producing wine since medieval times
    • There are wines produced in the Gulf of del Tigullio which goes from Genova to Chiavari – white, rose and red wines
    • Then there is the DOC Colline di Levanto, which means all the wines produced around La Spezia and Levanto
    • The wines of the Cinque Terre area – Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Riomaggiore all grown in the hills of the Cinque Terre, where the mountains fall into the sea
  3. When Enrica has clients for cooking classes, and they taste the local wines they always ask where they can get them  – if they can buy them online. But she has to say – no, I’m sorry, you can bring back home some bottles with you, but it is very difficult to find them in say the US or in Australia, because the production is so small
  4. It makes the food trip in Liguria special because this is something that you can taste and experience there. It is part of the joy of exploring the food culture of some regions, that that you can have it just there and nowhere else. Taste it and enjoy the experience because you cannot bring photos home only memories

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

  1. In Liguria, Extra Virgin Olive Oil is important in it’s is history because the cultivation of the olive trees has shaped the territory. The wood terraces with the stone walls you see around Ligirua were built to be able to cultivate olive trees. Extra Virgin Olive Oil also influenced the trades and opened communication routes. It has dictated the rhythms of generations – Extra Virgin Olive oil for us is very important
  2. There is a variety of olives, with the Taggiasca olives the main variety used in the west, where the Extra Virgin Olive Oil production is the biggest. You can find the variety comes in black and green. The oil is very fruity yet mild oil. Because it is not strong Ligurian oil is perfect for cooking – flavored not to cover the other flavors in their dish
  3. It’s also good for seasoning. They do not use butter at all in the Ligurian cuisine because extra virgin olive oil is used for everything. They even use it for making sweets and desserts
  4. Again, look for the DOP label, which means that it is made with Ligurian olives according to certain quality standards. It is made by pressing olive just with a mechanical process – there are no chemical refinings. Like with wines, for the oil, there are DOC certifications according to the place where the oil is produced
  5. The Riviera dei Fiori oil, is produced in the west of Liguria, around the Imperia area. There is Lucinasco, which is a small village, known as the village of oil. Lucinasco, along with Pietrabruna and Borgonovo are the villages where you can find wonderful Extra Virgin Olive, Oil. There is also the oil produced from Alassio to Varazze, around the Riviera di Ponente Savonese and then the Riviera di Levante, in the province of Genova and La Spezia

Basil

  1. There are 60 varieties of basil all over the world and the one they grow in Liguria is the Genoese basil. It has a specific oval shaped leave and the leaves are quite small and bright green. It is the perfect size for making the famous pesto, one of the most eaten sauces in the world
  2. The flavor is very different to other basils – it is not minty and it’s very sweet. It’s grown in a special soil and in the specific climate of Liguria – with the sun and the sea breeze, because most basil is cultivated on the seaside
  3. For making pesto, you need a huge quantity of basil, so Enrica doesn’t grow her own for that, just some for other dishes – for tomato sauce, pizza, in salads and soups. But when she goes to the market, for pesto she can get huge bunches of basil. You can buy big bouquets, like wedding bouquets, of basil
  4. If you want to visit some basil producers, Enrica has two recommendations:
    • In Celle Ligure, close to Genova, there is Calcagno who is a producer, Enrica thinks to be the produces the best basil in Ligurian. It’s a very big farm, just on the seaside, so you can see the sea from the hills of basil
    • The other place to go, in the hills behind Genova, has been devoted to growing basil for at least a century. They are the biggest basil and pesto producers

Other special produce

  1. In Liguria, there is one open plain only – Albenga, just one big plain, because the rest is mountains and beaches. Here they have what are called the fabulous four. Four products which are very characteristic of that land and have characteristics of all the regions
    • The coeur de boeuf (beef heart) tomatoe. Huge tomatoes that are shaped like a heart and are very sweet and pulpy. They are fantastic, especially for making salad, not for sauces though
    • Artichokes, in the Albenga plains, were famous in the Middle Ages and they were reviewed as the sugar of the Genovese (la zucchero de Genovese), because they were very sweet and rare. In the past artichokes were not considered as vegetables – they were considered as something between a fruit and a flower. Something considered artistic and romantic which the nobles ate. They are in season in fall and winter and at the beginning of spring
  2. Violet asparagus is considered very special and therefore is extremely expensive
  3. Trombetta zucchini are long and thinner than standard zucchini and often have an end that turns up to make them look like trumpets. Because they have all the seeds at the end, they are less watery in texture
  4. In the rush to adopt Italian food around the world, we often forget in recipes that an ingredient is not just garlic or basil, but certain types of produce from a region that suits the dish perfectly. The taste is going to be completely different depending on where it’s been grown, the terrain and the variety. People always wonder why the food taste better in Italy and this is why. What we do at home is trying to replicate something that can’t be replicated
  5. Aglio di Vessalico is a garlic produced in Vessalico in the back of Albenga. It is special for making pesto because it is very sweet, spicy, but highly digestible so you can eat it raw without any problem
  6. Liguria is not just a coastal region, but a mountainous region. Many of the main producers of the land, especially from a historical point of view, come from our mountains. They have many potato varieties. Two varieties of potatoes in particular are fantastic. These are Quarantina, which is produced in the hills in the back of Genova and another area the potatoes from Pignone, which is from the back of La Spezia. If you go to a restaurant and you find Patata Quarantina on the menu or gnocci with patate quarantina you must try them they are very different to normal gnocchi
  7. Belendina onions, a slow food Presidia, are onions as big as a melon. They are extremely sweet and used for making ketchup, sauces, frittata and savory pies. Or you can just bake one as a whole – you cut them in half and then you put them in the oven with simply some oil and salt and let it roast for 40/45 minutes. Delicious!
  8. They also have black truffles in Valbormida, which is the valley behind Savona, which connects Liguria to Piedmonte and to the Le Langue. So you can go truffle hunting in Liguria
  9. The woods are also full of porcini mushrooms. They have them fresh over summer time and fall, so fried mushrooms, mushroom risotto, and mushroom sauces. Then they dry them and dried mushrooms are one of the pillars of a Ligurian pantry because they bring an umami flavor. They put it in stews, sauces and tarts
  10. Chestnuts from the mountains are famous for saving people from famine. The chestnut tree is called the bread tree – l’albero del pane because they are so important. There are lots of hazelnuts too, especially in the Chiavari area. They make wonderful hazelnut cake and biscuits, like Baci di Dama
  11. Many, if they think about Liguria, think about fried anchovies – a fantastic aperitivo choice along with some white wine. You will find fried anchovies everywhere and there are also many other anchovy dishes. The season is from May to September when they have local anchovies and you’ll find them on menus. If you find them in winter on a menu, they are not from Liguria, but you can enjoy local salted anchovies because the leftovers from the catches were traditionally preserved under salt – especially in Monterosso and the Cinque Terre. The production was famous and they were usually traded all over Europe. They are fantastic for cooking and for eating alone with some bread and butter, ( Enrica’s favorite aperitivo). There is a special place close to Camogli, the Tonnarella di Camogli. It’s historic place where they used to catch tuna and also anchovies – – their salted anchovies are very high quality. But as long as you look for a local label, a Ligurian one, you will get great anchovies
  12. There are mussels in La Spezia, which are called muscari locally, though cozze elsewhere in Italy. They are farmed in the La Spezia area and Portofino you can eat them all over in restaurants with dishes like stuffed mussels, mussel soup and pasta with mussels.
  13. In Santa Margherita, which is close to Portofino, they are famous for red prawns. They are large, very pulpy and tasty. You can have with pasta, or grilled and they are amazing raw. If you go to the area of Santa Margherita, or even Genova, you can find fresh ones. They serve them simply with olive oil, some salt and sometimes some lemon or a vinaigrette. They butterfly them and then you have to scoop the pulp from the shell
  14. A major Ligurian cheese is Prescinsêua. You can find it at the restaurant and is one of the most characteristic ingredients of the cuisine. It’s somewhere between ricotta and yogurt –  a very fresh cheese produced just adding rennet to the milk and letting it rest for a while, and then skimming the surface. They use it for making ravioli, pansotti and cheese focaccia, for pizza, and for the savory pie – Torta Pasqualina. It’s used in many, many ways and you can find it in Genova and that general area
  15. Another protected by slow food is the Toma di Mucca Cabannina, a cheese made from the Cabannina cow a variety indigenous to Genova. There are few animals so they are mostly farmed for making cheese. This famous cheese you can find it the area behind Genova or in Val d’Aveto
  16. The mountainous part of Liguria has sheep and goats and they produce a very good goat cheese which is Toma di Pecora Brigasca. This is another slow food presidia. In the area of Brigue, you’ll find many cheese makers and very good cheese. You can find it in the local shops or seek out the cheese producers because the production still is often small so they don’t have enough produce to sell at the supermarkets
  17. Genoese salami is very different from the salamis you may find in your supermarket because this salami is not that big. It’s small and has large fat chunks inside and is flavored with garlic and white wine. It is produced in Sant’Olcese, a small village behind Genova. Salami Sant’Olcese is the one that is often enjoyed with fresh fava beans in the summertime – with some pecorino cheese, it is the perfect aperitivo
  18. If you go to a very good traditional restaurant or a good grocery, you can ask for Testa in Cassetta, which is a very typical cold-cut plate for the region. Testa in Cassetta literally means heads in the box because they use different pieces of the pig’s head – cut, boiled, and seasoned them with spices. It was created because the poor needed to use all the pieces of the animal. This is, of course, how many great dishes have been invented

About our guest – Enrica Monzani from A Small Kitchen in Genoa

 

Enrica Monzani is a born and bred Ligurian food writer, photographer and cooking instructor. She is the lady behind the bilingual food blog A Small Kitchen in Genoa where she tells recipes and food stories from the Italian Riviera. 

She organizes regional cooking classes for foreigners in her home kitchen in Genoa and on-line cooking classes in English. She also leads food tours in Genoa and culinary retreats in Liguria. 

In 2020 she launched a virtual Italian Riviera cooking course on the e-learning platform Udemy. 

She is currently working on her first Liguria cookbook in Italian and English coming out in April 2022.

You can find Enrica on these channels:

Places mentioned in the show

  • Genoa (Genova in Italian) – the capital city of Liguria
  • Imperia – mountainous and hilly province of Liguria
  • Albenga – city on the Gulf of Genoa in the Province of Savona
  • Dolceacqua – village in the west, on the border of France
  • Savona – seaport in the west 
  • Tigullio – a region/gulf in Liguria
  • Chiavari – a small town with lots of charm with historic shops
  • Lucinasco – village in Imperia known as the village of oil
  • Pietrabruna, Borgonovo – villages known for their oil
  • Alassio – known for its natural and scenic views
  • Varazze – town found northeast of Savona in the Riviera di Ponente
  • Celle Ligure – in the province of Savona, home to a famous pesto producer
  • Valbormida – behind Savona where the truffles come from
  • Chiavari – a small town with lots of charm with historic shops
  • Monterosso – town on the Cinque Terre famous for salted anchovies
  • Camogli – fishing village on the west of the peninsula of Portofino, on the Golfo Paradiso
  • Santa Margherita – port town famous for red prawns
  • Val d’Aveto – Aveto valley, straddles the Province of Genoa and the Province of Piacenza, between Liguria and Emilia-Romagna, with the river Aveto running through

Food & Drink

  • Vermentino – light-skinned wine grape variety
  • Pigato – grape is found in the Riviera di Ponente zone in Liguria – produces a strong white wine with a high degree in alcohol and very fruity
  • Bianchetta – a very old white wine produced in the back country of Genova, a light white wine
  • Rossese – intensely aromatic red wine. Most famous DOC is Rossese di Dolceacqua
  • Ormeasco – red wine variety, also known as Dolcetto, with the most well-known Ormeasco di Pornassio. A strong wine good with meat/game
  • Granaccia – red wine variety from inland Savona
  • balcocerella – wine produced in the back country of Genoa, most famous of which is Coronata
  • DOC Colline di Levanto – DOC located in Liguria that produces both red and white wines
  • Taggiasca – English name Cailletier, the Taggiasca olive 
  • Riviera dei Fiori – the best extra-virgin olive oil in Liguria
  • Genovese basil – variety of basil known for its use in the traditional Genoese pesto sauce
  • Calcagno – pesto producer in Celle Ligure
  • beef tomatoes, artichokes, violet asparagus, trombetta zucchini – the Big Four Ligurian products
  • Aglio di Vessalico – garlic unique to small area in Liguria
  • Quarantina & Pignone –  types of potato from Liguria
  • Belendina onion – a very large onion and a Presidi Slow Food from Liguria
  • Valbormida truffle – black truffles found in Liguria
  • Baci di Dama –  a sandwich cookie of two hazelnut cookies joined by chocolate. Baci di Darma means “Lady’s kisses” 
  • Prescinsêua – a variety of cheese typical of the province of Genoa in Liguria
  • Pansotti (Pansoti) – a type of stuffed pasta
  • Torta Pasqualina – a savory Easter tart made with pastry, ricotta, swiss chard, and parmesan cheese
  • Toma di pecora Brigasca – Ligurian goats cheese
  • Toma di Mucca Cabannina – a cheese made of milk from the Cabannina
  • cucina bianca – literally meaning white food, is shepards food 
  • Genoa/Genovese salami – a salami seasoned with garlic, salt,  peppercorns, and red or white wine
  • Testa in Cassetta – meaning head in the box, it is different parts of the pig head cured

Resources

  • Brigasca – a native sheep breed whose name comes from La Brigue, a village near the Liguria, Piedmont and Provence borders

Resources from Untold Italy

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