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Episode #163: Pesto, Pasta and the dishes of Liguria

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Liguria is a region most often visited for the famous villages of the Cinque Terre but there is so much more to discover – not least the colorful, small towns just like those in the Cinque Terre but without the thousands of other visitors. The food of the region is truly unique, celebrating the local terrain of hills, mountains, and sea. Dishes often include the herbs that grow in abundance here, especially the local basil that makes Liguria’s famous pesto. The cuisine here is not only delicious but often surprisingly healthy, with lots of greenery and vegetable-based dishes. Dishes include pastas, pies, stews, sweet treats, and a sumptuous seafood salad.

liguria tour

Show notes
We talk to Ligurian-born and bred Enrica Monzani, 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 before in episode 133, about the best and most iconic products to be found in Liguria and in episode 106, sharing the lesser-known places to visit in Liguria. Here, Enrica shares delicious dishes you will only find on a visit to Liguria (or you can create yourself from her new cookbook – The flavours of Liguria).

We are also delighted to be collaborating with Enrica on a wonderful luxury food and wine tour of Liguria, where you can experience these incredible dishes and the unique and exciting Liguria region for yourself.

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Enrica’s first Ligurian cookbook, Liguria in cucina: The flavours of Liguria is out worldwide in April 2023 (available here now in EU & UK). This book took a lot of work to prepare, a lot of hours and was created with love, so she’s very happy to present her 3rd baby! It contains around 80 recipes of the masterpieces of Ligurian cuisine. As well as the recipes, Enrica herself has taken most of the photos and done the translation – a true labor of love
  2. The Ligurian cuisine is colorful cuisine and is full of contrasts – representing the region. Liguria is a very straight segment of land, the north part being close to the border with France and the southerly part with Tuscany. It is squeezed between the mountain and the sea and there is a lot of woodland, colorful villages on the sea and hidden villages in the countryside
  3. Ligurian cuisine is a mix of cultures, influences, and produce. Tasting this region’s different foods is a great way of understanding their culture
  4. Ligurian cuisine is fresh and fragrant thanks to the abundance of aromatic herbs. Basil, of course, for making the world-renowned pesto, but also marjoram, sage, rosemary, and thyme. Herbs are everywhere in the cuisine. In the past, they would be used to heighten the humblest of dishes – a wonderful way of giving flavor to very poor dishes
  5. Ligurian cuisine is generally very green – there are lots of vegetables. It is also light – the main source of fat is extra virgin olive oil, making it a healthy cuisine – with few dishes with butter in
  6. Despite it being a coastal region, it is not so much traditionally based on seafood as the Ligurian Sea is not a great place for catching many varieties of fish. They do have small bluefishes like anchovies, tuna, and mackerel – healthy fishes and also sustainable
  7. It is not a very meaty cuisine because, in Liguria, they have few fields for farming cows etc. They mainly consume small poultry and rabbits
  8. Ligurian cuisine can be considered one of the healthiest in the Mediterranean diets because of all these different aspects. The cuisine is one of Katy’s favorites in Italy as it’s so varied, very delicious, and often lighter (so you can eat more!)
  9. Many travelers to Italy have actually been to Liguria, but they may not know it. If you’ve been to the Cinque Terre or maybe Portofino – you’ve dipped your toes into Liguria. Those. are the main places that people visit in the region

Anti-pasto

Antipasto Misto

In trattorias or in traditional restaurants (where we suggest you eat as often as possible on a visit to Liguria), they usually offer Antipasto Misto which is a mix of different small starters, so you can have a taste of lots of different specialties. This big platter will have lots of things:

  1. Marinated anchovies – these are fresh anchovies marinated in lemon juice – marinated from a half day to two days. A famous antipasti of Liguria
  2. Slices of savory pies – Liguria is famous for its savory pies. Unleavened dough with a filling of vegetables mixed with cheese, fresh herbs, and eggs. Usually, in the Antipasto Misto, you have a small cube and or slice to taste
  3. Vegetables – you can have zucchini, pumpkin, swiss chards, artichokes, and all kinds. It’s always a surprise – what’s in season or what’s traditional to the area you’re in
  4. Salame di Sant’Olcese – a salami with big chunks of fat that is usually smoked for weeks, flavored with wine and garlic
  5. Focaccette al Formaggio – fritters filled with creamy melting cheese. An amazing treat not to be missed

Primo

  1. A wonderful opportunity to have the region’s beloved pesto – try Trofie al pesto, for the local pasta or gnocchi al pesto
  2. If you are close to Genoa, you must seek out Mandilli de Sea al pesto. Translated from the local dialect this means silk handkerchief pasta, as that is what they look like – very thin pasta. This is Enrica’s favorite way of eating pesto
  3. As rice is not grown in the area, you do not get lots of rice dishes, although there is Torta di riso – rice pie, which is a famous dish. It’s a pie made of rice and cheese and eggs, which is very good. Few recipes with rice, like Riso a rosto, which is rice roasted/baked, like Arroz Seco, the Spanish dish. They also have risotto dishes, one with octopus for example

Ravioli

  1. Ravioli Genovesi al tocco are ravioli stuffed with meat and vegetables, usually with a meat sauce. But don’t call it a ragu or bolognese sauce whatever you do – this is Tocco!! Tocco means ‘a big piece of meat’ because this meat sauce is made out of big chunks of meat which is slow cooked for at least three hours. It’s a velvety, clear sauce and is very tasty with the ravioli
  2. In Liguria they love vegetarian food sofFor a similar but vegetarian version, there is Pansotti with walnut sauce. Pansotti is bell-shaped filled pasta They look like large tortellini and the filling inside is made of wild herbs and some cheeses. They are dark green inside and the traditional topping is walnut sauce. It’s very easy to make – made by blending walnuts with some parmesan cheese, oil, marjoram, and some stale bread soaked in milk. It creates a fantastic, creamy sauce. It’s something that you can find in the countryside rather than on the coast, because it’s a very rustic and peasant-type dish
  3. If you find a nice Osteria or Trattoria, you can also ask for a mixed primi, to get half a portion of one and half a portion of the other, so you  can taste the different dishes. They’ll usually, they do that – ask “Posso avere un assaggio di entrambi?” – “Can I have a taste of both?”

Secondi

  1. Coniglio alla Ligure is a traditional dish of rabbit stewed with Taggiasca olive – the olives of Liguria and lots of pine nuts and aromatic herbs – all cooked in wine. Whether it is white wine or red wine depends on the area you are in – if you are in the West, it’s red wine, East, it’s white wine. you can find this rabbit dish everywhere – it is iconic to the region
  2. Cappon magro is a traditional seafood salad. It’s actually the seafood salad that they prepare for celebrations at Christmas, and for New Year’s Eve. It’s a luxurious, sumptuous salad made of layers of vegetables and white fish. In between each layer, there is a green sauce made of parsley. Usually, there are also prawns, oysters, and mussels – added to decorate and make this salad even more majestic. You can find the dish as anti-pasti often or have it as a main course because it’s a big salad

Vegetarian main courses

  1. Polpettone is a tart made of green beans and potatoes. It’s a kind of casserole – mashed green beans and potatoes with parmesan cheese and herbs, everything mixed together and cooked in the oven
  2. There are also stuffed vegetables, which are shells made of a vegetable with stuffing inside. The stuffing will also be made of the vegetable used, mixed with potatoes, herbs, and cheese, and baked in the oven. A fantastic vegetarian main course

Desserts

  1. Stroscia di Pietrabruna is an extra virgin olive oil cake. West Liguria is famous for its extra virgin olive oil production. This crumbly cake is  vegan because there is no butter used – it’s just oil, flour, sugar and some lemon peel. It will usually be served with some ice cream
  2. Pan Dulce is a sweet bread enriched with nuts, raisins, and candied orange peels. This is the Ligurian traditional Christmas cake, but they also enjoy it all year round
  3. In winter, you’ll get Castagnaccio, which is a tart made with chestnut flour, pine nuts, and raisins. It’s very common, especially in the countryside, where there are lots of chestnut trees

Digestif

  1. Next at the end of your meal, you would traditionally have an Amaro. This, along with coffee helps digest your wonderful meal. An Amaro is a bitter liquor digestif
  2. There are many Amaro makers in Liguria, and they tend to use local herbs for flavoring. So always ask for a local Amaro for the best way to seal your meal

Vegetarians & Vegans

  1. It’s very easy for vegetarians in Liguria,  especially compared with some of the other regions in Italy. For vegans, you will also likely have an options
  2. The famous Minestrone soup is their vegetable soup – a very dense soup. It’s made with lots of vegetables, cooked on a low heat for a very long time, and then flavored with some pesto. If you are vegan, you can just skip the pesto because sometimes there is parmesan in pesto. There are legumes in the soup so it’s a complete, nutritious dish for a vegan
  3. Farinata is the traditional chickpea tart and it’s made just with chickpea flour, water, and salt. That’s vegan and you can have it as a main course or as a starter
  4. Cundigiun is a Ligurian salad made with bread and tomatoes. It’s like a Panzanella, with local vegetables, bread, and seasoned with lots of oil. Another good vegan option
  5. Katy is not vegetarian and does eat meat and seafood, but she also loves eating lots of vegetable dishes, which is likely one of the reasons she loves Ligurian cuisine so much. All the delicious flavors that come from the region’s herbs mean for so many taste sensations when eating there

Don’t forget the basil!

  1. We learned from Enrica in an earlier episode (Episode 133 Delicious products to try in Liguria) that the basil that’s used in Ligurian pesto is very different from the ones that we get outside of Italy – which is why it tastes so delicious when you’re there. The one they grow in Liguria is the Genoese basil. It has specific small, oval-shaped, bright green leaves. It’s very difficult to get that basil abroad, so definitely make sure you explore the pesto while you’re in Liguria – to try the very best
  2. You can find the seed variety to try to plant in your garden at home. But what makes the basil in Liguria so incredible is also the local environment – the soil and the sea breeze because it’s harvested on the seaside, mostly on the hills facing the seaside

Try true Ligurian dishes on the Cinque Terre

If your itinerary and time constraints mean you only make it as far as Cinque Terre in Liguria then Enrica has some places she suggests you visit to try some great, authentic dishes

Gianni Franzi
This restaurant is fantastic because it’s in the main square of Vernazza in front of the sea so a great spot. It’s also one of the oldest restaurants in the Cinque Terre. They’ve been making traditional dishes for decades – they are an institution

Ittiturismo Corniglia Sp4488

Ittiturismo means a restaurant that cooks the fish that they have caught on their fish boat. The fish that you eat is the catch of the day. The strange name of the restaurant, therefore, makes sense because SP 4488 is the registered name of their vessel. This fantastic place is in Corniglia. Corniglia is one of the villages which is not on the seaside – but is on the mountainside. The restaurant sits on the hill facing Corniglia and the sea. There are olive trees everywhere, a vast sky, the sea beneath you, and the freshest fish ever. It’s an idyllic spot, especially if you can go there outside the tourist season (before May/after September) – then it’s even more special

Visit Liguria on a food and wine tour

If you’re intrigued by all that Liguria has to offer, take a look at our new  Untold Italy Food and Wine Tour of Liguria created in collaboration with Enrica, 

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:

Enrica’s new book:

Liguria in cucina: The flavours of Liguria

Liguria in Cucina: The Flavours of Liguria

Places mentioned in the show

  • Gianni Franzi – restaurant in Vernazza serving traditional cuisine in an incredible spot
  • Corniglia – part of the Cinque Terre, but not directly on the sea
  • Ittiturismo Corniglia Sp4488 – restaurant in Corniglia serving fish it catches on its own boat in a beautiful setting

Food & Drink

  • Salame di Sant’Olcese – a cured meat salami made from beef and pork, produced in the upper Val Polcevera valley. Sant’Olcese is a small town outside of Genova
  • Focaccette al Formaggio – a fried bread snack with melting cheese
  • trofie – a type of small, twisted pasta from Liguria
  • trofie al pesto & gnocchi al pesto – great dishes to try local pesto
  • Mandilli de Sea al pesto – found only close to Genoa, translates to silk handkerchief – it’s a thin pasta in pesto
  • ravioli genovesi al tocco, which are ravioli stuffed with meat and vegetables.
  • pansotti (pansoti) – a type of stuffed pasta, often served with a walnut sauce
  • coniglio alla ligure – a rabbit dish of stewed rabbit with Taggiasca olive, pine nuts, aromatic herbs in wine
  • taggiasca – variety of olive grown in Liguria – English name Cailletier
  • polpettone – a baked tart with vegetables, potato, parmesan and herbs
  • stroscia di pietrabruna – an extra virgin olive oil cake
  • canestrelli –  cookies with a flower-shaped hole
  • gobeletti – a Ligurian classic pastry stuffed with jam 
  • pan dulce – literally meaning sweet bread – is an Italian breakfast staple
  • castagnaccio – a chestnut flour cake made with  olive oil, raisins, and pine nuts
  • amaro – an Italian liqueur infused with herbs with a bitter-sweet taste
  • minestrone – vegetable soup learn the golden rules for making minestrone here 
  • farinata – a pancake-like tart made from chickpea flour
  • cundigiun – local tomato and bread salad
  • Genovese basil – variety of basil known for its use in the traditional Genoese pesto sauce

Resources

  • Auguri! – congratulations in Italian

Resources from Untold Italy

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