Liguria has a splendid Mediterranean coastline, with small towns of candy coloured houses set against a backdrop of mountains. It’s located in northern Italy, and borders Piemonte to the north, Emilia-Romagna and Toscana to the east, the Tyrrhenian Sea to the south and France to the west Liguria is part of the Italian Riviera that stretches from France to Toscana. Genova is the capital and one of the most important Italian ports: Christopher Columbus set sail from here for the Americas in 1492. The steep and elegant city sits between the Riviera di Ponente (the coast of the setting sun) to the west and the Riviera di Levante (the coast of the rising sun) to the southeast. The region is narrow and long: it follows the irregular, rocky course of the coast. The sea’s microclimate and the Appennines that shoulder Liguria protect it from bad weather coming from northern Europe, so the region enjoys mild weather in the winter and hot sunny days in the summer. The part of Liguria stretching from France to Diano Marina is called the Riviera of Flowers because floriculture is an important industry here. The multitude of flowers blooming and the bright colours, particularly of the bougainvillea, add to the allure of pastel-coloured buildings rising from the blue sea. If you’re thinking of settling here, beware: property prices on the coastline rival those of Manhattan.
My heart is in Liguria as this is where I fell in love with Italy. It wasn’t the beaches or the flowers but the opportunity to sit and watch the everyday life of Italian families. The excellent olive oil, basil, figs, artichokes, borage, and focaccia helped as well. My favourite place to be is in the hills above the coastline, walking in the olive groves and discovering little villages. My personal idea of heaven is having lunch at a table under a tree at a country trattoria.
The most famous foods from Liguria are pesto sauce – of basil, pine nuts and garlic; focaccia – the popular flatbread that here is topped and filled in myriad ways; and the particular type of mild extra virgin olive oil that is produced from the local Lavagnina, Razzola and Pignola olives. This oil is so light-sensitive that the bottles are usually wrapped in tin foil. It goes very well with seafood and salads. Ligurian eating olives are excellent too, especially the small, black Taggiasca olive.
Some wine is made in the region too, usually in steep terraced vineyards that rise above the sea. These are very hard to work, as mechanization is impossible in such steep and rocky slopes, but the results are interesting. Of the whites, the main denominations are in the Colli di Luni DOC, where Liguria meets Toscana, the Cinque Terre DOC, the Colline di Levanto DOC and in the Riviera Ligure di Ponente DOC. Reds are mainly limited to the small and traditional DOC near the border with France, Rossese di Dolceacqua.
Ligurians were traditionally fishermen and sailors. Some fishing communities still remain here but tourism is now a more important source of local economy. The city of Genova has undergone a face lift in recent years and has many exciting activities, including an excellent aquarium and a renovated tourist port.
What to See
Picturesque places to visit in Liguria include: the extremely luxurious Portofino, the Cinqueterre, where you can take a day-long walk between the five villages, Cervo (a medieval village), Camogli (a traditional fishing village), Alassio (a family beach destination with beautiful Art Nouveau architecture), Balzi Rossi caves, Laigueglia, San Remo with its famous casino and music festival, and Santa Margherita Ligure.
Other places I am told are beautiful but I have not had the opportunity to visit are: Apricale (a village with unique dark stone houses and a castle (Castello della Lucertola)), Castelvecchio di Rocca Barbena (a beautiful walled medieval town with a 11th century castle), Noli (a historic 12th century walled village set on a bay), Tellaro (a fortified seaside town which has hosted many famous poets and writers such as Henry James, DH Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf), and Varese Ligure (a riverside town famous for its houses built in a circular formation (Borgo Rotondo) and many organic products such as honey, mushrooms, and cheese).
Great products to buy and take home are extra virgin olive oil, salted anchovies, pesto sauce, sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, olive paste, and baci (cookies).
The food of Liguria could not be more different than that of nearby Piemonte’s as it is lighter and focused both on the sea and the ‘orto’, or vegetable garden. Fishermen used to come back to shore craving vegetables, fruits and fresh cheeses after their sea diet of fish and dried biscuits. Today, seasonal local produce drives most Ligurian cooking. Vegetables and herbs form the basis of the cuisine: courgettes, borage, artichokes, radicchio, green and white beans, tomatoes, beet greens, basil, marjoram, rosemary, sage, bay leaf, mint, olive oil, mushrooms, chestnuts, etc. As in other modest rural areas, the humble chickpea offered fine protein and staying power. La farinata is a popular pancake of chickpea flour, water and oil that is served as a snack from street vendors and bakeries. Liguria is famous for its delicate olive oil which was traditionally pressed by each family for their own use.
Focaccia is a regional favourite, and the soft bread is perfect drizzled with freshly produced extra virgin olive oil. Focaccia di Recco is stuffed with stracchino cheese and is a favourite of mine. Focaccia is baked with many toppings, including onions, tomatoes, herbs, potatoes and olives. It is eaten as a snack or to accompany the meal, instead of bread.
Liguria has its own varieties of pasta. The most iconic are trofie al pesto: flour and water are formed into a dough and then rolled into little squiggly shapes. The pasta is dressed with bright green pesto, the uncooked basil sauce. Corzetti are discs of pasta with a design created by a stamp and are served with pesto, mushroom or meat sauce. Pansotti (triangular pasta stuffed with greens and cheese) is traditionally served with salsa di noci (walnut sauce). Other vegetable-driven dishes include torta verde, a tart filled with vegetables, and torta pasqualina, an Easter tart featuring chard with baked eggs. See Ligurian recipes here.
Most protein dishes are based on seafood, or what are called ‘courtyard animals’ such as rabbit or chicken. Burrida is a fisherman’s seafood soup, and cappon magro, a rich seafood and vegetable salad. I love the artichokes from Albenga which are purplish and taste wonderful. See Ligurian recipes here.
All these foods go well with chilled native Vermentino or Pigato white wines from Riviera Ligure di Ponente DOC or Colli di Luni DOC. Suggested producers include Bruna, Cascine delle Terre Rosse, Lupi, Ottaviano Lambruschi, Santa Caterina, Tenuta Bianche, and Tenuta Selvadolce. While Liguria is primarily known for its delicate and perfumed white wines, an unusual red wine (which was appreciated by Napoleon) is Rossesse from Rossese di Dolceaqua. Suggested producers include Enoteca Bisson, Kà Maciné, Lupi, Terre Bianche, and Tenuta Anfosso.
What to Eat:
A list of typical Ligurian dishes (the most classic are written in bold):
Salumi (Cold Cuts)
Salame di Sant’Ólcese (smoked pork and beef salami from Genova)
Acciughe ripiene (stuffed anchovies with breadcrumbs, parsley, garlic, eggs, and herbs)
Cappon magro con salsa verde (seafood salad with ship’s biscuits topped with layered fish, crustaceans, molluscs, dried tuna, and vegetables such as black salsify, celery, cauliflower, beetroot, artichokes, potatoes, carrots, and runner beans, served in a herb sauce made from eggs, parsley, breadcrumbs, garlic, vinegar, capers, olives, and anchovies)
Carciofi all’inferno (stuffed artichokes with garlic, parsley, and mint)
Farinata / Fainâ (chickpea flatbread, sometimes flavoured with rosemary, spring onion, or bianchetti (new-born fish))
Frisceu / Frisciöi (chickpea fritters of herb, vegetable, bianchetti (new-born fish), and salt cod)
Polpo e patate (octopus and potato salad, dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, and garlic)
Panissa / Panizza / Paniccia (chickpea porridge, eaten fried or cut into strips with spring onion, parsley, and olive oil)
Torta con le erbe (focaccia filled with chard or borage, eggs, onions, milk, olive oil, and Grana Padano cheese, topped with olives)
Torta di patate (potato pie)
Torta di zucca (pumpkin filled pie)
Torta pasqualina (Easter pie made with a puff pastry crust filled with chard or artichokes, ricotta or prescinsoea cheese, eggs, herbs (including borage), and baked eggs)
Primi (First Course)
Ciuppin / Zuppa di pesce (fish soup made from pureed mixed fish, vegetables, and tomatoes, served over toasted bread)
Corzetti / Corsetti / Crosetti (round, stamped pasta discs or ‘8’ shapes served with meat and pea sauce, mushroom sauce, pesto sauce, meat sauce, sausage sauce, or with olive oil, pine nuts, and marjoram)
Gasse (pasta strips formed into nooses)
Lasagne al pesto (baked pasta sheets layered with a basil and pine nut sauce)
Mandilli de saèa al pesto (wide sheets of quadrangular pasta with basil pine nut sauce or meat sauce)
Minestrone alla genovese (seasonal vegetable soup, may include: beans, potatoes, runner beans, cabbage, carrots, celery, leeks, tomatoes, courgettes, peas, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese rind, herbs, olive oil, short pasta, and pesto sauce, served hot or cold)
Pansoti di zucca (pumpkin filled pasta)
Ravioli di magro (pasta filled with prescinsöea cheese, wild greens, and herbs, served with meat sauce)
Secondi (Main Course)
Agnello con carciofi (lamb with artichokes)
Burrida (seafood Soup with fish, octopus, and cuttlefish, carrot, onion, parsley, garlic, parsley, anchovy, tomato, and dried mushrooms)
Cima (boiled stuffed veal breast with ground veal, sweetbreads or brains, marrow, eggs, peas, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, served sliced)
Coniglio alla Carlona (rabbit stew with black olives, herbs, white wine, capers, and pine nuts)
Coniglio alla Ligure (rabbit stew with white wine and olives)
Frittata di zucchini (zucchini omelette)
Stoccafisso accomodato (stewed stockfish with tomato, olives, pine nuts, and potatoes)
Stoccafisso alla parasca (stewed stockfish with onion, anchovies, pine nuts, parsley, and dried mushrooms)
Triglie alla genovese (baked red mullet with fennel seed, capers, tomato, and white wine)
Contorni (Side Dishes)
Capponadda / Caponalda / Capponada (ship’s biscuits with dried tuna fillets, anchovies, olives, capers, garlic, oregano, and olive oil, sometimes with hard-boiled eggs, preserved tuna in oil, and tomatoes)
Condiggion / Condiggiun / Cundiggiun (salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, yellow peppers, spring onions, ship’s biscuits, olives, and basil)
Fricassea di carciofi (stewed artichokes)
Insalata nizzarda (nicoise salad, includes tomato, pepper, cucumber, onion, green beans, hard-boiled eggs, tuna fish, olives, and anchovy)
Pesto d’inverno (walnuts, cheese curds, parley, and chard)
Sugo di carciofi (artichoke sauce made with artichokes, dried mushrooms, garlic, parsley, onion, tomato sauce, and white wine)
Baci / Amaretti (nut cookies)
Castagnaccio / Castagnun (flat chestnut flour cake with raisins)
Pandolce antica Genova / Pandolce genovese / Pandòçe (a triangular Genoese Christmas cake made from pine nuts, raisins, candied citrus peel, fennel seeds, orange flower water, Marsala wine, and vanilla)
Panettone genovese (a leavened cake with dried fruit)
Prescinseûa (cow’s milk cream cheese, slightly sour from Genova, used in baking or as a table cheese sprinkled with sugar)