Liguria, an Italian pesto where tomatoes are off the menu

(CNN) – Ah, Italy, the land of pizza, pasta and tomato sauce. At least that’s what many visitors do when planning a trip to Bel Paes. But if they’re planning to visit popular tourist spots like Cinque Terre or Portofino, they might be in for a surprise — because the traditional food of Liguria, the northwest coastal region where both are located, is far from what outsiders might call it. Italian”.

Where other regions of Italy have traditional dishes that we would consider “Italian” food, the traditional dishes of Liguria are a little different.

Of course, there is pasta with pesto. But there are also dishes like this farinataa kind of chickpea pancake that is salted and served in slices, and Cappon Magroa “salad” of cooked seafood and vegetables, drizzled with green basil dressing, usually served in an elaborate pile that looks like a plate for a banquet.

As for the tomatoes? You find the odd stew or sauce popping up, but they’re not front and center like they are in depictions of “Italian” food.

That’s partly because Italy’s food scene is very regional, with big variations from town to town. But, experts say, that is not the only explanation.

Love of tradition, maybe too much

Liguria is a land of cliffs and rugged mountains with terraces for growing food and wine.

Vivida Photo PC/Adobe Stock

You can imagine the Ligurian landscape with its steep hills, cliffs and mountains. But Sergio Rossi, the so-called “Cucinosofo” (kitchen philosopher) who blogs about Ligurian food, says that’s not the case: “Tomatoes grow very well here.”

On the contrary, he says, the Ligurians are likely to be “traditionalist” and “closed” in nature — despite the regional capital Genoa being one of the most important ports and commercial centers in the Mediterranean. “But the Ligurians were the biggest traders [new ingredients] they didn’t necessarily include it in their recipes,” he says. “The Genoese are reserved, going for family intimacy and community. In the past, change was always viewed with a degree of mistrust, especially by the working and middle classes — as was the case with the introduction of New World ingredients.” Citing a document from 1244 — they simply “never regarded the tomato as a fertilizer.”

In fact, says Rossi, the arrival of the potato was “much more important” than that of the tomato. He gave the potatoes to the people inland — the hilly and mountainous areas of the populated interior the farmers (farmers) — reliable food that kept them alive.

Even then, that Ligurian traditionalist nature did not make it easy. The potato was seen as a “chic thing” from abroad, he says, in the 18th century. By the 19th century, while the Genoese aristocracy were happily eating French-style potato dishes, rural communities were distrustful. The Catholic Church had to step in, with local priests convincing their parishioners that potatoes were safe to eat until 1786. The humble spud ended up “changing” the lives of farmers and workers, Rossi says. But not tomatoes. “They don’t fill the stomach, so they would never be staples,” he says.

According to Rossi, the XIX. It was only in the 19th century that tomato sauce became a viable mass-market and working-class food, thanks to preservation methods such as canning.

“Then it was included in dishes – sometimes pasta but also stews, for example Genoese minestrone and baltar stew. The Ligurians produced tomato sauce.’

“A Secret Part of Italy”

Typical foods like focaccia were introduced before tomatoes arrived in Italy.

Typical foods like focaccia were introduced before tomatoes arrived in Italy.

Magdalena Bujak / Adobe Stock

Although foreigners associate Italian food with tomatoes, they are in fact relatively new to the country.

“The tomato arrived as a novelty for botanical gardens from Mexico around 1580,” says Diego Zancani, author of How We Fell in Love with Italian Food. “But it took a very long time to be recognized as edible.”

By then, Ligurian world-famous dishes such as pasta with pesto, focaccia and farinata had already taken root.

And where other regions incorporated tomatoes into their signature dishes — “I’m always amazed when I go to Tuscany how many tomatoes they probably use in their dishes. [pre-tomato] Medieval origin,” says Zancani — the Ligurians didn’t. Like Rossi, that’s down to cultural isolation.

“Liguria has always been a very secretive part of Italy – Genoa was connected to the rest of the world because of its ships, but many other parts are quite isolated,” he says.

“It’s a largely mountainous region, so traditions are preserved much longer than in other places. In any rural area, there’s a lot of conservatism — things were kept for centuries without much change.”

On the menu: medieval food

Genoa is famous "fryers," or fried fish.

Genoa is famous for its “friggitorie” or fried fish stalls.

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Ligurian food is a big thing for Enrica Monzani, who gave up her career as a Genoese lawyer to focus exclusively on the food of her region. Today, she teaches cooking classes and writes about coastal Ligurian dishes like fried sage leaves and stuffed anchovies on her blog, A Little Kitchen in Genoa.

For Monzani, the lack of tomatoes in Ligurian food isn’t really a lack, but rather a sign of Ligurian vegetable-heavy cooking, which means there’s no room for a star of the show.

Yes, heavy vegetables. Because even if we think of Liguria as a coastal destination, seafood only entered the canon of Ligurian cuisine in the 1900s when tourism began, he says. Instead, the Ligurians have always used the cliffs and mountains to grow vegetables, and they have harvested ingredients such as mushrooms from the hills of the forests and the inland mountains; then in the summer season they added things like anchovies. Frying pan — literally “fries” — have been popular in Genoa since the Middle Ages, serving tiny battered fish and fried ravioli. panisette (like chickpea chips) and fresh (fried dough balls).

“Our traditional cuisine is based on vegetables or products from the forest — chestnuts, potatoes, mushrooms and herbs — it’s more related to farmers and ranchers than fishermen,” he says. She also has a section on her website devoted to “wild herbs and flowers” recipes.

Also, pasta in tomato sauce would never have caught on in a region that invented major pasta accompaniments in the Middle Ages, he says.

“It’s traditional for us to season pasta with raw sauces: pesto, walnut sauce, pine nut sauce — there’s a great marjoram and pine nut sauce,” he says.

“Our meat sauce is also a large piece of meat that has been cooked slowly for several hours until it releases its juice. It has a small amount of tomato. Pasta with tomato sauce is not that common, and we use it mainly to add acidity to stews. , stockfish stew or Chicken Cacciatore — “cacciatore” chicken, Monzani uses just three tomatoes, where other Italian recipes have the meat swimming in tomato sauce. “Generally in Ligurian cooking we add a bit of tomato paste [instead of masses of tomatoes]”, he says.

Eastern influence

Being one of the largest ports in the Mediterranean, Genoa had contact with many other cultures.

Being one of the largest ports in the Mediterranean, Genoa had contact with many other cultures.

Anatolii Lyzun/Adobe Stock

Liguria’s tradition of raw, nut-based pasta sauces stems from medieval Muslim and Arab influence, Monzani says, fueled by Genoa’s status as one of the Mediterranean’s most important ports. Saracen pirates also raided the coast. The result? “In the early Middle Ages, we included dried fruits in our cuisine.”

Basil is also believed to have come from the east, says Rossi. “It’s not easy to say how it got there, but for centuries Genoa was the most important port in the Mediterranean, it’s obvious that if any of the ingredients arrived it would have arrived here.

It is derived from pesto agliata, a family of garlic-heavy medieval sauces, he says. Although other parts of Italy had basil, it was the Ligurians who combined it with nuts, garlic and parmesan. He says that the fact that the Ligurians already had pasta — they’ve been producing it for 800 years and selling it for a little longer — was “essential.” Pesto was already mentioned as a seasoning for pasta lean days — meatless days imposed by the Catholic Church — in 1618.

Today’s specials: wild herbs and rose syrup

"Prebuggiun" it is a mixture of wild herbs or vegetables.

“Prebuggiun” is a mixture of wild herbs or vegetables.

A Small Kitchen in Genoa

Ligurian love for vegetables goes beyond what we can find in the supermarket. There is a great tradition here of eating wild herbs and even flowers: syrup made from rose petals is a summer staple. Today, prebbugiun According to Rossi, it is a mixture of local herbs that are eaten in soup, salad, pie or frittata (tortilla dish); the name comes from “prebollire” or “sbollentare”: parboil or peel. Today, it mainly refers to wild animals, the XIX. Cabbage, Swiss chard, parsley and other herbs appeared as ingredients in recipes and dictionaries in the 19th century. Even today, in the valleys outside Genoa, he says it takes the form of cabbage, potatoes and garlic, cooked and with oil as an appetizer.

Zancani says that much of Ligurian cuisine is “based on the food of the farmers, especially on the knowledge of wild animals.”

“They have several combinations based on specific wild herbs that can only be found in the hills and mountains of Liguria,” he says.

And of course, as Rossi reiterates, food in Italy is very local, often not even by region, but usually by town, valley or village. “It’s like a big mosaic, beautiful, but we have to look at each stone that makes it up,” he says. “Regions, towns and even families have traditional cuisine.

“Italian food doesn’t exist, at least not in Italy.”