Forty years ago my parents had the foresight to invest an inheritance in a piece of land on the Ligurian coast and build a vacation home on it. Since then this house has become a retreat for three generations of our family for regenerating, relaxing and gourmandizing.
Liguria is a very hilly region bordering France's Cote d'Azur in the west, the Toscana in the east and the Mediterranean sea in the south. Due to the rough and rocky terrain, a vast part of the region is undeveloped so in most parts tourist accommodations are limited to family run pensions and small hotels. In fact, during the past Easter weekend I spent there, I didn't see a single car with a non-Italian license plate. Mostly the tourists that visit the region are from the large Italian cities in the north like Torino and Milano who own apartments and holiday homes here.
The larger Ligurian towns can be found along the narrow flat strip of land along the coast while back in the hills, there are mostly only tiny villages. The village we live in is called "Borgio Verezzi", Borgio is the more modern part down by the sea and Verezzi is the ancient part up in the hills. The architecture in either part is quite lovely, typical for the seaside towns are the pink or yellow painted houses with green windows shutters ...
... while the ancient buildings in the mountaiins are often out of stone
Amazingly little has changed in the forty years we've taken part in the Ligurian lifestyle. New houses have been built and shops and restaurants have opened but generally life there is pretty much the same. People still meet up in the cafes for long chats, buy their bread and cakes at the bakery, their pasta at the pasticceria, their meat from the butcher and their fruit, vegetables, household items and even clothes from the travelling markets ... department stores and even supermarkets really never made it here
As I kid I hated most vegetables but strangely was always very fond of artichokes and I still am so being in Italy during the season was a treat, see below ...
Italians know what's good so they generally don't swim when the water is cold and the ocean indeed is still a bit nippy around Easter. But this didn't prevent them from enjoying the sun at the beach ...
... and preparing for the upcoming summer season
Olive oil, olive oil, olive oil! Liguria is one of Italy's most important producers and it shows in the cuisine. Pasta, vegetable and fish dishes are always perfumed with a few drops of this, healthy, fragrant oil while butter and cream practically only appear in desserts. Pine nuts are also used for many dishes and not only in sweet ones.
Pesto Genovese, the green sauce made out of ground basil, pine nuts and parmesan cheese is probably Liguria's most famous food. Branzino (sea bass) is caught by local fishermen and is a delicacy served by many of the better restaurants. I had dinner at two typical Ligurian restaurants during the Easter holiday and the fare offered is all very typical of the region.
The Anatomy of a Roll
Borgio isn't the most happening place in the world so the ways to amuse yourself are of the simple kind. One of the great joys for me is to stroll down to the village in the morning, stock up on the latest Italian watch magazines ....
... and page through them while drinking a few espressi and cappuchi (local slang for cappuchino). Italian coffee is the best, no question and it's outstanding in virtually every bar. The frustrating thing is that they don't even make a fuss about it, they just press a button on their huge machines and it flows ...
Afterwards it's time to get bread for breakfast. The French have their baguettes, the Germans their rye bread, the Belgians their pumpernickel and the Ligurians have their libretti (booklets). They're called "libretti" because they slightly resemble a book and certainly not because they taste like cardboard. The shell of a libretti is waferthin and so crispy ...
... that they give out a little roar when you crack them open while the inside is like a fluffy cloud ...
Growing grapes on such rocky, steep ground isn't an easy task but local winemakers won't be deterred and produce pleasant if not outstanding wines, many of them whites out of a grape called Pigato.
Mountain food at the "Ca del Moro"
The "Ca del Moro" is one of my favorite restaurants in the area and I ate there the first time decades ago and many times after. It's located a twenty minute uphill drive away from the coast and it's not really even in a village.
Nonetheless it's packed every night with locals hungry for authentic Ligurian "mountain food".
Ordering "antipasti" in Italian restaurants usually gets you something like a plate with vegetables marinated in olive oil and maybe a slice of cured ham and some sun-dried tomatoes. The traditional antipasti Ligurian style is very different as it's always a succession of individually served little seasonal dishes ....
Thin slices of pressed squid terrine served with warm potato salad. Amazingly there was no gelatine or other binder involved in the terrine, the pieces of squid are bound under great pressure.
artichoke, fish and shrimp fried tempura-style in a light batter
If you thought the pressed octopus was unusual, take an eyeful of this. "Bianchetti" are freshly hatched whitebait and are basically a string of protein with two big black eyes. Yum!?!
As I was in Italy over the Easter holiday, antipasti included a slice of warm "Torta di Pasqua" (Easter Pie), the Cas del Moro version was a puff pastry filled with shredded artichokes and I wish I could have eaten more of it. Also on the dish, a small homemade salami and these amazing green beans which cracked open again revealed small, kidney shaped beans.
I was looking forward to these ravioli for weeks! There are a number of very good Italian restaurants in Zurich, the town where I live, but none of them are able to serve ravioli that taste like these. I truly believe this is because only one type of flour is available in Switzerland, while differently milled flours with varying starch-levels are common in every Italian and French supermarket. These ravioli are filled with a herbal paste and served with a heavenly, flavorsome meat sauce made out of coarsely ground oxtail.
My favorite parts of an Italian meal are always the appetizers and the pasta, the mains are usually less special except for some of the fish and seafood dishes. As there wasn't any Branzino available that day, I had a plate hearty, "home cooked" veal roast with spinach which was simple but really good.
I feel a bit the same way about Italian desserts as I do about the main courses, they're not the cuisine's forte and in summer, I usually pass and go for an after dinner gelato. But a nice homemade panna cotta or tiramisu is difficult to say no to, the CdM's way yummy and came with caramel sauce
The CdM has a small wine list but I think everybody drinks their locally-grown house Nostralinos. The white is quite pleasant and goes well with the antipasto courses, the red is void of any body and is more like a rose and accordingly served chilled.
Food of the sea at the "Ristorante Doc"
The Ristorante Doc is in the same village as our house and one of the best places in the region to go for local seafood cooked with refinement. We're lucky that we live only a short stroll down the hill from such a good place ... BTW, Photoshop was not involved in making the sky this color!
The restaurant is in a beautiful old town house, right in the middle of the village
The interior is cosy but much more elegant than the Ca del Mor ...
The waiter recommended a Pigato from a nearby village to go with the all-fish Easter menu. When travelling, I try to drink local wines whenever possible but I'm not dogmatic about it. These Ligurian wines are light with a pronounced citrus note and are perfect with the olive-oil based fish-cuisine but I don't think Wine Spectator will ever do a special on them
First course was a very delicious herb covered fish with slices of polenta. The golden drops present on all the dishes are of course olive oil
The bianchetti whitebait embryos are fun to eat maybe once a year so we substituted the second course with local "white shrimp" with an orange emulsion
It's good to be in Italy during the artichoke season ... capelletti stuffed with artichoke hearts and parmesan, a dash of chopped herbs, a few drops of olive oil. Again I'm just amazed how much better pasta is in Italy than anywhere else
The main course was about as Ligurian as it gets. Pan-fried Rouget (not sure) with tomatoes, asparagus and pine nuts. The perfection and simplicity of this dish would easily qualify for a Michelin star ...
After all the light and healthy food, a calorie bomb was a sensible choice. Dark and moist chocolate cake with a sort of sabayon cream
... and cookies and more chocolate with coffee
There are many lovely spots in the world and Liguria is definitely one of my very favorites!