The coastal region of Liguria forms a long narrow crescent along the Ligurian Sea towards the northern part of Italy. Four provinces – Imperia, Savona, Genoa and La Spezia – are arranged in a linear fashion along the crescent, each with similar lengths of coastline. A wide swath of mountains protects the area from severe weather, lending to the region’s year-round mild temperatures and plenty of rainfall.
Liguria shares its western border with France, and the Italian regions of Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany fan out along the northern and eastern borders, influencing but not overpowering Liguria’s strong local food culture. The capital port city of Genoa claims Christopher Columbus as one of its most famous natives, and pesto as one of its most famous recipes.
Geographically, Liguria holds little meadowlands, with most of its terrain rising from tropical coastline sharply up to mountainous areas. The forested hills grow wild with pine trees, providing the fresh tang of pine nuts for Ligurian dishes. Mushrooms and chestnuts abound in the hills, as do rabbits and other wild game, making the region ideal for producing hearty and rustic country flavors. The warm Mediterranean air helps create good conditions for growing olives (producing exceptionally light flavored oil), wine grapes, corn, herbs (particularly basil), garlic, chickpeas, zucchini (especially the blossoms, which cooks stuff), potatoes, onions and artichokes. Because of its wide coastline, fish and shellfish are the predominant proteins used in Ligurian cooking, though the region shares its love of pork and pork products with both its Italian and French neighbors.
Though little wheat is grown in the area, pasta is important to the region’s cuisine. It is said that a form of small lasagna noodle originated there, formed from chestnut flour, which is still popular today. The innovative Ligurians are skilled making do with locally grown ingredients, like chestnut and chickpea, to product alternate products to use in their pastas, polentas and breads, though wheat is fairly easy to import to the region and therefore the primary ingredient in pastas and breads now. Pesto sauce is popular as a topping for pastas and is widely consumed since basil and pine nuts are so readily available. Fidelini is a local favorite pasta cut, long and thin and the perfect base for light sauces. Trenette is a form of flat, thin pasta similar to linguine, and hearty gnocchi can be found on almost every menu.
High on the list of the profusion of Ligurian specialty dishes is the bread known as focaccia. This unleavened flatbread is not meant to be stored for any length of time, but rather is best eaten straight from the oven. Though usually baked plain, the region’s abundance of fragrant herbs are often combined and sprinkled on top. Cheeses, meats and fresh vegetables are other delightful additions to focaccias, and though there is some tendency in non-Italians to think of heavily adorned focaccias as pizza-like, the differences in taste and texture are very distinct. Focaccias are, again, unleavened and have a dense texture perfect for sopping up rich sauces or simply a great olive oil.
You are probably already familiar with many of the tastes of Liguria, as their popularity has spread worldwide, and justifiably so as so many of the dishes are easy to prepare. Even making pesto is an uncomplicated process, quickly prepared in almost any kitchen. Enjoy your homemade pesto over your favorite pasta alongside some herbed olive oil and fresh focaccia for dipping.