This abundant agricultural land along the coast offered its inhabitants many gastronomical riches. Wine and oil were key products, along with the sweet chestnut (known as the bread tree), which yielded its fruit, its bark and its leaves. The fruit was dried and ground into flour. The bark was used in tanning leather, the leaves provided simple beds and a base on which to cook bread and meat. The ground around the chestnut trees also favored the growth of the prized boletus (also known as porcino or cep) and many other types of edible funghi.
The coastal location also influenced the evolution of people of La Spezia. Wooden boats were towed to the fishing grounds of anchovies and other types of blue fish. The anchovies were renowned for their special flavor, and were also known as "poor fish" because of their abundant numbers. When the catch was ample the fish were salted, packed in barrels and preserved. Otherwise the women would fill their baskets and set off on foot through the hills to sell the fish to neighboring villages.
The natives learned to negotiate the hills with great skill, using steep bridle paths to get from place to place. They needed to move to buy and sell their food and wine and to transport the wood to build barrels and boats. From time to time a pilgrimage to one of the many sanctuaries (such as Soviore, San Bernardino, and Montenero), perched in strategic positions on the hilltops gave another reason to set out along those fearful tracks. Now these paths provide walkers with a chance to enjoy deep silence and the scents of herbs and flowers, all against a backdrop of salty air.
The traditional cuisine of La Spezia, in particular of Cinque Terre and the Val di Vara, has preserved the values of yesteryear, with recipes being passed down by word of mouth
from mother to daughter. The culinary traditions utilize the skill of hands, fresh herbs and flavors of the basic ingredients. You may find tagliatelle served with different sauces: mushrooms, cabbage and potatoes, beans and chickpeas and a touch of pesto. The pesto is made with the best olive oil, basil, pine nuts and marjoram. A combination known as the basic soffritto is finely chopped onions, celery, and carrot, with possible variations in the addition of a little sausage or an extra clove of garlic in which to fry the vegetables. The well-known torte di verdura is a vegetable pie made with borage and other wild late-winter herbs followed by beet, artichokes, courgettes, potatoes and leeks. The filling is bound with egg and ricotta (a creamy cheese) or with bread softened in milk or with béchamel (white sauce), according to family tradition, topped with Parmesan, parsley and marjoram. The pastry must be thin, because flour used to be valuable, but there was never any sense economizing with olive oil. The shapes of the pies were round like the rose windows of the beautiful Cinque Terre churches, in devotion to the Virgin Mary.
The Cinque Terre seas are an unequalled habitat for many species of fish. Fishing is done by lampare (night trawling with lamps), along the sea beds near Monterosso,
Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. The smell of anchovies is quite unique and the variety of shiny silvery greys is unmistakable. The women set up their stalls in the squares and sell the fish, surrounded by lively chatter, the catch prize being a mormora, an orata or one of the types of ink fish (itiani and calamari). The market often boasts baskets of prawns, caught or fished off the Ligurian coast. Throughout the years local restaurants have become famous for their fish and specialties, but traditional recipes have never been forgotten and are always part of the menu. Mussels (le cozze) are always on the menu too: alla marinara - boiled and dressed with a few drops of lemon juice and a sprig of parsley - or stuffed with tuna fish, cheese, mortadella, egg and marjoram. The latter takes lot of patience because each uncooked mussel has to be opened individually.
Driving inland a few minutes, we find ourselves immersed in a sea of green. The Val di Vara and the Ligurian hinterland give importance to poultry, chicken, boiled fowl or duck for Easter, Christmas or for the local saint's day. Rabbit is a great favorite, cooked the huntsman's way with black olives, or dipped in breadcrumbs and fried. Rosemary and sage grow in abundance and are often seen as ornamental shrubs. Local lamb (agnelli nostrali) can be found in springtime. Ravioli is eaten with a substantial meat sauce and filled with a mixture of chopped beet leaves, borage, mortadella sausage, eggs and lots of Parmesan cheese.
Varese Ligure is justly proud of its high quality chestnut flour, which is available at Christmas time. This flour is used in the preparation of "Castagnaccio" (a kind of a
pancake eaten with ricotta cheese), and for a tart prepared with raisins and pine nuts. A bucellato is prepared with flour, sugar, butter and eggs as basic ingredients. (Not to be confused with the one made in Lucca!) The biscuits from this area are called Cobbelletti or Gobbelletti and are almost identical to the ones made in Genoa. Being so close to Genoa, a simpler version of pandolce is also a tradition in the area. These desserts are often enjoyed with Sciacchetrà, a prestigious dry wine produced in the Cinque Terra. It is made from vermentino, bosco, and albarola grapes that are grown on the terraces, then harvested and left to dry on special racks in the open-air through the end of autumn. This method of drying results in a sweeter grape and a strong full-bodied wine. The yield from the grapes used for Sciacchetrà is very low - about 25% - so it was very costly and was only used for medicinal purpose (a few sips at a time) or to celebrate a marriage or christening. Sciacchetrà has been a D.O.C. wine since 1973, as is the white wine from the Cinque Terre.
The production of white and passito grapes is of great relevance because hundreds of small vineyard owners give their grapes to the Cooperativa del Gruppo Di Riomaggiore, a modern organization that has streamlined the winemaking process. In recent years, the wine market has learned to appreciate both red and white wines from Levanto, produced just north of the Cinque Terre with particular care by the Cooperativa Agricoltori Vallata di Levanto. The production of high quality olive oil has also been boosted by the coop system.
Here are a few typical recipes from the Cinque Terre and Val di Vara:
800 g cep or "porcini" mushrooms
1 sprig of parsley
1 clove of garlic
3 tablespoons olive oil
A handful of Parmesan cheese
A handful of soft breadcrumbs soaked in milk
2 slices of pie pastry (one larger than other)
Lightly fry the garlic and parsley in a saucepan, then add the sliced mushrooms (caps and stalks). Stir and add salt as necessary. Cook for 8 minutes and remove from heat. In a mixing bowl combine the slightly beaten eggs and the fine breadcrumbs. Remove the mushrooms with a slotted spoon and add them to the bread egg and cheese mixture. Rub a baking tin with the oil and place the larger pastry slice in the tin. Pour in the filling evenly and cover with a smaller sheet of pastry. Sprinkle top with olive oil. Cook for 35-40 minutes in a preheated oven at 180-190 degrees C.
1 kg of mussels
100 g mortadella
Fresh breadcrumbs soaked in milk
1 sprig of parsley
A pinch of thyme
A pinch of marjoram
2 cloves of garlic
100 grams of grated Parmesan
30 g. grated pecorino
300 g tomatoes
1/2 glass of white wine
Salt and pepper
4 tablespoons of olive oil
Wash well, scrape and force open with a knife about 2/3 of the mussels trying not to stretch the valves, and leaving them to drip on a sloping plate. Put the remaining mussels in a pan at a medium heat for about 4 minutes until the mussels open. Remove from the pan, chop and mix with the mortadella, breadcrumbs, garlic, and other herbs. Add the cheese, salt, pepper and bind with the egg. Mix together until smooth. Spoon the filling into the mussels and close the shells. In a deep pan heat the oil and lightly fry the chopped onion; pour the white wine over the onion and leave to evaporate (about 3 minutes) over a low heat. Pour on the sieved tomatoes - raise the heat and cook for about five minutes. Remove from heat and place the mussels in the pan. Return to heat, adjust seasoning, cover and simmer for approximately 30 minutes or until fully cooked.
Orata with olives and potatoes
1.5 kg Orata
500 g potatoes
100 black olives (preferable Ligurian)
2 glasses of dry white wine
Bay leaves (according to taste)
Scale, gut, wash and pat the fish dry and place on the layer of bay leaves and a little olive oil, which cover the bottom of the baking tray. Peel and finely slice the potatoes, then place around the fish. Salt (add pepper if desired) and add more olive oil to the fish or potatoes if deemed necessary. Bake in a hot oven (220 C) for about 10 minutes; remove the tray from the oven, pour the wine over the fish and add the olives. Bake for another 10-12 minutes or until cooking is completed.
400 g flour
80 g grated Parmesan
4 tablespoons olive oil for frying
1.5 kg beet
Salt and pepper
Mix the flour, oil and a little salt together to make the traditional dough for ravioli (if necessary add a half glass of warm water to make the dough soft and elastic). Wash the beet, cut off the thick stalks and boil in salted water for a few minutes. Drain, squeeze out all the liquid and chop finely. Lightly fry the chopped onion in olive oil. Add the beet, stir well and simmer for 3 minutes (at low heat). Drain the oil from the beet and place in a soup tureen. Add the Parmesan, beaten egg, marjoram and pepper. Mix well and salt if necessary. Drop the mixture into small heaps on to the prepared ravioli pastry. (Ravioli approximately 8 cm. square). Fry the pasta shapes in boiling oil a few at a time. Serve immediately.
Soviore Rice Pie
300 g rice
8 tablespoons tomato sauce
2 sheets pastry for vegetable pie
2 tablespoons dried mushrooms
80 g grated Parmesan
Oil to grease baking tin
Pepper and salt
Boil rice in salted water. Cook until "al dente." Drain the rice and stop the cooking process by pouring cold water over it. Put into a soup tureen. Mix the tomato sauce, beaten eggs, Parmesan, salt, pepper and mushrooms previously soaked in tepid water and pour over the rice. Mix all the ingredients together well. Rub the baking tin with oil. Place a sheet of pastry in the tin and pour the rice filling onto it. Beat the remaining egg and pour it over the filling. Cover the rice with the other slightly larger sheet of pastry taking care to seal the edges. Make holes in the top of pie with a fork and sprinkle with oil. Cook in a preheated oven (190-200 C) for about half an hour.
Baked Mushrooms and Potatoes
800 g cep mushrooms ("porcini")
400 g potatoes (peeled, washed and thinly sliced)
2 garlic cloves
1 sprig of parsley
2 tablespoons olive oil
Olive oil to grease baking tin
1/2 glass white wine
Chop two mushroom stalks and fry with the garlic and parsley for two minutes in two tablespoons of olive oil, adding salt if necessary. Rub a baking tin with olive oil. Place the thinly sliced potatoes in the baking tin and pour the white wine over them, spread the fried mushroom stalks over the potatoes. Place the remaining thinly sliced mushrooms (caps and stalks) on top of the potatoes and sprinkle with a little olive oil and chopped garlic and the remaining parsley. Check for salt and cook in a preheated oven at 180 - 190 C.
Thanks to the APT of La Spezia for this information. Text by Salvatore Marchese, translated by Patricia Vickery and Anne Curry, photos by Sergio Fregoso, Roberto Bonfiglio, Cesare Ferrari, Doriano Franceschetti, Luca Fregoso and/or André Leuba.
APT La Spezia (Provincial Tourist Board)
viale Mazzini 47, 19100 La Spezia
tel. 011-39-0187-770-900, fax 770-908