Karen Glaser found much more than perfect pesto in Liguria, Italy
If you were male and born in Liguria before the Second World War, the chances are that you would fished the blue waters to the west of Italy’s great boot for a living.
And when the blue waters became choppy and you felt seasick in your small wooden boat, your leudo, you would have eaten bagnun to ease the nausea. Cooked aboard, the fishermen, before setting sail, would trade anchovies, for tomatoes, garlic and onions to make the thick fish soup which originated in the tiny fishing village of Riva Trigoso in the 19th century.
These days it is difficult to find this rustic dish in the restaurants of Liguria, the croissant-shaped stretch of land between France’s Cote d’Azur and Tuscany where, even by Italian standards, the cuisine is exceptionally good.
But if you ask very nicely, they might prepare it for you at Ristorante Portobello located in the picture-postcard pretty village Sestri Levante, which Dante mentions in The Divine Comedy.
I was lucky enough to be allowed into the kitchen of this Michelin- starred restaurant, where the menu changes every six weeks, and to watch this time-honoured dish made from scratch. The ingredients are simple, said chef. To feed four you’ll need: one onion, a handful of parsley, a kilo of tomatoes, a kilo of anchovies, one cup of olive oil, a glass of white wine and some salt.
If the quantities are approximate, the method to make bagnun is anything but. First, fry the onion, garlic and parsley for half an hour. Second, add the tomatoes and white wine and cook for a further hour and a half (time was in generous supply aboard the leudi) Third, add the anchovies, fresh from last night’s trawl and cook in the now thick broth for precisely seven minutes. And then the best bit: ladle the piscine soup over galletto del marinaio, the ships’ biscuits which Liguria’s ancient mariners would nibble while at sea.
The small, humble anchovy might make up the bulk of the Ligurian catch, and certainly features widely in the region’s cuisine (marinated, deep-fried or simply salted) but other culinary stars also appear along the Italian Riviera.
The best known is, of course, pesto, from Genova. Originally created to prevent scurvy among sailors, Ligurians spread the basil paste on bread and focaccia (it hails from here) and a spongy pancake called testaroli. When they team it up with pasta, they usually opt for sheets of the dough, such as lasagne, and corzetti, discs stamped with the coat of arms of a local noble family. Equally important as the shape of the pasta, is the age of the Parmesan and basil in this earthy, green sauce: 24 months for the cheese, and 25 to 30 days for the leaves is considered optimal by pesto cognoscenti.
Pesto is on the menu of most restaurants here, but at I Tre Merli it is standout good. For starters at this restaurant located in Genova’s historic port, order slices of farinata, a pale yellow pancake made out of nutty-tasting chickpea flour.
But Ligurian cuisine has a contemporary face, too. And one of the best places to sample it is at Cantine Cattaneo a 17th farmhouse turned restaurant which still looks like the former: there is no signage. Once you have found it (not easy) be sure to order the roast octopus wrapped in lemon leaves fresh from the garden with cubed potato, Taggiasche olives and pine nuts. Poetry on a plate.
Karen travelled with turismoinliguria.it
Words Karen Glaser