Liguria is the land where dramatic jagged mountains meet the turquoise sea. This moon-shaped Italian province is a real delight as we discovered this summer whilst visiting Paolo Cassini and his family at their frantoio just outside Isolabona near to the French border.
For many, Liguria’s main pull is the beautiful fishing villages of the Cinque Terre and Portofino. In high season however, they are over crowded for our liking so we stepped off the track and spent more time in Bordighiera (a delightful seaside town), and up the valley in Isolabona and Dolceacqua. We also visited gritty Genova and thanks to these places, we put together a wonderful picture of the Ligurian kitchen.
The Taggiasca olive and indeed its extra virgin olive oil is the common thread throughout the regional cuisine. This small, sweet olive has a delicate flavour, very little bitterness and is grown on the steep, terraced groves that pepper the Ligurina hillsides. With notes of freshly cut grass, almond and green bean, it weaves its way in to the local recipes, a few of which stood out for us.
Pasta is of course very much at home with its local side-kick pesto. If you want to get it totally right, trofie is the most common choice with its tiny hand-rolled twirl that catches the sweet intense sauce. Other brilliant pasta from Liguria includes the triangular pansotti as well as a sort of linguine called trenette, particularly good with seafood that also features highly.
We found vegetarian dishes in abundance, particularly those based on tomatoes, artichokes, olives and garlic – away from the glamorous fishing villages, this region is still relatively undeveloped and unflashy and this is reflected in the food, much of which is home-grown.
Meat is not a huge feature in Ligurian cuisine because the hilly terrain doesn’t allow for even moderate scale livestock farming. Rabbit however is popular and it has a capacity to pair brilliantly with small taggiasca olives when slow cooked.
And focaccia is a major deal in these parts and whilst you can find this bread throughout Italy, this is it’s true home. A slight crunch on the outside but with a soft centre, it is typically laced with olives or rosemary and generous quantities of Olive Oil. Put a slice of the local prescinsêua cheese in the middle and you get a divine focaccia di recco – amazing for a mid morning put you on. We also encountered the traditional farinata di ceci, which is a sort of dense pancake made with chickpeas and delicious topped with black pepper and olive oil.
All of this is of course elevated when you get the oil right. We have tasted extensively and I can assure you that the very best of the region is Paolo Cassini. He is a true food hero in our eyes, very few people take EVOO this seriously and as we write this he is starting up the frantoio and facing the most intense few weeks of 18 hr days of insanely hard labour. Paolo, we salute you.
As we drove out of the frantoio, Paolo’s mother caught us in the drive way and thrust a bottle of Extremum in to our hands (their single grove selection). We were heading to France to continue our gastronomic adventure. “Take this,” she said “You can’t find good food in France, they have no idea about food.” We laughed. But you know what, when we got to France, the butter-laden dishes just didn’t do it for us in the way French food had in the past. Have we lived in Italy too long? Or was it just because Liguria had surpassed all our gastronomic expectations.