Cinque Terre, Riviera and Vara Valley food
Today distant many years from the conception of the grandiose project of remodeling the profiles of the steep cliffs facing the sea and the luxuriant hills inland from the coast, the landscape in this part of La Spezia’s province presents itself as a kind of extraordinary – therefore unique – sculpture of which man is, at the same time, object and author. Just near the sea, at the border between the Cinque Terre and the wood, a legendary civilization – the Lunigianese – had placed, thousands of years ago, one of its mysterious totems, a statue-stele, a menhir.
Certainly, a restless figure. But a record, besides a symbol of an important, relevant culture. The men, then, began sculpting with diligence and rudimental tools, the terraces on which they were to plant “vertical” grape vines. A tiring and bizarre design supported by dry-stone walls, an example of a farmer’s wisdom that is still practiced today in the Langhe, Oltrepo’, Switzerland and Douro, in Portugal, and in all the other areas where one must be encouraged in the attempt to tear land from the mountain to obtain indispensable cultivation for daily subsistence.
On the strange flight of steps that took him down, towards the sea and infinite spaces, man didn’t place the vineyards haphazardly. It was one of the signs of the Mediterranean tradition, together with olives and chestnuts. It was another important step on to the road to emancipation, after having learned to use the plough for tracing furrows to plant grain.
New fruits came from the Orient, Greece and Palestine, but they immediately adapted to the zone of La Spezia, which enjoyed an excellent micro-climate, still now, noteworthy. Mild winters, bright springs, very long summers, autumns dense with perfume and color, green, yellow and pink….Features to dream of in an environment which day after day, acknowledges the changing of the seasons. It’s just agriculture, moreover, that allows people to think up an activity that guarantees income, vine, oil, and the bread tree, chestnuts.
The chestnut assured fruits to dry to obtain flour, tannins from the bark to work leather, leaves for pallets – and for the rudimental trays placed over a fire for cooking meats and breads, its wood to burn. But it also favoured the maintenance of the humus suitable for excellent porcini (boletus) and all other kinds of mushrooms that are still possible to gather in the Vara Valley and in the mountains near the coast. Even the sea can recount the evolution of the spezzina people.
The precarious wooden boats were pushed by oaring to the fishing areas. First, exclusively anchovies and generally blue fish. “Poor” fish, but with a unique flavor! The anchovies here would deserve an exclusive DOC. When fishing was abundant, they were put into barrels and conserved.
The women, moreover, placed a certain quantity of fish in baskets and went on foot to the inland villages to sell them. In the mountains, instead, they dried mushrooms that, like the anchovies, gave substance to polenta, potatoes and winter soups. Here and there, in the scrub, one opened spaces useful for raising a few head of live-stock, above all sheep, goats and (later) pigs. Even today, if one wants to reach Monterosso (the two extreme points of the Cinque Terre) by land one immediately realizes that you’re not dealing with an easy feat, unless you use the train (which only arrived at the end of the last century). And you encounter the same difficulty if you want to go from the sea towards the inland and the Vara Valley.
The actual rhythm of life magnified the difficulties; it could be a habit but there are more than a few people who wear two or more watches. Time is one of the parameters to which we confront ourselves more and more. And the concept of a fraction of a second is something we have acquired only recently, appreciating it as a discriminating sportive barrier.
But once – not even so long ago – the only means of communication were constituted by steep mule-tracks and adventurous trails that the inhabitants of the place learned to use with caution for necessity: the trading of food and wine, transportation of wood for barrels and boats, the anniversary of a religious feast celebrated with a pilgrimage to one of the numerous sanctuaries (Soviore, San Bernardino, Montenero) perched on mountain tops, in strategic positions. Now, these routes where, women with baskets on their heads or panniers on their shoulders, gave life to complicated balancing acts, while they strolled enveloped in the intense silent scent of herbs and flowers. With the vanishing salty taste, the cooking in La Spezia’s province, and markedly in the Cinque Terre and Vara Valley, conserves, almost integrally, the characteristics of yesterday.
They are a part of the traditional oral heritage – of cooking passed on from mother to daughter – almost all of the typical elaborations, marked for the most, by manipulative knowledge and the scent and taste of their basic ingredients. The “troffie”, wheat or chestnut flour, recalls the first steps toward the more sophisticated forms of pasta. They are a cross between the “pultes” (polenta) Mediterranean (African) and spaghetti and “fidelini”. And the condiment has remained ancient: pesto, with basil, very pure oil and grated cheese. Then pine nuts. And marjoram. The noodles “tagliatelle” can be accompanied with mushrooms, cabbage and potatoes, beans, chick peas, and a pinch of pesto.
Punctual, rather, browned onion and garlic, with some concession of a little bit of sausage and one more garlic clove to “enlighten” the vegetables. Wheat flour, vegetables, olive oil…the fundamental elements repeat themselves. And they are remodelled in different forms, peculiarities and tastes as in an improbable kaleidoscope. The vegetable tarts, first. Borage and other wild herbs in late winter; then, chard, artichokes, zucchini, potatoes and leeks.
The filling is held together with an egg and ricotta (or with bread soaked in milk or with white sauce, depending on family tradition), with grated parmesan, parsley, marjoram. The pastry crust is thin: flour was precious; it didn’t make sense, however, to save on the olive oil. Round forms, sign of devotion. For the Madonna, like the rose-windows of the beautiful churches of the Cinque Terre. The tarts were prepared on the eve of the feast at Soviore or at the Madonna della Neve. At Monterosso, the rice tarts were made precious with a few dried mushrooms. Rice was a luxury, acquired outside. Or, omelettes.
A lot of eggs, fluffy, summery, soaked with the attention of a wife or a mother. They were something that went with bread. And how! Today they have been re-discovered as an antipasto. To try without a doubt are Levanto’s “gattafin”. They’re vegetable-filled ravioli exalted if fried in smoking olive oil. The name comes from “gattafura” term from the 1300’s that indicates “rafioli” and tarts. Yes, from these places there really seems to be the sublime art of frying (a lot of oil and very little food to begin with).
The confirmation surely arrives from the “cutlet” of anchovies (anchovies stuffed and fried) and from the delicious white anchovy fritters (new anchovies and sardines). And with fish, truthfully, one can’t forget oregano, herb that the spezzini usually use to scent tomatoes. It’s harvested in summer, near woods, and dried in the shade in characteristic fragrant bunches. Dried flowers, are placed in glass vases for all gastronomic occasions.
The sea of the Cinque Terre, offers an incomparable habitat for many species. The anchovies, for example, are absolutely unique. Their shiny grey color is unmistakable. Anchovies are caught by using trawls with lamps at night, along the sea bottoms not very far from Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. In the morning, in the little squares of the villages, women sell fish arranged on stalls surrounded by lively, cheerful chatting. Here, the shrewdness to exploit marine resources is learned early by children. The harpoon becomes an ordinary tool, to rummage with in between the dark rocks.
The long, precise preparation of nets armed with hundreds of hooks transforms itself into a moment of sociality and cheerful complicity. Whiting, sargoes and who knows what else will bite…. The more fortunate, and more expert, will try to capture some stupendous example of the voracious bass, “loassi” (sea perch, as they call them in France), basses with delicate meat. But the record goes to the dory and the mormyrus, the cuttle-fish and squid. After, moreover, the market suggests catches of shrimp caught off the ligurian coast. With the passing of the years, local restaurants have specialized in preparing fish dishes, crustaceans and seafood in general, but the traditional recipes have been intelligently safeguarded.
The mussels “cozze” are omnipresent: a la marinara with a few drops of lemon juice and a sprig of parsley; stuffed (with tuna, cold cuts, cheese, egg, marjoram: one needs a lot of patience since they must be opened raw. By themselves, they’re excellent and appetizing. In mixed salads, with cuttle-fish, shrimp, octopus and little sea shells they bring colorful cheerfulness. It’s surprising to follow the gastronomic evolution of cuttle-fish and squid: very small, they are an authentic delicacy whether fried or boiled a few minutes in flavored water, accompanied with a drizzle of olive oil.
As adults, they can constitute the base for thick stews and soups to dunk bread in. Here’s the salads, then. And stuffing. If the cuttle-fish are big you can stuff them (the tentacles are half-cooked in olive oil and minced peas or other vegetables, grated cheese, soaked then squeezed bread) then you boil them. If you have medium sized ones you can cook them with olive oil, garlic, parsley, a cup of dry white wine – or with tomatoes.
There’s a thread linking the different culinary interpretations: the concentration of a salty marine taste maybe due to mineral salts and plankton. And this is the ideal situation after the ritual walk along the Via dell’Amore and the other trails. It seems like a paradox: but the desire for certain flavors, where the sun blends with salt and the scents of the Mediterranean scrub is our heritage. From the coast you only need a few minutes by car to return to immerse yourself in a sea green with grass.
Habits suddenly change. Fish arrives from far away, from the North and Atlantic seas: it’s cod, transformed into dried cod (more popular, as shown from the numerous recipes) and stockfish (finer, for rich people) that fits in well with corn meal. The Vara Valley and the ligurian inland rely upon, in the kitchen, meat from the farmyard, chickens, capon or hens at Easter or Christmas, or for the patron saint feast. The rabbit: a la cacciatore (with black olives) fried after substantial breading, de-boned and stuffed (with bacon, lard or, recently with raw ham).
Sage and rosemary are abundant which often form decorative bushes. It’s possible, in spring, to find home-grown lambs. Women prepare them in fricassee with artichokes. Steaks are very good fried. And the ravioli? The meat sauce is very rich: beef and sausage together. The stuffing consists of vegetables, like chard and borage, eggs, a lot of parmesan, bologna, meat. The dough is soft, and a sauce of fresh or dried porcini is quite suitable.
Cheeses and cold cuts are recognized by their savory flavor. Salami is excellent as an antipasto and as a snack accompanied with light tart wines. Cheese can be a blend of cow or sheep’s milk; but there are some really extraordinary sheep milk cheeses. Memories crop up from nobility and the mercantile bourgeoisie in the genoan tradition. Here are the “corzetti”(or croxetti), disks of dough that are printed with a family’s own design, floral or arabesque motifs.
They are Varese Ligure’s pride, together with the “sciuette”, sweets prepared by the cloister nuns following a very ancient, secret recipe, and dried mushrooms (Gioacchino Rossini was so gluttonous for them, he had them shipped regularly from Paris). The corzetti are flavored with pesto or other light sauces. “Cima” and the “pasqualina” recall Genoa. The “cima” (veal bacon) is stuffed with vegetables, eggs and bologna (and grated cheese) rather than with sweetbreads, breast and peas (as they do in the Superba). In the city, there were butcher shops regularly operated where one could find intestines, brains and other similar parts, rich in azote.
The “pasqualina” cake is the most regal of all. In Genoa, some swear that 33 layers of puff-pastry are necessary. In the Vara Valley and in the area of La Spezia less are enough. You make one layer of drained ricotta and another of chard or borage on which you make small indentations where you place a coating of butter and an egg and then you cover this with the last puff-pastry punctured with the prongs of a fork and sprinkled with olive oil. Bake it for 35-40 minutes.
Varese Ligure is also rightly proud of its chestnut flour, of superior quality. You can find it around Christmastime. It’s used to prepare “castagnacci” (type of crepe) eaten with ricotta and a cake with raisins and pine nuts. But some still use it for making noodles or for “pattona” (type of bread).