Portus Veneris and the Roman city of Luni that stood on Portus Lunae extend over a large and beautiful part of La Spezia Province which, like few other places in Italy, boasts an incredible blend of blues and greens.
The distant horizons of the sea alternate with the sharp outlines of the hills in a complicated puzzle that creates remarkable views that change from day to day and season to season.
There are signs of a human presence closely bound to the earth and its traditions, deriving from historical events that have marked the centuries. Intense trading, pirate raids, and wars did not prevent the women of La Spezia from perpetuating and strengthening emotional bonds by playing major roles in these events.
They raised their children while the men went to sea seeking their fortunes, they tended their gardens and managed their farms. These were women who only needed to follow their own maternal instinct and the simple, spontaneous advice from their mothers to give flavor and substance to their cooking. Theirs is a ‘poor cuisine’, based on local resources and not codified in elaborate recipes. But then, is ‘poor cuisine’ the right way to describe cooking based on flavors and freshness, fish and seafood, natural vegetables and herbs and the skillful use of olive oil? Even today, in spite of technologically advanced equipment, the old motions, in handling flour to make dough for tagliatelle and lasagna noodles, have a special meaning. They are proof of a heritage and respect for such an important ingredient. In fact grain, not flour, was transported by sea (flour would have absorbed the moisture and the salt).
The grains were then ground at mills which, mainly in the XVII century, were established near rivers and streams. Fishing has never been an easy trade. Nets didn’t last very long, and boats had to be rowed, sometimes for hours on end. Old fishermen tell about how they had to wrap their oars in rags so they wouldn’t frighten away schools of anchovies and make their trip in vain. Part of the anchovy catch was used immediately, the rest was salted in barrels.
The women of Lerici used to carry fish-filled baskets on their heads to the inland village markets. Grains, like legumes became part of the province’s cuisine along with vegetables and the meat of barnyard animals; a seafaring destiny tied the people to land-locked flavors. This apparent contradiction proved useful in later years to create a reputation for cooking that has become highly sought after by visitors. Between Portovenere and Luni, passing through Lerici, Tellaro, Sarzana and Val di Magra in many places it is possible to taste the tempting interpretations of dishes prepared by skilled chefs who have the best natural ingredients available from the sea, the rivers and the hillsides practically at the kitchen door, starting with the wine.
San Pietro point at Portovenere is a piece of unique beauty: Palmaria, Tino, the cliffs and the extraordinarily ‘Ligurian’ landscape form a fantastic whole. Lovers of good food have personal reasons, as it were, to emphasize the special virtues of this typical village that had been much fought over by Genoa and Pisa because of its strategic location. Even then, centuries ago, sea dates were already known. Documents dating from the XIII century attest to their value – today harvesting them is forbidden.
They are rare and delicious mussels (Litophaga litophaga). Their life cycle is extremely long, and in fact, in the local parlance, an old person is described as ‘being older than a sea date’. Federico Barbarossa demanded shields filled with them as tribute from the lords of Vezzano. Today, however, even he would have to bend before the law. Things had gone so far in recent times that explosives were being used to open the date-rich rocks in indiscriminate harvesting – or poaching – causing serious environmental damage. Sea date soup was a sublime dish, and there are thousands who remember the taste. There are mussel farms located just opposite Portovenere.
They were started towards the end of the XIX century and today use well proven techniques. The mussels are completely cleansed in the plant built for that purpose at Santa Teresa. “Negrao”, “Caran”, “La Pia”: for natives of La Spezia province these words mean the smell of stuffed and fried anchovies, the intense odor of mussels alla marinara, dried, stewed codfish swimming in sauce, sumptuous meat-filled ravioli, the joy of a good rabbit prepared “alla cacciatora” or breaded and fried, then a glass of tangy wine to wash down a slice of chestnut cake. Signs outside old taverns, sanctuaries of La Spezia’s culinary tradition, draw people to where the cult of gastronomic delights is continuously reinvigorated on the basis of ‘mesciua’ and ‘farinata’ a local porridge.
‘La mesciua’ is a tempting combination of chick peas, beans and spelt that are cooked separately and then mixed together with olive oil and pepper. Served hot, it’s ideal in winter, while in spring it should be only slightly warm. Naturally, everyone has the secret that will guarantee the best dish ever of a grain and legume soup that has been known since ancient Roman times. The ‘porridge’, or ‘farinata’ as it’s known locally comes originally from Rome: a thin mixture of chick-pea flour, olive oil and water cooked in large pots in wood-burning ovens.
The high temperature causes evaporation and in a few minutes the ‘farinata’ is amber-yellow with a few dark spots from the heat here and there, while a slightly acrid odor of oil fills the air. Lerici and Portovenere form the ends of the Gulf of La Spezia and share enchanting views of dawn and twilight.
This means that visitors can stay as long as they like and be sure of enchanting panoramas and gastronomic delights. lf sea dates can be part of the Portovenere seal, Lerici could well use the octopus. Yes, octopus, described at length by D.H. Lawrence in 1913, when he was overwhelmed by the irresistible charm of Tellaro. In a letter to a friend he wrote about the legend of Tellaro where the church is on the water. One night the church bell suddenly began to ring.
The people awoke frightened of a pirate raid, but soon they realized that it was only a large playful octopus pulling on the bell cord that reached down to the rocks. The octopus has eight tentacles and is extremely intelligent. lt can camouflage itself skillfully on the ocean floor since it is highly sought after. lt’s good tasting and easy to prepare. The hard part is catching one: their strength is proportional to their size.
A few days in the fridge is fine too. Those who have not given in to pressure cookers boil them – with the usual seasonings – and a cork. There are no dangers in this, so it’s just as well to follow tradition. Then, of course, a sprig of chopped parsley, minced with garlic and olive oil. Some cooks add lemon juice and oregano. In restaurants it’s a tempting appetizer and at home it’s a complete meal when served with potatoes; and a great variation is to sautee it with potatoes and tomatoes.
Just outside Lerici, along the inland road we come to the turnoff for Montemarcello and Ameglia. The scenery changes: the horizon is cut by the stretch of sand of nearby Versilia and the white peaks of the Apuan Alps that frame the Luni plain and surrounding hills. Right below, we can see the mouth of the Magra river. immediately after World War II, Bocca di Magra was a favorite summertime haunt of the publisher Einaudi and his intellectual friends, including Cesare Pavesi. Poets, writers and artists have maintained a long relationship with this quiet place that has remained a holiday favorite.
The good food in many restaurants – with menus ranging from thin noodles (taglioni) with fish sauce to mixed grilled fish platters to stewed ray – is an excellent excuse for a visit. The setting is unusual and enchanting: the sea and river meet, and the salty mist blends with the fragrance of vegetable gardens. Excellent quality lettuce, artichokes, celery, tomatoes, zucchini squash, and basil are picked and sold each morning at the Pallodola market. One of the Lunigiana’s oldest traditions is the ‘focaccette’, flat loaves baked in special, refractory pans.
Warm and crispy, they are wonderful in September at the wine fair held at Baccano di Arcola. The quality of the ingredients, the tranquility of the area and its strategic position – the Magra Valley and Luni Hills are easily reached by all means of transportation – inspired Angelo Paracucchi the world renowned gastronome to build his inn here. Angelo Paracucchi laid the foundations for a good part of his success right here at Sarzana.
Naturally, he brought some fame to the area too: the cooking courses at the Locanda dell’Angelo are among the most popular. Paracucchi, author of a book on modern creative cooking has also dedicated a volume to gastronomy in the Lunigiana area. Now we are near the amphitheater at Luni, the domus decorated with fine marbles and the museum. For gourmets-errant and art history lovers there are several good reasons for stopping. Just a short distance from the ancient Roman ruins and the old Portus Lunae, lt’s possible to blend food and freshness, gastronomic delights and delightful strolls among aviaries and majestic willow trees.
Tuscany is just a stone’s throw away as we can see from the Medieval villages of Ortonovo and Nicola at the far end of Liguria. The Nicola town square has a charm all its own. On Easter morning the village men play “manda” with their bare hands hitting a metal ball and rags according to ancient rules. Originally, the game was played to mark the end of the hunting season.
Right near this unusual “playing field” we come to the Cervia, an inn made famous by Gertrude who cooked wonderful ravioli and delicious crabs. The reputation has remained. Tagliatelle, lasagna and ravioli are still made by hand. A typical specialty of Nicola is “sfogliolata”, a very thin, flat, twisted loaf baked with sage. Rabbit, chicken and guinea hen complete the country-style lunch which, in good weather is served outdoors in the village square.
From Nicola we can see the skyline of Castelnuovo Magra with the bell tower (the church houses an important Crucifixion by Bruegel the Younger), the tower of the castle of the Bishops of Luni and the facades of the nineteenth century buildings. Agritourism flourishes here, and La Cascina dei Peri at Montefrancio is not to be missed. In addition to wine and olive oil, Giovanni and Angiola serve cold cuts, kid, rabbit, guinea hen, vegetables, and have rooms for overnight stays.
The historic center of Castelnuovo also boasts Armanda. The place seats about 25 people, but the food is divine. Vegetable pies, mainly zucchini squash and artichoke, codfish fritters, boned and stuffed rabbit, tripe, stuffed lettuce, minestrone, hearty tagliatelle, with pesto and olive oil, fried lamb: the artist’s touch is evident in every portion of a sequence that reaches unbelievable peaks.
The valley is proud of at least two other dishes: the ‘sgabei’ and the ‘testaroli’ (or panigacci). The sgabei are closeiy related to fried dumplings and ‘crescentine’ from Emilia. Raised bread dough is pressed and cut into losenge shapes that are fried in hot olive oil a few at a time. The testaroli get their name from a flat, cast-iron cooking utensil into which a water and flour batter is poured. The heat quickly dries these unusual crepes that are served with olive oil and grated parmesan (or pecorino) cheese or with pesto. Panigacci are actually unleavened loaves that resemble dry breads that must be moistened before eating. Testaroli and sgabei are favorite local snacks. And desserts? The famous rice cake made here is only known in Carrara.
Sarzana vies with Brescello and Reggio Emilia as the home of the ‘spongata’ (or ‘spungata’ in Ligurian dialect). The name comes from the spongy appearance of the sugar topping that is prepared in a special way. The basic concept is identical to the panforte or spiced cakes. The version by Silvano Gemmi, the skilled baker whose shop is in Via Mazzini and who still has old, wooden baking dishes, is famous.
The antiques fair and the flea market held in the center of Sarzana in August, and many other events that attract visitors to the city have contributed to the success of “Spongata”, a delightful symbol for the valley’s capital. The filling is made of fruit preserve, and the outside this is the controversial point – is made of puff or short pastry. ‘Buccellato’, an airy, ring-shaped cake is another highlight among the local baked goods. The creations in the windows are matched by the fragrances that come from the bakeries and kitchens – just enough to lead anyone down the path of gastronomic temptation.
But there is no need for worry, a walk in woods or through the countryside, looking for castles or interesting views, will work off any little excesses. Until a few years ago, Sarzana was the wine capital of the Luni Hills district. And in August the town hosted a wine festival. Now the Enoteca Pubblica della Liguria e della Lunigiana at Casteinuovo Magra has the role of promoting local wines and agricultural products. It is located in the cellars of the town hall, that have been appropriately restored, and the Enoteca’s promotional activities will soon be going full scale.
The wine, Vermentino dei Colli di Luni, which recently became DOC is made on the small farms that dot the hillsides overlooking the Magra valley. Here the well-restored farms offer good shelter, fine food and excellent hospitality. La Spezia is earning itself a fine reputation for liqueurs thanks to the lemon, mandarin orange, basil and strawberry wines prepared by Fiorella Stoppa in her tiny workshop in the heart of town.