Savona and the Riviera delle Palme – Food and wine

Cervo
Cervo – Photo © Mchidell

Although inspired by traditional “Genoese” cuisine, whose fundamental ingredients are olive oil and herbs (parsley, basil, thyme, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, etc.), the seafood and vegetable dishes of the Riviera delle Palme, from Varazze to Andora, present the tourist and gourmet who wishes to explore the character of the local cooking with original variations on the theme.

A cuisine that is in the first place much “greener,” commencing with the filling for ravioli – once considered “the queen of first courses” – in which vegetables (beet, borage, chicory and endives) predominate over meat and eggs.

Even the classic “Genoese stuffed breast of veal” contains much more egg, along with brain, marrow and sweetbreads that do not appear in the Riviera version. In both dishes, however, we find, alongside cheese, the indispensable flavor of the sweet marjoram also known as persa or persiga (at Albenga and Alassio): of undoubted Levantine, or Persian, origin, it is a testimony to maritime trade links with faraway places.

The inland region, which borders to the north on the province of Alessandria and, though only to a minimal extent, that of Asti, while opening to the west on the “Provincia Granda” of Cuneo, feels the beneficial influence of this area of “haute cuisine” and is able to offer an extraordinary series of typical specialties: highly original and tasty, they range from “white polenta” to “bacialli” and the “tire” of Altare. Each valley, each town, has interesting culinary ideas to offer to the curious visitor.

A real opportunity for the rediscovery of ancient flavors that have not yet been lost. Without of course forgetting the “traditional” dishes, modern chefs are always coming up with new and much-appreciated combinations of seafood and garden produce, such as the wonderful fantasies of “pesce spade in carpaccio” (raw swordfish) or “polpo tiepido in salsa Rossese” (warm octopus in Rossese sauce), “linguine con scampi e zucchine” and the “spunciacurrente” (a kind of small octopus) fried, stewed or simply boiled and served with a dash of taggiasca extra virgin olive oil.

TRUFFLES
The most unexpected surprise in the province of Savona, and found nowhere else in Liguria, is the seductive truffle. A few kilometers beyond the Colle di Cadibona, in that extreme southern spur of the Langhe Cuneensi comprised between the communes of Cairo Montenotte, Millesimo, Carcare and Dego – and especially in the wood of Santa Giulia – it is possible to find not only the “black truffle”, a more or less close relative of the one from Norcia and even that of Pèrigord, the honor and pride of French cooking, but also the even more stronglyscented white one, sometimes called the tartuffo d’Alba, to be cut, judiciously, into a shower of thin slices, of tiny petals…. A further gastronomic delight in addition to that of mushrooms, the true collective “mania” of the autumn for both residents and guests, gathered in the splendid chestnut and beech woods.

EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
Extra virgin olive oil di primo ruggio, i.e. cold pressed, made by traditional methods, is the undisputed sovereign of Ligurian cuisine. The oil made from the taggiasca olive, grown in the valleys of Andora and the Albenga region as well as in the area around Imperia, has a delicate, slightly fruity flavor, sometimes with an aftertaste of almonds.
Other oils from the province of Savona that are prized for their flavor are the ones produced from olives of the Colombaia or Colombara, Frantoio and Pinola varieties. The latter, with its delicate taste of pine kernels, is typical of Arnasco, in the hinterland of Albenga, where it is grown on terraces fully exposed to the south. Going for the newly-pressed oil, from November to March, is an occasion not to be missed by the tourist-gourmet: a fascinating journey to be made through the splendid valleys where the olives are grown, just back from the coast, at the time when they are being picked by hand or beaten down from the trees, or visiting the oil mills, or gombi as they are known locally, to watch the olives being crushed and pressed. Recently the olive oil produced in Liguria has been recognized by the assignment of a mark of quality, D.O.P. (Denominazione d’origine protetta or “protected name of origin”). This provides the consumer with an additional guarantee that the oil has been made from olives picked between November and January and brought to the oil press within forty-eight hours.

BASIL
Ligurian basil (baxiaico’ in the local dialect), grown on the coast in the bracing sea air, is the fundamental ingredient in the classic pesto sauce. Thanks to cultivation in greenhouses, it is now available all the year round. Indeed the best time to taste it “according to the wellinformed gourmet” is in the winter, made with basil from a hothouse or grown on a balcony, in the slanting rays of sunlight of one of the Ligurian alleys known as carruggi, with its small, pale green leaves and intoxicating, unique scent.

At the end of spring, on the other hand, basil starts to emerge from the vegetable garden: stronger in flavor, with a slight hint of mint, it is particularly suitable for sauces made with fresh tomato.

Pesto is a strictly raw sauce: thus it is a great mistake to let it heat up during preparation in a blender. Be careful, therefore, to use the slowest speed after steeping the leaves in abundant local extra virgin oil and to pause occasionally during the process to avoid overheating of the blades. In addition, it is recommended that pasta seasoned with pesto not be sautèed in a frying pan.

ARTICHOCKES
One of the most delicious specialties of the Riviera Ligure delle Palme is undoubtedly the spiny artichoke of Albenga. With the hard external petals removed – be careful not to prick yourself – this particular variety of artichoke is the only one that can be eaten in pinzimonio, i.e. raw with a dip made of extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, salt and, if desired, pepper. The artichokes of this region are also much appreciated “breaded” and fried, in the classic Easter dish of artichoke pie, or stewed with lamb or even better kid.

ASPARAGUS
The purple asparagus of Albenga may rightly be considered one of the most refined specialties not just of Ligurian cooking but of Grande Cuisine in general. Highly appreciated in numerous dishes (especially when it is considered “fine early produce”), it is given pride of place on the menus of the best restaurants, even outside the region.

WINES

An extraordinary range of typical wines provide a worthy accompaniment to all the culinary specialties of the stretch of coast between Varazze and Andora, from fish dishes to those based on vegetables and meat, especially white meats like rabbit, lamb and kid.

There is a marked preponderance of white wines, in addition to the rosè called Rossese d’Albenga and Ormeasco. Here we give a list of them with their principal characteristics:

VERMENTINO (D.O.C.) – a clear, straw yellow in color, sometimes with golden reflections, it has a full, discreetly intense and persistent but delicate bouquet, with a scent of wild herbs and hints of honey, pear, peach and woodland resins, and a dry but mellow, pungent and delicately warm taste, with a full body and a pleasantly bitter bottom. An ideal accompaniment to seafood appetizers, savory first courses with delicate white sauces made with herbs and above all pesto! It is ideally suited to a menu that includes a second course of fine salt-water fish, boiled and served with extra virgin olive oil.

PIGATO (D.O.C.) – Very similar to Vermentino, but with nuances that cannot or at least should not escape the expert. It too is a clear, straw yellow color, with slight golden reflections, and has a full, intense, persistent but delicate and fruity aroma, with hints of ripe peach, flowers and herbs, in particular sage and broom, and a dry but pleasantly mellow and warm taste, with a good and well composed, steady structure and a slightly bitter bottom. An ideal accompaniment for mushroom hors-d’oeuvres, first courses with walnut and pesto sauces, classic vegetable dishes (pasqualina or Easter pie and artichoke pie), fish-based second courses with delicate white sauces and salt-water fish baked in paper.

ROSSESE D’ALBENGA OR DI CAMPOCHIESA (D.O.C.) – Absolutely not to be confused with that of Dolceacqua, it is a more or less deep ruby red and has a full, persistent fruity and slightly vinous bouquet with hints of wild strawberry and raspberry. The taste is dry but fairly mellow, pungent and delicately warm, with a medium body and a typical touch of bitterness. It goes well with first courses seasoned with red sauces. Thus it is a good accompaniment not only for meat dishes but also for tomato sauces, where it provides a more appropriate combination than with white wines.

LUMASSINA – Made from a vine that grows along the coast as far as Savona, taking the name “Mataosso” at Spotorno and Noli and “Buzzetto” around Savona and Quiliano. It too is a clear, straw yellow color, with greenish reflections, but its delicate and persistent aroma contains scents of damp wild herbs and hints of slightly wilted wildflowers. A dry, light and very fresh taste that is pleasing to the palate. It goes well with griddlecakes of fish and vegetables, fish sauces or pasta, even when fairly rich, and sardines and mackerel, either fried or cooked with vegetables. However, we cannot leave the province of Savona without mentioning, even if only in passing, “VERDEA,” a white wine originating in Tuscany that is ideally suited to first courses of white meat seasoned with spices or herbs, baked fish with mushrooms, etc. The great and legendary Granaccia, on the other hand, made with grapes from the Alicante vine in some parts of the commune of Quiliano, is a deep red in color, with a touch of violet when it is young and becoming a deep ruby with garnet reflections after aging from three to four years. It is an excellent accompaniment to red meat, game and seasoned but mild cheeses.

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