When in a new city you haven’t been to before, the most obvious place to get a feel for the cuisine is to go to the local market. Genoa has a truly fabulous covered market, Mercato Orientale, just off via XX Settembre. It has the most wonderful produce; everything looked perfect and of the highest quality.
There were mixes to make risotto with local flavourings; fabulous cheeses; fresh meat and fish; bakeries; beautiful fruit and vegetables including purple asparagus, baby artichokes and courgette flowers.
You can buy fresh ingredients to cook at home or in a holiday apartment, but there are a also lots of little bars where you can buy food to eat there – especially slices of focaccia to go with coffee.
Genoa has a rich food history and is the home of focaccia and pesto. Although you will find both elsewhere in Italy, there is really something special about eating them in Liguria.
One of the things that make both so special is Ligurian olive oil. Ligurian oils are amongst Italy’s most prized and expensive. This is partly because production is small due to the olives being grown on steep hillside terraces and it’s considered that the higher the olive grove, the more delicate the oil will be. Only three areas are DOP certified – those around Genoa, La Spezia and Imperia. They must contain at least 90% Taggiasca olives and the other 10% must come from the same area. You see the sweet-tasting little Taggisasca olives everywhere and they were often given to me with a drink and used in cooking. Ligurian olive oil is much more delicate than its fruity Tuscan cousin. Even the ‘extra virgin’ is quite pale in comparison to the sometimes dark green of neighbouring Tuscany. It’s this delicacy that makes the pesto of the region so special; the oil doesn’t overpower the basil.
Pesto comes from the verb pestare – to crush. Some believe that it has been made in the Genoa area since the time of the Phoenicians or Greeks. It might upset purists to know that it wasn’t always made with basil and in winter months other herbs would be used. But even the Genovese have given up calling it ‘basil pesto’ now because basil has become an expected ingredient, and it is known as Pesto alla Genovese. Traditionally it’s a raw sauce containing basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic, salt and a mix of grated Pecorino and Parmigiano cheese. The ingredients are crushed, traditionally in a mortar and pestle, but inevitably now a blender is likely to be used.
The sauce is often served with pasta and in Genoa stirred into minestrone.
Focaccia is really an Italian flatbread and in Genoa – the capital of Liguria – it looks much more like a flatbread than many of us are used to and is known as focaccia Ligure.
Focaccia Ligure is generally eaten very simply with just some olive oil on it, a little salt and maybe some chopped rosemary. It’s eaten as a snack at any time of day and many Genovese will eat it with their morning coffee rather than a sweet pastry. It was always on the breakfast buffet table at my hotel.
It should be quite thin, slightly crispy on the outside and soft in the middle. Ligurians call it fugassa rather than focaccia. You will also find a stuffed kind – focaccia ripiena – when it’s filled with things like mozzarella and ham before baking and is much softer. I prefer the crispier kind.
Farinata is a kind of pancake made with chickpea flour and you will see stalls or narrow little shops selling it. Chestnuts grow in abundance in the area and so you will find chestnut flour used a lot for baking or making pasta. And of course being by the sea, Genoa offers some wonderful seafood, and a popular dish is a plate of mixed fish fried in a light batter.
Restaurants Serving Ligurian Food
I ate some really lovely meals in Genoa. I saw lots of restaurants offering ‘Cucina Ligure’. Most of these were osterias and trattorias – small simple restaurants, often family run. This is the kind of food I like best and for me, these simple dishes are what makes eating in Italy so special. A true Italian cook can use only a very few ingredients, but always of the highest quality, and produce an amazing meal. And of course being in Liguria I wanted to sample the true cuisine. I was bowled over particularly by pesto. Really, I don’t know how they do it but it’s so wonderful, much more special than at home, even my homemade pesto, which I think it good.
I had minestrone twice – each a bit different but both wonderful. One was served so thick it was barely a soup.
In UK we tend to think of minestrone as a tomato-based soup with some beans and pasta in it, but really minestrone is just the name given to a thick vegetable soup that will often have a base of onions, carrots and potato but is made according to what’s in season. It often has some pasta or beans added. In Genoa they add pesto and it’s known as Minestrone alla Genovese. It can be very thick indeed, as in the photo just above; the other one (a little further up the page) was more traditionally soup-like but the addition of a large spoonful of pesto took it to glorious culinary heights.
I also had a local fish, ombrina, twice. It’s a fish found in warm seas like the Mediterranean. It’s fairly firm and very tasty.
See also my post on Cafes & Gelato.