It seems like the traditional cuisine behind Liguria’s West Coast is experiencing a worldwide revival. At least many current food trends have a long tradition here. Simple, nutritious dishes, mainly made of plant based products, finger food, natural sweet treats: all this is “typical” here. Guess I spotted the perfect holiday region for vegetarians and anyone who loves healthy food.
A culinary exploration with tips for excellent food and recommended accommodation
The Region west of Genoa is just fascinating with its contrast between an emerald sea and sky and the muted red, orange and yellow already flaking off the buildings. The contrast between a free view on one side of the road and the hilly landscape in front of steep mountains, covered with all shades of green from olive trees, giant reed and wine, pines and oak trees, chestnuts and wild cherries.
No fancy hotel complex is ruining the rural impression. Just the rough, winding, colorful floral coast and those villages and cities that are telling you: This region had seen more prosper times, at least the coastal towns and especially San Remo.
The outbacks maybe never had. Their wealth is the authenticity of nature, culture and the people living there. And their synergy that developed an incredible kitchen.
Poor outback with generous cuisine
Though there are many interesting places to visit along and behind Liguria’s west coast, the Val Prino has a magical attraction. This region behind Imperia with its historic olive tree terraces next to the narrow and windy roads leading to Dolcedo, its small districts, and villages high in the mountains has a nutritious and colorful vegetation. The climate here is pleasant because of high mountains in the north.
Besides the Ligurian people and those who came from other regions like the Piemont to live here, many Germans and Swiss Expats are lucky to own a house and territory. So they have their olive trees and a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables nearly all the year round. Some are Journalists, some artists, others just dropouts.
Well known: Taggiascia olives
In comparison to the rest of Italy, the Ligurians are getting oldest. And without knowing exactly why I think one reason is their food. A large part takes the regions famous oil from the Taggiasca olives. Olives from trees – some 1000 years of age – that are carefully cultivated and harvested, with fruits that are rich in nutrition but mild and round in taste.
Everyone here seems to produce its yearly supply. Something I am dreaming of as I love to cook and bake with high-quality olive oil because of its health benefits and the taste and texture it creates.
For 100 kg manually harvested olives you are getting only about 20 to 25 kg native olive oil. Please keep that in mind if you wonder about prices at specialized distributors or in the web shops of one of the last remaining oil mills in the Dolcedo region: Frantoio Ghiglione and Frantoio San Martino.
Unfortunately, I did not find any olive oil from private sellers. However, I met someone very special.
About 6 food trends and their Ligurian history
„Producing olive oil is hard work and takes a lot of time – selling isn’t worthwhile,” says Natalino. He’s known as an expert on Ligurian food and its traditions. A very busy man, but I was glad to meet him at the end of our holidays in a small cafe in front of Dolcedos town hall. A man in his late 60s I guess, with a long gray beard and sparkling eyes that have seen a lot. But young at heart and with the power and spirit of a 30-year-old. I could have listened to him for hours.
1. Easy, seasonal food
„This was a poor region and that’s why we have a poor kitchen“ Natalino explains while he’s sipping his coffee. „But today people do like this.“ Having not much industry and no motor-driven vehicles to easily reach the bay area and its bigger cities to buy something, meant life was taking place outside, mostly beyond olive trees. In the summer times, families sometimes stayed away from home for weeks to cut loads of grass which were essential to feed the mules or goats. „When I was a little boy,“ he remembered „my mother started cooking early in the morning and we brought the food to my father who was working in the olive garden, cutting the grass, harvesting olives. As I already told you, this is hard work.“
2. Finger food
So she prepared simple, nutritious meals that could easily be transported and eaten. No romantic tables under olive trees to be found. Every dish had to be prepared in to be eaten by hand, this was substantial. “Just take a towel, wipe off the dirt and grab the food – that’s Ligurian style. I often think what we today know as finger food as a modern way to eat was born here in Liguria,“ Natalino says laughing. „No chichi of course, just real food.“
3. Vegetarian food
I discovered Liguria’s west coast is a paradise for vegetarians. As – apart from about 600 mules, some goats, and chicken – not very much animals were living in the region. That’s why the people in the outback did not eat or at least not very much meat. „Once in a week the fishermen from Porto Maurizio brought fresh Sardines, that was it“ Natalino points to a stone. In earlier times the children were forbidden to climb on it bare feet. So most of the time the food – even for hard working men – was vegetarian.
4. Few dairy products
“Very often we made oven baked zucchini flowers which have a lovely nutty flavor, stuffed them with cooked and mashed potatoes that were spiced with all kinds of herbs growing wild here, added some cheese and eggs to emulsify the filling. A meal that is so straightforward and delicious, healthy and nutritional in every way. And you just take one flower and eat it right away.“
Another typical example is Torta Verde with swiss chard, rice, eggs, and parmesan, covered with a dough made of olive oil. “Butter”, Natalino explains, “was never used. Too expensive and everyone had olives.“
5. Naturally sweet recipes
And for a long time, it wasn’t common to use sugar, either. The well known Ligurian Canestrelli, buttery, sweet and very compact pastry, covered with almonds and icing sugar, is not at all traditional behind the hills of Imperia. (But definitely worth a sin;-)
A relatively unknown but very delicious traditional cake is called Stroscia. “It’s an ancient specialty from the mountain village of Pietrabruna, about 20 minutes from Imperia. Just for a short time, you can buy it in other places, and the people from this village have not been very happy about it” Natalino refers. “They treated the recipe as a great secret, but let me tell you: The only secret is the right olive oil.”
The name Stroscia means “to break”. This cake has a wildly romantic story that I am happy to share it in this blog post – unveiling the fabulous recipe Natalino gave me.
But if you are on holiday on Liguria’s west coast, you should try the Stroscia on site. Either in Pietrabruna or selected bakeries in the region, for example at Pasticceria Piccardo in Piazza Dante 2 in Imperia. Or at one of the festivals in Belissimi, on which Mariangela, Natalinos sister-in-law, prepares Stroscia according to the original recipe.
Here you will always find the latest information.
6. Sugar-free jam and dried fruits
The Ligurian outback is blessed with an abundance of sun-drenched fruits. Giant fig trees, grapes, citrus fruits, plums, apples, pears, persimmons, all kinds of berries, wild cherries, Indian figs and much more provide the main ingredients for fruity, mostly sugar-free jams, always on hand to quickly prepare a “crostata con marmellata”.
Additional, especially figs but also tomatoes and mushrooms were used to be dried on mats made of giant reed leafs. You cannot miss this plant. Especially along the waterways coming from the hills, its growing wild and beautiful everywhere.
On the rooftops of most of the houses of Liguria’s west coast, you will spot a covered loggia. That’s the place where these fruits were put out in the sun for drying during the day. In the humid night times, the mats were taken inside – a process that just needs natural energy resources and about one month time.
Today of course many Ligurians use dehydrators. But Natalino is keeping up with the tradition, and I love the original idea.
Recommended accommodation and restaurants in Dolcedo
Mirto e Olivo, Bellisimi (Dolcedo)
Natalino and his wife are running a little Agriturismo called “Mirto e olivo”. You can book via Airbnb or directly. More about Natalino and his work you can find on his (Italian) Blog where you can find also contact information.
Il fenera, Isolalunga (Dolcedo)
We spent our holidays here. With a lot of love for detail, Esther and her husband turned a barn into a romantic little house with two levels. You can book for example via vacation-apartments.com.
Ududema Bed&Breakfast, Lecciore (Doldeco)
Beautiful rooms and delicious breakfast up in the hills behind Imperia. Here you can enjoy pure nature and the hospitality of Laura who will make your stay unforgettable. You can book your room directly on her Homepage.
Agriturismo Il Vigneto
Authentic, simple Ligurian Cuisine, prepared by the lovely “mamma” and her daughter. All products are their own harvest and the (surprise) menu also vegetarian. You have to call and pre-order to be sure you’ll get a seat and for Cinzia to set up your meals. The price-performance ration is unbelievable: We paid 25 Euro for each adult including drinks (including fantastic, homemade wine) for a 5-6 course Menü. The children paid nothing…Via Giuseppe Garibaldi 79, 18020 Dolcedo
Typical Ligurian Cuisine with homemade Pasta and home brewed beer. This Osteria is beautifully located directly on the river, and in the evening its terrace is atmospheric lighted with torches. The price level is a little bit higher but worthwhile.