The Italian region where tomatoes are not on the menu


Julia Buckley, CNN

Ah Italy, the land of pizza, pasta and tomato sauce galore. At least that is the impression that many visitors have when planning a trip to the Bel Paese. But if they plan to visit popular tourist spots like the Cinque Terre or Portofino, they might be shocked – because the traditional cuisine of Liguria, the northwestern coastal region where the two are located, is far from what the foreigners might call it “Italian”. .”

Where other regions of Italy have traditional dishes that are what we would recognize as “Italian” food, the traditional dishes of Liguria are slightly different.

Of course, there is pasta with pesto. But there are also dishes like plain floura sort of salted chickpea pancake served in slices, and cappon magroa “salad” of cooked seafood and vegetables, topped with a basil-rich green sauce, usually served in an elaborate pile that makes it look like a dish prepared for a banquet.

As for the tomatoes? You find them pungent in the odd stew or sauce, but they’re not front and center like they are in our imaginations of “Italian” cooking.

This is partly due to the fact that the Italian food scene is very regional, with huge variations even from city to city. But, experts say, that’s not the only explanation.

A love of tradition — perhaps too much

You might think the lack is due to Liguria’s landscape of steep hills, cliffs and terraced mountains. But Sergio Rossi, who blogs about Ligurian cuisine as a so-called “Cucinosofo” (kitchen philosopher) says that’s not the case: “Tomatoes grow very well here.”

On the contrary, he says, it is more about the “traditionalist” and “closed” nature of the Ligurians – despite the regional capital Genoa having been one of the most important ports and trading centers in the Mediterranean. “The Ligurians were the biggest traders but [new ingredients] weren’t necessarily part of their recipes,” he says. “The Genoese are reserved, tending towards family and community intimacy. In the past, the changes were always viewed with some suspicion, especially by the lower and middle classes – as happened with the introduction of New World ingredients. While the Genoese have a long history of making and eating pasta – there is a document from 1244 that refers to it – they simply “never found the tomato as a condiment”.

In fact, says Rossi, the arrival of the potato was “much larger” than that of the tomato. Potatoes have given people enter the ground — the hilly and mountainous interior regions populated by contadini (peasants) – reliable food that kept them alive.

Although even then, this Ligurian tradition-loving nature did not make things easy. The potato was seen as a “chic thing” from abroad, he says – so in the 18th century, when the Genoese aristocracy happily feasted on French-style potato dishes, rural communities were wary . The Catholic Church had to step in, as local priests convinced their parishioners that potatoes were safe to eat until 1786. The humble potato would eventually “change the lives” of farmers and laborers, explains Rossi. But not the tomatoes. “They don’t fill the stomach – so they would never be a fundamental ingredient,” he says.

Rossi says it wasn’t until the 19th century that tomato sauce became a viable food for the mass market and working class, thanks to preservation methods such as canning.

“That’s when he got into dishes – sometimes pasta but also stews, like sponge cake and stockfish stew. The Ligurians produced a tomato sauce.

“A secret part of Italy”

Although foreigners associate Italian cuisine with tomatoes, it is actually a relatively recent introduction to the country.

“The tomato arrived from Mexico as a novelty for botanical gardens around 1580,” says Diego Zancani, author of How We Fell in Love with Italian Food. “But it took a very long time to be recognized as edible.”

Back then, world-famous Ligurian dishes like pasta with pesto, focaccia and farinata were already well established.

And where other regions have incorporated tomatoes into their signature dishes – “I’m always surprised when I go to Tuscany at how much tomatoes they use in dishes that probably have [pre-tomato] medieval origins,” Zancani says – the Ligurians don’t. Like Rossi, he attributes this to cultural isolation.

“Liguria has always been a very secretive part of Italy – Genoa had contact with the rest of the world because of its ships, but much of the rest is quite isolated,” he says.

“It’s a predominantly mountainous region, so the traditions are kept much longer than elsewhere. In any rural area there is a lot of conservatism – things have been preserved for centuries without much change.

On the menu: medieval cuisine

Ligurian food is a big deal for Enrica Monzani, who gave up a career as a Genovese lawyer to focus solely on food from her region. Today, she teaches cooking classes and writes about Ligurian coastal dishes like fried sage leaves and stuffed anchovies on her blog, A Small Kitchen in Genoa.

For Monzani, the lack of tomatoes in Ligurian cuisine isn’t really a lack – rather it’s a sign of heavy Ligurian cuisine that means there’s no room for a star of the show.

Yes, heavy in vegetables. Because even though we think of Liguria as a coastal destination, in fact, seafood only entered the canon of Ligurian cuisine when tourism took off in the 1900s, she says. Instead, the Ligurians always terraced the cliffs and mountains to grow vegetables, and sourced ingredients like mushrooms from the forested hills and mountains inland, then added things like anchovies during the summer season. Fridge – literally “chips” – have also been popular in Genoa since the Middle Ages, serving small breaded fish as well as fried ravioli, panisette (like oversized chickpea fries) and frisky (fried balls of dough).

“Our traditional cuisine is based on vegetables or wood products – chestnuts, potatoes, mushrooms and herbs – it is more linked to farmers and peasants than to fishermen,” she says. She even has a section of her website dedicated to “herbs and wildflowers” recipes.

Plus, pasta with tomato sauce was never going to catch on in a region that had devised its main pasta fillings in medieval times, she says.

“It’s traditional for us to season the pasta with raw sauces: pesto, walnut sauce, pine nut sauce — there’s a great marjoram and pine nut sauce,” she says.

“Even our meat sauce is a huge piece of meat slowly cooked for hours until it releases its juices. It has a small amount of tomato. Pasta with tomato sauce just isn’t that common , and we mainly use them to give acidity to stews, such as cod stew or pollo alla cacciatora — braised “cacciatore” chicken, for which Monzani only uses three tomatoes, whereas other Italian recipes have the meat swimming in a tomato sauce. “Usually in Ligurian cuisine a little tomato concentrate is added [instead of masses of tomatoes],” she says.

An oriental influence

The Ligurian tradition of nut-based raw pasta sauces dates back to Muslim and Arab influence in the medieval period, says Monzani, sparked by Genoa’s status as one of the most important ports in the Mediterranean. Saracen pirates also made inroads along the coast. The result? “At the beginning of the Middle Ages, we introduced nuts to our cuisine.”

Basil is also thought to have come from the east, says Rossi. “It’s not easy to say how it got there, but for centuries Genoa was the most important port in the Mediterranean. It is obvious that if an ingredient arrived, it would arrive here.

Pesto is derived from agliata, a family of medieval sauces with a high garlic content, he says. While other regions of Italy had basil, it was the Ligurians who combined it with walnuts, garlic and parmesan. The fact that the Ligurians already had pasta – they’ve been producing it for 800 years and marketing it for a bit longer – was “fundamental”, he says. Pesto was already cited as a pasta condiment on giorni di magro — days without meat imposed by the Catholic Church — in 1618.

Dish of the day: wild herbs and rose syrup

The Ligurians’ love for vegetables goes beyond what we could find in the supermarket. There’s a long tradition here of eating wild herbs and even flowers – syrup made from pressed rose petals is a summer staple. Today, prebbugiun is a mixture of local herbs eaten in a soup, salad, pie, or frittata (omelette-style dish) says Rossi; the name derives from “prebolliere” or “sbollentare” – to parboil or blanch. While today it mainly refers to wild herbs, in the 19th century recipes and dictionaries listed cabbage, chard, parsley and other herbs as ingredients. Even today, in the valleys outside Genoa, he says, it comes in the form of cabbage, potatoes and garlic, parboiled and served with oil as an appetizer.

Zancani says that much of Ligurian cuisine “is based on peasant food, especially on the knowledge of wild herbs”.

“They have various concoctions that rely on specific wild herbs that can only be found in the hills and mountains of Liguria,” he says.

And of course, as Rossi repeats, food in Italy is very local, often not even by region but usually by town, valley or village. “It’s like a big mosaic – beautiful, but we have to look at every stone that’s in it,” he says. “We have traditional cuisine by region, by village and even by family.

“Italian cuisine does not exist – at least not in Italy.”

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