One of the two main speakers for the event was Fred Plotkin who, as I’ve mentioned before, is one of my favorite culinary personalities due to his love of Italy and his great passion for and insights into its food and culture. If you don’t have his informative and gorgeous book Recipes from Paradise: Life & Food on the Italian Riviera, I strongly recommend that you add it to your collection. It is more than a cookbook, it is a recording of the food history of the area and explanation of how some of the most recognized dishes from Italy came into being.
Pesto, as he discussed in his presentation, is correctly made with parmesan cheese, pine nuts, basil (the tiny leaves), and olive oil from Liguria, no other kind will do. When put in a jar for storage, it is sealed with a layer of this same olive oil. Like grapes grown from wines, olives pick up the characteristics of the soil in which they are grown, which is why the flavor can differ so much from region to region in Italy. In this part of the country, the foods take on the characteristics of the saltiness of the sea, the perfume of the flowers, and the aromas of the herbs that are all found there.
Plotkin also asked us to remember that Liguria is one of the oldest regions and has some of the most ancient mills for grinding wheat. Focaccia, dressed with the olive oil from the area, is a bread with historic origins that date back to the Roman times. The Ligurian women created an onion version of this bread in order to make sure that their sailor men were not snapped up at their next port of call, Plotkin added. It is this history and tradition that comes through in the dishes of the region, many of which are still made in the same way today.
The sea-faring ways of the people of this region also aided in the distribution of its food culture to other parts of Italy and the world. As inhabitants of an area with plenty of sunshine but not that many acres of arable land due to the mountains around them, the Ligurians became adept at the art of preservation. Pesto is not the only example of this, with the local people preserving fish in oil, sun-drying tomatoes, and finding other ways to make their crops sustain them throughout the year. Ravioli made in the Genovese fashion could be folded up and taken out to sea.
We were also treated to a lesson in the production of olive oil and how that from Liguria differs from ones produced in other regions by Antonio Fasolo, Olive Oil Expert. While it is generally rare to have a bottle of olive oil that contains the liquid from a single varietal, one made with pure Taggiasca olives from this region is one of the most important in the world, with its delicate, clean flavor. It is best used as a finishing oil, a condiment, rather than in cooking. In tasting an olive oil, the first thing to do is to smell it: It should smell fresh. Then, cover the cup, holding it with your hand to warm it a bit and taste it.
A flavor of bitter almonds mean that the oil is bad or has gone rancid. Oil that tastes vinegary has been exposed to high sugar content or been heated and has started to ferment. Does it have a musty aroma? Then, the oil has likely been kept in too damp a place or been stored for too long. None of these sound very appealing and feel even less so on the palate, as we discovered when trying the samples put before us. I could definitely pick up the lighter, more floral feel to the Ligurian oil in this setting. When tasting the olives themselves, their delicate aroma came through event more, especially as compared to the more cured and brinier versions that we were given as an alternative to try.
Like making wine, olives are pressed and the resulting liquid is decanted; each step in the process can have an impact on the final results. Olive oil should be used within one year of its production. As the saying in Italian goes, “New oil, old wine.” (Another saying is “Wine when it is born begins to live; oil when it is born begins to die.”) The lightness and beauty of the Ligurian olive oil that I tasted and the amazing freshness of the foods of the region that I remember from my own trips there made me appreciate this sentiment even more. It really is a land that captures the essence of living between the sea and the sky.
*for a recipe similar to this one, please see Pasta alla Liguria