The Italian region where tomato is off the menu

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Ah Italy, the land of pizza, pasta and plenty of tomato sauce. At least, that’s the impression many visitors have when planning a trip to the Bel Paese. But if they’re planning to visit popular tourist sites like Cinque Terre or Portofino, they might be in for a shock – because the traditional food of Liguria, the northwest coastal region where both are located, is far from what outsiders might call “Italian.”

Where other regions of Italy have traditional dishes that are what we’d recognize as “Italian” food, traditional Ligurian dishes are slightly different.

Of course, there’s pasta with pesto. But there are also dishes like farinata, a kind of chickpea pancake that’s salted and served in slices, and cappon magro, a “salad” of seafood and cooked vegetables, slathered in basil-heavy green sauce, usually served in an elaborate pile that makes it look like a dish set for a banquet.

As for tomatoes? You find them pepping up the odd stew or sauce but they’re not front and center as they are in our imaginings of “Italian” food.

That’s partly down to the fact that Italy’s food scene is highly regional, with huge variation even from town to town. But, say experts, that’s not the only explanation.

A love of tradition – perhaps too much

Liguria is a land of steep cliffs and mountains which are terraced to grow food and wine.

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

Rather, he says, it’s more likely to be the “traditionalist” and “closed” nature of the Ligurians – despite regional capital Genoa having been one of the most important ports and trading hubs of the Mediterranean. “Ligurians were the biggest traders but [new ingredients] didn’t necessarily enter into their recipes,” he says. “The Genoese are reserved, tending towards family intimacy and community. In the past, changes were always seen with a certain diffidence, especially by the working and middle classes – as happened with the introduction of ingredients from the New World.” While the Genoese have a long history of making and eating pasta – there’s a document from 1244 which references it – they simply “never hit on tomato as a condiment.”

In fact, says Rossi, the arrival of the potato was “much more important” than that of the tomato. Potatoes gave the people of the entroterra – the hilly, mountainous inland areas populated by contadini (peasants) – a reliable food that kept them alive.

Although even then, that Ligurian tradition-loving nature didn’t make it easy. The potato was seen as a “chic thing” from abroad, he says – so by the 18th century, while the Genoese aristocracy were happily feasting on French-style potato dishes, rural communities were mistrustful. The Catholic church had to step in, with local priests convincing their parishioners that potatoes were safe to eat as late as 1786. The humble spud would eventually “change the lives” of farmers and laborers, says Rossi. But tomatoes didn’t. “They don’t fill the stomach – so they would never be a fundamental ingredient,” he says.

Rossi says that it was only in the 19th century that tomato sauce became a viable mass-market and working class food, thanks to conservation methods such as canning.

“That’s when it entered into dishes – sometimes pasta but also stews, like minestrone Genovese and stockfish stew. The Ligurians produced a tomato sauce.”

‘A secretive part of Italy’

Typical foods like focaccia were introduced before tomatoes arrived in Italy.

Although foreigners associate Italian food with tomatoes, in fact they’re a relatively recent introduction to the country.

“The tomato arrived from Mexico as a novelty for botanic gardens in 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.”

By the time it was, Liguria’s world-famous dishes like pasta with pesto, focaccia and farinata were already entrenched.

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

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

“It’s a largely mountainous region, so traditions are kept much longer than other places. In any rural area, there’s a lot of conservatism – things were kept for centuries without much change.”

On the menu: medieval food

Genoa is known for its "friggitorie," or fried fish stands.

Ligurian food is a big deal for Enrica Monzani, who gave up a career as a Genoese attorney to focus purely on the food of her region. Today, she leads cooking classes, and writes about coastal Ligurian dishes like fried sage leaves and stuffed anchovies on her blog, A Small Kitchen in Genoa.

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

Yes, veg-heavy. Because although we think of Liguria as a coastal destination, in fact, seafood only entered the canon of Ligurian cooking when tourism took off in the 1900s, she says. Instead, Ligurians have always terraced the cliffsides and mountains to grow vegetables, and sourced ingredients like mushrooms in the forested hills and mountains inland – then added things like anchovies during the summer season. Friggitorie – literally “frying shops” – have also been popular in Genoa since the Middle Ages, serving battered tiny fish as well as fried ravioli, panisette (like oversized chickpea fries) and frisceu (deep-fried dough balls).

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

What’s more, tomato-sauced pasta was never going to catch on in a region which had devised its main pasta toppings in the medieval period, she says.

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

“Even our meat sauce is a huge piece of meat slow-cooked for hours till it releases its juices. It has a tiny quantity of tomato. Pasta with tomato sauce is just not that common, and we mainly use it to give acidity to stews, like stockfish stew or pollo alla cacciatora – braised “cacciatore” chicken, for which Monzani uses just three tomatoes, where other Italian recipes have the meat swimming in a tomatoey sauce. “Generally in Ligurian cooking we add a bit of tomato paste [instead of masses of tomatoes],” she says.

An eastern influence

As one of the Mediterranean's biggest ports, Genoa had contact with many other cultures.

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

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

Pesto is derived from agliata, a family of garlic-heavy medieval sauces, he says. While other parts of Italy did have basil, it was the Ligurians who combined it with nuts, garlic and parmesan. The fact that the Ligurians already had pasta – they’ve produced it for 800 years and traded it for a little longer – was “fundamental,” he says. Pesto was already cited as the condiment for pasta on giorni di magro – meat-free days imposed by the Catholic church – in 1618.

Today’s specials: wild herbs and rose syrup

"Prebuggiun" is a mix of wild herbs or vegetables.

The Ligurian love of vegetables goes beyond what we might 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 must-have summer product. Today, prebbugiun is a mix of any local herbs eaten in a soup, salad, pie or frittata (omelet-style dish) says Rossi; the name derives from “prebollire” or “sbollentare” – to parboil or blanch. While today it refers mainly 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 takes the form of cabbage, potatoes and garlic, parboiled and served with oil as an appetizer.

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

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

And of course, as Rossi reiterates, food in Italy is highly local, often not even by region but usually by town, valley or village. “It’s like a big mosaic – beautiful, but we need to look at every stone making it up,” he says. “We have traditional cooking by regions, villages and even families.

“Italian food doesn’t exist – at least, not in Italy.”

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