Camogli, Liguria: our own version of the Trip to Italy
Italy is not a country I am familiar with. Unlike with France where I could tell you regional differences between beef stews. With Italy, I don’t even know all the different region names.
When we decided to visit the Ligurian coast in mid-August, it was not planned like my usual trips. Instead of chasing the food and culture I had read of, it would be one where we would learn as we go.
The small fishing village of Camogli is stunningly beautiful. When you imagine a coastal town on the Med, you’d be hardpressed to imagine anything better than this.
A harbour sits where locals go out to catch fish, and tourists take day trips to even more remote parts nearby. Bars and restaurants hang over the pebble beach so you feel as if you are floating above the sea. The village sits in a wide bay surrounded by mountains and cliff fronts. The shops and restaurants of the village seemingly balance on top of each other climbing up the mountainside. An the sea is meditative.
It is this sea which provides the heart and the soul of this Ligurian cuisine.
At the exceptional Ristorante da Paolo, we ate a seafood platter to start of octopus, squid, swordfish carpaccio, and the like. The anchovies were the best I’ve ever had — even better than in my second home of Provence. All good starters should awake the palate and excite you for what’s about to come next, and this platter did just that. For my main, I had fish (I chose what looked like a bass from a tray as they all glistened stiffly in front of me), cooked alla Ligure.
Ligurian style seems to mean a sauce of black olives, capers, and anchovies bathed in olive oil. For me there is no greater flavour combination than those three things cooked in that way.
The following day at Osteria delle 7 Pance, I ate a perfect fisherman’s taglierini. Which was essentially a puttanesca minus the tomatoes, with added swordfish — or as I learnt from the night before alla Ligure. This restaurant was such a good spot for lunch, we returned the next day as well, where we spent more than a few hours drinking Prosecco.
For me, it was this simplicity which I loved. Dishes that we might recognise as seafood linguines, or clam and mussel spaghettis, formed the basis of menus. Fresh fish cooked whole and filleted before you. Shellfish thrown into pasta dishes at last minute, with little more than some olive oil and capers. I thought 28 degrees was too hot for risotto, but I was assured by friends it was equally delicious.
My final meal of mussels cooked in a saffron broth, followed by black pasta with red mullet, felt comparitively fancy. My companions both opted for a whole lobster each, which set about some food envy. This meal at La Piazzetta was accompanied by two bottles of delicious Ligurian white, both from nearby Cinque Terre. While it was tough to compete with the meal da Paolo, this one just clinched it.
Drinking the local wine abroad isn’t always a success. There have been some very sweet white wines I’ve sampled in parts of southern Spain which were terrible. And even a supermarket red I remember from a trip to Bordeaux once, was the only bottle to this day I’ve poured down the sink. When drinking the local wine is a hit, however, it makes a trip.
The Ligurian whites reminded me of the Luberon rosés — not in flavour, but in approach. These wines were simple and uncomplicated whites. Each we had was made of the pigato grape, which was as refreshing and crisp as the Mediterranean sea air.
We ended up drinking bottles of pigato every day at Bar Auriga. It was this bar where we had our first drink on arrival, and quickly learnt that birra is expensive, but the wine is delicious and well-priced.
Each day we were brought a different platter of antipasti. The elements changed daily but included melons, grapefruit, foccacia, farinata, olives, mini sandwiches (because we were British?), anchovies, breadsticks, etc., etc. As with tapas in Spain, this made what was otherwise a few glasses of wine by the sea, a pleasurable eating experience in itself. I long for a London bar to start doing similar.
The standard of food and wine throughout was exceptional.
Just one restuarant marred the dining experience: Lo Spuntino. Here our poor attempts at Italian were laughed at by the waiter rather than encouraged as with every other establishment. Spaghetti was flavourless and felt reheated, with some frozen prawns not even cooked through.
That experience aside, however, this was a trip of fantastic meals. Even my break from seafood and pasta, which saw a thick rare steak with Parmigiano and rocket, was perfectly cooked.
You explore a country by its eating its food.
The choice of what goes into a fisherman’s dish shows you historically what seafood was valued compared to today. You taste climates in what grows on the nearby hillsides. The ongoing influence of specific ingredients in regional cooking despite this age of globalisation, shows what centuries and centuries of produce existed.
This is not to negate the fusing of styles, the ingredients of opposing regions, or even the experimentations of Michelin-level cooking. But for me, finding the heart of a certain cuisine is the joy and pleasure of travel. That heart is often unfussy, incredibly local and simple.
Liguria tasted of olives which grew on the hillsides, the fish which were brought in from the boats, and the crisp, salty sea air. Italy is still a country which I am for the most part unfamiliar. But what I ate and discovered in this tiny stretch of the Italian Riviera, has given me an insatiable appetite for more.