1950s Archive

A Gastronomic Tour of Italy


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Obviously the sea must furnish a major part of Liguria's larder. Even the Genoese admit that the fishing isn't as good here as in some parts of the Mediterranean, but to the layman watching the catch being unloaded, the yield is impressive. The aristocrats are blue-grey fellows called dentice and ombrine, delectable when poached and served with hollandaise. Then there are the old stand-bys-red mullet, mackerel and dorade and plenty of shellfish. Aragosta bears a close resemblance to a langouste, and gamberetti are a delicious variety of shrimp. It is among the smaller fry that adventure lies, particularly the baby occupuses, calamaretti which are about the size of our fried clams, and whitebait, bianchetti, both of which are delicious alla genovese. To terminate this sketchy listing, there are mussels, some of which have almost the exact size, shape and color of a date. When “date stew” appears on the menu, it indicates a local variant of moules marinière.

The wines of Liguria are few and far between, but they are good and rather easy to remember. A valley slope only a few miles beyond the French frontier produces the most agreeable red wine in Liguria. It is called Rossesse, and the best comes from a vineclad community musically called Dolceacqua. Fragrant and dry, it has a delicate pallid rose color, but it carries unexpected power. Say “row say say” to the waiter, and expect something pleasant! Coronata is a golden white wine from the hills above Genoa. When genuine, it is an ideal companion for Genoese fish dishes. Easier to obtain is a pale, fairly aromatic white wine from the region of La Spezia. It is named Cinque Terre, from the five communities which produce it. The remainder of your wine list calls heavily upon the wine rich neighbors Piedmont and Tuscany.

Almost all of the regional cookery along this shore stems from Genoa, and it is absolutely resplendent in its variety and succulence. Most Genoesedishes are mild, subtle, and nor too difficult to prepare. They are far removed from the Neapolitan dishes best known to us in America.

The keynote is struck, nor by a dish but by a sauce, a meatless sauce for Lent, for Friday and almost any other day in Genoa, called pesto. Ah, that sublime pesto, it's something to reckon with! It adds indescribable bouquet to minestrone and green stuffed ravioli. It spreads a hot. aromatic green blanket over any member of the spaghetti family, bur it is particularly good with trenette, freshly made noodles the width of an old fashioned shoestring.

You might translate the word pesto as “I pestle, ” since it is the product, first of the chopping board and (hen a good stiff session with mortar and pestle. It is made up of chopped leaves of basil, grated Sardo cheese, chopped garlic, pine nuts and olive oil. Sardo is a dry, salty, husky cheese made from sheep's milk. Some cooks use the more common Parmesan cheese. Chopped walnuts can he added, or can replace the pine nuts. We had the privilege of seeing pesto made by a genial Genoese cook. The first act is to attack several fistfuls of thick, fresh basil with a sharp, rainbow-shaped knife having a handle at each end. In no time at all she had the herb minced into fine shreds. Then came the cheese, garlic and nuts, and more lightning manipulation of the seesaw knife. Then the whole thing was pushed into a mortar and the kitchen boy took over, first pounding, then pestling, adding a little olive oil with every application of elbow grease. When his labors were over the pesto had the consistency of butter, the color of sage cheese, but not its flavor.

Your Genoese purist insists that pesto simply can't be made anywhere else. because only on the Italian Riviera can be grown the richly perfumed basilico which provides its unique flavor. Any patriotic Marseillais will claim the same thing about his bouillabaisse. It can't be genuine unless it is blessed by the thorny snouted rascasse, an unlovely but aromatic rockfish. Having seen the latter contention nobly disputed by cooks from Paris to Hingham, Massachusetts. we are not at all convinced that a perfectly good pesto isn't achievable in a resourceful American kitchen. You might try the following proportions:


In a mortar mix 3 cloves of garlic, chopped, 2 tablespoons minced sweet basil leaves, 2 tablespoons grated Italian cheese, 1 tablespoon chopped walnuts and ¼ teaspoon salt. Pound the mixture with a pestle to a smooth paste. Still pounding, add gradually about 3 tablespoons olive oil and work the mixture thoroughly to make a smooth sauce.

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