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The merchant trade of Genoa was a vital cog in the medieval economy. Its growth preceded the Renaissance and helped to drag Europe out of the Dark Ages.

The Paradox of Ligurian Cuisine

Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa so there is no doubt that he grew up feasting on traditional Genovese cuisine. ”Only a Ligurian,” wrote one of Columbus’ biographers, ”could have conceived of the idea of sailing west to reach east.” Though this may seem odd to others, such strange contrasts were probably innate to Columbus since he came from Genoa, the capital of Liguria, a city of more than one puzzling paradox.

To start, there are few grand piazzas in Genoa as in other Italian cities. Instead, there are grand palace-lined streets that feature the Rolli buildings, or narrow carugi that wind through the medieval quarter. Second, Genoa may appear to be far removed from the days it was known as La Superba, yet a deeper look at the city reveals that there is still a lot of wealth in Genoa.

People live well in the modern residential areas on the hillsides behind the old town. They also eat well and this is where the element of paradox really comes into play. Ligurian cuisine is largely distinguished from other regional Italian cuisines by the things you expect to find that are missing. It is odd that the cuisine of a port city that was once queen of the spice trade features a lack of fish dishes and a restricted use of spices.

According to Dr. Renzo Scarsi, an expert on Ligurian cuisine, these paradoxes are readily explained by the fact that it was not the bankers or the spice merchants of Liguria that shaped its cooking, but the sailors of its great maritime fleet. One has to imagine what shipboard life was like in those days; voyages lasted for months. Except for a few days after each port of call, the food on board ship was restricted to freshly caught fish or fare that would keep indefinitely. The last thing these sailors wanted to eat on their return to Genoa was fish. Instead, they craved fresh vegetables, fruit and aromatic herbs, the freshness and fragrance of which reminded them of the fields and land of their native Genoa.

Ligurian cooking was thus tailored to fit the desires of returning sailors in what was then the largest port city in the Mediterranean. The cuisine’s most noticeable feature is aromatic herbs such as basil, laurel, sweet marjoram and fennel and an abundance of fresh, usually stuffed, vegetables like zucchini, eggplant and lettuce – not the tomato, which the sailors would have had enough of in the Americas.

This explains two of the paradoxes, but not the restricted use of spices in Ligurian dishes, especially the near total absence of black and red pepper used so freely elsewhere in Italy. Dr. Scarsi points out that while both Venice and Genoa were the great providers of spices from the East, the Venetians consumed them, while the Genovese preferred to sell them to others.

The sailors’ yearning for the freshness of herbs rather than dried spices probably explains the abundance of basil in Liguria and its most famous dish, pesto. The word basilico is derived from the Greek word for kingly and in antiquity the plant was considered sacred. A Christian legend says that St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, received a divine revelation that the true cross would be found where the air was sweet with perfume and she found it under a patch of basil.

Whether they believe this legend or not, the Genoese have a special passion for the herb. Those who have no plot of land to raise it place old cans on sunny windowsills in which they grow their own. Today, with the modern greenhouses, basil is available year round.

Some contend the best basil grows only around Genoa, where cool winds from the mountains meet sea breezes to create the perfect conditions and its distinctive aroma. Undeniably, the basil in Genoa is different from the basil anywhere else in Italy and the pesto made from it is also unique.

The first recipe identified in print as Genovese was for Torta alla Genovese, a pie filled with apples, dates, raisins and pulverized almonds, hazelnuts and pine nuts, appearing in a 1520 cookbook by Robert Mestre, chef to the King of Naples. In the centuries that followed, Genoa’s culinary sophistication grew as local cooks developed some of Europe’s most savory preparations for tripe, veal and stuffed vegetables. They refined such Italian specialties as stuffed veal, ravioli, focaccia and of course, pesto.