When I travel, one of my favourite souvenirs is food. Beyond the usual food products that I bring back, what I'm talking about today is food inspiration. Whether it be in the form of food products, recipes, flavour combinations or cooking styles, I love to come home with at least one new dish that takes me back to places I've been. The dish above is one of those souvenirs.
Trofie al pesto is a dish of Liguria, the long narrow region along the topmost coast of Italy, stretching from the French border until the leg of the boot heads down. The capital is the bustling port city of Genova and the picturesque, quaint villages of the Cinque Terre are found here. I was lucky to have spent some time here in October and the moment we walked to the beachfront of Levanto I knew we had a problem. "Oh, no, 2 days, is so not going to be enough time here", I said to DG, full of wonder of the surroundings and a little bit of disappointment already setting in due to our limited time. But we made do, and somehow our limited time seemed enough.
This place messes up any travelers' momentum. After the bustling crowded art filled cities of Florence and Venice, this place was a dream, with little to do but hike, wander and lounge. Which we did to our hearts content, tickled at our luck upon arriving at the beginning of low season. A tiny area that two weeks earlier would have been bursting with tourists, was happily active with no crowds. With 30 degree weather, full sun, blue waters and so much sky around us...life was indeed beautiful!
Situated directly on the Mediterranean, the Cinque Terre is a small stretch of the Italian Riviera consisting of 5 fishing villages built into the cliffs.We stayed just outside of these villages, in easy to get to and lovely Levanto (see first beachfront photo), with the Cinque Terre a 5 minute train ride away.
We had dinner in the tiny harbour of Vernazza (above), seated outside on the edge of the water. Local children ran and played at the waterfront, stray cats were fed well by the diners of the many restaurants, and we enjoyed simply prepared, beautifully fresh fish and seafood from just off the boat, downed with local wine of the hills above. The atmosphere was joyous and memorable, full of tourists and locals alike and a highlight of our entire vacation.
The buildings appear to almost tumble down the hill to the waterfront. The traditional pastel coloured buildings of this area are a lovely contrast to the sea and the mountains and are commonplace in this region all the way to Nice.
The hills are terraced with an amazing amount of grapevines - each row terraced by hand ages ago. Its said that the length of the terraces is equal to or greater than the Great Wall of China. I believe it! The steep slopes make harvesting anything in this area difficult and pully systems are used. The wines of the Cinque Terre are crisp, dry, simple white wines which go lovely with the local seafood.
Even the olive groves require unique handling. The orange nets in between the olive trees are laid down close to harvest and they catch the olives that fall from the tree. Without them, the olives would be lost downhill. Liguria is famous for its olive oil, which has a unique, buttery flavour. This region is where pesto originated and the the local olive oil would be used for the authentic Pesto Genovese.
The locals keep cool at the pool of course, perfectly situated in the ocean at the harbour. No shade needed for these weathered Italians!
And while these days The Cinque Terre is certainly more about tourism than its fishing village origins, there
seems to be a healthy bunch of fishermen at any time of day- speedos and
the longest fishing poles you've ever seen!
All the villages are linked by a system of walking trails, some on the edge of the cliffs, others high above the towns meandering throughout the wine terraces. Exposed vistas made for amazing views, although a need for shade during such beautiful weather becomes quickly apparent- not that we were complaining!
Crashing waves, brilliant blue waters, bright sun, warm temperatures, quaint, relaxed villages, and some stunning marine landscapes, this place did not disappoint. As I yearn for summer, the feeling of being here keeps me warm and I dream of a return.
Now back to that pasta dish I lured you in with...
A handmade pasta with the shape of a string bean, Trofie, was found all over the villages of the Cinque Terre. That alongside pesto and limoncello, were the must have souvenirs. I was skeptical about the Trofie at first and almost didn't pick any up, but I'm sure glad I did as this is the pasta traditionally served with the regional pesto and I'm a convert.
I've been making pesto for more years than I can remember and I consider it a pantry staple. It provides flavour for salad dressings, makes a vegetable soup sing, is the perfect sauce for almost any fish, and of course makes for a quick pasta meal. I make large batches in the height of summer when fresh basil is at its peak and freeze it.
But sometimes a fresh perspective on a commonplace dish is needed, as well as a reminder of its origins. I was thrilled to learn that not only was I in the birthplace of this celebrated, but often badly done, sauce, but that a specific shape was traditionally served with it. Trofie is quite thick and even after 20 minutes of cooking, still retained a lovely al dente chew with a pleasing slippery texture. What was essential about this pasta is its ability to absorb the oil of the pesto. The sauce and the pasta married beautifully. I've never in my many years of eating heaps of this basil and oil puree, enjoyed a pasta pesto this much.
And it gets better. In Liguria, Trofie al Pesto is traditionally served with cooked green beans and potatoes tossed in. This makes for a more substantial pesto pasta with green beans adding texture and soft potatoes soaking up the basil oil. lt's just a whole new way of looking at something. My mind has been blown, culinarily speaking, and I shall never serve a beautiful pesto with any other pasta again.In fact, I'll be making a batch of Trofie as soon as the weather warms up and I have a sunny deck to lounge on while rolling away and dreaming of those warm sunny days on the Italian Riviera. Of course with a glass of Limoncello in hand.
Trofie al Pesto
1 pound trofie pasta
2 medium red potatoes, peeled and quartered, then sliced
1/2 pound green beans, trimmed of end and cut into 2 inch lengths
1/2 cup pesto, be sure to make this first or use a good fresh-prepared brand
2 Tbsp finely chopped Italian parsley
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, plus more at the table
Olive oil to finish, Ligurian if possible,
Bring a large stockpot full of water to a boil. When boiling add a small handful of salt. Taste the water, it should taste salty as the sea. Add potatoes and cook until fork tender. Drain and put aside. Add green beans to the same pot and boil for 3 minutes until tender but still nicely green. They should still have a little crunch as they will continue to cook once removed from the water.
Add trofie to the pot and cook as per package instructions. This will likely be quite a long time, upwards to 20 minutes. While they are cooking put a large serving bowl and pasta bowls into a oven at 250 degrees to keep warm in preparation for the pasta. Have all other ingredients ready to go.
Once pasta is al dente, drain, reserving a small bowl of the pasta water. Remove serving bowl from the oven and add pasta to it along with pesto, butter, parsley, cheese and a little bit of the pasta cooking water and toss very well until nicely coated. Add vegetables and give one last toss, adding more pasta water if its stiff. Taste and add more salt if necessary as well as pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and serve.