Kicking off Festival Season in the Italian Riviera
Italy's best kept food secret is the "sagra", a festival organized to show off the typical enogastronomic products of a particular area. During the second week of May the "Sagra del Pesce" is held in Camogli, a stunning seaside village south of Genova on the Ligurian coast, also known as the Italian Riviera. This week we pay homage to the coastal ingredients and spirit of this beautiful region and perhaps remember some of our own summer getaways and beachside picnics.
One of Italy’s best kept food secrets is the “sagra” – a festival organized to show off the typical eno-gastronomic products of a particular area. During the second week of May, the “Sagra del Pesce”, a popular celebration dedicated to San Fortunato, the patron saint of fishermen, is held in Camogli, a stunning seaside village south of Genova on the Ligurian coast, also known as the Italian Riviera.
The whole town turns out to organize the Festival, including decorations, music, and little hand carts selling food and souvenirs. The square overlooking Camogli’s small port sets the stage for Italy’s largest fish fry with the world’s largest fry pan. About 30,000 portions of fish are prepared in the 15-foot stainless steel pan. People come from all over Italy and joyfully wait in long lines to enjoy freshly caught anchovies and sardines. After grabbing the fish, the next decision is where to eat it. Most festival goers head to the beach and eat with their toes in the sand. This has us starting to think about summer getaways and beachside picnics for sure!
The Italian Riviera is a narrow stretch of land south of the Franco-Italian border, between the Ligurian Sea and the mountains, extraordinarily rich in natural resources. Its coastline is 220 miles long, so the region’s cuisine is shaped by the sea. Fish, combined with herbs and vegetables from the land, result in a cuisine that is considered by many connoisseurs of Italian food to be amongst the best. It has been dubbed “la cucina del ritorno”, “return cuisine” as it was preferred by fishermen who had tired of their austere diet aboard ship and who looked forward to the rich flavors of their locally grown herbs. Many herbs are used in Ligurian dishes - rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, dill, and parsley are prevalent. Probably the best known, though, is sweet Genovese basil combined with mild Ligurian olive oil, used as the foundation for “pesto alla Genovese”.
Our pasta dish is one of the most beloved – Trenette al pesto, a linguine-type pasta tossed with pesto, green beans, and potatoes. Pesto al basilico is made by combining fresh basil, olive oil, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan, and pecorino cheese in just the right proportions. The area surrounding the city of Savona (birthplace of Christopher Columbus) is covered with fragrant pine forests, the source of the coveted Mediterranean pine nut. The ingredients are ground together to make a thick paste, using a pestle – hence the name “pesto”. The most important thing to remember here is NOT to expose the pesto to too much heat or it will turn brown. The pasta is tossed with the fresh, uncooked sauce and vegetables away from the stove, so do not expect it to be piping hot. In other words, please do not reheat it at home – rather enjoy it at room temperature.
The next two dishes highlight the fresh flavors and produce of the region. Because much of the fish from the Mediterranean waters are unobtainable outside the area, Ligurian fish dishes tend to be difficult to imitate in other countries. So, we have taken a bit of culinary license by offering beautifully fresh fish, easily available in our area. Salmone Stagionato, is our house cured, star anise Atlantic salmon, thinly hand sliced and served with tarragon aioli, fresh arugula, and crisp crostini. It pairs very well with this week’s featured white wine, Antinori’s Vermentino.
The Branzino Cileno, Chilean Sea bass is not widely consumed in Italy, but has become a deliciously popular fish here. It is a white flaky fish that stays moist during cooking, giving it a rich flavor profile perfect as the canvas for our Mediterranean gremolata of fresh, diced spring zucchini, dill, and more pine nuts.
Panna Cotta con Fragole Balsamiche is a molded “cooked cream” of honey sweetened heavy cream and yogurt. We serve it with the delightfully surprising addition of sliced strawberries macerated in balsamic vinegar, sugar, and black pepper. Said to have originated in Northern Italy in the late 1800s, we thought it a befitting finale to our light Ligurian repast.
To this day, Italian Riviera cuisine relies heavily on its local ingredients. There is no better way to enjoy the distinctive culinary specialties of each region while rubbing shoulders with the locals than to experience an Italian sagra. Although there are many sagre throughout the whole year, they are more widespread during the warm cultivating season. You cannot travel to Italy in the summer without seeing colorful posters advertising festivals.
We have learned that Italy is opening up this summer and is anxiously awaiting us. This year’s May “Sagra del Pesce” has been postponed until later in the summer, possibly giving us an opportunity to attend. If you can’t wait to get back to Italy this summer, ferret out the local festivals to experience local color and the heart of Italy. Today we are on Italy’s beautiful northwestern seaside – tomorrow who knows where? Stay tuned 😊