The Cinque Terre is a fab destination for foodies with its fragrant cuisine and scenic vineyard hikes. Here’s an introduction to the food of the Five Lands.
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TRADITIONAL FOOD CULTURE
Despite the crowds, isolation is the key attraction of the Cinque Terre. The villages were only accessible by boat and mule paths until the railway line was cut into the cliff in 1874. The difficult terrain prevented mass development; the hillsides too steep for roads. Even today there are few roads and limited parking, which has protected the area from heavy traffic and outside influence. A happy result is the strong tradition of self-sufficiency and a deeply engrained food and wine culture.
A notable bonus for visitors is the abundance of public transport options, making it easy to explore without a car.
The rugged landscape doesn’t lend itself easily to cultivation, though the drainage and warm climate are ideal for growing olives and vines. The mountains behind provide protection from cold northerly winds and isolate the coast from the territories of Piedmont.
The idyllic tumble-down appearance is the result of years of ingenuity and hard graft. No spot of usable land is wasted. Terraces were cut into the rock and supported by dry-stone walls that require regular maintenance, redefining the landscape. Some terraces reach all the way to the sea, where small boats called gozzi were used to catch baskets of grapes.
These narrow terraces on steep hills are hard to cultivate mechanically. Additionally, many plots are small and dotted around, the result of property being divided up over the generations. These days there are small monorails – trenino – which help to carry the harvest, but much of the work is still done manually and the wine-making techniques have changed little.
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DRINK WINE – SAVE LIVES!
This unique landscape, stretching out to Portovenere to the east, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997 in order to recognise and preserve this:
“…cultural site of outstanding value, representing the harmonious interaction between people and nature to produce a landscape of exceptional scenic quality that illustrates a traditional way of life that has existed for a thousand years” – UNESCO
The close link between land and man here is such that if the farmers and winemakers were to abandon their livelihood the land would quite literally collapse.
The careful tending of the terrace structures and soil ensures the physical integrity of the land, which is vulnerable to landslides. On October 25th 2011, 11 died and Vernazza and Monterosso were consumed by mud after storms hit the Ligurian coast. The villagers pulled together to repair and rebuild in time for the following tourist season, but efforts are on-going.
So by supporting the local winemakers you’re helping to save the Cinque Terre. Salute!
If you want to do more you can pitch in on a Save Vernazza voluntourism day. Run twice-weekly throughout the season, this is a great way to connect with the land and community. Includes lunch, wine, and insurance for €29.
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The glorious thing about eating and drinking in the Cinque Terre is that it’s so easy to find locally-sourced specialities. In fact, it’s hard to avoid them. All of the villages have delicatessens, co-operative stores, bakeries, wineries, seafood restaurants, and takeaway joints. The Tourist Information offices (Welcome Centres) will provide you with up-to-date information on wineries and the like.
WHAT TO EAT
Ligurian cuisine, known as la cucina profumata (fragrant cooking), is rich in vegetables, garlic, lemon, and fresh aromatic herbs. The coastal Mediterranean climate means it has more in common with its neighbour Provence than the richer cuisine of Northern Italy.
Liguria is the birthplace of pesto, and the Cinque Terre has its own variety of basil which reigns supreme. Stronger than the Genovese basil, it grows in the shade of the vines and olive trees. The result is a more citrussy and less minty basil than that grown in full sun. Basil grown in Liguria has a unique taste and is among the best in the world. It’s basil heaven here.
The men of Liguria were sailors who would crave the fresh tastes of home on long passages at sea, says Claudia Roden in The Food of Italy. Pesto is a way of preserving this taste and making it more portable. Pesto Genovese is D.O.P protected and subject to strict regulations. It’s probably the best pesto you’ll ever taste.
Look out for the pesto stored in the fridge, a sign of freshness. If it’s on the shelf it’s probably been pasteurised.
Eat with trofie pasta, potatoes and green beans, or on top of focaccia.
Lemons feature heavily in both the landscape and the food. The warm Mediterranean climate ensures a lemon tree in every garden. The most obvious product you’ll see is limoncino, a lemon liqueur, which is for sale everywhere.
What’s the difference between limoncino and limoncello? As far as I can tell there is no difference except the name, which is a north/south dialect thing. Ignore the kitsch bottles, it’s delicious. You can watch a video of the process over at CinqueTerre-Travel.com.
If that’s not enough lemon for you then visit in May for the Lemon Festival. A riot of lemon – granita, tarts, lemon cream, lemon custard, lemon marmalade.
Portable hiking snack of choice and staple of Ligurian bakeries, you’re unlikely to leave the Cinque Terre without trying focaccia. It’s said locals even dip focaccia in their morning cappuccino, though I can’t say that I tried this. You’ll also find farinata, a chickpea flour flatbread, commonly sold alongside focaccia and pizza and with similar toppings available.
Ligurian olive oil is some of the best in the world. Olive oil made in the Cinque Terre is Riviera del Levante DOP.
There is an old traditional stone olive mill/museum in Groppo however it was closed when I visited. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to taste and shop for it in the villages and beyond.
The sea here is richer in seafood than fish, with the notable exception of anchovies – known in these parts as pan do ma, bread of the sea. The fishermen use a traditional technique called lampara, using lamps at night to attract (or “seduce”, as Rick Steves puts it) the anchovies.
As well as seafood in the restaurants, you will find friggitoria. These are takeaways selling fritto misto, a snack of deep fried seafood piled into a paper cone.
Not only does Monterosso its own Anchovy Salting Centre, but two annual festivals celebrating the fishy critter. They are celebrated first in June (fried) and then again in September (salted).
For more foodie delights, look out for fishing trips, vineyard tours, pesto tasting and cookery classes. If you want to buy anything in large quantities best to head to the market in La Spezia.
WHAT TO DRINK
Cinque Terre DOC wines are white and dry with a yellow straw colour, with herbal and savoury notes. As you might guess, it is best consumed with the local seafood. They must be made with 40% Bosca grape, Albarola or Vermentino grapes. There are 26 local producers and one co-operative. You rarely find these wines outside the area so make the most of them whilst you’re here.
If you have sturdy legs and a head for heights you can spend your days scurrying up between vineyards in the lands. Most wineries offer tasting and tours if you phone ahead. Check with the Tourist Information offices for details. Co-operativa Agricoltura Cinque Terre is based in Groppo and offers tastings and direct sales.
Also worth trying here is the local dessert wine – sciacchetrá – a straw wine made from a minimum of 85% Bosco. Sciacchetrá is made in the appassimento process, where grapes are laid out to partially dry in the sun in order to concentrate the sugar. This is an ancient process that was once widespread throughout the Mediterranean countries. Like most of the wine-making techniques here, it has changed little over the centuries. Sciacchetrá is often saved for special occasions, but try it with cheese or a chunk of torta del nonne. Naturally, sciacchetrá has its own annual festival held in late August/September.
A Sciacchetrá museum in Manarola mentioned in the guidebooks was closed when I was there, however you can find information about the wine-making process at Terra di Bargon in Riomaggiore.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
I didn’t have the time to visit them all, but here’s a quick roundup of my hitlist:
Ristorante Miky is well-regarded for seafood, try the risotto. Otherwise try Enoteco Da Eliseo, Ristorante Belvedere, and Ristorante Dau Cila up in the hills. Pick up a cheaper lunch at San Martino Gastronomia. Il Golosone for gelato.
Il Pirata delle 5 Terre, Gambero Rosso, Ristorante Vulnetia, Belforte, Taverna del Capitano, Blue Marlin Bar. Il Porticciolo and Gelataria Vernazza for gelato.
Ever fancied drinking wine out of a teapot? Of course you have. At Enoteco Il Pirun you can order your wine in a pirun, a strange-looking carafe with a spout. Check out Trattoria la Lanterna and A Cantina da Mananan for food. Pan e Vin. Be sure to try Alberto Gelataria for freshly made honey and basil olive oil flavours.
The best restaurants here – Trattoria Dal Billy and Nessun Dorma – both have a great sunset view, so call ahead or get there early. Stop by 5terre Gelataria for gelato and Zia Bramante is for evening drinks.
Ripo del Sole. Don’t miss Bar e Vini a Pie de Ma, a wine bar with a view that also sells charcuterie and cheeses. Book in at Terra di Bargon for some wine-tasting.
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EAT ON THE RUN
How can you not love a place which has an annual “Non-competitive enogastronomic walk” through vineyards and lemon groves? If you prefer a competitive run then there’s always the Sciacchetrail, a ridiculously long run through the vineyards which thankfully becomes a wine festival for the bystanders.
The Terroir Guides – Food and Wine of the Italian Riviera
This chunky book (it’s not lightweight) will satisfy the most hardcore foodies with its in-depth detail on produce from the area, with recommendations on where to eat and shop. Definitely pick this up if you’re on a longer trip along the coast! Check the latest prices and reviews on Amazon.
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