Wines of Liguria – Exploring Italy with Italiaoutdoors

vineyards-liguria-walking-tours-italyTourists know Liguria as the Italian Riviera, famous for its beaches and the resort towns of Portofino and Cinque Terre. It’s a great location for our newest Italiaoutdoors gourmet walking tour. The region of Liguria forms a narrow coastal strip in northwestern Italy, bordered by France to the west, the region of Piedmont to the north, Tuscany to the east, facing the Ligurian Sea all along the south. Its capital and largest city is Genoa (Genova).

The wines of Liguria are not well known outside the Riviera as its production is quite small, second only to tiny Valle d’Aosta.  It has no DOCGs, eight DOCs, and four IGPs. Liguria produces mostly white wine. The region’s primary grape varieties are Vermentino, Pigato (a biotype of Vermentino), and Rossese.

vineyard-monorail-liguria-walking-toursThe vineyards of the Italian Riviera are majestic terraced slopes that plunge into the Mediterranean sea in the Cinque Terre, occupying a truly maritime environment. While spectacular, the terrain is extremely difficult to work efficiently and safely. Harvest is done by hand, with the help of monorail systems to move the grapes up the hills.

Winemakers in the Cinque Terre are driven by passion, not money. The steep hillsides do not allow for any mechanical assistance, except for small monorail carts which are few and far between. All of the work – pruning, harvest, transport to the carts – must be done by hand. Unlike other wine regions, the wine is produced in the villages, not in the vineyards, so the grapes must be gently transported to the nearest road, loaded onto vehicles which then transport them down the the villages. The wines are obscure, relatively expensive and hard to find on the international market, so there is not a lot of potential for financial success. But wine production is an important tradition in Liguria, and these growers proudly carry on, in spite of the difficulties presented by their rugged, yet lovely terrain.

A few of the varietals and types of wines found in Liguria:

Albarola

A white indigenous varietal, grown mostly in Cinque Terre and La Spezia. A fairly neutral grape, most commonly blended with other Ligurian varieties such as Bosco and Vermentino.

Colli di Luni DOC, Colline di Levanto DOC, IGP Colline del Genovesato, IGP Colline Savonesi, IGP Liguria di Levante, Val Polcèvera DOC
nature

Bosco

Bosco is a white indigenous varietal that is grown predominantly in Cinque Terre where it is often the primary component of a blend. It gives structure and richness to the region’s crisp, aromatic white wines, which also contain Vermentino and Albarola. Bosco is rarely vinified as a varietal wine. Care must be taken in handling due to Bosco’s propensity to oxidize easily, creating potential wine faults. The wines are therefore best consumed within a year or two of harvest.

While Bosco is important in the region’s dry white wines, it is also a key component in the Cinque Terre’s sweet Sciacchetrà wines, which are made in the passito style from air-dried grapes.

Cinque Terre / Cinque Terre Sciacchetrà DOC, IGP Colline del Genovesato, IGP Colline Savonesi, IGP Liguria di Levante

pigato-liguria-walking-tours-italyPigato

Pigato is another white indigenous varietal, which has been proven by DNA analysis to be the same varietal as Vermentino and Piedmont’s Favorita. Its name, Pigato, means “spotted”, due to the freckled appearance of the ripe grapes. The grape makes sturdy, aromatic wines with plenty of fruit.

IGP Colline del Genovesato, IGP Colline Savonesi, IGP Liguria di Levante, IGP Terrazze dell’Imperiese, Riviera Ligure di Ponente DOC

testalonga-rossese-liguria-walking-tours-italyRossese

Rossese is the red indigenous varietal that is grown around Dolceacqua and Ventimiglia. Located in the Imperia province, these two communes sit at the very western edge of the Italian Riviera, on the border with France. Rossese has been an important grape here since it arrived from Provence, just over the border to the west. Rossese wines are brightly colored with a fresh, tangy palate, along with notes of blackcurrant and herbs.

IGP Colline del Genovesato, IGP Colline Savonesi, IGP Liguria di Levante, IGP Terrazze dell’Imperiese, Riviera Ligure di Ponente DOC, Rossese di Dolceacqua / Dolceacqua DOC

groppolo-vermentino-walking-tours-italyVermentino

Vermentino is Liguria’s most widely planted grape, a white indigenous varietal also grown in Sardegna and Tuscany. Biotypes include Liguria’s Pigato and Piemonte’s Favorita. Wines produced from Vermentino grapes typically display flavors and aromas of citrus, tropical fruit, acacia, rosemary, thyme with a salty finish.

Colli di Luni DOC, Colline di Levanto DOC, Golfo del Tigullio–Portofino / Portofino DOC, IGP Colline del Genovesato, IGP Colline Savonesi, IGP Liguria di Levante, IGP Terrazze dell’Imperiese, Riviera Ligure di Ponente DOC.

Styles of Wine

sciacchetràSciacchetrà

Sciacchetrà is the sweet, white passito wine produced on Liguria’s dramatic Cinque Terre coastline. Passito is an Italian word for wines made by the appassimento process in which, after picking, the grapes are laid carefully on pallets (traditionally straw mats, but now typically plastic) in ventilated barns in order to dry, essentially becoming almost raisins. As the grapes shrivel and lose water they become full of concentrated sugars and flavors. After three to six months the semi-dried grapes are gently pressed and the juice fermented until it reaches the desired level of sweetness and alcohol. Most passito wines will spend some time aging, often in oak barrels to develop additional flavors and complexity in addition to time resting in the bottle prior to release for sale. Italian wines made in the passito style include both red and white wines.

Bosco, Albarola and Vermentino grapes are used to make Sciacchetrà. Once picked and transported to the winery – which in Liguria is carried out by hand and transport is done a specially adapted monorail system – the grapes are left to dry on well-ventilated racks until the concentration of natural sugars reaches a potential alcohol level of at least 17%. This process ensures intense, sweet flavors in the resulting wine, which is deliberately left with significant residual sugar and alcohol level.

Sciacchetrà wines are intensely golden-yellow in their youth, changing to amber over the years. They offer aromas of honey and white blossoms, with hints of citrus. Sciacchetrà Riserva has been aged for three full years prior to release. There is no stipulation as to whether this aging must take place in stainless steel, glass or oak.

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Pesto alla Genovese

pesto-liguria-cinque-terre-walking-tours We are introducing a new Italiaoutdoors walking adventure to Liguria and Cinque Terre. Also known as the Italian Riviera, this is one of the most breathtaking coastlines in the world. Here, the sea and the mountains meet in dramatic fashion, and we spend a week exploring the fascinating history, indigenous wines, and traditional cuisine of the area among one of the most stunning backdrops in Italy.

portofino-harbor-liguria-walking-toursProbably the greatest gift of the Ligurian region to the culinary universe is its pride and joy – Pesto alla Genovese. Most Americans today are familiar with pesto, which originated  in Genoa. The word ‘pesto’ derives from the Italian word “pestare”, which means to pound or crush. Traditionally, a pesto would be made using a mortar and pestle, with the ingredients being ‘ground’ with a circular motion of the pesto.

To a Ligurian, pesto requires very specific ingredients – light Ligurian DOP olive oil, Riviera pine nuts, fresh garlic from Vessalico (in western Liguria, near the French border) , sea salt, a 50-50 blend of Percorino sardo cheese from Sardinia (Sardo is richer while Pecorino Romano is more salty) and true Parmigiano-Reggiano, all combined with tender shade-grown basil. The traditional technique for making pesto utilizes a marble mortar and an olive wood pestle, the grinding releases the herb’s oils and maximum flavor and produces the preferred crushed texture. The cutting action of the food processor is believed to cut off the plants capillaries and prevents the fullest release of flavor. Today, however, finding pesto made using a mortar is rare indeed.

Outside the city of Genoa, the suburb of Prà produces what the locals consider the best basil for pesto. Here it is grown not in fields but in greenhouses, as Ligurians prefer greenhouse basil over that grown under direct sun, as the latter results in basil that is darker in color and tough. These greenhouse growers annually produce over 5 million plants.

basilico-pra-hothouseWhy Prà? The same Genovese basil seed is now distributed world wide, and grown as far away as California. The microclimate around Prà is believed to be responsible for the quality – neutral soil, a southern exposure that gets sunny days year round, Mediterranean breezes keep the area cool so the basil doesn’t overheat and oxidize. The Italian government actually conducted experiments in which the same basil seeds were planted elsewhere – the result was a thicker stem, darker color, and more minty flavor. Today, the basil from Prà and nearby on the Ligurian coast has earned DOP status, recognizing the unique quality of the product.

pesto-pra-liguria-walking-toursIt is rare to find pesto in your grocery store that hails from Liguria. The largest pesto production facilities are actually in Japan and Denmark, and you can be pretty sure that any large producer is not using good quality extra virgin olive oil, pine nuts, cheeses and, of course, Prà basil. But you can easily make a great pesto at home – yes, even cheating with a food processor or blender – using quality ingredients. It will keep for a couple of days in the refrigerator, just store in a sealed container with a layer of olive oil on top to keep it from discoloring. But it goes wonderfully on so many things that it doesn’t need to last much longer than that!

Pesto alla Genovese

3 cups tightly packed basil leaves
2 medium cloves garlic
2 tablespoons pine nuts
Sea salt
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons finely grated Pecorino Sardo
3 tablespoons finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Put the basil, garlic, pine nuts, a pinch of salt, and 1-2 tablespoons of the olive oil in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Start mixing, adding a little more olive oil if the ingredients don’t easily combine into a paste. Stop the food processor, add the pecorino and Parmigiano, and continue processing until you obtain a smooth, creamy paste. Transfer to a bowl and mix in the remaining olive oil. Adjust seasoning with salt to taste. Use immediately, or transfer to a seal-able container, cover the top with a thin layer of olive oil, which prevents it from discoloring, and store in the refrigerator until ready to use.

For the ambitious: Mortar and Pestle Method

Place the garlic, salt, pine nuts and basil in the mortar and start crushing with the pestle. Use a circular motion to press the pestle around the sides, rather than pounding. When these have melded together, add the cheeses and keep pressing until everything is blended into a paste. Move to a bowl and add the oil, mix until combined.

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Insalata di Porcini Crudo – Raw Porcini Mushroom Salad

salad-porcini-walking-tour-italyMushroom hunting was once an important source of sustenance in many regions of Italy, from the Veneto to Tuscany to Umbria to Liguria. Many Italians today still forage wild mushrooms, with local communities in each region working to keep this tradition alive,  sharing recipes for preserving the mushrooms and establishing rules for their picking. Our September cycling and walking tours in Italy allow us ample opportunity to feast upon and cook with the decadent porcini mushrooms.

tuscan-sunset-walking-tour-italy
Sunset in Tuscany on our September tour

My first attempt at purchasing them at a market here in Italy left me very disappointed. Here in Italy, at a market, you point, and the vendor selects the product for you. A good system hygienically, but unscrupulous vendors can stick you with lousy product if you are not watchful. That happened with my first purchase of porcini – when I cut into the stems, they were spongy and yellow and riddled with holes. Porcini attract worms, and these teeny holes are from the worms burrowing in. This is fine if the mushrooms are dried – the worms crawl out – but not ideal for eating fresh. I threw them out.

forarger-mushrooms-bike-wine-toursA few days later, porcini were at my local vegetable market, where I shop regularly and they are always very careful to select good products for everyone. They selected 4 porcini for me, and carefully checked each one for quality and worm holes by cutting a small slit in the bottom of each stem. They were perfect, pale and firm and beautiful.

cooking-class-porcini-walking-tour-italy
Porcini mushrooms for our cooking class

Fresh porcini can be stored in a paper bag in your refrigerator for a few days prior to using. The bottom of the stems will be quite dirty, using a small knife cut off the dirty exterior. Do not wash under running water, this will make them mushy, but you can try and clean them as much as possible using a damp paper towel.

porcini-clean-walking-tours-italyThe following recipe is a classic, on the menu at many a trattoria in Tuscany in September. A few ingredients, perfect porcini mushrooms, cheese, and a wonderful local olive oil is all you need – a prime example of Italian cuisine, a few pristine ingredients, simply prepared.

Insalata di Porcini Crudo – Raw Porcini Mushroom Salad

Serves 4

4 fresh porcini mushrooms, cleaned and stems inspected for worms
4 ounces Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, thinly sliced with a vegetable peeler
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Extra virgin olive oil

Thinly slice the porcini mushrooms, keeping caps and stems attached. Place in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with some olive oil. Carefully toss to combine, keeping mushroom slices intact.

Divide mushrooms between 4 plates. Top with the slices of cheese. Drizzle with more olive oil and serve.

I would suggest an olive oil on the mild, fruitier side, like the Leccino varietal from Pruneti. It still has a bit of pepper in the finish, but won’t overwhelm the flavors of the Porcini.

Enjoy with a glass of Vernaccia di San Gimignano, one of the few DOCG white wines from Tuscany.

salad-porcini-top-walking-tour-italy

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Pruneti – Discovering Olive Oil with A Top Producer in Tuscany

pruneti-olive-tree-private-tours-tuscanyA key component to Tuscany’s wonderful cuisine is its delicious olive oil. Olive oil appears in almost every course; drizzled generously on bread, salads, tomatoes, vegetables, even on the famed Bistecca alla Fiorentina, and used extensively in cooking, from sauces to saute to even sweet desserts. Guests on our private tours in Italy often ask how to identify a quality olive oil. The simple answer – you must know where your olive oil is coming from. Unfortunately, the regulation of olive oil quality is extremely lax, and olive oil can be labelled as Italian, but not from Italy at all. If you can buy directly from a quality producer, that is best. When purchasing at a supermarket or your local gourmet store, look for an extra virgin olive oil that identifies the region it comes from – Tuscany, Liguria, Sicily.

pruneti-brother-private-tours-tuscanyJust prior to a September private cycling tour in Tuscany, I was invited to visit one of Tuscany’s top producers of olive oil, Pruneti. Located in San Polo, near Greve in Chianti, five generations of the Pruneti family have been farming in these hills for over 150 years.Twenty-five years ago, the family decided to focus its production on olive oil. They still produce some saffron, wine, and iris flowers – the roots are used in perfume, and the San Polo area traditionally sourced this unique product. But today, the commercial focus is olive oil, and brothers Gionni and Paolo oversee 26000 olive trees spread across 170 hectares, and produce a variety of olive oils, all biodynamic.

pruneti-harvest-private-tours-tuscanyIn 2008, the family built the current mill and tasting room. During my mid-September visit all was tranquil and quiet, but this is the calm before the storm. With harvest beginning in mid-October -perhaps earlier due to a very hot summer – the mill will be busy round the clock. Seventy or so seasonal workers are hired to harvest the olive crop. All harvesting is performed by hand, with workers combing through the olive trees, releasing the olives which drop into nets placed under the trees. The brothers decide daily which olives to harvest; this means identifying tree by tree which to pick as the different varietals and different orchards reach optimum ripeness at different times. Olives harvested on the early side provide grassy, spicy, bitter flavors; olives harvested later provide more fruity, smoother flavors.

pruneti-brother-press-private-tours-tuscanyThe olives arrive at the mill, and with the aim to produce the very freshest olive oil, the olives travel from orchard to press in only four hours. This means that brother Gionni, the “oil artisan”, doesn’t leave the mill much during harvest season. Much like an expert winemarker, Gionni continually monitors the pressing process, sampling and adjusting as the olives arrive. The press itself offers different settings, you can crush the olives with a hammer, cut them with a blade, or pass them through a disc using friction to break them. Gionni possesses the experience and palate to know which setting will best bring out the flavors he knows are hidden inside.
pruneti-olive-press-private-tours-tuscanypruneti-olive-private-tours-tuscany
Following the pressing, the olive paste is agitated, then centrifuged twice, once to separate the liquids (oil and water) from the solids, the second time to separate the oil from water. Close to 90% of the olive is waste product, not oil. Pruneti only produces top quality first press extra virgin olive oil. They do not try to squeeze second tier oil out of the waste to increase the yield. Managing this waste is a laborious process. Pruneti turns the waste into various forms of biofuel. The pit waste becomes pellets that heat the entire facility, and the locals can come and purchase it to use for their home stoves. The rest is shipped off to become a biogas.
pruneti-olive-pellets-private-tours-tuscany
Pruneti has made a significant investment to ensure the quality of their oil. Today the entire oil production process occurs in a sealed environment, protecting the oil from harmful oxidation. From pressing to bottling the oil is only exposed to a nitrogen atmosphere, which is very important for export, providing a much longer shelf life. Whether awaiting bottling in a stainless steel tank, or after bottling, the oil is protected from oxygen until you open it at home.
pruneti-press-room-private-tours-tuscany
My host at Pruneti, Emanuele, then introduced me to their monovarietal oils, Leccino, Moraiolo, and Frantoio. These three varietals are common in Tuscany, representing 85% of production in the region. I can’t wait to try some of these back home in my own kitchen!

pruneti-olive-type-private-tours-tuscany

pruneti-oils-tasting-private-tours-tuscanyLeccino

These olives are big and oblong. Vegetal and grassy, with a nice peppery finish. Not aggressive, somewhat mild, but still some spicy notes. Great on a lettuce salad, drizzled on carpaccio or fish.

Moraiolo

These olives are small and round, and difficult to harvest as they resist picking, and the olives tend to grow in the upper branches. The oil is a bit less aromatic, but fruitier, with notes of banana, sage, nuts. A mild, almost sweet flavor at the start, it is very spicy at the finish, with lots of black pepper. Pair this oil with grilled red meats and vegetables, or drizzle over bean soups and bitter greens, such as arugula or endive.

Frantoio

This olive is the symbol of Tuscany, boasting an array of international awards. This oil is more viscous, with bitter flavors of artichoke, arugula and radicchio. The spicy notes are more immediate than the Moraiolo, occuring more in the mouth than the throat. Persistant. Enjoy on your Bistecca alla Fiorentina, or a tomato bruschetta.

Tips for storing your olive oil:

Olive oil hates light, hates oxygen. Before opening, it will keep for 18 months if sealed with nitrogen as Pruneti oils are. After opening, it will keep for 5-8 months. iStore at room temperature (don’t refrigerate), and in the dark.

To get Pruneti oil:

Their on-line shop is on their website www.pruneti.it. Their US importer is Sungrove Foods, www.sungrovefoods.com.

pruneti-products-private-tours-tuscany

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Kaiserschmarren – Sweet Omelet from Sudtirol

kaiserschmarren-private-hiking-tours-dolomitesLate June and July is the best time to explore the Dolomites. This magnificent mountain area epitomizes the Best of Italy; stunning vistas, fascinating history and blend of cultures, and amazing and unique cuisine. Our Dolomite hiking tours  and cycling adventures allow us a week to immerse ourselves in all of these as we explore the area. Rustic mountain rifugi nestled in these peaks provide ample opportunity to refuel on regional dishes as we travel.

rifugio-s-croce-view-private-hiking-tours-dolomitesOne of my favorite local dishes that reflects the areas Austrian roots is Kaiserschmarren. Kaiserschmarren is a light, eggy caramelized pancake, baked in butter. The pancake is split with two forks into pieces while frying, sprinkled with powdered sugar, and served hot with apples or plums or various fruit compotes. It can be enjoyed as a dessert, or it can also be eaten for lunch or an afternoon snack at most mountain rifugi in the Dolomites.

kaiserschmarren-pan-forks-private-hiking-tours-dolomitesThe name Kaiserschmarrn or Kaiserschmarren takes its name from the Austrian emperor (Kaiser) Franz Joseph I, who was reportedly very fond this treat, and served with jam was his favorite dessert. Schmarren refers to a scrambled or shredded dish, but is also slang for trifle, mess, or nonsense.

rifugio-s-croce-private-hiking-tours-dolomitesWhile it is generally agreed that the dish was first prepared for Kaiser Francis Joseph I, there are several anecdotes around its invention. One involves the Emperor and his wife, Elisabeth of Bavaria. Obsessed with her figure, the Empress directed the kitchen staff to prepare only light desserts, much to the consternation of her husband. Upon being presented with the chef’s confection, she found it too rich and refused to eat it. The exasperated Francis Joseph quipped, “Now let me see what ‘Schmarren’ our chef has cooked up.” It apparently met his approval as he reputedly finished both his and his wife’s serving.

kaiserschmarren-rifugio-private-hiking-tours-dolomitesAnother story is that Francis Joseph and his wife were traveling the Alps and stopped by a farmer’s home for lunch. The farmer was so nervous that he threw all the fanciest ingredients he had into a pan to make a delicious pancake; worse yet, due to his nervousness and shaky hands he scrambled the pancake. Hoping to cover up the mess he then covered it with plum jam. Luckily, the kaiser thought it was scrumptious.

One last tale is that the Empress was a poor cook and couldn’t flip a pancake efficiently. She decided to play to her strengths and shred the pancakes altogether and would serve them up to the Kaiser on a regular basis. Even as an experienced cook, flipping the pancake is always tricky, so I like that the final product allows for error here!

kaiserschmarren-pan-private-hiking-tours-dolomitesKaiserschmarren can be prepared in different ways. Typically the egg whites are separated from the yolk and beaten until stiff; then the flour and the yolks are mixed with sugar, and the other ingredients are added. You can simplfy and just combined all the ingredients without separating the eggs, but the results will not be as fluffy. In the more traditional recipes only raisins are added, but now you can find versions that add nuts, cherries, plums, apple jam, or pieces of apple.

Kaiserschmarren – Sweet Crumbled Omelet

Makes 1 12” pancake

1/2 cup flour
1/4 cup milk
2 tablespoons heavy cream
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 tablespoon rum
3 egg whites
Kosher salt
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup raisins
Powdered sugar

Mix together the flour, milk, cream, egg yolks, sugar, vanilla and rum until well combined.

Lightly beat the egg whites with the salt, until stiff, then gently fold them into the flour mixture.

Heat the butter in a large frying pan, pour the schmarren batter in the pan, sprinkle with raisins and fry until cooked on the bottom and the top is beginning to set.

Flip the pancake, add a bit more butter and continue to cook until the other side is crisp. Break up the pancake with two forks. Continue cooking briefly.

Serve, dusted with powdered sugar.

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