The Cinque Terre is a rugged portion of coast on the Italian Riviera. It is in the Liguria region of Italy, to the west of the city of La Spezia. The coastline, the five villages (Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore) and the surrounding hillsides are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Over the centuries, people have built terraces on the rugged, steep landscape right up to the cliffs that overlook the sea. Part of its charm is the lack of visible corporate development. Paths, trains and boats connect the villages, but cars cannot reach them from the outside. There’s not a chain store anywhere and each of the five villages has a distinct dialect and its own proud heritage. The Cinque Terre area is a very popular tourist destination and the main attraction is the landscape. Mediterranean herbs and trees grow spontaneously from the top of the hills down to the water level. Admiring this amazing natural scenery, one can imagine the intense human activity of carrying an enormous quantity of heavy stones on men’s shoulders and women’s heads to build the terraces that surround the hills. It is estimated to have taken about 200 years to build the entire stone-wall network. Its total length has been calculated to be at least equal to the Great Wall of China.
The first historical documents concerning Cinque Terre date back to the 11th century. The villages of Monterosso and Vernazza sprang up first and the other villages grew later under the Genoa military and political era. In order to protect themselves from the attacks by the Turks, the inhabitants reinforced the old forts and built new defence towers. However, this isolated the inhabitants. In later years, thanks to the construction of the Military Arsenal of La Spezia and to the building of the railway line between Genoa and La Spezia, the inhabitants were able to escape their isolation. The consequence was an increase in poverty which pushed many to emigrate abroad, at least up until the 1970s, when the development of tourism brought back wealth.
There are few roads into the Cinque Terre area that are accessible by car. The one into Vernazza opened in June 2012, but it is very narrow and leads to a parking area that is a 1/2 mile from town. Local trains from LaSpezia to Genova and the rest of the region’s network connect the towns. Intercity trains also connect Cinque Terre to Milan, Rome, Turin and Tuscany. The tracks run most of the distance in tunnels between Riomaggiore and Monterosso. A passenger ferry runs between the villages and enters Cinque Terre from Genova’s Old Harbor and LaSpezia ,Lerici or Portovenere.
Walking is very popular but In order to walk along the trails between the villages, one must purchase a pass. A walking trail, known as Sentiero Azzurro (“Azure Trail”), connects the villages. The trail from Riomaggiore to Manarola is called the Via Dell’Amore (“Love Walk”) and is wheelchair-friendly.
The variation of house colors is due to the fact that while fishermen were doing their jobs just offshore, they wanted to be able to see their house easily. Most of the families in the villages made money by catching the fish and selling them in the small port villages. Fish was also their main source of food.
In 1998, the Italian Ministry for the Environment set up a natural marine area in Cinque Terre to protect the natural environment and to promote socio-economic development. In 1999 the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre was set up to conserve the ecological balance, protect the landscape and safeguard the anthropological values of the location. Nevertheless, the dwindling interest in cultivation and maintenance of the terrace walls posed a long-term threat to the site. As a result the site was included in the 2000 and 2002 World Monuments Watch by the World Monuments Fund. The organization secured grants from American Express to support a study of the conservation of Cinque Terre and a site management plan was created.
The Cuisine of Cinque Terre
The cuisine of the Cinque Terre preserves tradition and respects the flavors and ingredients of its local products. Given its location on the Mediterranean, seafood is plentiful in the local cuisine. Anchovies of Monterosso are a local specialty designated with a Protected Designation of Origin status from the European Union. The mountainsides of Cinque Terre are heavily terraced and are used to cultivate grapes and olives. This area in the region of Liguria is known for pesto — a sauce made from basil leaves, garlic, salt, olive oil, pine nuts and pecorino cheese. Focaccia is common and locally baked. Farinata is also a typical snack found in bakeries and pizzerias- a savory and crunchy pancake made from a base of chick-pea flour. The town of Corniglia is particularly popular for its gelato made from local honey.
The grapes of the Cinque Terre are used to produce two locally made wines: Cinque Terre and the Sciachetrà are both made using Bosco, Albarola and Vermentino grapes. Other DOC producers are Forlini-Capellini, Walter de Batté, Buranco, Arrigoni. In addition to wines, other popular local drinks include Grappa, a brandy made with the pomace left from winemaking and limoncello, a sweet liqueur flavored with lemons.
Some typical dishes include:
- Trofie is a type of pasta made from chestnut or wheat flour and its usual condiment is pesto sauce.
- Farinata, similar to focaccia but made with chickpea flour. A regional speciality.
- Tagliatelle, a broad handmade pasta, is used with sauces that contain mushrooms, cabbage and potatoes, beans, chickpeas or sometimes pesto.
- Vegetable pies are prepared with a stuffings that contain borage, parsley, marjoram, other local herbs that grow wild, artichokes, swiss chard, zucchini, potatoes and leeks combined with egg and ricotta cheese or with stale bread soaked in milk or béchamel sauce (depending on each family’s traditions) and parmesan cheese.
- Rice pie, or ‘torta di riso’, is a specialty of every grandma in the region. In Monterosso this rice pie is made by adding dried mushrooms to the filling. In Manarola, the tradition is to make this dish for the feast of the patron saint, Lawrence, on August 10th.
- Egg frittata or flat omelettes are very popular and are used as an antipasto.
- Cotoletta di acciughe are anchovies stuffed with a breadcrumb filling and then fried.
- Frittelle di bianchetti are fritters made from tiny anchovies or sardines.
- Other dishes include stewed cuttlefish, stuffed calamari and spiced octopus.
- Mussels, another protected designation of origin product from the Gulf of La Spezia, are prepared in a variety of ways: stuffed, stewed or baked.
Farinata with Sage, Olives and Onion
- 1 cup chick-pea flour
- 2 cups cold water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 4 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 large white onion, thinly sliced
- 30 Ligurian black olives, pitted
- 45 small or 30 large fresh sage leaves
At least 1 hour before making farinata, set a pizza stone on a rack in the upper third of an oven and preheat the oven to 550°F.
Whisk together chick-pea flour and water until smooth, then whisk in salt and 2 tablespoons of oil. Let stand at least 30 minutes at room temperature.
Cook the onion with salt to taste in 1 tablespoon oil in a large heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 10 minutes; then cool.
Put a seasoned 10-inch cast-iron round griddle on the pizza stone and heat 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and add 1/2 tablespoon oil, tilting to coat evenly.
Working quickly, stir batter and ladle about 7/8 cup (1 cup minus 2 tablespoons) evenly into the pan (batter will sizzle and start to set almost immediately).
Quickly scatter a third of the onion, olives and sage leaves over the batter and carefully return pan to the oven on the pizza stone.
If using an oven with a built-in broiler, bake 12 minutes, then turn oven setting to broil and broil the farinata for 3 to 5 minutes.
If using an oven with a broiler underneath, bake 15 minutes, then transfer pan to the broiler for 1 to 2 minutes. Edges should be golden brown and crisp and the top flecked with golden spots.
Slide farinata onto a cutting board. Make 2 more in same manner, reheating pan 5 minutes for each successive farinata. Halve farinata and cut into strips.
- 3 pounds of mixed fresh fish (red mullet, angler fish, dogfish, drumfish, etc – things that are inexpensive and fresh)
- 1 1/4 pounds cuttlefish, shellfish and/or and baby squid
- 1 pound onions
- 1 pound of fresh tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/4 cup chopped parsley
- A pinch of dried oregano (no more)
- 3/4 cup dry white wine
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Slices of toasted Italian bread, for serving
Clean the mollusks and slice all the fish, removing any bones you may find. Thinly slice the onions and blanch, peel, and chop the tomatoes.
In a Dutch oven lightly oil the bottom, then add half the tomatoes and half the onions. Salt and pepper lightly, then arrange half the fish over the vegetables. Add another tomato-onion layer, then another fish layer, then season again and sprinkle the top with the parsley, oregano and wine.
Cover and cook over a very low flame for about an hour, or until the liquid is mostly evaporated and the sauce has thickened. Occasionally shake the pot lightly but do not stir it, or you will break up the fish.
Serve the Buridda over slices of toasted Italian bread that have been rubbed with garlic.
Pizzoccheri (Pasta with Potatoes, Cabbage & Cheese)
Pre-heat oven to 450°F. Coat a 9×13 inch baking dish with olive oil.
- 1 teaspoon coarse salt
- 3 potatoes, peeled and cut into small chunks
- 8 oz Savoy cabbage, halved, cored and cut into strips about 1/2″ wide
- 1 lb pizzoccheri (buckwheat fettuccine) or regular fettuccine
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 12 sage leaves, torn into pieces
- Pinch salt and pepper
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- 10 oz Italian Fontina or Taleggio cheese, diced
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the coarse salt and potatoes. Reduce heat to medium-high and cook for 3 minutes or until potatoes are softened (but not cooked through). Stir in the cabbage and pasta. Increase the heat to high and cook, uncovered, for about 8 minutes, or until the pasta is not quite tender and firm. Drain, but reserve 1 cup of the cooking liquid.
Melt the butter in the pasta pot and add the garlic and sage, adding the pinch of salt and pepper. The garlic should get soft, but not brown. Return the pasta and vegetables to the pot. Add all but 3 tablespoons of the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Toss it all together gently until incorporated.
Place half the mixture in the prepared casserole dish, scatter half the diced Fontina over the top and a grinding of pepper. Repeat and then top with the rest of the Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Pour 1/3 cup of the reserved cooking liquid over top to moisten slightly.
Bake in the top half of the oven for 7 minutes or until the cheese is melted. Let stand for five minutes before serving.