La Spezia – Traders
La Spezia means “spice” in Italian, so it’s not hard to imagine that the city owes its name to the huge quantities of spices that have been offloaded at its port since the Middle Ages. It has one of the most beautiful bays in Italy, and the only archipelago in Liguria.
Drive along its coast of crystalline waters and you’ll discover tiny villages with colorful façades, cliffs, valleys and mountains, all creating such spectacular vistas that sometimes you feel you have to stop a moment just to take it all in as it seems too good to be true. This is the case of the “Cinque Terre”, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. You can enjoy its stunning scenery on a lovely walk along the coast that doesn’t take more than a day. The five villages that make up this special spot are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.
The gulf of La Spezia is also known as the “Gulf of Poets”, due to the fact that for centuries this place has served as an inspiration for writers and poets. The province of La Spezia has borne witness to countless civilizations, from Prehistory through to the present day. The main reason for so much interest in controlling this region was, unsurprisingly, the city’s port and its strategic location for defending Italian lands. Napoleon himself said that it was the finest port in the world, and today La Spezia is the biggest naval base in Italy along with the port of Genoa. If we weren’t already aware of how important the ports are to the region of Liguria, it’s worth remembering that due to the region’s geography the easiest and most common means of access for travelers and traders was the sea, and given their location the ports of Liguria have historically controlled maritime trade in the Mediterranean.
For this reason, again unsurprisingly, its port is the reason why La Spezia has such a rich and varied cuisine full of foreign influences, thanks to the influx of produce from other lands and cultures. The Ligurians are a humble, hardworking people, great traders yet simple in their customs; they have won fame for their frugality and are even reputed to be somewhat grasping by their compatriots. Despite the trade in spices that gave their name to the city, the Ligurians were never tempted to include them in their dishes, so the aromas of fresh herbs and local produce dominate this cuisine. One of the most famous dishes of La Spezia is the mesciùa, which in Ligurian dialect means mixture, and is made from grains and pulses. History tells us that the wives of the port laborers used to go down there when the boats came in, loaded with sacks of grain and pulses, and would help themselves to the grain that used to fall onto the ground while the goods were being transported and use this tiny booty to prepare this soup.
Today, now that times of hunger and scarcity have passed, the mesciùa is prepared in various different ways, some of which include fish and shellfish, but its staple ingredients are always wheat, beans, chickpeas, occasionally buckwheat, freshly-ground pepper and local olive oil. Basically whatever there was to hand, but we have found few stews as delicious and satisfying as this one. We’re still in Liguria, so naturally La Spezia has its own version of focaccia; here the local recipe is called gizzoa. With sausage as its base it is heartier than other recipes made with vegetables and reminds us a little of the Galician empanada. And finally, some pasta! In this area the local pasta is trofie, served with pesto as you might expect. Chickpea flour appears again, due to the lack of other grains; here it is used in the farinata, a dish based on chickpea flour which later became popular in Piedmont and Tuscany as well.
This recipe reached as far as South America with Italian immigrants and today you will find many different versions of it in Argentina and Uruguay, where they eat it along with pizza and a glass of Muscat wine. The regional wines are also very famous, notably those of Colli di Luni and Colline de Levanto, which of course go perfectly with the local dishes. The famous Sciacchetrà of the “Cinque Terre”, with its own Controlled Designation of Origin, has a golden color with amber highlights, an intense and persistent aroma and a lingering aftertaste of apricots, nuts and acacia honey. This wine goes perfectly with spicy cheeses and in its liqueur version with cookies and pastries such as the gattafin, little fried pastries made using aromatic herbs. After our visit, we can happily say that La Spezia is not only worth visiting for its stunning scenery but also for its wonderful flavors. And here ends our tour of Liguria.
La Spezia, Liguria
Located between Genoa and Pisa on the Ligurian Sea, it is important for its museums, for the Palio del Golfo, and for the railway and boat links with Cinque Terre.
City: 215.137 hab.
Surface area: 881 kmª