It was a book that got me into this mess. Almost twenty years ago after reading Annie Hawes excellent, Extra Virgin, I jumped on a flight intent on experiencing Liguria for myself. What I discovered here has had me coming back for holidays ever since. Until two years ago, that is, when I bowed to the inevitable British compulsion to own property.
“A cheap doer-upper. A basic little bolt-hole. Nothing too grand.” These were all terms I recall using to describe to our property agent friend what we were looking for in a second home. And, that is precisely what he found for us in Seborga; as picture-postcard, mountain-top village as you will find anywhere in Italy. Then, of course, we knocked the house down and started all over again!
Two years of waiting for architects, planners, builders and an assortment of contractors resulted in staying in rented properties near our new home, with lots of time on my hands. I spent much of that time listening to the stories of my neighbours, reading about the history and piecing together the remarkable mosaic of this village. This involved ancient knights, prince-bishops and popes. The intriguing history culminated in the 1960s with a revived claim of sovereignty and the creation of an extraordinary de-facto micro-nation complete with a prince and princess plus all the pomp and ceremony of monarchy.
As if this alone were not sufficient material for a story, I then began to learn that only thirty minutes drive from the global epicentre of 21st-century consumerism, an agricultural community still existed scratching a living in pretty much the way they had for hundreds of years. A mainly olive oil economy, based on the seasons and with crops determined by the unique Maritime Alps climate, where the mountains tumble into the Mediterranean Sea, leaving only a thin strip of barely workable land.
As Annie Hawes did so successfully in her book, I looked for a way to tell the fascinating historical story but also describe the unique culture, environment and resulting cuisine which continue to survive to this day. My realisation that this way of life was, in fact, only just surviving was my motivation to write my book and hopefully bring it to a wider audience.
It seemed to me that the growing interest in food culture and artisan production could help to preserve the practices and knowledge which still exist here but in few other places in Europe. Food tourism is high-value and low-impact, and that is just what is needed to revive the fortunes of the village. Indeed, it has already started in a small way and, hopefully, as word spreads, it will provide a new market for what are otherwise outdated and therefore unprofitable agricultural practices.
The fruits of the taggiasca olive trees grown on these steep rocky terraces are difficult to harvest. It’s labour intensive work that can’t be done by machine. The olives are small and transport costs down the mountain prohibitive. Although they can’t compete with commercially grown olives, they are organic, have far better flavour and the unique provenance of the climate and terroir of the Maritime Alps. There is a growing number of people who value quality over quantity; who want to eat what has been produced in sight of their restaurant seat, using practices which are sympathetic to the environment.
With the enormous benefit of not having to be factual, my story envisages a blue-sky economic model which restores the fortunes of the village using a cash windfall from the EU. The reality is likely to be a more problematic, slower process but, never-the-less one which I believe is possible. Once word begins to spread about the dishes made here with these fantastic little olives – Coniglio alla Ligure (rabbit with olives) – for example, I am sure more people will come. To further enhance the field-to-fork cycle, there’s a good chance that members of the same extended family serving the dish, also picked the olives, shot the rabbit and collected the herbs. That means no chemical fertilisers, zero food miles and no plastic packaging, plus the money stays in the community where it all originated.
In case you are thinking that my story is all rustic country folk and bucolic landscapes, there is also a smattering of scheming politicians, land-grabbing oligarchs, Michelin star chefs and a drug-taking restaurateur. Oh yes, and a scarred princess who makes amazing pasta.
If any of this story resonates with you, read the book – ‘Cooking up a Country’ – and then plan your trip and explore Liguria for yourself.
Written by James Vasey