View of Portovenere, while waiting for the boat to Cinque Terre

This delightful medieval town lies on the Golf dei Poeti, to the east of the Liguria region and was once a favourite haunt of the poets Byron and Shelley. It is well worth a visit if you are in the area although it can get very busy at weekends. Named after the goddess of love and protector of fishermen, the town once had a temple dedicated to Venus on top of the promontory that juts out to sea. Long since destroyed the temple has been replaced by a beautiful black and white stripped marble church. This, as was most of Portovenere, was built by the Genoese. The tall pastel houses that line its narrow streets date back to the early 12th century.

The towns Genoese and fishing heritage is reflected in its cuisine. Muscles, prawns, pasta with pesto sauce and focoaccia bread abound and its restaurants are popular with both tourists and locals from the surrounding area.

From Portovenere you can catch a boat to the Cinque Terre (five villages). In fact, up until about 50 years ago this was the only way to reach them. They are now connected by a railway or an arduous and winding route by road. A number of years ago I spent a delightful day hoping on and off the boats which visit each village in turn. Due to the steep cliffs along this stretch of coastline these villages have remained virtually unchanged in appearance over the centuries. Riomaggiore is a particularly picturesque little fishing port. Vernazza is a wonderful setting for some charming restaurants set around the harbour but I stopped for lunch at Monterosso. This is the most northern village, with its long sandy beaches and charming back streets. As I enjoyed a delicious seafood spaghetti sitting on a street-side table watching the world go by I heard the sound of singing. Looking up I saw a couple of young ladies, perched high above me on some scaffolding, singing as they painted traditional tromped’oeil around a window – a magical moment I’ve never forgotten!

My favourite local dish is pasta with pesto, which I have enjoyed a number of times in the wonderful restaurants of Portovenere. Here’s my variation on the traditional recipe.

Vermicelli Genovese Pasta with Pesto
The name of this sauce comes from the Italian for grinding pestatura as it is traditionally made by grinding the ingredients in a mortar and pestle, however, this quick and easy sauce can also be made with a food processor. I also like to add some lightly fried spring greens or leeks and mushrooms but that is hardly traditional!

Ingredients: serves 4
450g vermicelli
1 tbsp pine-nuts
100g fresh basil
50g parmesan or pecorino cheese, grated
2 large garlic cloves
5tbsp virgin olive oil
freshly ground black pepper

  1. Lightly grill the pine nuts.
  2. Peel and coarsely chop the garlic.
  3. Wash and coarsely chop the basil, having first removed the stems.
  4. Pound the nuts, garlic and basil in the mortar.
  5. If need be this can then be transferred into larger bowl and first the cheese and then the oil can be gradually mixed in until you have a smooth paste.
  6. Season as required with freshly ground black pepper.
  7. Cook the pasta, as per the instructions on the packet, until it is al dente.
  8. Drain the pasta and thoroughly mix in the sauce.
    (Plus the spring greens or leeks and mushrooms fried in a little olive oil if you wish!)
  9. Garnish with a few pine nuts, slivers of cheese and a sprig of basil.
  10. Enjoy!

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