Portovenere, a 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, especially 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 Long since destroyed the temple has been replaced by a beautiful black and white striped marble church.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 town’s 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. The area was the birthplace of my favourite pasta sauce, pesto. You’ll find my quick and easy pesto recipe below.
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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.
Easy Pesto Recipe
- 450 g vermicelli (or any ribbon pasta)
- 1 tbsp pine-nuts
- 100 g fresh basil
- 50 g parmesan or pecorino cheese grated
- 2 large garlic cloves
- 5 tbsp virgin olive oil
- freshly ground black pepper
- Lightly grill the pine nuts.
- Peel and coarsely chop the garlic.
- Wash and coarsely chop the basil, having first removed the stems.
- Pound the nuts, garlic and basil in the mortar.
- If need be this can then be transferred to a larger bowl and first the cheese and then the oil can be gradually mixed in until you have a smooth paste.
- Season as required with freshly ground black pepper.
- Cook the pasta, as per the instructions on the packet, until it is al dente. (You'll find a link to my recipe for making fresh pasta above.)
- Fry some spring greens or leeks and mushrooms in a little olive oil (optional).
- Drain the pasta and thoroughly mix in the sauce.
- Garnish with a few pine nuts, slivers of cheese and a sprig of basil.
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