Liguria for me has always been associated with that extraordinary part of life, the teenage years, when everything seems so intense and love was in the air. I was lucky enough to have a school friend who had a wonderful house in Sestri Lavante. He was kind and invited me to spend the summers there. I suppose it was actually his parents who were so kind but somehow I can barely remember their presence. We wandered around this stunning fishing village, swimming off the steep and dangerous rocks, (the rocks get more and more dangerous with the telling) and I remember supposing myself in love with a girl whose response to my doe-eyed romanticism was to give me a volume of completely incomprehensible translations of Japanese poetry which I then had to read aloud and pretend to understand.
There was something rather great about that time when the level of pretentiousness was in direct proportion to the heat of the sun.
Not having returned to the area for more than 40 years it was with some concern that old and valued bubbles of memory would be burst that I set off to Imperia for the local olive oil festival, taking with me my wife with whom I had failed, for some inexplicable reason, to share my worries. Could it be that I actually thought that my wonderful worldly wife of 34 years who knows every pathetic idiocy in my character, might care that I had a teenage passion for a nameless girl 40 years ago? In what vanities we old men indulge!
Liguria is the tiny sliver of Italy known as the Italian Riviera, stretching from the border of France, around the coast, to the northern tip of Tuscany. It includes the hugely important port of Genoa from whence Christopher Columbus came and which therefore could be said to have been the birth place of the single most mind-bendingly influential act in the history of mankind. The discovery of America.
The coastal area is extremely steep and the villages dotted along it have names so evocative of the early 20th century jet set as practically to haul Grace Kelly from her grave; places like Porto Fino, San Remo and the fashionable collection of villages known as the Cinque Terre, where the coastal walks are breathtaking. But it was the Entroterra, or inland region we had come to learn about. Tourism is all very well for the few months of the summer but the real business of this region is the olive.
The incredibly tough inland region of Liguria, rocky, remote and uncompromising, is, astonishingly, one of the most perfect olive producing areas on the planet. Over the centuries terraces have been hacked out of the mountains wherever possible and olive trees planted. Small plots of land reclaimed from nature to produce this magical little fruit which we, in our 21st century way, have just realised is one of the most healthy of nature's treasures. This 'enlightened' bit of information was common knowledge in Roman times. "Plus ca change..." eh?
We arrived in the port of Imperia as guests of the Consorzio per la Tutela dell'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva DOP Riviera Ligure. We felt grand just reading it. They had flown us into Nice and we got that small buzz you get from landing in one country in order to visit another. Oh OK, well we do. "Little pleasures.....".
Imperia is a delightful and buzzing town. The Italians in general have an ability to look forward in an optimistic fashion and this town has a real feel of progress. The olive business has suffered terribly over the last 30 years or so but everyone in this town is only too aware that it is in the middle of a major come back. Imperia has been, for a long time, one of the centres of olive oil importation and refinement. Now it is becoming the centre of the revitalisation of the regions local and seriously delicious Extra Virgin Oil. However, before I tell you about the staggeringly beautiful mountain men and women who came down to the coast to talk to us, and the extraordinary effect the men had on the women in our company, including my wife, I want to tell you about something trivial which seemed to me to sum up these wonderful people in a modern world. In the centre of Imperia are two streets in the form of a cross. They are lined with smart shops, selling everything from watches and clothes to hardware, and the window shopper is protected from the sun by a beautiful colonnade with huge stone pillars and arches. Wrapped around each of these pillars is a glass case with examples of the wares of these shops displayed for all to see- and steal- day and night. Where in this country could you risk that?
We awoke on the first full day of our trip to the inevitable bells. Churches abound as everywhere in Italy. My wife was being whisked away to visit the tropical gardens near the French border founded by an Englishman named Hanbury, and which, despite the effects of world wars and general decimation, is still a thriving and spectacular place, presided over by Lady Hanbury in a gloriously faded gentry sort of way. I, meanwhile, was taken to a recently converted oil warehouse, (The building work only finished the day before) to meet a selection of 20 or so olive growers from the hills.
I should explain that this extravaganza was not put on entirely for our benefit. We were surrounded by foodie celebs. Alex Aitken, the Michelin star chef from the New Forest was there, along with several Italian food importers from the north of Europe, and, of course, Judy Ridgeway, certainly one of the world's greatest experts in Olive oil. We were given about 15 minutes with each of these farmers so that they could tell us about their production, their methods and their ambitions. I can honestly tell you that not for one moment was this a boring exercise. These people dedicate their lives, in a difficult environment, to the creation of the perfect olive oil. We tasted around 70 different oils, using glasses just like a wine tasting. Discovering the differences between them and finding out how and why they tasted different from one another, was just as fascinating as any wine tasting I have attended over the years. In simple terms the oils of Liguria are light and flowery, as you would expect from a northern climate, and they get more peppery the further east you go. They really are an eye opener and I am having a great deal of fun these days looking for different oils in shops in the UK. There is a great variety, and the extra pleasure is well worth the expense.
That evening we all dined together in a quayside restaurant and it was here that I discovered just how exciting these mountain men were. Dark skinned, black hair, aquiline features, rocky, remote and uncompromising just like those hills, well you get the point. I decided this was the time to tell my wife about the Japanese poetry. A fat lot of good that did me!!
May I strongly recommend you visit this area. Obviously you have to go and celeb spot on the coast, but take the trouble to go inland. If you can, visit during the annual olive festival and I promise the olive oil biscuits you buy as presents for your friends will never make it back to England. Visit the growers, they would really like to see you, and spread the word. Ligurian olive oil rocks.