Genoa is one monumental work in stone. Sturdy, solid buildings that perhaps have never been cleaned since they were built, but impressive structures, which at least in one point of their lives, have been awash with serious cash. It is another city with a long and complex history, a city with a unique past.

I took an immediate interest in a restaurant, just outside the hotel’s front door. It was Genoese. And there was a waiter who could speak English, which I thought most practical.

Signor, you have chosen wisely, not just the best destination in Europe, but the most wonderful restaurant in our city. So much has happened here, but we will concentrate on our unique cuisine and that will help you to understand the mystery of Genoa.

You need confidence in this world. He was young and I had no intention of crushing any of this bright enthusiasm. His smile was not at all trivial, there was no way you could escape it. He placed some olives, bread and what looked like salami to me on the table.

There was an English translation of the menu. It appeared as if everything was Genoese. I think I’ll let him order. He brought some wine. The wine actually had a cork in it, Portugal wasn’t broke yet, how could it go broke with a cork industry? It was not possible.

Are you English signor? You seem to be. You took our flag, you call it the St. George cross, but we don’t mind, it is better for you if you copy something of importance. Something with a bit of style. It is a lot harder to invent things yourself.

What? Oh? No, I speak English, but not very well. No, but that’s not my nationality.

He eyed me with curiosity, if not suspicion. There was no doubt in his mind I was English. English speakers are English. What else could they be?

The salami is Genoese. It is pork. The pigs were fed on acorns, chestnuts and hazelnuts. It has a unique flavour that everyone tries to imitate, but with little success. The olive oil holds a superb taste and the focaccia is made here, from chick pea flour. Then our olives, they’re from the most perfect aged cultivar. They are so ancient, but so excellent. Taste is what it is all about. It is all so simple. Food you can talk to. Food that wants to talk to you.

Talking food? Ah. From a talking waiter. But it was soulful. Food with history. Food that belonged here. Who couldn’t like that?  I tried to imagine porkers wearing sunglasses, consuming acorns, hazelnuts and chestnuts, under a shady Mediterranean tree, at their leisure.

I think you should start with Minestrone. It is our traditional  soup. We invented it.

OK.

He was one confident waiter. Or was I one passive tourist? I felt patient and patience is a thing that tourists lack. It was now dark outside and I had been walking all day. I was ready to eat. My guidebook said Christopher Columbus was born here, there was a statue of him in the first piazza I walked through, right outside the railway station. He is supposed to have made donations to the city after his success, even though he is buried in Seville. The layering of history seems to have compressed and hardened the place. It is alive, it is part of the modern world, but it can never fully escape the past. I start to read how the Carthaginian’s destroyed the city in 209 B.C., during the Punic wars. They were a rival Mediterranean city state and even thought they were stronger than Rome. Clearly, this was eventually proved to be incorrect. And Carthage is now an interesting ruin in the city of Tunis. My soup arrived.

You are a reader Signor?

I was flicking through their local brochure.

You must have read Tolstoy’s, War and Peace? Genoa is mentioned in the very first sentence of that book.

Oh?

The first sentence? The first sentence in that vast tirade of words? Tolstoy clearly had too much spare time on his hands.

The minestrone is quite thick, not what I had anticipated, filled with vegetables. I can taste potatoes, pumpkin, zucchini and beans. I wouldn’t be surprised if cabbage is in there as well. I think it is. The soup is good, perhaps a bit simple, but I consume it all with ease. I drink the crisp Genoese wine and try to work out the grid of the city. Then there is a plate of mussels in front of me.

Seafood, from the Mediterranean. The best in the entire world. Straight off the docks this morning.

The entire world? Well he seemed to have no doubts. His announcements are most absolute.

I am quite experienced with mussels. I prise one open. Yes, it is certainly fresh. The Phoenicians and Etruscans would have enjoyed similar food.

But I can’t imagine Napoleon eating them, the city was not strong enough to keep his armies out. And Napoleon made himself king. The main facade of the cathedral in Milan wasn’t yet complete, so he got the diocese to finish it for his coronation and promised the French Treasury would pay for it. They never did. And the architect also added a statue of him on top of one of the spires. I obediently wonder if it is still there.

Yes. The white wine is excellent, I assume it’s made around here. I try to read the label, but it is beyond my limited language skills. The fruit is elongated, the acid clean and there is no evidence of wood. It is just right for these mussels.

You know Napoleon was Genoese?

Is he following my thoughts as well?

I thought they called him the Corsican. You know, as in he came from Corsica.

Corsica was a Genoese territory at the time of Napoleon’s birth, which makes him Genoese. He did take our city, but never destroyed it, he understood his birthright. And yes, we had to sell Corsica to the French. We couldn’t afford all our colonies. But it did make Napoleon a citizen of Genoa.

I open another mussel. Napoleon and Columbus?  I anticipate further revelation.

We were the first to use the compass. It was called the Genoese Needle. Some magnetite was stuck through with straw and then floated in a bowl of water. It always pointed north. Way before the Portuguese and Spanish got hold of it.

And who doesn’t need direction.

We created Italy signor. Giuseppe Garibaldi set out from here with his one thousand patriots, all of them dressed in red shirts. You know the story of the red shirts?

No.

Garibaldi fought in many places in South America, as a young man and when he returned home, it was with hundreds of these red shirts from a bankrupt slaughterhouse. He thought they would look good on his soldiers.

Ha. You’re making that up.

No. No. Is true signor.

Red shirts? Benito Mussolini had black shirts. Hitler’s storm troopers wore brown shirts. I try to fit this useless information into a larger vision of colour but it evades me.

I had walked along what is now via Garibaldi, they were once the original homes of Genoese success. It reminded me of all the Florentine mansions and probably built at the same time. The buildings are all sturdy monoliths, with internal courtyards. And just as they were completing this architectural affluence, Columbus was returning with unimaginable tales of discovery.

Genoa had established itself as a dominant Mediterranean port, but as trade shifted to the new world, the port declined. My waiter seemed to have uncovered everything then there was a pasta dish placed on the table. The aroma was beautiful. It rushed up at me. It might have been talking.

Pasta al pesto. Pesto was created here. It is our invention. Our basil, our pine nuts, all from plants grown in the surrounding hills. It is so simple, we never had rich sauces, that was for the rest of Italy. They all loved the Spanish tomatoes, we kept to traditional ingredients. Our soil is not exactly fertile, but we were traders and sailors, not farmers. Petrarch called us ‘la superba’.

It was simple and most satisfying. The pesto was brilliant. How could you invent a taste like this?  Who was the author of these combined flavours? But the name is not recorded. I spoon the dish into my mouth. And then. They must have had more exotic dishes? A prosperous port would have demanded complex tastes, way beyond the everyday. Yet the everyday was excellent, fresh and cooked competently. I couldn’t imagine their Doge dining on mussels and pasta every night. I’d walked through his palace earlier in the week, it was just as strong and overdone as the Doge of Venice’s pile. It was in the main piazza, called de Ferrari along with the Opera.

I think you might need some red  wine.

A competent waiter anticipates.

He returned with a clean glass and extracted the cork from the neck of the bottle, most carefully and with restrained theatrics.  Yes, it was another excellent wine. It had body and a light fresh woody feel, modern style with new oak. And there was enough fruit to push it all to a sensible conclusion.

The origin of the city is most complex. Genoa has been controlled by virtually all the early military and maritime powers. It was traded, annexed and then fought over by Etruscan, Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Roman, Ostrogoths, Byzantium, Lombards and Franks. By around 1100 the city had established its independence, although it was still part of the Holy Roman Empire. They even participated in the Crusades. Then, as a city state, continued its obsession with trade.

We traded everything signor. Even slaves.

Oh.

Then he delivered a plate of pastry dessert.

Only Genoese dishes. Baci di Dama, you call them lady’s kisses, canestrelli and some latte fritto.

They looked most indulgent and delicious. A lot of thought had gone into all of this. The waiter stood back to watch my anticipated gluttony. Ah. They were most perfect. I felt a bit self conscious with a spectator but soon consumed them with an uninhibited delight. I could easily eat more of them. I was feeling fat.

And there is the Black Death.

What?

The Plague. We brought that to Europe, from the Crimea. It killed half our city.

Ah.

And I’d say you know what it did to the rest of Europe.

I did.

But I had to go. A tourist searches out the unique yet is quick to pull back. Talking food should be experienced but the plague does not need to be included in any itinerary.

 

Peter Fraser

Peter Fraser

Peter Fraser lives in Australia and is obsessed with travel and writing. He has recently published a novel with Editions Dedicaces called A Pack of Lies.

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