The habit of consuming fish in the city-state of Genoa increased exponentially over the course of its history, but in many ways, the sea came last.

In prehistory we know that the ancient Ligurians, even pre-Celtic and pre-Latin, lived inland in caves or huts; their agriculture was scarce, their pastoralism strenuous and their hunting, if anything, a matter of fortune.

From the Middle Ages and early modern period seafood was not a widespread or popular food in Genoa. If anything, fish was consumed in the two Rivieras either side of the city, but only when there were no alternatives.

The diet of the Genoese, starting with the ruling classes, was based on flour-based foods: fresh and dry pasta, rustic flatbreads, pies and other stuffed savory dishes. The favored meats of the better-off were veal and poultry, rather than lamb, which had to be transported live from the semi-colonial ports of Corsica and Sardinia.

Check out the best places to eat around Genoa during Slow Fish

A seafaring region where fish wasn’t eaten

Why wasn’t fish consumed in this seaside region? Firstly, it should be remembered that not only in Liguria, but throughout Europe, freshwater fish was considered the superior delicacy in the period of history, being prized for its sweetness. Rivers, lakes and ponds could also be fished using simple, elementary technology.

The Ligurian Sea, on the other hand, becomes deep just a few meters from the shore, and is traversed by swirling currents and raging winds. Fishing on the open sea was thus a tiring and often unprofitable activity, as it required technology they didn’t have, not to mention the difficulties of preserving fish. This partly explains the spread of the custom of salting oily fish (anchovies in particular), and the custom of preserving bottarga (mullet eggs, tuna eggs, etc.) or mosciamme (dried dolphin fillet, which was replaced by tuna fillet after the just ban on dolphin fishing).

Fishing in the sea was almost done from the beach; even after the introduction of creel baskets in 1506 gave rise to the first boats that went out with lights to attract larger spoils.

The discovery of sea fish

From the 17th century onward, the dinner tables of the Genoese first saw what would come to be considered the king of fish: cod, both in its dried form (stockfish) and under-salted. But the new arrival, discovered by the Portuguese the previous century, was not Mediterranean: cod came either from the North Sea or from the Newfoundland Bank.

Then, from the 19th century, sea fish appeared on Genoese tables more frequently, and not just for religious or health reasons: it was partly thanks to the rise of tourism (with the arrival of the English, Germans, Dutch and even the French), the immigration of expert fishermen from southern Italy, particularly Sicilians, as well as the introduction of iceboxes and refrigerators. Ligurian gastronomy as we know it today is essentially an invention of our epoch’s restaurateurs: before modern times the Genoese never used ovens and only in the Rivieras did they employ grills and charcoals. Fish, except for small fish to be fried, was boiled or in a pan with oil, garlic, parsley and white wine.

Before the arrival of refrigeration and freezers, inspectors strictly controlled the display times of the catch, the price of which, as the hours passed, dropped inexorably. Just before the market closed, the less well-off (or the fishmongers themselves) took home the leftovers for pennies and packed it together with vegetables and whatever was available into soups that also absorbed stale bread, such as buridda.

Genoese itineraries

This article was written some time ago for Slowfood magazine by Paolo Lingua. A law graduate and professional journalist, he was editor of Il Secolo XIX (1969-1972) and La Stampa (1972-2004) and was director of the television station Telenord (2005-2022). He also contributed to the Ligurian editorial staff of Rai, the broadcaster Primocanale and the Ligurian editorial staff of La Repubblica.

He has written numerous essays on the history of cooking and gastronomy, including: La cucina dei Genovesi (Muzzio, 1989) and La mensa dei Liguri (De Ferrari, 2011).

Slow Fish 2023 is organized by Slow Food and the Liguria Region, with the support of the City of Genoa. We’re in the Porto Antico of Genoa from June 1-4. Sign up to the Slow Food newsletter for the latest updates. #SlowFish2023

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