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Does the real pesto need protection?

The Genovese succeeded in winning protected status for basil. Pesto is next on their list.

GENOA, Italy — If you ask a Genovese to list the ingredients for his region’s famed pesto sauce, he won’t stray from seven essential items: basil, pine nuts, garlic, salt, extra-virgin olive oil and two kinds of cheese.

That is why Genovese residents still talk about the 2001 G8 Summit held in their city. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi asked the chef to prepare a pesto lunch without garlic and the city took it as a personal insult.

To the ancient seaport of Genoa, once a glorious marine republic, pesto is more than a household dish; it’s a hallowed recipe that should only be made locally, pestled in the traditional marble mortar.

But as pesto pops up on menus and in kitchens and supermarkets worldwide, Genoa basil growers and local pesto producers are joining forces to protect their patrimony.

“Nothing prevents people from making a sauce with artichokes, arugula or whatever they want, because that tastes good too,” said Roberto Panizza, a pesto connoisseur from Genoa, “but they shouldn’t be able to call it ‘pesto.’”

The reason behind such militant thinking lies in their most prized ingredient, the Genoa basil leaf. Since 2005, a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), or DOP in Italian, guarantees the quality and provenence of Genoa basil.

Just like “Bordeaux” in France or “Tequila” in Mexico, the “Genovese” name can only be used by certified PDO basil-farmers in Liguria.

“Our job is to bring awareness to the customer,” said PDO basil farmer Paolo Calcagno.

At his hillside home overlooking the Ligurian sea, Calcagno has been growing basil for 28 years. His workers handpick basil like 19th century Ligurian farmers. Still, Calcagno’s greenhouses can provide enough basil to make pesto for 6,000 people everyday.

Altogether, the Liguria region pushed out 2,000 tons of PDO basil last year.

At the bustling Mercato Orientale in Genoa’s historic center, rows of basil bouquets are on display alongside baskets of strawberries, local greens and artichokes from Sardegna. The DOP Genovese basil wears a white belt with a logo, setting it apart from regular basil. For 30 eurocents more, customers get PDO-certified, organic basil from the Ligurian coast. For some Genoa customers, it’s a no-brainer.

“I buy PDO basil from Pra because it’s local and it’s the best one,” said Pina Cavo, a chatty 60-year-old from Genoa. “Plus, with just two bouquets you can make a landslide of pesto.”