Does the real pesto need protection?

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.”

When the region won the DOP battle at the European Union level, basil farmers cheered the fact that multinational companies like Nestle could no longer attempt to use the Genoa name to license their industrial pesto.

With 320 different species of basil on the planet, 60 of which are edible, Genovese farmers and lobbyists say protecting it was necessary. In Liguria, only one species plays a leading role in their pesto recipe, the Nano Genovese basil — a velvety, spoon-shaped leaf with a sweet aroma.

But farmers and lobbyists didn’t expect anyone to take their word for it. To prove their point, they presented the European Union with an unpublished scientific study. Scientists planted the same basil leaf, in the same dirt and on the same day from Israel to Spain. After a month, the leaves were plucked and taken to a lab in Pisa where scientists found the Ligurian basil to be much richer in essential oils and naturally sweeter.

“It’s a perfect mix of climate, earth and humidity,” said Calcagno.

Which is why the Genovese say it’s nearly impossible for anyone to recreate the same pesto in California, Peru or even southern Italy.

“Leaves in the United States are always too huge, and minty,” said a restaurant owner whose popular eatery overlooks the Genoa seaport.

Since the DOP was enforced five years ago, the Genoa-based Palatifini Association took on the job of safeguarding and promoting their other culinary treasure, pesto. At the head of the “Refined Palates” Association is Roberto Panizza. He says that there are hundreds of ways of making pesto, but without the right ingredients, it’s just another green sauce.

“The reality that pesto is known worldwide makes us very happy,” said Panizza, “but the fact that you can call any vegetarian sauce that was made in any corner of the world and with any technique a ‘pesto’ is disappointing,” he said.

Protecting ‘pesto’ under the PDO label is next on Palatifini’s list, but winning that battle will be a much larger feat. The EU has yet to write guidelines on how to protect cold sauces.

As a way of reviving artisan pesto, Palatifini created the World Mortar Pesto Championship. In 2008, a San Francisco cook who trained under a Genovese chef in California took the prize, leaving a deep wound among Genoa residents. This year, the region was redeemed when Genovese pharmacist who applied scientific precision to pesto took the title.

But whether or not the Genovese will one-day succeed in protecting their pesto, the championship is already reviving a centuries-old tradition. In just the last four years, the Palatifini Association has noticed a spike in mortar sales throughout the region. Many Genovese families have also begun to dust off their old mortar and pestle in the name of cultural heritage.