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The Genovese succeeded in winning protected status for basil. Pesto is next on their list.
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 To prove their point, they presented the European Union with an unpublished scientific study.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.