Throughout my life I’ve experienced some lucky breaks. You could say I am blessed – and just back from Mass in a tiny church on the seafront in Genoa, I feel that way too.
I have been invited to be a judge the World Championship for Pesto – IVe Campionato Mondiale di Pesto Genovese al Mortaio, organised by the Associazone Culturale dei Palatifini. The Italian sounds so much better and is easily translated by all my readers. What’s important to understand is that to be a judge here is some honour indeed.
Over a quick lunch the day before – yes, Italians have quick lunches, but never unhealthily a sandwich at their desk – I remarked that for me, Pesto was all about technique, much like a perfect risotto, paella, mayonnaise, sugo or ragu’. Imagine my surprise when Sergio di Paulo used this in his opening speech at the Palazzo Ducale as the TV camera’s turned on a very surprised Gareth for my minute or two of infamy in Italy.
100 contestants from all over the world and three judges per 20 of them. Each contestant has 40 minutes to complete their pesto in their traditional Carrara marble mortar. Unlike the dreadful muck we are offered in supermarkets, these pesto’s have only Ligurian DOP basil, garlic, sea salt (from Trapani – Sicily of course), local E/V olive oil, fresh pine nuts and the two cheeses – Parmesan and Pecorino Sardo.
The basil is the variety grown only in Liguria – the Basilico Genovese - and has DOP status. The olive oil is cold pressed and again from Liguria where the tradition for decades has been to cover the bottles with gold foil to protect them from two things – the sun’s harmful rays and those who would try to pass off a lesser oil as Ligurian – regarded in truth as Italy’s best. The legendary Arrigo Cipriani, patron of the original and only Harry’s Bar (Venice) has written he’ll have no other in his restaurant kitchens in Italy, New York nor London.
This year’s Championship was slightly delayed due to a massive and strongly supported manifestation against the Mafia which brought central city traffic to a near standstill. Eventually the start was counted down – 3, 2, 1 ‘Go!’ – and then each of the chosen 100 had 40 minutes to complete their work.
With the critical eye of a judge and my own experiences of making pesto, it was fascinating to observe each contestant approach the task. Each had identical quantities of ingredients and we were asked to mark on their approach, their technique with the mortar, their orderliness, the colour and finally the taste (measured as the balance of ingredients). As the minutes past from the finish, so the pesto’s changed in character as the ingredients settled down.
For the adults, we were 3 judges per 20 contestants – our 20 concorrenti ranged from an eminent Genovese heart surgeon to a cook from Sri Lanka – those in between were equally diverse. One elegant lady insisted in making hers sitting down due to a recent back problem – working a pestle and mortar in that position is a challenge in itself.
The atmosphere for those 40 minutes in the splendid Salon Grande di Palazzo Ducale was electric – the sound of wood on marble, the hushed tone of whispering judges and the rustle of on-lookers who were allowed in, within a roped off area, so as to observe and support. TV camera’s were everywhere; the flashes of press photographers; the invasive microphones from the radio stations, and more. Our marking criteria was complex – 100 points across five disciplines. These were then computed at various ratio’s as the last result can never be a draw.
Then we whittled the 100 down to 10 finalists who again work against the clock, but this time they had just 20 minutes to complete a perfect pesto from start to finish, including the time consuming picking the leaves off the stems. Any stems can spoil the pesto – they carry equal flavour but they are hard to disperse.
I confidently backed a tall Norwegian lady – Elin Kvamme who’d made the trip to Genoa from Bergen. In the final it was an Italian man who was the overall winner. All the pesto’s from the 10 finalists tasted incredible. There was little more space than a small leaf of basil between nos 1 to 10.
The prize was an olive wood pesto with a solid gold band. No more and no less but the enormous prestige that you are the World Champion Pesto Maker – Campione del Mundo 2012. Here he is, proud as can be, Sergio Muto.
The judges were treated well. I knew it was an honour to be invited, but I had no idea of how great it was to be right through to the celebratory gala banquet, mounted the evening after the contest, in the magnificent main hall of the old stock exchange building also on the Piazza di Ferrari, across from the Palazzo Ducale.
My next mission was to visit a basil grower along the coast – so off we went, Roberto Panizza and me (he’s my sponsor – an artisan pesto maker – see www.pesto.net and current president of the Associazione Culturale dei PalatiFini – www.pestochampionship.it). We were on the famous Riviera dei Fiori autrostrada along the twinkling blue Mediterranean. The road was quiet but Roberto was still speed checked by hidden camera in his 4×4. Our destination was Celle Ligure and the 12 basil houses of Calcagno Paolo (www.calcagnopaolobasilico.it).
The precious basilico Genovese are grown under glass for perfect control – the winter can be too cold and the summer so hot it burns the leaves. The soil is rich and all else the plants receive is regular fine sprinkling mist of fresh water. The plants are ready for harvest in around 4 weeks.
It’s reckoned there are over 60 varieties of basil worldwide – probably more – but the Genovese is the only one for Pesto alla Genovese – sorry to spell that out, but there are sub-standard products on sale in a shop near you which just don’t follow the rules.
Like Roberto Panizza, basil farmer Paolo is 2nd generation – his son helps on the farm but during the week is a student at Cello Ligure’s first class Chef School. His destiny is clear and I look forward to visiting his first restaurant in years to come.
Most surprising for me – and enjoyable too – is that all the pesto is hand picked. No brutal Heath Robinson mowers such as are used on Hampshire watercress farms. One has the choice of basil bunched on the stalk and sometimes bagged, or bouquets in soil which are wrapped in damp paper for the journey to market.
DOP basilico is at the heart of the port of Genova – known as Gen’ locally (from the Latin ‘Genes’). It has long flourished as the Mediterranean’s largest port and its people are traders by heart. Like Venice, it was a state run by Doges and large palazzi are plentiful across the city as markers of their past.
Genoa loaned the English their Cross of St George to ensure safe passage in the Mediterranean to protect them from the pirates which made their rich pickings from boarding trading vessels. Flying the Cross of St George ensured a safe voyage. Such was the relationship between Genoa and England, they even helped transport boatfulls of English Crusaders to Palestine.
This weekend past I learned of serious talk that there are many in Genoa today who feel England should be charged for their Cross of St George – and being traders, they mean charged with interest dating back to the Crusades. That’s a little known fact and one I am sure has passed by our Foreign Office and Whitehall mandarins. Beware of a brown envelope with a Genovese post mark arriving any time soon – the invoice will be massive.
I’ll write again about the food of Genoa – from the farinata and focacia, the trofie and trenette pasta – to the heaven that is their Mercado Orientale off the busy Via XX Septembre. Easter is everywhere in the shop windows, from giant eggs, to marzipan lambs, torta Pasquale and more besides. Oh to be in Genoa this Easter.
I returned with fresh trofie, new season artichokes, peas and tiny broad beans (all to be eaten ‘crudo’), curly leafed red and white Trevise, basil and fiercely bitter puntarelle di Roma.
I still have my VIP tour of the Galata Museo del Mare promised by Maurizio Daccà, the great port’s vice-presidente. To those of us fascinated by food and food culture, to wonder through Via Sottoripa or Via dei Macelli is to be continuously amazed with shops selling everything from tripe and salt cod, fresh caught fish, milk fed lamb and kid, to spices, dried exotic fruits and of course the many pasticceria’s with biscotti, breads, cakes, sweets and more – most with a bar serving coffee, tea and cocktails.
Every espresso is a celebration. With each prosecco (solo, or con Bitter Campari) one is always offered aperitivo’s of tiny cut, warm focacia, farinata, pizza, tramezzini, olives and, of course, salted nuts served elegantly with a teaspoon so nobody’s fingers get to touch the nuts.
Flying into Genoa, as the ‘plane loops low over the sea moments before landing, you become excited before you even disembark. I headed straight to the bar for my first sweet ristretto to remind myself I’d arrived – they offered me a tiny piece of blood orange zest in my coffee too. This is a culture and cuisine driven by detail to achieve the simplest pleasures.
Ciao Gen’, grazie mille Roberto, Sergio di Paulo, Maurizio Daccà, Sandra, Sheila and my other hosts and new Genovese friends. I’ll be back and hopefully many of my readers will follow and get themselves into the Mercado Orientale, Via Sottoripa and to lunch on pesto at Roberto’s brother’s tiny il Genovese (www.ilgenovese.com) on Via Galata (pre-book please on +39 010 8692937). There you’ll find the city’s largest marble mortar.
I come back with an exclusive agency for Roberto Panizza’s Pesto Rossi – in my view and thousands like me in Italy and America, one of the finest artisan Pesto alla Genovese you’ll ever taste. More expensive than the acidulated, pasteurised stuff currently on sale and worth every penny. I have in mind 2/3 national retailers who will appreciate Pesto Rossi. Let’s see if I’m able to convince one of them to import Genoa’s finest. Whichever lists it, it will be exclusive to them for a year at least.
NB: I asked Roberto about the plethora of the so-called ‘pesto’s’ now on sale - roquette, sun-dried tomato, sun-blushed tomato, red pepper, etc. For the first time I saw him near explode. Pesto is made with Basil, the rest are ‘sauces’ and no more however they taste he exclaimed as he became calmer. If there’s more ingredients than the seven, then they are no more than fakes.
Italy rages against fakes where it an offence to trade in fakery. Beware because Blue Collar Gastronauts have taken up the cause to expose the tricksters for what they are. To pass off a pesto as Pesto alla Genovese when it clearly isn’t is as rotten a trick as faking those Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton handbags sold openly on the streets of Genoa, Venice and elsewhere.