Italians do it better – Pesto World Championships, Genoa, Italy:
It stands to reason that Italians should make the best Pesto in the World. A simple fusion of two kinds of cheese, garlic, basil, olive oil, pine nuts and salt sounds on the face of it like something that could easily be recreated anywhere. But, each ingredient has its own rightful place in the Italian larder – four out of seven are PDO, only grown in specific regions. So important is pesto to Ligurian cuisine that “pestle and mortar pesto sauce” has applied to join UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List. As I discovered on a recent trip to Genoa, the method of making pesto in a pestle and mortar is an art in its own right.
The World Championships are a biannual event, founded ten years ago by Roberto Panizza.
The catalyst – a dying tradition – pesto made in a pestle and mortar seems to have embodied Italian life for Roberto – the idea that children learnt how to make pesto by their mother’s side, much as I learnt how to make the crumb for an apple crumble. I was allowed to make crumble because I couldn’t spoil it too easily (though I was kept well away from the puff pastry), while an Italian child would have learnt how to pound basil with pine nuts,garlic, olive oil, salt and cheese to make a fresh, rich, green paste to serve with trofie or gnocchi or even to eat with a crust of bread. And so, there’s a children’s event – with children as both contestants and judges.
Traditional mortars were crafted with love and handed down from generation to generation. One of this year’s finalists, Alda Bernardelli, was using the mortar that her grandfather made for her grandmother. She’d inherited not just her grandmother’s mortar but also her name – so the hand carved mortar with personalised inscription was entirely appropriate.
Having caught a glimpse of the children’s event held in an adjacent room, I move on to watch as a hundred competitors, not just from Genoa or even Italy but from around the world line up to make their own version of Pesto.
While some had hired their pestle and mortar, others are there with their own secret weapons. Though, I quickly discover , size is definitely not everything in the world of Pesto. In fact, competitors are judged on five distinct criteria.
- The cleanliness and tidiness of the workstation, the use of the mortar
- The appearance of the pesto (colour rather than any clear liquid)
- The fineness of the ground leaves
- The consistency of the pesto – too many pine nuts will make a gelatinous mixture for instance
- The balance of ingredients.
Each criterion has a weighting. Making pesto in a mortar is an art – not just a question of pounding everything till you get a green mush.
In fact, the mortars all have four small lip-like handles – the proper technique is to pound and turn the mortar regularly. If you are right handed, you’ll rotate the pestle from left to right against the side of the mortar and simultaneously rotate the mortar in the opposite direction (from right to left), using the handles.
Once the event gets going there’s some fierce rotating going on – some of the competitors verge on the athletic and are almost spinning the mortar while they crush. I’m transfixed – and oh-so-glad I didn’t volunteer to enter! For those interested in doing so, there are regional heats all around the world. This is serious stuff!
As the competition gets into full swing, a heady aroma of garlic and basil fills the air. It actually makes me feel quite hungry, but thankfully the process doesn’t take that long. If you spend too much time preparing your pesto it oxidises and becomes bitter. The competitors finish, some decorating the rim of their mortar with tiny leaves of the PDO Genoese basil.
Everyone waits, while the judges fill in their scoring sheets – each tasting two sets of five competitors so that selection of the finalists is as unbiased as possible.
For those interested, here’s the recipe the competitors use as their base.
Like everything in Italy though, the ‘right’ way to make pesto is a family secret. The order you add the ingredients, the quantities and the amount you crush the leaves is at least partly down to personal taste. Freshly made pesto in Genoa tastes very different to the type you buy in jars at the supermarket or even from an Italian specialist retailer.
While the judges make their way around the tables, competitors and audience disperse, leaving the grand hall of the Palazzo Ducale strangely quiet. I make my way to a local restaurant, avoiding the temptation to order a dish with yet more pesto and instead choosing a comforting bowl of trofie with saffron and sausage. It all feels slightly surreal.
Back in the Palazzo, the scores are being added up and the finalists decided. The hall fills up again, with anxious competitors, friends and family. The finalists are called out one by one and line up at the front. This time, they are very much ‘centre stage’.
Another round of pesto making – this time we are only watching the experts and there seems to be rather less variation. No-one is particularly flamboyant, the mortar pounding phase seems considered and calculated. And, everyone is very, very serious.
The judges hover, observing every move of the contestants while we watch from the sidelines. Then, it’s all over and we retreat while the final pestos are tasted and scores are added up.
The winner, Alessandra Fasce, is a 36-year-old assistant cook from Genoa. If I’m not mistaken I thought I saw her crying when she was picked as a finalist and now there’s definitely a tear in her eye as she’s handed the golden pestle. I’m really charmed – she looks embarrassed, thrilled and genuinely shocked to have won.
It’s all over for another two years. I’m not sure I’ll be ready to enter even then. It seems to me that to make the winning pesto you need to start at a very early age. And practise.
If you are thinking of competing – or just fancy going along to watch, why not pin this for later
I was a guest of the Ligurian Tourist Board
For further information on Liguria please visit www.turismoinliguria.it
For further information on the Pesto Championships please visit www.pestochampionship.it. The next championships will take place in 2018.
Return flights from London Gatwick to Genoa start from £95 with British Airways. (0844 493 0787)
One night B&B in a classic double room at President Genoa starts from £70 for two people. (00800 0022 0011)