Basil…Liguria’s Royal Herb

July 20, 2023

Basil is the true badge of culinary identity for the region of Liguria and a very serious business that I understood most emphatically when I saw the words “ il tipico basilico Genovese D.O.P” at the  Calcagno Paolo Societa’ Agricola to see how the world’s most beloved herb, basil is grown and cultivated.  This meant that I was going to get a lesson in how basil grown to the specific specifications of a Consortium in Genoa, is made into classic, certified, and authentic pesto Genovese.

First, I am treated to seeing a literal never ending green carpet of the aromatic herb, densely growing in an enclosed sunny greenhouse setting to shield the tender plants from wind and cold. Long wooden planks for walking and kneeling on to irrigate and harvest the seedlings at precisely the right moment, extends out over the plants and my host, John Paolo, explains that the best harvest time is when the seedlings have four to six small leaves.

There are more than 60 varieties of Ligurian basil and the job of growing and harvesting is year-round.

Pesto Genovese must never be done in a food processor, as this is too damaging to the leaves, bruising them, and turning them black and mushy. Instead, the traditional mortar and pestle must be used. The mortar must be marble and the pestle, wood. You start with crushing garlic against the sides of the mortar and transfer to a dish. Next pine nuts are crushed until they are creamy and transferred to a dish. Small chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese are pounded into a fine consistency and transferred to a dish. Pecorino Sardo cheese gets the same treatment. The tender basil leaves are pounded down with a few grains of coarse sea salt and worked with the pestle until very smooth. All the other waiting ingredients are added back to the mortar with the basil and then, silky, and dense Ligurian extra virgin olive oil is mixed in to bind all the ingredients creating the most delicious and vibrantly green pesto sauce that I have ever seen. Pesto truly shows its royal side when mixed with trenette, a Ligurian pasta like fettucine. 

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