Last weekend marked a day of great culinary importance as the 6th Genoa World Pesto Championship took place. It was held at Genoa’s Palazzo Ducale and the day long competition inevitably involved a lot of blood, sweat and tears to produce the world’s best pesto of 2016. The Championship is held annually by the Associazione Culturale dei Palatifini, a well-respected society that is dedicated to promoting the region’s cultural gastronomic traditions. These culinary traditions are first learnt and practised in childhood then passed down in families over many generations. And as if to emphasise this point, 86 years old Alfonsina Trucco, is in charge of the competition and wields the same family mortar to make pesto that she has been using since she was 6 years old.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking that the competition is some pedestrian, friendly, garlic-infused day of eating and sharing recipes and tips. In reality, it is nothing other than a fierce battle to win the fame and glory of being crowned the World Champion of Pesto and being awarded the Golden Pestle. The Golden Pestle is actually a real pestle made from olive tree wood with a gold-plated handle, worth about 2,000 Euros. But of course, you have to be in it to win it and this is where things get interesting…
The Associazione prides itself for hosting a Championship that is open to everyone to enter as they claim that pesto is the most democratic of sauces. They argue that everyone has the right to pesto and, in fact, anyone can make it. Therefore, the Championship is not limited to professional chefs and amateur cooks and anybody’s family’s chief pesto maker can win. Since this is the World Pesto Championship, it should also be no surprise that the competition is open to participants from all over the world. However, the Championship is limited to 100 competitors and the rules regarding selection are slightly curious.
The competition rules stipulate that out of the 100 competitors, 50 must come from Genoa and Liguria, 25 from the rest of Italy and 25 from the rest of the world. In other words, the Championship is not quite as worldly as the title warrants and the likelihood of a winner being Italian is always good. However, while the odds of being crowned World Champion of Pesto are through the roof if you’re a home-grown contender, it’s also a bit pointless because they don’t need an extra advantage. Since Genoa is the birthplace of pesto, they already know a thing or two about making it.
In fact, pesto is referenced in early books about Genovese cuisine as far back as the 19th century and describes the creation of this incredible sauce from the simple combination of the rich local produce of basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil and regional cheeses using a mortar and pestle. With such rich abundant ingredients like these, it was inevitable that pesto would be created. The discovery of this amazing sauce very quickly spread to the masses and ignited a pesto craze that is still going strong. However, traditionalists would say that in many countries it is also going wrong as mass production, commercialisation and competition among producers has caused many to use cheaper, inferior ingredients to make pesto. Not only that, but many have done away with the pestle and mortar entirely and are making it with a blender! But surely the worst insult to pesto has been the growing number of reckless ‘chefs’ who have dared to tamper with the basic recipe and even substituted basil with imposters such as kale and spinach. Clearly, these ingredients have no right to be in a pesto! Then there are those that have gone completely rogue and are making ‘red’ pesto, cilantro pesto and even ricotta pesto.
Thankfully, in order to halt the abuse of the identity and authenticity of pesto and the hijacking of its name into something unrecognisable, the Italian government has stepped in. Together with Genoa City Council, the Chamber of Conference and the Palatifini Associazione, they have worked hard to nominate ‘the production of Genoese Pesto made by a marble mortar and a wooden pestle’ as a candidate to be included in the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage list. After all, pesto is far more than just a sauce and is so ingrained in Ligurian culture that the Palatifini Associazione maintains that ‘behind pesto is history, and art, and a quality of life’. So it is imperative that pesto makes the list and is protected, recognised and safeguarded for the future.
In the meantime, the Palatifini Associazione continues to support the cause by rewarding the finest pesto prepared the traditional way through the Championship. As you would expect, the locals from Liguria are naturally confident of making the winning pesto because they have lived and breathed it their whole lives and are well-versed in the ‘right way’ to make it. Although it is also true that every family makes it slightly differently from each other and it is accepted wisdom that no pesto is the same as the last. But it is still fair to say that the locals have put enough years making, eating and appreciating pesto and remain the ones to beat in the competition.
If you are brave (or foolish) enough to take them on in the World Championship, several pesto elimination rounds are held worldwide until the lucky 100 places are filled. Once you are in, you then have to battle it out in a pesto cook-off under strict competition conditions. Like a Great Italian Bake-Off, ten groups of 10 competitors are given 40 minutes to prepare their pestos using only the ingredients and equipment provided of a marble mortar and wooden pestle. The resulting pestos are presented to 3 well-known judges from a commission made up from a who’s who in the pesto world. Each pesto is tasted, critiqued and given scores based on a variety of factors including colour, texture and an assessment of the competitors’ manual abilities of using the mortar and pestle. The top 10 competitors go through to the next round and compete for the World title where the pressure really increases. The final 10 have to pull out all the stops to prepare their ultimate pestos which are then judged by all 30 members of the commission and the big cheese, himself, the President of Palatifini Association. And to impress him you have got to make the mother of all pestos.
This year, Alessandra Fasce did just that and was crowned the winner of the 6th Genoa Pesto World Championship. The 37 years old assistant cook hails from Genoa but she still had to out-pesto 8 other Genovese and one Venetian in the final to be awarded the golden pestle. Some might say that a local winner in this World Championship was always going to be a sure thing but maybe they just make it better. One thing is for sure, as long as the World Pesto Championship continues to grow, pesto can only get better. So in the end, we all win.
Of course, after thinking about the Pesto Champs I am pretty much obliged to offer a pesto-based recipe and this time it is Spaghetti al pesto e zucchini. Although my pesto shares the 7 essential ingredients of a pesto Genovese, I have to confess that unlike the traditionalists, I use a hand blender rather than a mortar and pestle to prepare it. It is even true that I do not own a mortar and pestle…Well at least my children know how to prepare it the ‘right’ way and I am beginning to think that they really do appreciate the importance of this magnificent sauce. Recently, my eldest child came home from school fuming that he had missed an all-important meeting to decide on the menu for a hiking weekend away. His classmates had opted for what seemed like a 2-day sausage-fest with some occasional ‘breakfast biscuits’ thrown in. But what he was really outraged about was that they had also chosen to make spaghetti with pesto and chorizo. He complained to his teacher that chorizo had no place in this pasta but it fell on deaf ears. My son was absolutely outraged and spent the next several days saying to me, ‘Chorizo?! With pesto?!! Chorizo?!!I Are they insane?!’ Yes, my son, they are.