Pesto Genovese, The Classic Basil Sauce From Liguria

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If you love Italian food the chances are that pesto sauce is an important part of your diet. The traditional version is pesto genovese, a classic food of Liguria. In fact, this rich green sauce is so much part of the Ligurian cuisine that the city of Genoa hosts the World Pesto Championships once every two years!

What Is Pesto Genovese?

Classic pesto alla genovese is a blend of garlic, basil and pine nuts mixed with parmesan cheese and olive oil. It depends upon using the very highest quality fresh ingredients, and it is best enjoyed in simple dishes where its distinctive flavour can be fully appreciated – on bread, in soup, or in pasta recipes. (The small twisted trofie pasta, another Ligurian speciality, are particularly good for picking up the sauce.)

Plate of trofie pasta covered with pesto sauce, pine nuts and basil leaves.
The chef Gianpaolo Belloni prepares pesto with trofie

Of course, there are other types of pesto. Elsewhere in Italy you will find red pesto made with sun dried tomatoes, or other versions containing chilli, coriander or even anchovies. But in Liguria these variations are likely to be scorned as imposters: the original pesto genovese is regarded as the only genuine version.

Pesto And Liguria

Some people will tell you that pesto has its roots in the ancient Roman sauce known as “moretum”, made with cheese, herbs, oil and vinegar, sometimes with the addition of chopped nuts. However the sauce that we know today originated in Liguria at some time around the 16th century. The definitive version was first written down in the book Cuciniera Genovese by Giovanni Battista Ratto in 1863.

An essential ingredient of pesto genovese is basil, and the basilico genovese grown in the Liguria region now has EU protected status. It is the intense, sweet flavour of the local basil leaves that makes the Ligurian pesto so special – you have to travel to the region to sample it at its very best!

Lots of fresh basil leaves.
Locally grown basilico genovese

How To Make The Perfect Pesto Alla Genovese

You might not have access to basil from Liguria, but you can still make a very good pesto alla genovese at home. Just make sure that you are using the finest ingredients available: extra virgin olive oil, fresh basil leaves and the right type of cheese (the official recipe uses Parmesan and Pecorino Sardo). And it helps to have a marble mortar…

You might like to try the pesto recipe used by the Associazione Culturale dei PalatiFini, who run the World Pesto Championships (see below). But you will note their comment that every Ligurian family has their own recipe and that no two pesto sauces are ever the same!

Two marble mortars and a wooden pestle. On the table are bunches of fresh leaves.
Mixing pesto in a marble mortar

World Pesto Championships

Given the long association of pesto with Liguria it is perhaps not surprising that the PalatiFini Cultural Association set up the World Pesto Championships in 2007. The purpose is to celebrate the region of Liguria, the quality of its local ingredients, and the pesto recipe itself, and the long term aim is to have pesto genovese recognised by UNESCO as an example of intangible cultural heritage.

Qualifying heats take place in countries around the world with strict rules: participants must work with the ingredients and equipment supplied to create a classic genovese pesto using a traditional wooden pestle and marble mortar. I was lucky enough to attend one of these heats in London in November, an event that was at the same time both serious and fun to watch.

Table laid out with dishes, mortar and pestle, olive oil and basil leaves. Contestants in green overalls are just visible behind the table.
Contestants wait for the start of a heat in the World Pesto Championships

The winner of each heat goes on to the Championships in the Palazzo Ducale in Genoa, a fitting location for such an important regional tradition. The 2024 finals will take place on 23 March, and the event will also include a children’s championship and side events exploring everything you could possibly need to know about pesto, its manufacture, and its ingredients. An event not to be missed!

About Bewitched by italy

Bewitched By Italy is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), but Italy remains one of my favourite destinations. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…

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