What's So Special About Ligurian Basil?
Basilico Genovese (Genovese basil) is cultivated in the Italian region of Liguria and is so special that in 2006 it was awarded protected designation of origin status (PDO in English, DOP in Italian). That puts it on a par with some of our most beloved foods such as Cornish pasties, Fal oysters and Shetland lamb. The region's producers were successfully able to prove that the traditional production methods and influence of the local climate and geography enables them to produce a truly unmistakable product.
The north Italian region of Liguria borders Piedmont to the north, France to the west and Tuscany to the East. Basilico Genovese can be produced anywhere within this region, but it's the unassuming town of Pra' in the western part of Genoa that is the epicentre of where the magic happens.
A cultivar of the sweet basil, ocimum basilicum, Basilico Genovese is a member of the mint family (lamiaceae). Whilst you can detect notes of cinnamon, anise and cloves, what makes this basil so unique is that there is no detectable aroma of mint. This distinguishes it from all other basil varieties and helps to explain why it was able to achieve PDO status.
In an episode of Insider Food, pesto's greatest advocate, Roberto Panniza claims there are 320 varieties of pesto in the world, only 60 of which are edible and only 1 that can be used to make genuine pesto.
Gaining PDO status took considerable time, effort, lobbying - and ultimately proving - that Ligurian basil is so special that it deserves protecting from inferior copycats. By comparing Basilico Genovese with other basils from around the world, it was concluded that the mild temperatures, long hours of sunshine, salty sea breeze, mineral-rich volcanic soil and unique microclimate all help to provide the perfect conditions to grow basil which is completely unmistakable.
The PDO label is not cynical marketing. The whole purpose is that it guarantees consumers the highest quality basil with trusted provenance. We love how the Italians are never afraid to throw a generous dollop of romanticism into their cuisine, and the farmers in the hills of Pra' claim that true Ligurian basil is only so good because the plants can see the sea as they grow.
Don't let any whimsical language fool you into thinking this is a small-scale, artisan operation though. It’s true, the basil is still hand-picked in back-breaking style by skilled farmers, but the Ligurian basil industry is a well-oiled and staggeringly efficient machine capable of producing up to 5 million plants a year.
Traditionally grown on the reckless hills of Liguria, climate-controlled greenhouses that keep the basil plants at the ultimate temperature are now the farming method of choice because they enable producers to grow their green gold all year round.
The plants are picked when they are still infants because young, light-green leaves provide the ultimate sweetness and most intense aroma. The plants are picked whole (roots, soil and all) before being wrapped in PDO-branded paper as proof of provenance. Digging up the whole plant may sound wasteful (after all, basil can produce hundreds of leaves over the course of its natural life) but picking them before the leaves are fully mature is what makes the taste of Basilico Genovese so exceptional.