Where Did Pesto Originate?

Genoa, the home of pesto

Short answer
The classic basil pesto that many regard as the original and only pesto, can be traced to the city of Genoa in the Italian region of Liguria in the late 1800s. The question of whether it truly originated there though, is the cause of some debate.

Long answer
Pesto alla Genovese is what most think of when you say the word “pesto” and the recipe was first documented in Giovanni Battista Ratto's 1863 book, La Cuciniera Genovese.

Since then, the Genovese have fought hard to make their city the undisputed home of pesto. They honour their ingredients and recipe with a passion that can sometimes border on obsession.

Speak to the locals and you'll quickly realise how strongly they feel about their beloved sauce. They insist that pesto is a living, breathing thing; an alchemy which can only exist in the temperate climate of its birthplace.

They'll even tell you without a hint of irony that pesto is the second thing a Genovese baby will taste, after its mother's milk.

As if their vigour was ever in doubt, the disgraced Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was scorned by the locals when we he demanded that any pesto served at the 2001 G8 Summit reception dinner should not contain any "stinking garlic". As if that wasn't enough of an insult, he ordered for it to be referred to as "basil sauce" rather than "pesto".

The Genovese made their thoughts known by pelting the creep with missiles of garlic cloves.

What we can say with absolute certainly is that the basil pesto we all know and love was perfected in Genoa - and for this reason alone the city feels it can proudly call itself the birthplace of pesto.

Ever since Genovese-grown basil achieved a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status in 2005, there have been calls for pesto itself to be granted a PDO. That would not only stop producers outside of Liguria producing it, but it could even protect the exact ingredients that the organisers of the World Pesto Championships regard as "the official pesto".

There are though, two robust counterarguments to the question of whether pesto itself deserves a PDO status. The first relates to the definition of pesto. The word comes from the Italian verb pestare, meaning "to pound" (referring to the pestle and mortar with which it was traditionally made). On that basis you can argue that the word simply relates to the process of producing the sauce, not that it must have a specific list of ingredients or a specific place where it can be made.

The second argument is that there is very little in the culinary world that is completely new or unique. In the case of pesto, it's hard to believe that it wasn't heavily influenced by moretum, a sauce containing herbs, cheese, garlic, salt, olive oil, and vinegar. That sauce was being eaten by the Romans almost 2000 years before the Ligurian's version was first documented.

Is it completely improbable that the Genovese simply adapted, honed and perfected moretum using the incredible range of world-class ingredients that grew in the hills all around them? After all, the Sicilians did exactly that with their Pesto Trapanese where they added tomatoes and switched the pine nuts for their preferred almonds. Even the French got in on the act with their pistou, a sauce which is virtually identical to Genovese pesto, just without the nuts.

Nowadays you only need to flick through cookbooks in the world cuisine section to find recipes for "Persian Pesto", "Thai Pesto" and a whole load of pesto-style or pesto-inspired sauces that are made with the prominent ingredients of that cuisine.

Are these fusions really pestos? We think they are worthy of the name, but we have such respect for Genovese pesto - undeniably one of the world's greatest sauces - that if we could lay some claim to it, we'd probably guard it with the same amount of vigour as the Ligurians do.

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