Where Is Pesto From?

Genoa skyline.

Short answer
Classic basil pesto, which many people regard as the original and only pesto, has its origins in Genoa, the capital city of Liguria in northwest Italy.

Long answer
Pesto 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 birthplace 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 that 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.

Genoa coastline

As if their vigour were ever in doubt, the disgraced Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was scorned by the locals when 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 certainty 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 home town of pesto.

There is a local saying, "If the basil is foreign, it certainly isn't pesto!" and 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 from producing it, but it could even protect the exact ingredients that the organisers of the World Pesto Championships regard as the "official pesto recipe."

There are, though, two robust counterarguments to the question of whether pesto itself deserves 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 Trapanese pesto, where they added tomatoes and switched the pine nuts for their preferred almonds. Even the French got in on the act with pistou, a sauce that 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-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 that if we could lay some claim to it, we'd probably guard it with the same amount of vigour as the Ligurians do.