To view a slide show of Genoa's pesto showdown, click here.
Federico Ferro, a young pharmacist from Genoa's Sestri Levante, is the proud winner of this year's Campionato Mondiale del Pesto al Mortaio (World Championship of Mortar-Made Pesto). 100 semi-finalists, winners of regional contests held last year in many Italian cities, but also in other parts of the world—even LA—met under the ornate roof of the magnificent central hall in the second floor of the Palazzo Ducale, in Genoa. The intoxicating smell of garlic, basil, and cheese sneaked down the baroque staircase, reaching the ground floor entrance of the palace, inviting passersby to climb the stairs and witness the extraordinary event.
The contestants, 56 men and 44 women, were each given a small marble mortar with a wooden pestle. They were also given fresh garlic; even fresher basil (the particular Genoan DOP kind, of course); pine nuts; and Sardo cheese. These are the essential ingredients for the traditional sauce, plus coarse sea salt, which "keeps the basil leaves green, preventing oxidation," as one of the judges told me.
The participants were placed in four neat rows on the long tables set on both sides of the baroque hall. A few, especially the locals, brought their own somewhat larger and obviously well-seasoned mortars, but most used the brand new ones provided by the Associazione Palatifini, the organizers of the event. One must wonder about the competitive advantage provided by using a well seasoned mortar ...what if a contestant snuck in a Cuisinart-modified pestle!
By midday, the judges paraded between the rows of tables, wearing bright orange aprons, holding notepads. They looked, they tasted, they scored, and they selected 10 worthy finalists: nine men and one woman. "Making good pesto involves considerable manual force and men are usually better at it than women," one of the judges—a man, naturally—told me. The finalists - four from Genoa, five from various parts of Italy, and only one "foreigner," a man from San Sebastian, in the Basque country-- gathered at the far end of the hall for the culminating challenge.
Surrounded by TV cameras, photographers, and a lively group of deeply invested locals, the pestles and mortars went to the grind one final time. The orange-bedecked arbiters of pesto tasted again, and awarded points based on specific criteria: each contestant's dexterity in handling the ingredients and organizing the work, the color and consistency of the pesto, and of course the balance in flavor of the various components. According to the official description, the sauce should be a bright green cream, fluid but not runny. "Too many pine nuts make an unattractive gelatinous pesto," the instructions curtly pointed out.
The day's events were amazingly well organized by the Associazione Palatifini, and Roberto Panizza, the president and soul of the event. As he congratulated Ferro, the winner, Panizza invited everybody to take part to next year's competition. From this moment, we start the 2011 contest, he said. In fact, his organization and the city of Genoa continue to contemplate a pan-Mediterranean meeting, where people from various countries will prepare not just pesto but their own mortar-beaten specialties as well. And in the morning, before the main contest, there had been a children's pesto competition in a smaller hall of the Palazzo Ducale. Italians are seriously trying to pass on their culinary traditions to their kids, and I find this particularly moving and inspiring. I wish we Greeks could do the same.