25 July 2013

AUNTIE PASTA: Besto Pesto Redux

CHIAVARI, Italy – Big doings in Chiavari last weekend, it was one party and event after another from Friday until Tuesday, none stop from morning till night. I confess I am all tuckered out. One of the most important events, at least from Auntie Pasta’s point of view, was the qualifying event for the upcoming Genova Pesto World Championship sponsored by the Palatafini Organization.
 2012 Pesto Championship Finalists
The Chiavari competition took place over a two day period with lots of contestants, all vying to see if they were good enough to move onto the next level. And then on Sunday – drum roll please – we had a winner: Pietro Bartalini of Chiavari.

 Pietro Bartalini
Make no mistake, this is the World Cup of Pesto and it is a very big deal for pesto lovers, which includes just about everyone in Liguria.  But not only. As I write this, people around the world are competing in local competitions just like Signor Bartalini did. He will be one of the final 100 chefs, professional and amateur, who will  complete in the sixth Genova Pesto World Championship that will be held at the Dodge’s Palace in Genoa on 29 March, 2014.

Last year Sergio Muto, an Italian chef who lives and works in Germany was crowned World Champion. Runners-up included a Norwegian woman, a French consultant and a Russian businessman. And a few years before that, Danny Bowien, a young Korean-American chef from San Francisco won the coveted title. Danny later confessed that he had a secret weapon, his executive chef, Paolo Loboa, whose family is Genovese. It was Chef Loboa who taught him how to make pesto, not just any pesto but the secret Laboa family pesto recipe that had been handed down from generation to generation of Laboa women, starting with the chef’s great-grandmother.

 The Pressure is On
The rules of the pesto competition are simple. Competitors, young and old,  have 40 minutes to prepare their recipes, all using the same ingredients and the same technique, i.e. pounding the bejeebers out of them. Pounding is what pesto is all about as the word pesto comes from the Italian verb pestare, which means to pound, even in the sense of being beaten up.  
 The Judges
Since all the competitors use the same ingredients and the same techniques, you’d think they would all come up with the same taste, but the truth is most pesto makers claim to have “secret” techniques, so technically no two cups of pesto are ever the same. And there is a difference. Some pestos do taste better than others. I always thought it was the quality of the oil and  quantity of the cheese used, but if everyone is using the same ingredients, it must be some other kind of pesto voodoo. 

 A Little Basil, a Little Cheese, a Few Drops of Oil  . . . . and Magic Happens
If you’re thinking what’s the big deal, how hard can it be, here’s the official competition recipe for you to try. Who knows, you may be winning pesto maker too.

World Cup Pesto Recipe

4 bunches (60-70 grams) of fresh PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) Genovese basil
30 grams of pine nuts (2 tablespoons)
445-460 grams of Parmesan cheese,(a little less than 2 cups to – 2 full cups)
20-40 grams Fiore Sardo cheese (Pecorino Sardo) (4+ teaspoons – 3 tablespoons))
1-2 garlic cloves from Vassalico (Imperia)
10 grams coarse salt (Kosher salt) (2 teasp.)
60-80 cc PDO extra-virgin olive oil from the Italian Riviera (4 tablespoons – 5 1/2 tablespoons).


Marble mortar and wooden pestle are the traditional tools used to make pesto.

Wash the basil leaves in cold water and dry them in a kitchen towel, but do not rub them.

In a mortar, finely crush the garlic cloves and pine nuts until they are smooth. Add a few grains of salt and the basil leaves. Then pound the mixture using a light circular motion of the pestle against the sides of the mortar.

When a bright green liquid starts to ooze from the basil leaves, add the Parmesan cheese and the Fiore Sardinian cheese.

Pour in a thin layer of PDO extra-virgin olive oil to blend the ingredients   
Work as quickly as possible to avoid oxidation of the leaves.

It's best to use your pesto right away but you can keep it in the refrigerator for a few days if you float a little oil on top of it, or put it in the freezer. I freeze mine in small cups and just defrost what I’m going to use, and just as a by-the-way, it is better to let it defrost at room temperature than zap it in the microwave because pesto should never be heated.

Photos Courtesy of Associazione Palatifini www.pestochampionship.it

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