Italy’s prized pesto at risk as basil prices plunge

A key ingredient in the traditional Genovese pesto could disappear from Italian tables as plunging prices for a basil variety, cultivated in the Ligurian area of Pra', drive its producers out of business.

Italy's prized pesto at risk as basil prices plunge
The Pra' basil variety, grown in Liguria, is at risk due to plunging prices. Photo: Mohammed Hammad

“Things have been bad for years,” 80-year-old Pra' basil farmer Francesco Ratto told The Local.

“But at the moment it's terrible. In spite of its quality it is currently the cheapest basil on the market.”

The basil, which has been grown on the gently sloping hills around Genoa for centuries, is protected by an EU DOP label of origin, but currently sells for just €0.60 a bunch.

Prices have been driven down by industrial competition from farmers growing other varieties for use in the cheap jars of inferior green pesto which feature on supermarket shelves across the world.

“Nobody makes traditional Genovese pesto at home anymore,” Ratto lamented.

“My basil used to make what was the food of the common man, but nowadays our traditional Genovese pesto is considered a high-end gourmet item.

“The price of the other key ingredient – pine nuts – has been high for years too, which has been another factor in our downfall.”

Italy's agriculture confederation, Confagricultura, has raised the alarm in a bid to ensure the unique flavours of Pra' basil will not be lost from Italian tables.

“Farmers of Pra' basil find themselves facing a real crisis,” the confederation's regional director, Andrea Sanpietro, told Il Secolo XIX.

“And it's affecting what are generally small, family-run farms.”

Today, the basil is grown by just 100 small-scale producers like Ratto, who runs his farm with his wife. Ratto is aware that retirement is looming and doesn't know what will become of his business.

“The future is not good: at the moment I'm making €12 to €15 a day and with winter coming on, I need to turn the heating on in my greenhouses, which I can't afford to do at all.” 

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OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

Michelin-starred food has its merits but it doesn't fit with the Italian tradition of cuisine, argues Silvia Marchetti and some frustrated Italian chefs. There's nothing better than a plate of steaming lasagne, she says.

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

I’ve never been a great fan of sophisticated dishes, twisted recipes and extravagant concoctions that leave you wondering what is it you’re actually eating. T-bone steak with melted dark chocolate as topping, burrata cheese with apples, spaghetti with blueberry sauce aren’t my thing.

Hence, I never eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, and it’s not because of the exorbitant bill – paying €200 for a salad simply because it was grown in the private garden of a chef which he personally sprinkles with mountain water each morning, is a bit over the top.

I just don’t think such fancy food has anything to do with the real Italian tradition.

The ‘nouvelle cuisine’, as the name suggests, was invented in France by chef Paul Bocuse. And it’s ‘nouvelle’ – new – not anchored to past traditions.

The philosophy of serving small morsels of chic food on humongous plates as if they were works of art is the exact opposite of what Italian culinary tradition is all about.

We love to indulge in platefuls of pasta or gnocchi (and often go for a second round), and there are normally three courses (first, second, side dish, dessert and/or coffee), never a 9 or 12-course menu as served at Michelin establishments (unless, perhaps, it’s a wedding).

Too many bites of too many foods messes with flavours and numbs palates, and at the end of a long meal during which you’ve tasted so many creative twists you can hardly remember one, I always leave still feeling hungry and unsatisfied. 

So back home, I often prepare myself a dishful of spaghetti because Michelin pasta servings often consist in just one fork portion artistically curled and laid on the dish. In fact, in my view Michelin starred cuisine feeds more the eye than the stomach.

The way plates are composed, with so much attention to detail, colour, and their visual impact, seems as if they’re made to show-off how great a chef is, than as succulent meals to devour. I used to look at my dish flabbergasted, trying to make out what those de-constructed ingredients were and are now meant to be, and then perplexed,

I look at the chef, and feel as if I’m talking to an eclectic painter who has created a ‘masterpiece’ with my dinner. I’m not saying Michelin starred food is not good, there are some great chefs in Italy who have heightened a revisited Italian cuisine to the Olympus of food, but I just don’t like it nor understand it.

There’s nothing greater than seeing a plate of steaming lasagne being brought to the table and knowing beforehand that my taste buds will also recognise it as such, and enjoy it, rather than finding out it’s actually a sweet pudding instead.

More than once, after a 4-hour Michelin meal with a 20-minute presentation of each dish by the chef, the elaborate food tasted has given me a few digestion problems which lasted all night long.

Michelin-starred food has started to raise eyebrows in Italy among traditional chefs, and is now the focus of a controversy on whether it embodies the authentic Italian culinary experience. 

A Milanese born and bred, Cesare Battisti is the owner of restaurant Ratanà, considered the ‘temple’ of the real risotto alla Milanese.

He has launched a crusade to defend traditional Milanese recipes from what he deems the extravagance and “contamination” of Michelin-starred cuisine. “Michelin-starred experiments are mere culinary pornography. Those chefs see their own ego reflected in their dishes. Their cooking is a narcissistic, snob act meant to confuse, intimidate and disorientate eaters”. 

Arrigo Cipriani, food expert and owner of historical trattoria Harry’s Bar in Venice, says Michelin-starred cuisine is destroying Italy’s real food tradition, the one served inside the many trattorias and historical osterias scattered across the boot where old recipes, and cooking techniques, survive.

“Tasting menus are made so that clients are forced to eat what the chef wants, and reflect the narcissistic nature of such chefs. Italian Michelin-starred cuisine is just a bad copy cat of the French one”, says Cipriani.

I believe we should leave French-style cuisine to the French, who are great at this, and stick to how our grannies cook and have taught us to prepare simple, abundant dishes. At least, you’ll never feel hungry after dinner.