Originally from Africa, basil (or basilico as called in Italy) was brought to Italy from Persia by the Greeks, who must have thought highly of it. Basilkos is Greek for “king.” The Romans introduced its therapeutic use in Italy, believing that essence of basilico had healing properties. By the Renaissance, the plant was the subject of some controversy, either embraced as a symbol of divinity and fertility or thought to cause madness. Some believed that basil could transform into scorpions. Literally. (It’s actually a natural insect repellent.) Regardless, in a culinary sense, it is difficult to imagine Italy without basil.
There are many different varieties of basil growing throughout most of Italy, both commercially and in private gardens and clay pots. Basil is a friend to most things tomato – Caprese salad with mozzarella di bufala leaps to mind – and it is used in all kinds of preparations. But Liguria is the land of basil, bar none. This, of course, is the birthplace of pesto genovese, which is popular the world over. It is no surprise then, that the only protected variety is Basilico Genovese DOP. Its production area includes the whole of the Ligurian coast, although when Ligurians first became famous for their basil in the late 1800’s, it was grown only around Genova, close to market. As demand increased, the area of production spread. It is the combination of Liguria’s soil, strong sun, and sea breezes that creates the singular quality of this erba. Prà, a western suburb of Genova, is considered to grow the best of the best. Half of the DOP basil in Liguria is grown in or near Prà in gigantic hothouses. To the growers’ satisfaction, the particular soil and climate, carefully monitored, cannot be reproduced elsewhere. Transplanted seeds produce an inferior product. Apparently, night winds cool the plants, but not too much, encouraging them to protect themselves by creating flavor-boosting chlorophyll, especially in the smallest, most vulnerable leaves. Regardless, with the global explosion of pesto’s popularity, there is now not enough basilico Genovese in all of Liguria to satisfy demand.