Food & Drink: Basil is at home in Italy, not Vietnam

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Indy Lifestyle Online
SOME THREE years ago I wrote a piece extolling basil, a tender annual, difficult to grow, little imagining that this most savoury, aphrodisiacal of herbs would be threatened - at least in the form that most of us know it. But on a flight to Turin last week, I noticed this headline in La Stampa: 'Pesto alla Genovese? It will come from Vietnam'.

Well, I want you to know that this is not good news. There may be all sorts of basil, but they are far from equal. Now it appears that, in its anxiety to save Italy from bankruptcy, that country's government, incompetent and corrupt at best, is going to raise the price of fuel oil for agricultural producers. As basil is generally seeded in greenhouses and, commercially, is almost totally produced in the great conservatories on the Ligurian slopes, its cultivation is heat-intensive, and any increase in the price of fuel is likely to be ruinous to its current producers.

The centre of basil production in Italy is Albenga. One of its principal growers, Enrico Sanguineti, explains that to heat each greenhouse, generally covering more than an acre of glass, at present costs some pounds 500 a night. The proposed 50 per cent increase in the price of fuel will raise that to pounds 750.

Italian basil-growers will be put out of business, not because they cannot raise their prices but because plenty of basil is available from other parts of the world, and the wholesaler and the customer will presumably be driven to buy the American, North African and South-east Asian products.

This will certainly happen to those who use basil to manufacture ready-made pesto, which already varies widely in quality and is never as good as the freshly made. But the Italian growers depend on these industrial pestos for their living, and not on those of us who lovingly pound our chopped basil, pine nuts and pecorino cheese into the superb oil of the region.

Well, you say, what's all the fuss about? Basil is basil, isn't it? Yes, but no basil in the world makes a pesto of quite the same flavour as Ligurian

basil. I quote a local restaurant owner, Luciano Alessandri, and he is right: 'We have tried to transplant our Albengan basil to other (warmer) regions. We have even taken Albengan soil with us. To no avail. When the leaves mature, they become enormous and taste of mint. It is unthinkable to make a Ligurian pesto with non-Ligurian basil.' I know he is right because I have tried. America, for instance, produces an ample supply of basil, but the gigantism of which Mr Alessandri speaks afflicts it.

Instead of the little, tender, sweet leaves that provide the delicate flavour of a pesto, or are chopped coarsely on to dozens of different dishes, you get great, big, coarse leaves which simply overwhelm (as they do in industrial pesto) the taste of anything to which they are added.

Where the real thing is high and mellifluous, the non-Ligurian is dusky, bosky and tastes of elemental earth. The one speaks of the sun, the other of a dank, humid, shaded corner of the garden. Thus do governments move, by decree, without thought, not only for the consumer and his or her sense of taste but also for the producer, in this case, usually a small producer, tied to his crop and his age-old skills.

Now, I admit that the world will not come to an end if, as seems likely, Ligurian basil is no longer produced. Such apocalyptic visions are not part of gastronomy. Small growers in Albenga will buck the price of fuel oil, continue to grow basil, and sell it on the open market. Thus we will continue to be able to use Ligurian basil in cooking.

But I can guarantee three things: it will cost us a lot more; it will be much harder to find; and we will have to continue the growing process ourselves, buying our seedlings when we can find them, and raising them in our window boxes or, if our garden is sunny and warm enough, outside.

This is not as easy as it sounds. For those of us who use basil fairly frequently, a number of plants are required: say five or six. If they all mature at the same time, one has a period of feast, then a much longer period of famine. To have a constant supply requires the planting out of a couple of basil plants every other week: no easy task if they become hard to find.

Then basil requires regular attention. On my own balcony by the sea in France, I can hardly claim that they flourish. A constant wind blows there, and basil is not hardy. The plants require consistent watering, just the right amount of sunlight and careful pricking of the flowerlets. If we go away for three days, hardly unusual, our basil is put at risk. If it gets too hot, the plants shrivel and dry up. Towards cold and storms they are temperamentally disinclined.

If basil becomes scarce, will we continue to produce dishes, such as a pesto or a basil-and-onion soup, that require a lot of basil? I suspect that we will not.

A simple piece of gastronomical pedagogy underlies this concern. Some things in the world of cooking are unique, or locally specific. You may make a pesto with American or Asian basil, and many people never use anything but the dried form of basil bought in the corner shop. But you will not have the real thing.

You will have an 'international' pesto which, like the Dutch tomato, is nothing, costs as much as a real tomato, offers neither taste nor authenticity, and from which may a kind God spare me.

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