We’re up on top of a hill that towers over Albenga, the whole area between the mountains and the sea looks like a mass of allotments. They vary in size, but none are much bigger than a football pitch, and if you have more than one, chances are they’re separate from one another, with other people’s plots nuzzled in between.
I ask Mario about the local economy. “All farming. Lots of farming. It’s the only work. Liguria people are not the best fishermen. They like to stay in mountains too much, scared of invaders. No-one really tried fishing till a hundred years ago, when Sicilians turned up in rowing boats and started taking all our swordfish…”
Mario is doing pretty well in the basil game. He has 17 hectares’ dotted around, and handles the basil export trade for other independent farmers too. He’s a funny, charming guy, which lends itself well to being the front man of the coalition.
Mario was on the committee that proved Genovese basil's unique taste to the EU lawmakers, successfully winning P.D.O status in 2009.
We’re sat in a seafront trattoria on white wooden decking raised above a strip of beach.
Mario, his long-time client and friend George, Belazu chef-in-residence Ross, videographer Jason and myself. The sun beams, the sea laps a soothing beat and the beach below us is busy with families enjoying the Italian bank holiday.
Mario is at the head of the table holding court. He and George have been doing business together for 20 years, they’re long-time friends, just having a catch up.
After his pithy appraisal of Croatia: “great sailing, bad olives,” Mario is telling us about an island he recently sailed to, just off coast of Nicaragua, where he says, “everybody drives… but no-one has a licence….and for three days of the year, everyone is not allowed to drive anyway, the entire island is covered with crabs, the roads, everything. They make their way down to the beach to lay their eggs, the whole place stops.”
It’s Mario’s kind of place.
“For fishing and sailing, is perfect. If I sold my farm, this is where I’d go. The whole island has 18 bus stops – but no bus.” We all burst out laughing. “I could be the bus driver.”
The waitress brings plates over.
We’re having pesto, of course, and the traditional Liguria way to serve it is with pasta, potatoes, green beans and lashings of parmesan. The pasta of choice is trofie, whose name is derived from strafuggia, meaning rubbed. Mario, rubbing his palms together tells us, “in Liguria, we say it’s the pasta that comes off of the hands after making other pastas.”
The pasta dish arrives and it’s delicious; no frills working class fayre that revels in its simplicity but the quality of ingredients shines bright. The side dish is interesting too, a sharing plate loaded with sliced courgette with an extraordinary creamy avocado flavour. Again, super simple, just a glug of olive oil and a sprinkling of oregano. It’s perfect.
‘You ever seen a tromphette?’ says Mario. He’s away on his toes, bounding through the café and nipping into the kitchen. (The staff don’t bat an eyelid, like he does this all time. George tells me it’s an Italian thing.)
“This is different to the Sicilian courgette, he says, returning to the table brandishing a, yellow-flowered pale green vegetable, “Sicilian courgette has pubic hair.”
He then slips into farming mode, explaining how to grow ourselves a field full of these un-pretty but charming vegetables. “When you see a good one growing, you leave it in the tree until it gets really huge. They can grow nearly two metres! Then you harvest the seeds, and plant them.”
Both dishes are delicious, and desert is tempting, but we’ve had our fill. Particularly as the UK contingent ate on the way to lunch…
Unsure if we’d missed the boat to dine with Mario today – or maybe just being greedy – we’d all grabbed a prosciutto focaccia at the Autofill when we stopped for petrol. It’s a joy to behold how Italy’s special relationship with food reaches right the way down to their equivalent of a BP 24-hour garage…the ham, so thinly sliced but packing so much umami punch, and the bread, crispy on the outside yet so fluffy within…again, it could not be simpler, but ingredient is king.
When I ask Mario later on about the bread, he tells me that Liguria is not famous for bread, because in Liguria there is no wheat. There is simply no room, he tells me, explaining how farming plots are very small, and wheat fields need to be big to make any money.
It’s interesting to hear Mario talk about the commercial aspects of farming – the primary reason he specialises in basil is how it holds its price. One of a farmers most important considerations is how to avoid having to sell their products on the very day of harvest, because buyers know you’re desperate, which murders your chances of striking a decent deal.
So a big part of the plan is, how do you make products last long enough so you can afford to say no the first bloke who comes along waving a chequebook?
At 6.30am, Liguria is coming to life. Literally, in the sense that the farming day is underway and also figuratively. For me, I’m beginning to understand.
The sun is poised low in the sky, promising to bake us later, but for now, just teasing us with a soft light that’s perfect for filming. As Jason fiddles with his tripod, I’m stood at the edge of the basil field, with one foot in a vineyard, and an olive tree only just out of fingertip reach. Over the road, just a few metres away, there’s a plantation of rosmarino, ready to be sold as pots, thousands of them all laid out in OCD-straight rows.
I’ve been on farms before but nothing like this. Nothing with some many different things growing side-by-side, nature in perfect harmony, just a stones’ throw away from the town centre (about 5 minutes in the car, 2 minutes if Mario is driving). And on a drive to the town centre, we’d pass kiwis and peaches and capers and eucalyptus and so much more, just growing, right there at the side of the road.
The local system of small independent strips of farmland, growing a wide variety of produce, great food growing on trees everywhere you look, it made me feel a little different, more appreciative, with strong sense of wonder. It’s easy to see why Italians are so enthralled by food. It’s pure propinquity.
Propinquity is the concept of nearness, be it in proximity or spirit. It’s a solid reason why relationships form, and people fall in love. It’s also maybe the best explanation of why the Italians have such a bond with food: in Liguria, people and food are tight.
In the soft morning sunlight, Mario’s men are hard at work, traversing back and forth the basil field in their little red harvest wagon, up and down the stripes, giving each of them a ‘beard trim’ and collecting the ‘shavings’ by means of a conveyor belt leading up to a Curver box, basically bigger version of a stackable storage box you might keep childrens’ toys in.
Mario points at one of the boxes and beams, ‘Green gold.’
He explains how the harvest season works. “From July to September, you can harvest every seven to ten days. We cut the plants down to 15cm height, and the basil grows back.”
He drops to one knee to point out a flowering basil plant. “They only flower when they are about to die – you must cut them and water them.”
The cutter is trundling towards him, so he quickly yanks out a couple of weeds and backs out of the way. Ross recognises it as purslane. It’s funny how even the weeds are delicious around these parts.
The next step on the field to fork journey is a quick jaunt round the facilities, where the basil is washed, bounced, spun, oiled, seasoned, shredded and packed away in a refrigerator.
It’s that simple, and it only takes a few minutes, from being loaded off the forklift truck to stored away as a product with a shelf life of a year, long enough so Mario is never at the mercy of the buyers.
The other thing that gives him leverage is Genovese basil’s legal status. Touring his plant, we see most of his staff are wearing the same t-shirt, with the cartoon basil on it.
I ask him, if it’s the company uniform. He says “No, it’s celebrates the DOP.”
In 2009, Genovese basil was award Protected Designation of Origin status under EU Law, making it on a par with famous foods like Stilton and Champagne, a stamp of geographical authenticity that’s serves as a guarantee of quality.
Mario explains how, during the process of proving the case to the EU, he took pots of his basil to sites at opposite ends of Italy in order to prove that even though it was planted in Liguria, if it doesn’t grow in Liguria then the ultimate taste of the pesto is very different. It’s all down to terroir.
As Mario explains, “We make research for many years, to demonstrate to the EU the difference from our basil and all the other basil around Italy. We try to grow in other places but the taste is not the same. Only here does the basil taste only like basil, in other areas, it tastes more like mint, or only mint. Here, is it’s very special, it’s a combination of being near the sea, the ground, the wind…and Mario.”
Smiling, he continues: “The area of the DOP is very big, the area of Liguria is thin and long, from the French border to the Tuscany border, only on the side of the sea. If you climb the other side of the mountain, the taste changes; there is no sea air.”
George asks, “And what happens when you get to Tuscany?” Mario shrugs his shoulders, shakes his head and says “Terrible.”
Mario grabs a handful of soil – or ‘ground’, as he always calls it, and shows us how his fields are laced with little chunks of seashell shrapnel. Blown in on the Mediterranean breeze, landing in Mario’s fields to help make his basil taste just so. It’s beautiful, a moment to make DOP agnostics reassess their thinking.
We’re sat in Mario’s lush green back garden (right next to a basil field, of course) swatting away mosquitos while we’re waiting for the pesto making demo to kick off. Mario says, “In some places they believe basil is good to keep away mosquitos. We are in a sea of basil all around us, but it’s full of mosquitoes… so it’s not true.”
Mario’s little blonde grandson waddles up to me barefoot, hands over a hazelnut. “Ah, a nut from the garden,” says Mario. Turns out the little lad is more into the nutcracker than the nuts, and insists on cracking one open for me; I acquiesce with a ‘grazia’. It sets Mario thinking aloud, “When I want to know what pesto is best, which recipe works best, the same ingredients but different quantities, I always use the children.. For them, it’s very very easy… it’s good, or it’s not good. Children do it without thinking.
“Pesto is the best sauce for children. It’s incredible. I don’t know why, I guess, it’s because it’s very fresh tasting. It’s the only raw sauce. Not cooked at all. You can put three sauces, tomato sauce, meat sauce and pesto sauce, with a bowl of white pasta…Let the children at it, you see the meat sauce rests, the tomato rests…. the pesto is finished.”