Lovers of pesto, the tangy, green pasta sauce, are bracing for increased prices or even shortages after unseasonable hailstorms in northern Italy destroyed much of the most prized variety of basil, the key ingredient in the Genoese specialty.
Hailstones the size of tennis balls smashed glass panes on scores of greenhouses and pummeled fragile basil plants this month, wiping out entire crops near the town of Pra, west of Genoa, the capital of the Liguria region in northwest Italy.
“The heart of basil production has been hit,” Andrea Sampietro, director of the Ligurian chapter of Confagricoltura, an Italian farmers’ lobby, said Monday.
Local authorities estimate that some 35 producers suffered a total of nearly $6.5 million in damages. Farmers have asked the government to declare a state of natural calamity, so they can receive funds to repair the damage.
Although the fragrant plant is grown throughout Liguria and most of the rest of Italy, the countryside surrounding Pra is the cradle of Genoese basil, the variety traditionally used by makers of the pesto sauce in the port city of Genoa.
“It will not affect industrial production, but high-quality production will suffer,” Sampietro told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. Industrial production refers to the mass-produced pesto sauces that are found in Italian and foreign supermarkets. Large-scale producers don’t depend on the upscale variety grown in the Pra area, which provides 20 percent of Liguria’s basil production.
Sampietro said it will take months before the greenhouses are repaired and the next crop grows. “The situation will be back to normal by the end of October,” he said, adding that four harvests are done each year.
The alkaline terrain in Pra and the microclimate created by the Mediterranean Sea give the small-leafed Genoese basil variety a less pungent taste, making what many consider a more delicate, perfect pesto.
The greenhouses are partially open to the outside environment, with the air’s salinity and humidity influencing the quality of the plants. Sampietro also credited centuries-old farming practices that cultivate higher-quality basil. The basil is hand-picked by workers who are suspended over the plants on boards laid across the greenhouse to avoid trampling the plants and disturbing the soil.
The basic recipe for pesto, a delicacy that dates back to Roman times, includes basil, olive oil, garlic, pine nuts and pecorino cheese. Besides pasta, versions of the sauce are used across Liguria — from Genoa to the picturesque coastal towns of the Cinque Terre — to season bread, fish and minestrone.
Restaurants say they will swallow any increased price rather than pass on the cost to diners. They say they will continue to buy in Pra what little basil survived rather than lower their standards by getting the plant elsewhere in Liguria.
“Our supplier has been hit hard and prices have almost doubled,” said Giampaolo Belloni, a chef and owner of the Zeffirino restaurant in Genoa. “I have experimented making pesto with more than 60 varieties, and this is the best one.”
Belloni said the restaurant’s supplier grows the plants in pots and sells them by the pot. He said the restaurant used to buy basil for 40 cents per pot and the price is now at 60 cents per pot.
The storied restaurant, opened in 1939, counted Frank Sinatra as one of its long-standing clients and used to ship its homemade pesto to the American singer.