So, I Accidentally Entered the World Pesto Championship 2024 – Round One

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Pesto is my favourite food. No, really. Green, red, artichoke, smother it on pasta, chicken or a mozzarella sandwich and I will be yours forever. Punchy flavours and fond memories, it is my comfort food. That is why, when offered the chance to Instagram a pesto event in London, I was there in a heartbeat. So how did I end up taking part in the World Pesto Championship? I am not sure myself…there was a cocktail or two involved!

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What is Pesto?

Born in Genoa the main city of Liguria in the northwest of Italy, pesto has been around since the 16th century. A traditional pesto contains:

  • Basil
  • Garlic
  • Pine nuts
  • Olive oil
  • Parmesan
  • Salt

The word pesto means to crush, so as you can imagine you take these tasty ingredients and beat the hell out of them in a pestle and mortar. Eventually, you get a glorious green gloop, good for dousing pasta in or adding to….well, anything really. I like my pasta with more than the recommended serving. My Mum used to make pasta with the pesto and some of the cooking water which diluted it and I was furious every time.

My (possibly unhealthy) Relationship with Pesto

Now, don’t tell anyone at the competition but I have fought for years about the joy of jarred pesto. Everyone says, “But it is so easy to make yourself”. Sure, but the whole point of comfort food is that it is quick and easy. If you are in emotional distress, you don’t want to be missing one vital ingredient for your pesto or to spend ages pounding it…although that may be quite therapeutic actuallly. Boiling a quick pan of pasta (and yes, we do have the quick cook kind sometimes) and smothering it in too much yummy, green pesto means a bowl of happiness in just five minutes.

The World Pesto Championship

The world’s top pesto competition is held every two years in Genoa (Apart from that year when everything went digital). Throughout the year, competitions have been taking place all over the world. Chefs and amateurs alike have been whittled down in a series of heats with 100 hopefuls all meeting in Genoa for the finals. Everyone gets a pestle and mortar and identical ingredients. There are 40 minutes on the clock and it must all be done by hand. On the 23rd March 2024, there will be 10 morning rounds with 10 participants before the grand final in the afternoon. The top 10 will show down in the final round for the title judged by 30 experts. These include restauranteurs, chefs and food critics (eek). Winners get a pestle with a gold handle and the honour of being the Pesto Champion of the World!

The First Round

The Invite

World Travel Market is London’s biggest travel expo. It is held at Excel in London’s Docklands and s attended by industry professionals, journalists, content creators, businesses and networkers galore. We have attended for the last five years and it is fun, exhausting and interesting in equal measure. Throughout the week, there are loads of side events and sometimes, we get asked along to one or two. This year, I was sent my dream invitation, an event all about pesto and held in a cocktail bar that I had wanted to try for a few years. Lyaness in the Sea Containers Hotel has the best reputation for innovative and truly delicious drinks, all within an exceedingly trendy Thames-side hotel.

Liguria, Italy has floated a huge barge down the River Thames, laden with a giant pestle and mortar full of pesto. Some content creators had spent the day on the vessel, learning how to make the sauce and I watched their stories with giggles to myself. It looked like hard work. It was a relief that my attendance only required eating the delicious green gold and drinking some of the expertly crafted cocktails.

The Evening Begins

I arrived aggressively on time and made my way into the bar, a slight panic setting in. Everyone already there was slim, beautiful and elegantly attired in their best black dresses or sharpest black suits. I was distinctly underdressed in a fifties style, houndstooth dress. It was my, “I like cute dresses but please take me seriously” fit. Somehow, I had found myself in an event full of London’s most fabulous Italians. I gravitated straight to the bar for a nerve-steadying beverage. The basil mojito was unusual but very tasty and worryingly easy to drink. A second followed quickly as other people I knew started to arrive from WTM.

Now, I would like you to bear the cocktails in mind when judging the photography in this post. Also, I was not aware I would be on camera.

Appetisers and Aperol

There was a small buffet to one side of the bar. A vat of pesto (of course), bread, tomatoes, mozzarella and other Italian cheeses. Taking a small plate, I tucked in quickly. I hadn’t found my buddies at this point so I didn’t really have anywhere to sit. I decided not to go for seconds but instead, try their Aperol Spritz. This may come from the other side of Northern Italy but I will forgive them their non-Ligurian ways as it was very well made. Turns out there were oysters and all kinds of delicious dishes at the other end of the bar which I entirely missed! Whoops.

The barge floated into view and we all head out into the chilly evening to snap photos. It was a very cold week actually, temperatures haven’t been that low in the two months since. Another drink was grabbed to ensure a proper cocktail coat.

The Competition

On the way back in, one of the organisers said a couple of spots had opened up and asked if we wanted to hop in. Feeling distinctly tipsy and therefore a little reckless I said, “Why not”. It would be a fun way to end the night and I could tell Mr Fluskey that I was in the London heat of the competition.

The World Pesto Championship president, Roberto Panizza took centre stage to give everyone a demonstration. I tried my best to listen but was so worried that I would forget what to do that I shouted instructions into a selfie video as an aide-mémoire. As long as it makes sense, it is now my recipe book.

I took to the pestle and mortar with the amazing encouragement of food influencer Lilly Diep (@dieponfood). I was getting stuck in but also eating rather a lot of both the raw ingredients and my own pesto. It wasn’t hygienic but it is my favourite food! I just couldn’t resist!

I think we were working on it for around 10 minutes. There was a pint that I realised I hadn’t seen when the oil was glugged in so I was definitely doing my own thing when I chucked it in at the last minute.

Here are my terrible video recordings, meant just for me but shared as a visual aid.

The Award

The judges made their way around the entrant’s bowls, tasting each with small plastic spoons. We mingled, giggled, drank a cocktail and some people were dancing. It was all very jovial. There was an announcement that the winner had been chosen so we crowded around. I took a spot at the end of the table, phone poised to record the winner in all their glory. Well, it was my name that was announced and I screamed before bursting out laughing in disbelief. It was unanimous! What a fluke.

I was presented with my “Finalista” certificate and grinned into the bright lights of the cameras. Apparently, we were on Italian TV but thankfully, I’ve never seen any of the footage.

The Next Round

So, we are off to Italy and the World Pesto Championship. Genoa is the location of the competition, more specifically the Doge’s Palace. We have our flights booked and a plan to swing down to Cinque Terre and Pisa too. It would be rude not to. I visited Genoa briefly on an MSC Mediterranean cruise but it was a rainy January day and I am not sure it was giving its best. It will be great to see it again.

I am, of course, not expecting to win. You need to hear a compilation of my friends and family when I told them I was in a cooking competition. I am SO good at eating but cooking is NOT my forte. Still, I can’t wait to give it a good go and have fun doing it. There are proper chefs that take part in this competition. Most of the previous winners are Italian (almost half from Genoa itself) but in 2008, some guy called Danny Bowien won.

Oh, turns out he is a James Beard Award-winning Korean-American chef with restaurants in New York.

I will be updating this post with the results and documenting my competition on Instagram. Follow along in March!

@flyingfluskeyPesto IG Highlights

Final Thoughts

As a kid, we all saw adults in competitions saying they never thought they would get the chance to do something like this. I think I relate to them now. It may have all been an accident but what an excellent excuse to return to Genoa and try something crazy. Plus, I am going to eat SO much pesto!

Rosie Fluskey (World Pesto Championship Finalist 2024) xx

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4 thoughts on “So, I Accidentally Entered the World Pesto Championship 2024 – Round One

  1. Hi Rosie. This is Ben Thuriaux (contestant #52 on Saturday in Genoa). You may have seen me (or Eric or Emiliano) handing out questionnaires on the day!

    Hope you enjoyed the event!

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