God gives the nuts – but he does not crack them.
There is no doubt, it is the most loved raw sauce in the world, like mayonnaise or aioli. It is an ageless benchmark and a contemporary symbol of the Italian spirit around the world. Frank Sinatra just adored it, and for his 75th birthday he signed a line of Italian products in New York featuring pesto, carrying his photo on the label.
Pesto comes from the use of spicy-smelling herbs, a tradition that originated in the Middle Ages. The name of this sauce made Liguria province famous in the world, comes from the original preparation way: pounding basil leaves and other ingredients in traditional murta marble bowl with pestellu wood. In fact, the Mediterranean Riviera region has always been home and cradle for different herbs (as you may remember, La Spezia owes its name to the ancient spice trade which has been located over the area). Adding herbs to basic meals has a medieval origin and was mainly used to flavour dishes or to enrich boring daily diet.
Thus, the current recipe of classical pesto had changed several times over the centuries. It appears to originate from the Roman spreadable cheese Moretum, a mixture of fresh cheese, olive oil, herbs, salt, and vinegar, mashed together in a mortar until consistent.
During the Middle Ages, Genoan garnished their meals with a famous sauce called agliata, that was mostly a mix of garlic slices and crushed walnuts, as garlic was an important ingredient in Ligurians cuisine. For instance, it was widely used for cooked food preservation, as well as a medicine, mostly by sailors during their long sea voyages. These trips have made this sauce known in many countries, including La Boca in Buenos Aires and the seaside cities in the United States.
The original pesto recipe dates back to the second half of the 19th century. The first chef, mentioned the contemporary version of pesto in 1870, was Giovanni Battista Ratto. This recipe, published in Cucina Genovese, has been lightly contrasting with the present-day formula. Thus, walnuts were the substitution for pine nuts. Basil was the first choice, but marjoram or parsley were also considered as decent choices when basil was lacking. Instead of Pecorino, Ratto recommended famous Dutch cheese, pretty accessible in all Italian port cities that years. And as the final important key, butter added to create a creamy texture along with garlic and pine nuts before adding Basil leaves.
Nova days there are a lot of versions with wast number of ingredients, but real authentic Ligurian pesto can still be tasted in the furthest corners of Liguria cities. In general, it is said that in Liguria is very difficult to find two identical versions of pesto, because of many variations, sometimes within even the same family. Adding different walnuts, ricotta or other homemade cheeses may dramatically change the formula. It is also depending on the season, pasta type serving, or even the chef’s mood. Actually, such an attitude is quite known for many Italian meals. In Italian cooking, recipe modifications demonstrate the prosperity of gastro-diversity.
In 1965, the great gastronomist Massimo Alberini, in his book I Liguri a Tavola. Itinerario gastronomico da Nizza a Lerici (The Ligurians at the table, a Gastronomic Itinerary from Nice to Lerici) highlighted the role of olive oil in the recipe of pesto: it should neither be too fruity and sweet nor too bitter. And, Ligurian green extra-virgin olive oils are absolutely perfect accordingly.
Just as Genovese basil leaves, extra-virgin olive oil of Riviera Ligure has collected the DOP mark, granted by the European Union, in recognition of its quality and value. Furthermore, to produce pesto that terroir aspect is critical for, the following strict ingredients must be used:
- fresh garlic from Vessalico in the Province of Imperia, with a delicate flavour and particular digestibility;
- Italian pine nuts;
- the coarse salt from Cervia salt caves.
It is obvious that outside Italy it is not always possible to find all these aboriginal ingredients. For example, the production of Italian pine nuts has distinctly dropped in recent years due to parasitic invasion.
Pesto alla genovese
Basil leaves: 25 g
Extra virgin olive oil: 50 ml
Parmigiano cheese for grating: 35 g
Pecorino cheese for grating: 15 g
Pine nuts: 8 g
½ Garlic clove
Salt: 1 pinch
First of all, to prepare pesto alla Genovese (here, alla means that you do not follow all of DOP rules) you must remember, that basil leaves should not be washed, but rather cleaned with a soft cloth. Start preparing pesto by placing peeled garlic into a stone mortar with a few grains of salt. Begin to pound and, when the garlic is reduced to a creamy paste, add basil leaves along with a pinch of salt (salt is used to crush fibres and maintain bright green color).
Crush basil against the walls of mortar, turning the pestle clockwise and rotating the mortar in the opposite direction. Keep it up until basil leaves will turn to green shiny liquid. At this point add pine nuts and start to pound for paste. Add slowly both cheeses, stirring continuously, to make it even more creamy, and at the end add an extra virgin olive oil, stirring constantly with the pestle. Mix well all ingredients until you get a smooth sauce.
Nowadays, a lot of people use a blender instead of a pestle, but you must remember that the heat, generated by the blender’s blades ruins leaves dramatically: sucking off their beneficial oils that, in turn, make sauce darker. To avoid this, you can place two ice cubes into the blender right after basil leaves: it will reduce the heating process and will keep pesto lighter by preventing oil from getting absorbed.
Ligurians are pretty rigorous about adding pesto into certain dishes. If you believe you may mix any type of pasta with any kind of sauce, then you know nothing about Italian cuisine. Harmony between pasta shapes and particular sauces is more important than the art of composition in Verdi’s opera. Like in fine poetry, there is a straight correlation between form and content. The only shapes of pasta admitted in Liguria to toss with Basil Pesto are linguine (flattened spaghetti), trofie, or trofiette (short, thin, twisted pasta), and corzetti (small, thin rounds of pasta that are given an embossed decoration using a special wooden hand-tool). Italian people are extremely proud of their emerald and balmy treasure. Since 2007, they have been organized and promoted an International World Championship to inaugurate the most authentic pesto sauce of the year. In 2015, European Union started the process to declare pesto Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. A new breed of Italian chefs placed it on the menus and made the dish according to the original recipe. To-days's pasta, would it be gnocchi or lasagne, with pesto is amongst the most known symbol of unexcelled Italian gastronomy in the contemporary world.
Tip. Don’t use pesto just as a standard pasta companion but also as a dressing for bruschetta with fresh tomato.