In Italy, the classic pesto recipe we all know and love is called “Pesto alla Genovese” and originates from -where else- Genoa, a port city in the lush Liguria region where aromatic herbs are plentiful.
It may be hard to believe, but some sources claim that the use of basil in pesto is actually a modern twist on an old recipe. Back in Medieval times, a similar sauce called “agliata” and consisting of garlic, salt, vinegar and olive oil, was used to help preserve perishable foods when proper refrigeration conditions were not available [source].
The first official basil pesto recipe was recorded in 1865 by Chef Giovanni Battista Ratto in his book “La Cuciniera Genovese” (translated “The Genoese Cook”). In his version, garlic, basil, Dutch cheese, grated Parmigiano, pine nuts and butter are grinded together into a paste-like sauce [source].
Since then, Ratto’s recipe has been tweaked by numerous Ligurian chefs and evolved over the years into the “classic” pesto perfection we enjoy today.
Make it at home
The word “pesto” stems from the Italian verb “pestare” literally meaning to mash, grind or crush. In fact, back before the advent of food processors, pesto was made using the traditional, and slightly more strenuous, pestle and mortar method.
Many “pesto purists” would even argue that making it any other way is simply not real pesto. However, it is common practice in Italy to use a food processer or blender to save time, keeping in mind that it does oxidize the basil leaves faster and therefore alter their colour.
Pesto is generally enjoyed between April and September when basil is in high season. It is made fresh at home from garden grown basil leaves and traditionally served with warm pasta or potatoes, in soups and occasionally on pizza and crostini.
PESTO ALLA GENOVESE
Recipe adapted from the Genoa Pesto World Championship website:
- 4 bunches of fresh Genoese basil, washed in cold water and thoroughly air dried on a paper towel. Note: if you don’t have access to authentic Genoese basil, any kind will do.
- 30g of pine nuts
- 45-60g of grated, aged Parmesan cheese
- 20-40g of grated Fiore Sardo cheese (Pecorino Sardo)
- 1-2 garlic cloves
- 10g coarse salt
- 60-80cc of Italian extra virgin olive oil
1. Using a marble mortar and wooden pestle, finely crush the garlic clove and pine nuts until smooth. Add a few grains of salt and the non-pressed basil leaves, then pound the mixture using a slightly circular movement of the pestle against the sides.
2. Repeat this process until the basil releases a bright green liquid; then add the grated Parmesan cheese and the Fiore Sardo cheese.
3. Gently drizzle in the extra virgin olive oil and stir lightly to blend the ingredients. Serve as desired with warm pasta or as a marinade.
Keep in mind that the whole process must be done as quickly as possible to avoid oxidation and discoloration. If you are using a food processor or blender, be sure to add the ingredients in the same order so as to maintain the same flavour mix.
Once you’ve mastered the art of “Pesto alla Genovese” you can experiment with other variations, or even create your own. Some of the more popular versions include:
Nuts, Nuts and more Nuts
Pine nuts are great, but not if you are allergic to them. Instead, try using almonds, pistachios or walnuts: each one interacts with the sweetness of the basil in its own unique way so you really can’t go wrong.
If you are not a huge garlic fan, or if you just want to make sure that you don’t smell at the office the next day, try taking out the garlic altogether. You’d be surprised at how well the other ingredients hold up without it.
Can’t find Pecorino Sardo cheese at your local supermarket? No problem, just double up on the Parmesan cheese! We are firm believers that you can never have too much of a good thing.
Pesto without basil may seem like a crime but it’s actually worth a try! Replace the basil quantities with baby spinach for a super-powered pesto, or with radicchio for a spicier kick. These two delicious substitutes are best paired with the sweet and buttery flavours of walnuts.