Much more than basil
Pesto Genovese is what we picture when the word 'pesto' comes up.
Classically, basil, pine nuts, olive oil and Parmigiano...
But pesto is so much more than basil.
'Pestare' is a verb used widely in Italy, not only for food.
It can mean press: pestare l'uva - to press grapes,
step on: pestare i fiori - to step on the flowers
or pound: pestare l’acqua nel mortaio - to pound water in a mortar (used figuratively here to mean something has no use).
From the verb 'to pound' comes pesto - the pounded product!
In Italy, the verb has many versions and pesto has too.
We always talk about Italian foods being regional and seasonal so let's go dip our fingers into some local sauces, starting near the glorious city of Naples:
Ah the sunshine, the lemons and the sea breeze - the region of Campania in southern Italy basks in glorious weather, we all love to lap it up on the Amalfi Coast which produces some of the tastiest (and biggest!) fruit in the country. San Marzano tomatoes used in traditional Napolitana pizza sauce come exclusively from a tiny piece of land just south of Mount Vesuvius while we all know gorgeous Amalfi lemons made the best limoncello - but did you know they also make a favoloso pesto?
Lemons, almonds, Pecorino Romano and garlic crushed in a mortar is one of the best things you can put on a pasta and pesto is often just a mix of what you have around, but there's an 'official' pesto recipe featuring lemons that begs to be mentioned:
Pesto di Limone di Procida
Procida is a small island near Ischia off the Bay of Naples where a colourful cluster of pastel homes beckons you into the quaintest of harbours featured in 'The talented Mr Ripley'. The cutest of islands is also home to the fattest of lemons. Lemons of Procida have such thick, delicious pith that you can eat the entire thing so they're known locally as 'Pan di Procida', the bread of Procida. Naturally, they're pound into a pesto to stir through freshly cooked spaghetti...
PESTO DI LIMONI DI PROCIDA RECIPE:
1 Procida lemon (or two normal but do not use the pith)
50g pine nuts (or almonds)
80g grated Parmigiano
1 bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley
Extra-virgin Olive Oil
Optional: 1 clove of Garlic
Pound the nuts with the garlic, if you are using it, add the parsley leaves, the juice and rind of the lemons (use the pith of Procida lemons) and then sprinkle Parmigiano while drizzling olive oil to achieve a smooth consistency. Mix a ladle of cooking water to the paste and stir into your pasta of choice.
Wooden Pestle and Marble Mortal
You'll notice Italians only use a wooden pestle. This is to ensure no flavours are altered during preparation. The beauty of any pesto is how good-quality ingredients come together quickly to be eaten straight away. Marble is the mortal of choice but only because it has traditionally always been so. You'll find one on the counter of an Italian kitchen.
Pesto can be stored in the fridge in a jar - simply drizzle some olive oil on top to discourage oxidising where the pesto turns brown and use within 4 days of making. Or freeze it and mix with hot cooking water to melt into a delicious, silky sauce while your pasta is on the boil. Many say not to add cheese if freezing and rather grate onto your dish just before serving.
The Best Ingredients
Italy's trick to culinary excellence lies in simple but beautiful ingredients. Gorgeous salame plus gorgeous bread makes a gorgeous panino - nothing else needed. Do you agree?
As pesto is made from maybe seven ingredients, make sure these are top quality and DOP - Denominazione d’Origine Protetta 'Protected Designation of Origin'. Having passed rigorous quality checks and grown in specific areas of Italy, these regional specialities are what will make your dish sing and what will make an Italian miss his home cooking most.
For once this foodie legend is more history than fairy-tale and originates in ancient Rome with a paste called moretum of crushed garlic, cheese and herbs. At the time, the people of Genova had their own version named agliata made from garlic and walnuts, much like our current-day Pesto Genovese. When merchant ships travelled between ports shipping goods to the East local produce would change hands and naturally adapt to include more local ingredients. An example of this is the rosy-pink, Sicilian Pesto alla Trapanese adored on bruschette or added to grilled fish and meats. Take the Middle Age agliata from the port of Genova, bartered in Trapani and adapted with the addition of Sicilian tomatoes, almonds and basil and there you have it!
Pesto alla Trapenese (from Trapani) has become as much of a classically 'local' part of Sicilian cuisine that the ingredients are specified down to the exact villages they come from. The Pizzutello tomatoes are from the village of Paceco, the garlic from Nubia, the almonds from Erice and the sea salt from Trapani, oh, and the extra-virgin olive oil must be from Trapanese valleys. Pesto alla Trapanese, also known as Pesto Siciliano, is traditionally served with busiate - long, spiralled pasta.
PESTO ALLA TRAPANESE RECIPE:
250g pizzutello tomatoes
50g peeled almonds
50g fresh basil leaves
1 heaped tablespoon of Pecorino
1 clove of red garlic
Extra-virgin olive oil from Trapani
Salt and pepper
Optional: a few mint leaves
Blanch the tomatoes and remove the skin and pips. Crush the almonds into a paste with the leaves and garlic. Add the tomatoes and pound, drizzling olive oil as you go, until a chunky sauce is obtained (it must not be overly smooth). Add the pecorino, salt and pepper to taste with a ladle of starchy pasta water to make a sauce which is mixed directly into the busiate. Everything can be chopped in a food processor, except the tomatoes which must be crushed with a fork by hand while the cheese will be stirred in last.
On a miniscule, volcanic island between Sicily and Tunisia grow the best capers in Italy. They flourish wild in volcanic rock crevices between ancient stone walls in one of the most wind-swept and isolated parts of the country. Painstakingly picked and preserved in sea salt, these tiny, green-grey buds named cucunci pack a mighty, salty punch. They're what feature in Pesto from Pantelleria.
Very similar to Pesto alla Trapanese (above), this has more basil, parsley and arguably the best capers in the world - Pantelleria capers.
PESTO PANTESCO RECIPE:
750g ripe tomatoes
80g peeled almonds
1 bunch of fresh basil leaves
1 bunch of flat-leaf parsley
3 tablespoons of Pantelleria capers (rinsed if salted, and strained)
2 cloves of garlic
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Optional: a bunch of mint leaves
Dry red chillies
Caciocavallo cheese or Pecorino
As with Pesto Trapanese, blanch the tomatoes and remove the skin and pips. Try to find the ripest tomatoes you can, Italian if possible. Pound the almonds, capers and herbs with the garlic into a paste. Add the tomatoes and smash until incorporated but not completely smooth, drizzling olive oil as you go. Season with salt and pepper and add the cheese and chillies if using. Smear onto warm toasted bread or use as a sauce for pasta, gnocchi or grilled fish.
A note on using a food processor.
Not everyone has time to sit and pound away at a marble mortar, not everyone has a mortar. The best thing about pesto is the consistency and flavour obtained by crushing an ingredient instead of chopping it. Crushing basil stops it from changing colour and oxidising, with garlic the flavours become ten-fold stronger but using a food processor is ten-fold quicker (and easier) so let's be real. These recipes will still taste incredible, just not AS incredible. Another good option is using a hand-held immersion blender. If you have enough liquid and/or olive oil, the sauce has no time to discolour, I find making Pesto Genovese a doddle using my high-speed blender. Stir in whichever grated cheese you're using right at the end to obtain that genovese consistency and store in a jar with enough olive oil to cover the surface.
We make a lot of Pesto Genovese for our 'Pesto Lasagna' at Mangia Mangia. We also mix up pesto for our antipasti platters so it's an ongoing process in our home kitchen plus doesn't seem to last very long in our house! In Italy, a specific type of basil from Liguria with small, fragrant leaves must be used for peso genovese but you'll see that any fresh basil works well for an intense, flavourful condiment you can use in so many ways. You'll also notice a variant of walnuts being used even if the traditional recipe registered in the Chamber of Commerce calls for pine nuts. You're welcome to play around with what you have.
TOP TIP!: I love to buy potted kitchen basil in the UK, it's readily available all-year-round and also 'British Grown'. There's something so satisfying in cutting the leaves straight from the plant to go into your food, nutrient-wise there's nothing more vibrant.
Pesto Genovese is Liguria's pride and joy, along with the splendid Cinque Terre. They're picky about the basil though - it must be from Genova and the olive oil must be Riviera Ligure DOP. Hand-rolled trofie pasta is the one Ligurians love most with their prized pesto and another thing they love with pesto is green beans. Steamed, chopped and added to pasta or gnocchi - try it! Go find yourself an ice-cold bottle of Pigato DOC from the terraces of Liguria and follow the recipe below, scatter in some pastel villages, rocky bays and a sprinkling of choppy seas and you've got yourself a regional treat straight from this beautifully renowned part of Italy:
PESTO GENOVESE (ACCORDING TO THE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE):
70 leaves of Genovese Basil (about 8 bunches)
50g Parmigiano Reggiano (preferably aged 36 months)
10g Pecorino Romano (preferably aged 15 months)
2 tablespoons of pine nuts from Pisa
3 garlic cloves
3 tablespoons of Ligurian Rivera extra-virgin olive oil DOP
Mash the garlic in a mortar, add the pine nuts and basil leaves, oil and sea salt. Finally, gently mix in the cheese right at the end with the rest of the olive oil. Use a ladle of cooking water if needed and add to your warm trofie pasta with some steamed green beans...