When we think about pesto, for most people, the first image that comes across is the emerald green sauce made of basil.
However, pesto is not just a type of sauce, pesto is a movement referring to its making process, and more remarkably, the essence of the ingredients traveling from various regions across Italy.
The trace of history behind Pesto Genovese
Sitting in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, Genova was the key port of the oversea and regional trade for food commodities — — basil grown in Prà, pine nuts near Pisa, Pecorino made in Sardinia, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese shipped from Emilia-Romagna, and another core ingredient — — Ligurian extra virgin olive oil that integrated all the regional food and turned them into Pesto Genovese we know today.
The name “pesto” originates from the Genovese word pestâ, meaning to pound or to crush. This refers to the way that the authentic sauce is prepared, with a wooden pestle and a marble mortar with 4 ears along the edges, which was designed to rotate easily.
The origin of pesto can be traced back to the evolution of a recipe much older, l’aggiadda, a sauce made from garlic in Vessalico for sailors in the 13th century to preserve garlic for long weeks at sea.
What is wrong with garlic?
Despite garlic sauce was the base of pesto, nowadays garlic-free pesto almost has an equal market share with ordinary pesto in Italy, with the number rising with the aversion to garlic in the gastronomic world simultaneously. Garlic-free pesto started with a good means for garlic-allergic consumers to have pesto like the others, while it has been demonized given to all sorts of reasons, possibly the bad quality garlic adding in dishes, the pungency overwhelming the delicate flavors, unpleasant smell remaining in the mouth — — or the prejudice of heavy garlic eaters came from the lower class.
“The history of pesto came from the garlic sauce, so why don’t you use garlic?”, said Simone Circella, the chef of Trattoria La Brinca, a local family restaurant in Liguria.
“And it should not be called pesto if it is made from a blender.”
In defense of tradition— — “ Don’t touch our pesto!”
With the popularity of pesto around the world, many sauces are claimed to be pesto regardless of its origin.
“Non toccate il nostro pesto! “ (Don’t touch our pesto!) is a saying among local Ligurians. Their anger towards outsiders abuse the word “pesto” in any sauce mixture is more than obvious. “We feel like somebody is attacking our culture.”, said Matteo Pezzana, the owner of il Pesto di Pra, a pesto company located in Pra, Liguria.
Based on respect to the traditions, pesto was born for fresh pasta such as trofie, trenette, and gnocchi, and it NEVER goes along with meat, probably with one exception for the raw fish.
The challenge of homemade Pesto Genovese
“My grandmother used to make pesto for Sunday lunch.” Matteo said. And same with Simone, and he considers that pesto making is a common knowledge shared with the community, secrets do not exist.
However, just words are not enough to make good pesto.
With the rapid change of modern society, fewer and fewer families would spend time making pesto from scratch. The custom of a family making pesto on Sunday is more preserved in the countryside of Genova than the urbanized areas by the seaside.
If the senior family members didn’t hand down the recipes, pesto making would just be a few lines resided in the past and forgotten in the lapse of time.
While Matteo demonstrated how to grind the basil in front of the students visiting his family farm since 1827, his 4-year-old son kept grabbing Matteo’s apron to get his father’s attention. Matteo passed the pestle to him but the little boy couldn’t fit his small hand around the wooden stick to mash the basil.
Matteo held up his son’s tiny hand to grip the pestle and together they continued grinding the basil.
“Now you know how to make pesto, too.” He looked at his son, and the boy stopped whining, at the same time, a serious look appeared on his face.
Since the beginning, pesto not only represents a form of delicious sauce that combines fresh produce from around Italy, but also a skill, or say a spirit, that allows tradition to be passed down from grandparents to grandchildren, from fathers to sons.
Recipe for 4 people portion
-Basil leaves 70 gram
Choose young and small basil leaves. Dry the leaves completely with a kitchen towel after washing to prevent them from oxidizing too quickly.
-Extra virgin olive oil 80 c.c.
-Parmigiano Reggiano 60 grams
-Pecorino 40 grams
-Pine nuts 30 grams
-Garlic 2 cloves
-Coarse salt 1 pinch
For the authentic pesto enthusiast, using basil produced in the Ligurian area is a must. The Ligurian terroir gives the basil a delicate sweetness without minty pungency.
To make the traditional pesto, according to the “King of Pesto”, Roberto Panizza, first you have to crush the garlic and ground with the pine nuts until fully incorporated. Remove them from the mortar and add in the fresh basil leaves and some of the coarse salt to break the leave fabrics, and“pestâ” until the water is released, then put the pine nuts and garlic back into the mortar.
Next, add grated Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino, and season with salt if needed. Last but not least, add extra virgin olive oil to marry the freshness, sweetness, saltiness, and fattiness to create a beautiful balanced flavor.