This article is also available in: Italian
“Pesto alla Genovese” (pesto sauce) is without doubt one of the most known and appreciated pasta sauces both in Italy and out of the country. As one of the symbols of the local cuisine, it has been included in the list of traditional Ligurian food.
Pesto is an uncooked sauce, in which all the ingredients are mixed without being previously cooked. These ingredients don’t lose any of their characteristics, thanks to the fact that it requires no cooking.
Originated in the Liguria region, basil is the main ingredient of this ancient sauce. Genoese basil is crushed with pine nuts and garlic, then topped with Parmesan cheese, Pecorino Sardo and extra virgin olive oil.
ORIGINS AND PREPARATION
Dated back to the Roman times and described by Virgil, Moretum is the first attempt. The first pesto recipe dates back to the nineteenth century, although it got its features from the oldest crushed sauces prepared in Liguria during the Maritime Republic of Genoa.
In the area of La Spezia and Genoa, leftover cheese rinds were used to make the sauce, because more economically advantageous. Being much cheaper than pasta, potatoes were also added to the sauce, as an example of the proverbial Liguria thrift.
Traditionally, the pesto sauce is made by using a mortar and a pestle. Even though this recipe is well codified through a long tradition, it can be adjusted to different tastes, creating numerous variations.
The traditional mortar is made of marble, with a wooden pestle. Basil leaves are washed and dried, being careful not to crumple. Garlic cloves are crushed in the marble mortar (30 leaves of basil for each garlic clove called for in the recipe). Then, basil leaves are added, alternated with layers of coarse salt that plays an important abrasive role in shredding the leaves efficiently. Basil leaves are crushed against the mortar by moving the pestle in a circular motion.
The processing should terminate as soon as possible to avoid the oxidation of the ingredients. The sauce should look like a light green-coloured thick cream. The various ingredients need to be mixed to build a great harmony of the flavours; one should not dominate the others. Although the recipe is completed at this point, the processing is not really over: before using it as a condiment for pasta, the pesto is diluted with pasta cooking water until it gets a soft texture, but not too much watery.
As mentioned, the original recipe can be adjusted depending on the local traditions and different tastes. It can be quite varied the ratio between the two cheeses: from a mix of equal parts to the single use of Parmesan cheese; the ideal proportion is about a third of Fiore Sardo and two-thirds of Parmesan cheese. The amount of garlic can be reduced for those who find it too strong – or just the central core can be removed -, even if the use of Vessalico Garlic guarantees both the delicacy and digestibility.
Especially in the hinterland, according to the availability, it was common in the past to use walnuts instead of pine nuts, properly selected and peeled- peel has a very bitter taste! Some variants mix pine nuts and walnuts in variable percentages.
In a rich old version, boiled green beans and potatoes are added to the pasta, along with pesto.
The thing is…the recipe for Pesto Genovese is unique and all the variants, although interesting and pleasant to the palate, should be considered as unrecognized versions and far from the real recipe.