Every Tuesday, Italian expat Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.
Today: A breakdown of traditional pesto, Liguria's favourite pasta sauce.
Elizabeth David wrote in Italian Food that a plate of Genova's favourite pasta, linguine-like trenette with pesto, is “perhaps the best pasta dish in the whole of Italy.” Undoubtedly one of Italy's most famous sauces, pesto is loved the world over for its simplicity and freshness. A symbol of Liguria's unique cuisine, shaped by its coastline and its history of seafaring, foraging inhabitants, the true, original pesto recipe is the pride and joy of the region's capital, Genova.
It's a simple recipe, naturally, but it all comes down to the balance of quality ingredients -- and the way these ingredients are treated when combined. Let's break it down.
First. The indisputable tools for making a proper, bright and creamy pesto consist of a traditional white marble mortar with a wooden pestle and patient but quick hand grinding to avoid oxidation of the basil. “Pesto”, after all, comes from the word pestare, to pound, grind, smash. Failing this, any mortar and pestle will do, but the heat and metal of a blender, food processor or even a 'mezzaluna' knife will oxidize the basil leaves, leaving you with an undesirable, dark-colored pesto.
Then, raw garlic -- a small, sweet smelling clove should do it. Avoid musty or overpowering garlic, as pesto should never be too garlicky. It is pounded in the mortar with a pinch of coarse sea salt, which helps preserve that brilliant green hue that good pesto should have.
The basil leaves should be the smallest, sweetest leaves you can find -- the best, of course, is the local basil of Genova, known as genoese basil. They are pounded quickly, but methodically with a twisting motion of the pestle. Then, in go the pine nuts, which must be raw, not toasted -- pesto is all about preserving the sweetness of the ingredients.
You need a balance of both Sardinian pecorino cheese (imported from across the sea by Ligurian mariners for centuries) and Parmesan (or Grana Padano, which comes from the neighbouring Emilia-Romagna), ideally in a ratio of 1:3. To finish, Ligurian extra virgin olive oil, more delicate than its Tuscan or southern counterparts, a little dribble at a time. It adds gloss and shine, corrects texture, and provides slick protection from any further oxidation.
Proportions are variable, changing from household to household. A little less garlic for some, exclusively Parmesan for others, but the ingredients are these with wide variations rare -- aside from a couple of acceptable substitutions. In one of the first written recipes for pesto from a cookbook from the late 1800s, it is noted that if basil isn't available, marjoram or parsley can substitute. Quite a different result, but delicious when done well. Walnuts can be used to replace pine nuts.
This is pesto alla genovese.
A very traditional way to enjoy freshly-made pesto is to toss it with cooked, sliced potatoes, green beans and pasta. Known as pesto ricco, “rich pesto”, it's a wonderful combination with a little more substance than simple pesto. When made well, there's really nothing quite like properly-made pesto for a quick, fresh, fragrant meal.
For the pesto:
1 or 2 cloves of garlic
A pinch of coarse sea salt
2 ounces of basil leaves (one large bunch of basil)
1 to 2 tablespoons of pine nuts
2 tablespoons of grated pecorino
6 tablespoons of grated Parmesan
1/3 cup (delicately-flavored) extra virgin olive oil
11 ounces dried pasta such as linguine
2 small-medium sized potatoes, peeled, quartered then cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 cup of green beans, cut into 1 inch sections
Extra virgin olive oil
See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.
Photos by Emiko Davies