“[Pesto] is a famous sauce rarely met outside of Genoa….”
—Ada Boni, Italian Regional Cooking (1969)
by Colman Andrews
“According to the bylaws of the Confraternità del Pesto — an organization founded in Genoa in 1992 to foster the appreciation (and safeguard the integrity) of this celebrated but often misinterpreted green sauce — pesto is a “typical and ancient Ligurian condiment…synonymous with ‘Genoese-ness’ for all the Ligurians scattered around the world, who find in it the nostalgic memory of their land”
In reality, pesto became the defining symbol of Liguria only in the late 19th century. The earliest published recipe for the sauce as we know it today apparently appeared in an anoynmous cookbook called Cuciniere italiano ovvero l’amico dei ghiotti, published in Florence in 1848. The intrepid English gastronomic traveler Lieut.-Col. Newnham-Davis, on a visit to Genoa in the early 1900s, encountered pesto — which he defines, pretty accurately, as “a paste in which pounded basil, garlic, Sardinia cheese, and olive oil are used” — only as a flavoring for minestrone, not as a pasta sauce.
Today, of course, pesto has become probably the most famous of Italian sauces. However limited its range may have been a half century ago, it is everywhere today, a standard in Italian restaurants and Italian recipe books in every corner of the universe. Rumor has it that Franco Malerba, the first Italian astronaut, even smuggled pesto into space back in 1992.
We’ve all eaten pesto, and quite possibly even made it ourselves. I think it’s safe to say, however, that anyone who has never tasted pesto in or near Genoa has probably never really experienced it. At its best, Genoese pesto is an absolutely memorable culinary triumph — a remarkable, well-balanced mix of fragrance and flavor, a bit salty, a bit sweet, a bit earthy, and unmistakably redolent of its defining herb.
Ada Boni exaggerates only slightly when she writes that “[T]here is one element that pervades the whole [Genoese port] area, as well as the whole of Greater Genoa from Arenzano to Sestri Levante — a characteristic odor that rises above the sharp, pungent smell of sea brine. This is the aroma of pesto…as penetrating and evocative as Bavarian sauerkraut or the perfume of cognac in a cellar in south-west France.” Basil, it has been said, is the perfume of Genoa and the soul of pesto, and one unmistakable characteristic of good pesto, as it is served in these parts, is that you can quite literally smell it across the room — and what you’re smelling, I hasten to add, is always the basil, never the garlic.
At least a bit of garlic (which Braudel calls “the spice of the poor”) is essential to pesto, of course. A Genoese proverb says, “O mortâ o sa sempre d’aggio”—“The mortar always smells of garlic.” Olive oil and pine nuts — or, in some regions, walnuts (or even a combination of both) — are basic to the sauce as well. Long, thin Mediterranean pine nuts, which are not as oily as the more common teardrop-shaped Chinese variety, but which cost twice as much, are preferred by connoisseurs.
Cheese is apparently a more recent addition, and its inclusion is usually proscribed thee days in any pesto destined to be stirred into soup. On the other hand, Ligurian culinary historians like to trace the origins of pesto back to a popular Roman condiment called moretum, made from aged sheep’s cheese pounded in a mortar with garlic, olive oil, vinegar, and not basil but celery leaves, rue, and coriander. (Virgil describes eating such a paste spread on bread as a morning meal in the Georgics.) And some scholars believe that the original pesto “cheese” might originally have been thick yogurt imported by the Genoese from their colonies on the Black Sea in the 14th or 15th century. To this day, prescinsêua — the Genoese clabbered milk, not dissimilar in character to yogurt — is sometimes stirred into pesto in communities east of Genoa.
Whenever dry cheese did first get added to pesto, it wasn’t necessarily the Parmigiano-Reggiano commonly used today. The pesto recipe in La vera cuciniera genovese (1865) calls for Parmigiano and “Dutch cheese” (perhaps aged Gouda, since it is to be grated). Nonetheless, says Genoese agricultural historian Diego Moreno, “There was no historical connection between Parmigiano and pesto until the beginning of the 20th century.” What may have been used instead at one time, he suggests, is a similar cheese called formaggio piacentino, from Piacenza in the region of Emilia-Romagna. (This was probably eaten in Liguria as long ago as the late medieval era, but pretty much gone from commerce by the end of World War II.)
The other cheese long associated with pesto is pecorino sardo, Sardinian sheep’s milk cheese. Sardinia has been a leading exporter of cheese since the 16th century, and Genoa has a long historical and commercial association with that island. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Ligurians — who produce little cheese of their own — should be such good customers for the product. Sardo, often made in Liguria itself today by transplanted Sardinian shepherds, is now widely used in pesto, often in half-and-half combination with Parmigiano. It is slightly sweeter than the latter, and it really does seem to add something to the mix.
As the Genoese will gladly tell you, there is only one way to make pesto correctly: in a mortar, with a pestle — as pesto’s very name suggests. (It derives from the Genoese verb pestâ, to pound or beat. An early Italian synonym for pesto was battuto, which means something beaten.) A marble mortar with a wooden pestle, its business end roughened for better crushing power, is considered ideal. A blender simply isn’t possible.
This isn’t just culinary romanticism, say the Genoese. Cutting rather than crushing basil, they maintain, stops up the capillaries in the leaves, so that fewer of the basil’s odor and flavor components are released. Purists even claim that the heat produced by the blender blades causes aromas to evaporate, and that the centrifugal action of the blender causes the basil’s pulp and juice to separate, thus enervating the herb’s character.
I’m frankly not sure whether any of this is true or not, but, having made pesto both ways (and a third way — simply hacking everything up together with a large knife on a big cutting board), I must say that the mortar-and-pestle stuff does seem to be the best. It is indeed more aromatic, and also seems slightly less bitter. Anyway, I find the process of crushing the ingredients together, standing over the mortar as they release their seductive odors, immensely satisfying. That said, I must add that one of Liguria’s best chef-restaurateurs confessed to me one evening that he always starts pesto in a mortar but then transfers it to a blender to obtain a smooth consistency, difficult with the traditional method.
The Genoese also have definite ideas about how pesto should be used. Other than being stirred into minestrone and an occasional other soup, it is specifically a sauce for a few certain types of pasta, most notably, trenette (the local version of linguine), trofie (which are a kind of gnocchi — little twisted cylindrical bits of pasta handmade with white, or sometimes chestnut, flour), mandilli de sæa (“silk handkerchieves”, thin lasagna-type sheets tossed with the sauce), corzetti (pasta disks stamped with family initials and other designs, or, in some regions, flat figure-eight-shaped pasta pieces), and testaroli (which are more or less pasta-dough pancakes). Pesto on spaghetti? Marginal. With ravioli? Only as an experiment. In risotto? Are you kidding? As a sauce for fish or chicken? You are kidding. This isn’t catsup we’re dealing with here. This is Genoeseness itself.
Recipe: Pesto Genovese
Though pesto is a simple sauce, requiring only a handful of ingredients and a single preparation technique, there are countless variations on the recipe. This one was inspired by a passage about making pesto (not a recipe, exactly) in Vito Elio Petrucci’s excellent Profumi e sapori di Liguria, but has been adapted according to suggestions from several Ligurian chefs and to my own experiences of making pesto in American kitchens.
Here are some additional pieces of pesto lore which may prove helpful: According to Renato Belforte, executive chef at the Yacht Club in Genoa — and in constrast to what some cookbooks will tell you — pesto shouldn’t be kept for very long. “Make it and use it,” he suggests, “and it should never be more than two or three days old. As it ages, the basil loses flavor and the garlic becomes more pronounced, so the sauce loses its balance.” Various authorities maintain that pesto destined to be used in soup should not contain pine nuts, or cheese, or even oil. Almost everyone agrees that neither cream nor butter should be added to any pesto (though Petrucci confesses that he does use a bit of the latter); the Genoese consider these to be Milanese corruptions. One recipe I have for pistou calls for letting the basil leaves dry for 24 hours after they’re washed; a related suggestion from one Italian source suggests adding a pinch of dried basil to the pesto after crushing the fresh leaves.
To serve 4
— 1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
— 3 tbsp. pine nuts, preferably the Mediterranean variety
— Coarse salt
— 2 tightly packed cups basil leaves (*)
— 1/4 cup each pecorino sardo and Parmigiano-Reggiano (or 1/2 cup
— 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, preferably Ligurian
Place garlic, pine nuts, and a pinch of salt in a large mortar, then crush them with a pestle, using smooth, regular motions, to make a smooth paste.
Add basil to mortar a little at a time. Crush to a coarse paste, grinding leaves against side of mortar with pestle. Add a pinch more salt and continue crushing, then gradually stir and crush in cheese.
Drizzle in olive oil and continue working until pesto is very smooth and no large pieces of basil are visible. To serve, dilute with 1-2 tbsp. pasta cooking water and toss with the cooked pasta.
(*) Use the smallest (i.e., youngest) leaves possible. To avoid a greenish bitterness, trim off the stems so that literally just the leaves are used — and if the leaves are very large, cut out even the center vein.