The Perfect Pesto

No other Italian recipe has known the success of pesto. a simple mix of only a handful of ingredients, and yet so flavorful that it is worldwide known.

Picture courtesy of Comune di Rapallo

There are six basic ingredients to pesto: garlic, olive oil, nuts, basil leaves, salt and cheese. Yet, everyone does pesto in a different way. The classic recipe calls for pine nuts and Parmesan cheese, but walnuts and pecorino cheese versions are not unusual. The secret, however, seems to reside in the basil.

There are many different types of basil, and the one used in Liguria, the land of origin of pesto, is a baby sweet basil, whose leaves are small and tender. The first reports of pesto are in roman literature, in Virgilio’s Bucoliche, and it seems to be the oldest olive oil based sauce. The name, pesto, comes from the way it was originally made, pestando (crushing) the ingredients in a mortar. Nowadays you can take the shortcut of the food processor, although pesto experts say you can taste the difference, as the way the metal blades cut the leaves doesn’t produce the same kind of sauce.

What is the best way to do pesto, then? I owe a small marble mortar and pestle, and it is a hard job!! Nevertheless, you should consider trying the pesto done with mortar and pestle at home. There are a few tips on how to make the best pesto the “old fashioned” way…

  1. Start by crashing salt and garlic together in the mortar;
  2. Add the nuts;
  3. After the nuts are crushed, add the basil leaves, a little at the time, and fold them in as quickly as you can. The longer you crush the leaves, the more they ossidate and the pesto will become darker instead of the bright green you want to see on your pasta!
  4. Lastly, add the grated cheese, and fold in the extra-virgin olive oil.

You should come up with a perfectly bright green, delicious pesto- for better results the experts recommend a marble mortar and a wooden pestle. Once made, pesto can stay a few days in the fridge, as long as you cover the pesto with olive oil.

Every year in Genova they host the World Championship of Pesto. Chefs from all over Liguria gather in Genova to compete, with very few “outsiders” participating, usually from other part of Italy, and a handful from the rest of the world. In April 2008, chef Paolo Laboa, the executive chef at Farina in San Francisco, brought his young trainee James D. Bowien to Genova to compete. Well, San Franciscan, rejoice: James won the first prize, and you can taste his wonderful award-winning pesto in your own backyard!

3 Responses to “The Perfect Pesto”

  1. Yum! Oh, gosh, pesto is so good. Thanks for the detailed instructions.

    a.k.a. The Hungry Mouse

  2. Another pesto fan here!

    Actually the first time I tried pesto was back in the UK many years ago after some friends had come back from a holiday in Italy.

    My son is a great pesto fan too, but my other half, from Genova, dislikes pesto, and pasta for that matter.

    By the way, pesto lasagne is/are lovely!



  3. [...] Pesto alla Genovese- pesto is possibly the most famous export from Liguria. Just a handful of ingredients, and still delicious and fascinating to all sort of different cultures! Americans put it on pizza, French put it on meat, Germans put it on everything- but Ligurian mostly only put it over trofie, a handmade simple pasta. Legend has it that the small leaves of basil found in Liguria give the original pesto the unique flavor you taste only here- you can’t miss pesto here! [...]

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