Friday, May 27th, 2011

Pesto in traditional mortar

Seeing that it's springtime and everything is just so GREEN... Pesto came to mind. It reminds me of this time of year when basil starts to take advantage of all this sunshine and grows like crazy. Enjoy!

Pesto... the word comes from the Italian verb pestare which means to crush, to trample, to pound.

In fact, one accidently 'pesta' the foot of another on a crowded bus and a bully is always on the lookout for weaklings to 'pestare' on the playground. The noun 'pesto' means two things: the pestle, or the instrument used to pound, as well a sauce made with a mortar and pestle. There are many types of 'pesto' to be found in Italy: sundried tomato pesto, olive and caper pesto, mixed herb pesto...

But the pride of Liguria, and especially Genoa, is the unico Pesto alla Genovese.

Genovese basil

Like most dishes, pesto has evolved through the ages and continues to evolve according to people's tastes and styles. From a garlic based sauce with a few basil leaves thrown in for aroma, quite similar to the French pistou, the sauce has evolved to become the pesto that we're familiar with today. Who knows what pesto will be like 50 years from now?

Here are a couple of trivial facts about pesto- that it is the second most used sauce in the world for dressing pasta and it is the third most used condiment in the world after ketchup and mayonnaise (this seems, well, a bit of an ambitious claim to me- soy sauce? mustard?). The first mention of Genoese pesto was printed quite recently, in Genova's daily newspaper the Secolo XIX in 1840. The first recipe book to contain a precise pesto recipe was written by Gio Batta Ratto and published in 1863.

Kate with GNG tour group cleaning the basil

Pesto's late written debut is due to the fact that pesto was a peasant food, not likely to be served at the tables of the elite. The contadini (farmers or peasants) just knew how to make it and they made it according to where they lived, the season, and what they had on hand. By the time that pesto made it into recipe books, it was part of the common cultural knowledge and diffused even outside Genoa and the Liguria.

Things that you may not know about pesto :

1.The 4 little wings on the sides of the Genoese marble mortar are call 'orecchie' or ears. They help in the transport of the mortar as well as being handy for turning the mortar as you're making the sauce.

2. That the grinding of the basil leaves is enhanced by the use of coarse salt.

3. That Genoese Basil is not just a kind of 'dwarf' basil, it is picked extremely young.

4. That basil can be poisonous if eaten before its 10th day of growth (if eaten in EXTREMELY large quantities)

5. That there are 360 varieties of basil in the world, only 60 of which are edible and only ONE suitable for making pesto alla Genovese.

6. That pesto is EXCLUSIVELY used on pasta dishes in Italy.The only exception is when pesto is used to enhance Minestrone alla Genovese. No chicken, no salmon, no lamb. No salad dressings and no sandwich spreads. At least here in Italy.

7. The most common error of making pesto is adding too much salt- remember that the cheeses are salty!

There is no distinct recipe for pesto, there are only ingredients used in varying proportions according to the season, availability, and personal taste.

1.  Basil. First and foremost the basil must be of the Genovese Basil type: sweet, small leaf, delicate. The basil should ideally be 15-18 days old and be bought with the roots attached. Detach the leaves, wash and very gently dry them. Obviously the taste of the basil changes throughout the year. In winter, you would want to add more basil to your pesto because it is less fragrant. In summer, when basil is at the height of its natural growth season, you would add less.

2.  Garlic. Ideally you would use Aglio di Vessalico, a garlic made in extrememly limited quantities in Western Liguria near Imperia, when it is in season (summer months) and Aglio di Nubia from Sicily during the winter months. Make sure that you take the inner sprout out of the garlic before using it. *Words I like* The inner sprout of a garlic clove is called the 'anima' or soul of the garlic.

3.  Salt. BUT not just any salt... you need whole course sea salt. Best if from Trapani. Commercially made salt has bitter notes that can ruin the taste of your pesto.

Ligurian olive oil

4.  Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Please invest in a good Ligurian olive oil. The oil provides a neutral base which enhances the flavors of the other ingredients and helps the essential oils dissolve in a more efficient. A good Ligurian olive oil made from taggiasca olives does just that.

5.  Pinenuts. Back when, Liguria had dense pine forests that provided enough pinenuts for the pesto of the entire region. Sadly, these forests are no more so the best pine nuts in Italy now come from the woods in coastal Tuscany and in Calabria.

6.  Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Only true parmigiano reggiano cheese, only if it has been aged at least 24 months and only grated right before you add it into your mortar.

7.   Pecorino Sardo cheese. But any well aged pecorino sardo or romano will do. Again, grate right before adding it to your mortar. The pecorino, along with the garlic, adds a sharp bite that contrasts with the relative 'sweetness' of the other ingredients

Order of adding the ingredients into the mortar.

First the pinenuts and garlic. These should be pounded and ground until a homogeneous mixture is formed.

Next the basil is added with the coarse salt. The salt adds extra oomp to the crushing the basil. (I've also heard that the salt helps the basil remain green).

After that, the grated cheeses are added. The proportions are subjective.

The last ingredient to go into the mortar is the oil.

I kind of liken pesto-making in Liguria to chili-making in Texas. The basic ingredients are the same, but the outcome is always different.Why use a mortar and pestle instead of a food processor or blender? The technical answer is that the heat of an electrical appliance might harm the delicate oils found within the ingredients.

Homemade pasta with homemade pesto

The more effort you put into it, the better it tastes, therefore a mortar and pestle generate more satisfaction. You could tell though that it is much more than that. Making pesto in a mortar is part of almost every coastal Ligurian's cultural DNA. It's tradition, it's family, it's made of the elements that surround them in nature. As one pounds the pesto, a sweet aroma of basil envelopes you. It is captivating. But if you want to make your own tradition, you can use a food processor. Just remember not to over-process.

I could now go on to describe the different types of pasta formats you could use... in a nutshell, one usually uses long flat, thin noodles called trenette or bavette. Never use egg noodles. The classic pasta al pesto is made with green beans and potatoes.


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