What ever happened to real Pesto? There shouldn’t be any other kind, but the shops have all swooped on a trend and genuine Pesto got trampled near to death in the rush. Basil has a sensitive soul - it blackens when cut with a blade – hence it should only ever be torn and added last minute to a dish – so why immerse it in an acid bath in a long life jar – all in the name of greedy profit with a nod to the the marketeers’ cynical anthem: ”They won’t know any difference”.
Anyone visiting Liguria comes home with tales about the Pesto with Trofie, the best served in the traditional way with tiny dice of fine green haricot beans and waxy potatoes. The bright, high energy green, enriched by that Riviera’s remarkable light intensity, is something to behold.
We ate one of our most memorable on a Maundy Thursday, after a climb up 200, 300 or more steps above Camogli. Friends, over the years, have talked of theirs in the wondrous hillside clinging villages of the Cinque Terre, elegant Portofino and further back up the wonderous ’Fiori’ coast west of Genoa in, for me from childhood camping holidays, the resorts of Albenga, Alassio and Ceriale.
Fruity and Flowery Olive Oils
Here you also find some of Italy’s most fragrant and perfumed of olive oils – the best come wrapped in foil to protect their virtue from the daylight. Harry’s Bar in Venice uses mostly oil from Liguria – and their tiny kitchen on Calle Vallaresso has the gentlest touch we experienced over these last 20 years or more.
Pesto becomes Pistou
Across the frontier into Provence they have their take on Pesto called Pistou- they mostly stir it into fresh soups, much like a minestrone, and employ it to dress vegetables. This I’d surmise was brought across by the Genovese’s again – after all, it was the Grimaldi family from Genoa who founded Monte Carlo in the mid-1700s – and we know boats used to ply up and down that coastline with their goods since Medieval times.
Good Basil is Never Faulty
For me Pesto is rooted in Genoa and once you encounter basil, there’s no turning back. Good basil is not faulty. Until of course you see the dark British racing green assembly in the jars in your local shop over here, each masquerading as the genuine article.
Pesto is everywhere, but Pesto is nowhere. The traditional recipe for ‘Alla Genovese’ is high class – the rules must be followed otherwise, what’s the point?
It can only be made in a marble ‘pesto’ – hence the name. The best would almost certainly come from down the coast, in the hills behind La Spezia. Here are the Cararra marble quarries where, it’s well recorded, Michaelangelo would go to select the precise hue of white stone for his scuplture commissions – stopping no doubt in Collonata for a panini filled with lardo on the steep climb to the quarries. To visit Cararra is the appreciate how many hues of white there are when Nature fires up rock.
Pestle & Mortar = Pesto
There are many basil variants and genuine Pesto should be made is made from the DOP Genovese basil, along with pine nuts, garlic, Grana Padano and fruity olive oil – that’s it. The action of working the sauce in the pestle and mortar gives it the distinctive texture and split appearance that’s essential to most Italian sauces. Olive oil is as vital as the basil – note bene, manufacturers of faux pesto.
Read the ingredients panel on manufactured pesto and you’ll find cashew nuts, cashew nut flour, walnuts, vegetable oil, sunflower oil, potato starch, acidity regulator, vinegar, potato starch, Pecorino Romano and plenty more – some on sale even more cynically have tiny traces of token ‘right ingredients’ and then the rest of the muck and E’s besides.
For long life, all will be pasteurised – ie killed of any fragrance that just might have been there. This process also guarantees the colour is subdued, by which I mean darkened to the shop familiar British Racing Green that’s fine on a 30s ‘Blower’ Bentley, but miserable on your pasta. Just accept you’ve been cheated – a cheap Ryanair to Genoa for 24 hours will show you what’s right and what’s not.
Quite why no British supermarket sells a fresh, chilled pesto – it keeps perfectly well for 10 days or more, so far longer than a sandwich, salad or carton of milk. Maybe people have grown to like the dark green, acidulated Pesto imposters.
The revenge is that pesto’s market has stagnated and peaked, whereas it’s one of the most ‘now’ sauces for pasta, but nobody can access the real deal. Calling buyers and selectors, opportunity for someone who can get supplies of Genovese basil and get their wrist action into those marble pestle and mortars. With the right ingredients you can make as real a Pesto in Greenwich as you could in Genoa.
Sure, the ingredients are each expensive, but you use small amounts for a big finish. That typifies the classy Italian kitchen for me. See more from my friends Gustiamo in New York – they sell a fresh Genovese pesto from Roberto Panizza which first went on sale back in 1947 - www.gustiamo.com/pages/pesto.shtml
Roberto’s uses two extra ingredients – passion and integrity. Bravo Roberto.
Pasteur off the Hook
Now that Anthrax is no longer a major problem – we have chillers in our shops and a cold chain to get the food there. Let’s please set Louis Pasteur’s great achievement aside when Blue Collar Gastronomy comes to call.
Time to take the Ryanair to Genoa and be reminded of how fine Pesto is when it’s made ’alla Genovese’. Better still, take the little train down along the coast for 30-40 minutes to Camogli and spend the night at the old money Cenobio dei Dogi where breakfast in the oblong white and glass box of a dining room looking at the sea is more than we could take – ‘la dolce vita’ if ever there was. Take me back there soon.
More urgently, let’s raise the flag for the genuine Pesto and try to reverse the trend towards yet another ersatz, failed promise sat in a glass jar on supermarket shelf. Pesto presto – we must save this beauty from extinction by vinegar, greed and false promises.
PS: I exchanged sweet fresh peas for green beans in the dish above – they work a treat.