St Patrick’s Day 2012 will be very different for me and all the better for that – with respect to friends Donal, Joe, the Millikens, et al. No Guinness, no cabbage and bacon – instead I’ll be in the beautiful, historic port of Genoa, hard at work.
I wrote some months ago about the woeful state of Pesto sold in Britain and indeed elsewhere in Europe. Little is made from the correct basil and most is pasteurised – other ingredients vary from cashew nuts (often rancid) and milk powder, to lactic acid and goodness knows what else with an E-number – in most ‘industrial’ pesto’s, there’s way too many ingredients, most of which we, the public, can’t buy even if we wanted to – which we don’t – so there.
Anyway, my piece on woeful pesto caused a mighty stir – friends on Facebook got excited that I’d had enough and come out guns blazing. As a direct result, a few weeks ago I was invited to be a judge at the 2012 Campionato Mondiale di Pesto al Mortaio, held in the magnificent Palazzo Ducale in Genoa on March 17.
No last day at Cheltenham on the Friday afternoon TV either, because I fly out on March 16 to be shown around the food culture of Genoa. As I wrote before, my favourite pesto meal was lunch in a tiny restaurant of less than 20 covers, in the front room of someone’s house, in the village high above Camogli, about 30 minutes or so down the coast from Genoa towards Portofino.
The pesto was an almost alarming, arresting bright green – it was a painting on a plate, served traditionally with home-made trofie pasta and tiny dice of new potatoes and fine haricot beans. With it we drank a light white wine of the region – from vines growing just a few hundred metres in from the Ligurian coast – its name I can’t remember, its flavour I can.
March 17 isn’t far off so I’ve gone into training on Pesto. Any day now, I expect FedEx to deliver me a couple of kilo’s of fresh-picked Ligurian basil leaves. Locally in the Sunday Farmer’s Market there’s a guy who specialies in basil plants. Most times he’s there he’ll have 20 or more varieties on sale – but never the Ligurian basil with the more pointed leaf. I’ll take him a sample if the dates work out.
Using our prized Carrara marble mortar with its wooden pestal, I will make up some quantities of Pesto – my own recipe as well as those from the likes of Ada Boni, Marcella Hazan and Elizabeth David (who must have a pesto recipe in her Italian Food book).
Remember the word ‘Pesto’ refers to both the savoury confection and the ‘pesto’, ie the other bit of the mortar set – simple really. Like a proper risotto, pesto is more about technique than recipe. The research I’m doing is all about keeping it simple as a good pesto should be – but using the freshest ingredients, plenty elbow grease and a strong wrist.
To think how I tried to stop my food writer/photographer partner Joy from hauling the large marble mortar all the way from Carrara back to London, with grumpy Ryanair as our carrier. Thankfully it was before they had started charging for baggage otherwise we might never have got it back to our London kitchen.
The Pesto in my picture is one I’ll be bringing back. My introduction to this treasure came via good friends, Gustiamo, in New York’s Bronx, who import some of the very best Italian foods and ingredients. See for yourself how pesto is made, with love and passion as well as the right ingredients: www.gustiamo.com/pages/pestofresco
I will be showing it to a go-ahead food retailer who I hope to persuade to make room for it in their chiller cabinet. The sub-text there is pesto cannot and should not ever be pasteurised. Heat destroys – yes, destroys – the fragrance and colour of perfectly good pesto. Do it the way Nonna did and you’ll not be far from doing it right.
Making pesto with the wrong basil is like making Coq au Vin with a 30-35 day old immature broiler chicken, with my ‘Eggs on Legs’ descriptor, stewed in cheap red wine. Some things in food must stay purist. Some of us in food must be likewise. Not prudish, but purist otherwise in a generation or two we’ll lose even more than we’ve lost already.
So I’m training hard and the family is loving it. Whether I make my own trofie, I am not so sure, when there are perfectly good examples on sale in specialist Italian salumeria’s across London and elsewhere in the UK.
In case I am expected to speak in Genoa, I have my dear friend Antonio from Gennaro’s Delicatessen translating a few chosen words into phonetic Italian, so I’ll be word perfect come the day. Sad for me, my spoken Italian stops at the kitchen door.
So bring forward March 17 and the 4th World Championships for the classic Pesto alla Genovese. Be sure I’ll be writing about it.