Pesto alla Genovese: not just a condiment

If we were to think of an aroma, a scent that could identify the Ligurian gastronomic tradition, we could not help but think of pesto alla genovese.

Pesto alla Genovese is the typical condiment par excellence in Liguria and has been included with this designation among the “Traditional Ligurian Food Products.”

It is also a treasure chest that holds precious foods from the Italian culinary tradition. The traditional recipe, in fact, consists of Genoese PDO basil, Riviera Ligure PDO olive oil, Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Sardo PDO cheese,Vessalico garlic from the province of Imperia, and tasty domestic pine nuts. It goes beyond then than a simple condiment but, we are in front of an exquisite mix of Ligurian and Italian excellence.

The history of pesto alla genovese

The recipe for pesto alla Genovese does not have ancient origins. It is first mentioned in the manual La Cuciniera genovese compiled by Giovanni Battista Ratto in 1865, later taken up by Emanuele Rossi under the title La vera cuciniera genovese . It was described in that cookbook as “garlic and basil pesto.”

The preparation reported in Ratto’s manual said, “Take a clove of garlic, basil (baxaicö) or, failing that, marjoram and parsley, grated Dutch cheese and Parmesan cheese mixed together, and some pignoli and pound it all in a mortar with a little butter until it is reduced to a paste. Then melt it with plenty of fine oil. Lasagna and gnocchi (troffie) are seasoned with this batter, adding a little hot water without salt to make it more liquid.”

This recipe, however, would seem, however, to go back to the ancient “aggiadda,” agliata, a garlic-based mortar sauce dating back to the 13th century and used for preserving cooked foods, or to the even older “moretum,” already mentioned by Virgil, a mixture of herbs, garlic, oil, vinegar and fresh cheese pounded with a mortar and sometimes enriched with nuts.

Pesto alla Genovese also does not shy away from legends about its creation. One of these relates that in a convent on the heights of Prà (Genoa) named after St. Basil, a friar who lived there collected some aromatic herb that grew on those heights called precisely basilium, in honor of St. Basil. Combining it with the few ingredients brought to him as an offering by the faithful, and pounding it all together, he obtained the first pesto, which was gradually perfected.

The ingredients of pesto alla genovese

There are seven ingredients that make up traditional pesto alla Genovese:

  • Basil leaves from Pra’ (a neighborhood on the Genoese heights). The basil used for pesto has small, oval leaves and has a delicate but not mentholated flavor (this is a key characteristic). This basil currently enjoys the protected designation of origin (PDO);
  • Extra virgin olive oil from the Ligurian Riviera, produced from Taggiasca olives. The oil made from it is typically delicate (it does not “pìzzica” or “stick in the throat”) with low acidity and a muted fruitiness;
  • Italian pine nuts;
  • Very aged Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (so it does not “cook” when you add the pasta cooking water to stretch the cream);
  • Sardinian sheep’s milk cheese, also fairly mature;
  • Garlic from Vessalico (municipality of Imperia), characterized by its less intense taste;
  • Coarse sea salt

Preparation of pesto alla genovese

However, the seemingly simple preparation hides pitfalls. First, lately, for obvious reasons of convenience and speed, the use of a blender has become widespread. However, the latter has drawbacks such as oxidizing the basil leaves and heating up the cream.

Instead, to follow tradition, we should use a marble mortar and a wooden pestle. We wash the basil leaves being careful not to break them. We crush the garlic in the mortar and then add the basil leaves, interspersing them with modest amounts of coarse salt. The leaves should be crushed with a rotary motion of the pestle on the walls of the mortar. To the resulting green liquid, add the pine nuts, Parmigiano Reggiano, and Pecorino Sardo. Finally, olive oil poured in drops is added, which plays, also, an antioxidant role.

World Pesto Championship 2024

The World Pesto Genovese Mortar Pesto Championship is now in its tenth year with the March 23, 2024, day. It was held, as per tradition in the Great Council Chamber at the Ducal Palace and was attended by 100 competitors. To compete you can apply to the organization or you can participate in some sort of elimination rounds around the world. In fact, one award celebrates the aspiring winner who comes from the farthest away (this year from Brazil).

Since there are no professional “tasters” in pesto, the judges rely on a few parameters: dexterity (how the contestant works and cleanliness), appearance (a light color of the preparation is preferred), finesse (it concerns how ‘ground’ the pesto is, its grain on the palate), texture (it should be neither too liquid nor too firm, nor too gelatinous due to excess pine nuts) and balance (how balanced is the aromaticity of the ingredients).

This year’s winner, after a tight race, was Mattia Bassi, a 56-year-old from Acquasanta, Genoa.

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