These days, pesto is more popular than ever. Yet most of us who love it, using it in our pasta dishes or even as a sandwich spread, may not even realize that the traditional form of the sauce comes from Italy. Born in Genoa in northern Italy, pesto alla genovese has been famous in Italy for centuries.
Its further origins date back to the time of the Romans, when a sauce or paste called “moretum” was made by crushing garlic, herbs and cheese, among other ingredients. During the Middle Ages the Genoans themselves had a similar sauce called agliata, which was also based around garlic, with the addition of walnuts. The basil pesto we know today is agliata’s very close cousin.
“Pesto” itself means anything that’s pounded or crushed. Traditionally this would be done with a marble mortar and a wooden pestle. Today, of course, a food processor is a little quicker to use. Whatever tools you prefer, pesto alla genovese is a very simple, un-cooked green sauce that can brighten any pasta dish.
Genoa is the capital of Liguria, Italy. Pesto’s traditional ingredients reflect its purely northern Italian origins: garlic (a staple of Ligurian cuisine), European pine nuts, coarse or sea salt (Genoa is a port city), extra virgin olive oil from the Ligurian Riviera and hard Italian cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano and Pecorino Fiore Sardo (made from sheep’s milk). Basil, the main ingredient by which this sauce is known today, is a relative newcomer to Genoan cuisine. It made its way to the city sometime during the 1800’s. However it’s been a staple ingredient ever since.
An important note: When you’re making a traditional Italian dish, source your ingredients carefully. One thing to look for is “DOP” on labels and other packaging. This stands for Denominazione d’Origine Protetta, or “Protected Designation of Origin.” Which means that jar of pine nuts or that wedge of Grana Padano is indeed from Italy. Sourcing these ingredients means you’ll be supporting Italian-owned businesses, and also that your food will taste as traditional as possible.
Once you try your hand at the traditional recipe below, let yourself explore the range of this sauce. Pesto is wonderfully variable. Some versions substitute almonds or, as with agliata, walnuts for the pine nuts. Other recipes call for mint as well as basil. Pesto alla Siciliana adds those almonds and also tomato. Pesto alla Calabrese is spicier and includes grilled bell peppers.
You can also try a very simple, pared-down French version of pesto. Basil arrived in Provence, France around the same time as it did in Genoa, so French cuisine has a very similar sauce. Called pistou, this version doesn’t always include cheese. In fact, the traditional pistou calls for only three ingredients: basil, garlic and oil.
Using a mortar and pestle, to follow traditional instructions, you cream together garlic and pine nuts, smashing and smooshing for quite a while. Then the basil and salt are added, then the cheeses. The olive oil is used to make the sauce looser and creamier.
Today you can of course use your food processor to speed this process up a bit, but you’ll still follow those very same steps.
Homemade pesto, especially if you use a food processor, is a super easy, simple and tasty sauce to make. It will keep in your fridge for at least a week, and perhaps as long as a month. It can be frozen almost indefinitely. Make a big batch and freeze half of it to make sure you always have some on hand.
Homemade pesto should be stored in your fridge in a jar with a good tight lid, or some other air-tight container. Put a layer of olive oil on top to prevent discoloration. This is a neat trick for store bought pesto as well.
If you plan to freeze your pesto, pour it into a few ice cube trays first. These individual cubes of pesto are perfect tossed into hot pasta, warmed up to use as a dip or added to some other recipe. Simply freeze in trays, then pop the cubes into a plastic bag or other storage container.
Traditional pesto preparation with marble mortar and wooden pestle:
Other sauce recipes: