If you’re a passionate cook, and passionate about Mediterranean aromas and flavors, you’ve probably made pesto genovese many times. Passing through a farmers market on a hot summer morning, you’ve been dazzled by the spicy fragrance emanating from big, fresh bundles of grassy-green-leafed basil, taken it all home and tossed it in the food processor or blender with some olive oil, pine nuts, garlic and grated cheese, whizzed it thoroughly and turned out the hefty basil-flavored sauce. You might have served it as a dip or as a dollop on top of pasta, vegetable minestrone or pistou, or even on a plain baked potato, which is exalted by the presence of this rich confection, with its fresh, raw flavors of garlic and mint. (Basil is in the mint family of Labiatae.)
That’s pesto genovese as we know it all too well — to the extent that it’s a depressing cliché on restaurant menus, ubiquitous in deli sandwiches and served atop everything from raw oysters to grilled chicken breasts to lamb kebabs.
Pesto originated in Liguria
But there’s another pesto, subtler, more fragrant, more elusive, more seductive. That’s the pesto that exists in Liguria, the coastal region at the top corner of northwest Italy where the fragrant sauce originated and every other person is an expert in making it. You’ll find it at restaurants like da Ugo, down a dark alley in Genoa’s amazing centro storico (more like a North African souq than a European port city); or at Ca’ Peo up a steep series of switchbacks above Chiavari on the Riviera del Levante (the Riviera of the Rising Sun); or at Manuelina in Recco, a few miles southeast of Genoa and equally famous for focaccia di Recco; or in a thousand other trattorie, osterie and home kitchens along the Ligurian coast and deep into the entroterra, the back country that climbs precipitously up into the steep foothills of the Alps.
Ligurians are contentious about their famous sauce while they uniformly insist that the real thing can only be made in this sparkling corner of the Mediterranean where the mountains emerge straight from the sea and every breeze is fragrant with the aroma of sweet basil. Their basil, Ligurians claim, is different from all other basil; even if you carry home seeds bought in a local market to plant in your North American vegetable plot, you’ll never get the same result.
The soil, the climate, the air the plants breathe and the soft spring rains that water them create a sweet fragrance in Ligurian basil that makes it impossible to confuse with mint. Tender, harvested in infancy, the leaves are combined with fresh garlic, pine nuts from Tuscan forests (notably not from China), grains of sea salt, a lavish grating of Sardinian raw sheep’s milk pecorino, well aged but not at all bitter, and, finally, with a healthy glug or two of Ligurian extra virgin olive oil — which itself is the sweetest oil imaginable. And that, they say, is true pesto, the only one acceptable on Ligurian tables.
To achieve perfection, say chefs such as Melly Solari, co-owner with her husband Franco of Ca’ Peo in Leivi, pesto must be made by hand, using a big marble mortar with a sightly roughened interior surface and a fat wooden pestle. I found such an implement years ago in a hardware shop in Chiavari, a town on the coast below Leivi, a white marble mortar with walls a good three-quarter-inch thick and an interior diameter of eight inches. It was too heavy even to think about shipping back to the U.S., so I transported it to my Tuscan kitchen and left it there for Tuscan pesto-making.
The only vaguely similar mortar I’ve found in the U.S. is at Williams-Sonoma where it costs a cool $99.95. Seven inches in diameter, it comes with the requisite wooden pestle and has that properly roughened interior that makes it easier to rub slippery basil leaves into an appropriate viscous emulsion. (Describing the texture of the finished sauce in an enticing manner is not easy: Truly, it resembles nothing so much as gooey green face cream.) Whatever the mortar you use in the end, the inside walls must be roughened stone or ceramic, and the receptacle must be wide and deep enough to keep the contents from slopping out.
Mortar and pestle technique
I thought for years I was making pesto correctly, pounding the ingredients in a mortar, until the day I saw Melly Solari working in her Leivi kitchen with a gigantic mortar in which she transformed basil leaves into pesto for the restaurant’s needs each day. Initially she reduced the garlic, salt and lightly toasted pine nuts to a paste with a combination of gentle pounding and pressing against the sides of the mortar. But when she added a handful of small, tender, deeply fragrant basil leaves, she changed her stroke and began to swipe the pestle diagonally down the sides of the mortar in a vaguely counterclockwise direction, capturing any basil leaves as they built up around the edges. Every couple of strokes, she gave the mortar a little clockwise turn as she continued her steady stroking. And this is the secret to achieving that almost slippery texture that combines so well with handmade trenette pasta in the classic Ligurian pasta al pesto.
At Melly’s restaurant Ca’ Peo, the trenette, flat noodles that are about a quarter of an inch wide, are made from a combination of regular wheat flour and fine-textured flour ground from dried chestnuts. In other Ligurian kitchens, small new potatoes and thin green string beans are cooked and sauced along with the pasta. You could use pesto in any of the myriad ways I’ve described, but this handmade method yields such a splendid flavor and such a sumptuously viscous texture, that it seems a pity to serve it with anything but pasta in order to get the full impact of the wondrous sauce.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines. She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon. A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications. She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised. She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.
Photo: Basil. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins