I don’t mean to pesto you…

Freshly made pesto

‘Have respect’. My Italian 1980s upbringing could be easily summed up with this sentence. Most of our parents had this phenomenally heavy heritage of humbleness that they had to pass on to our generation–blame it on catholicism or their post-fascist education, possibly both, go figure. ‘Have respect’ was a clear warning before any form of action, rather than a reparatory reprehension like the English ‘show some respect’. In a nutshell, live by the saying ‘forewarned is forearmed’ and you might as well dodge mum’s flying slipper.

The ‘have respect’ admonition used to be considered a perfect fit for any purpose: when you addressed other people, when you had to go somewhere and needed to be on time, or when you sat down for a meal, for instance. Because there was always a good reason to have respect and to make sure you did not miss the opportunity to show it.

Today, even though mostly lost culturally-wise, the daunting pseudo psalm ‘have respect’ still survives within every piece of Italian food prepared from the Alps to Lampedusa. It becomes a ritualistic foreword which prevents you from conceiving a pizza with pineapple (unless it is a video prank in Naples), or ask for cream or ham in your pasta carbonara, for example. The same can be said about pesto: it is delicious in its traditional recipe and that is about it.

Pesto genovese is an uncooked, fresh sauce for pasta originating from Genoa. The Ligurian capital, also called The Superb, is as old as its stones–the first settlement actually dates to the Neolithic. The town boasts a traditionally fierce population, mockingly as stingy as its perched-up mountains slanting onto the sea. So, when you deal with pesto, you had better be careful and have respect.

Colours and textures of pesto

The original pesto recipe is registered at the local consortium and includes seven specific ingredients: Genoese DOP (Denominazone di Origine Protetta, i.e. PDO, Protected Designation of Origin) basil leaves, pine kernels, garlic, coarse salt, Sardinian DOP Pecorino cheese, DOP Parmesan cheese, and Ligurian extra virgin olive oil (check our previous post on EVO oil). A traditional serving may well include potatoes and green beans boiled with the pasta, in order to add starchiness and texture to the dish.

Pesto Genovese
(serves 2, about 250g of pasta)

  • BASIL (leaves only), 25g
  • PINE KERNELS, 8g
  • GARLIC, 1/2 clove
  • SALT (coarse/rock), 1 tsp
  • PECORINO CHEESE (grated), 15g
  • PARMESAN CHEESE (grated), 35g
  • EVO OIL, 50ml

Method

If you want to do it the proper way, get yourself a marble mortar and a wooden pestle–it also works if you use a marble pestle like I do. Work it clockwise while holding the mortar and spinning it in the other direction. Do it as quickly as possible, in order to preserve all the oils from the ingredients and to prevent oxidation, but do not rush it. Give each of the following steps the time you need to properly complete the process.

  1. Grind garlic and the coarse salt till they become creamy.
  2. Add the pine kernels and continue until they are finely ground.
  3. Add the basil leaves and shred them while moving the pestle.
  4. Add the two types of cheese, previously grated.
  5. Finish with the EVO oil and work it till the compound is almost smooth, yet preserve some texture of your ingredients.

If you want to cheat, use can use a hand blender. In this case, I recommend you keep the blades in the fridge for a couple of hours before using the blender and operate it intermittently rather than continuously, so your basil will not bruise during the process and the pesto will not come out brownish.

The beauty of a good pesto starts with its colours palette, ranging over emeralds, dots of forest green, and sapphire shimmers. If it is a respectful pesto, when you eat it you want to feel the textures of its precious ingredients. Sharp, balsamic spikes hit your tongue with every snippet of basil. Salty, crunchy crystals of cheese gently melt in your mouth’s warmth. And it all makes sense as the heat of the pasta melds the flavours together.

An old Genoese saying goes ‘A l’à a belessa de l’ase‘, literally ‘it has the beauty of the donkey’, possibly a linguistic corruption from the French saying ‘La beauté de l’âge’, or ‘The beauty of age’. In any case, a Genoese calling you that could mean that your only good quality is beauty because you are young. Do not get offended, it is still a compliment. Have respect.

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