Liguria: pesto

kitchen
Pesto class in Levanto

The day before we toured the Cinque Terre (previous post), we were treated to a brief foodie excursion: a talk about pesto and the chance to try making it. The venue was the back room of a classy, if touristy, fine-local-foods shop in Levanto and our teacher was its owner. We also sampled the local white wine, a variety which never makes it out of the region because the production is so small and the demand so high, and limoncello, a liqueur new to me but (apparently) not to the rest of the world.

Back to the pesto. Our teacher called it a regional classic and Claudia Roden (see Italian Delights) calls it “the prince of Ligurian dishes” so we were obviously in the right place. The recipe is quite simple: crush and mix pine nuts, salt, parmesan or pecorino, and basil; add olive oil and you’re done. Some versions, including Roden’s, add garlic as well but it is not traditional in all parts of Italy. (In fact, we discovered that garlic was not as prevalent in Italian food as we had expected from our Australian experiences. Then again, we were always in the North and perhaps it is used more commonly in the South.)

Recipes vary; of several I checked on the web, the closest to what we were taught is Jamie Oliver’s, here. His call for ‘handfuls’ of ingredients matches her style, too.

Traditional variations

  • Garlic: none, up to 3 or 4 cloves
  • Black pepper: not usually used
  • Cheese: parmesan, pecorino sardo or (for a stronger flavour) romano
  • Pine nuts: usually very lightly toasted, not browned; sometimes not toasted at all
  • Walnut or almond oil instead of olive oil

Varying the basil, cheese or oil doesn’t seem to make much difference to the end result as this (somewhat too exhaustive) blog post concludes. On the other hand, it did find a noticeable difference between the traditional mortar-and-pestle technique and the quick-and-easy blender method.

Non-traditional variations

  • Replace half of the basil with baby spinach to make a less full-flavoured pesto, or replace all of it with rocket, purple (Thai) basil, tomato or spinach; your favourite search engine will find lots of recipes.
  • Walnuts or cashews instead of pine nuts

One more thought, for the experimentalists in my audience: the basic pesto method is so adaptable that the list of pesto-like brews is potentially inexhaustible. Parsley and chickpeas? Coriander, Thai basil and cashew? Why not throw in a chilli or two while you’re at it? Serve it over rice or as side dish with curry? Have fun, but calling the result ‘pesto’ in front of a Ligurian chef may be dangerous to her/his health, or yours.

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