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Grana Padano

Pesto Genovese: an Ageless Benchmark of Great Italian Cuisine

Pesto alla Genovese
Trofie with Genoese pesto (La Cucina Italiana)

By Rosario Scarpato

There’s no doubt, it’s the most loved raw sauce of the world and, as such, it’s just as famous as mayonnaise, if not, even more so. ;We’re talking about Pesto, about the only genuine one; the Genoese one (not ‘alla genovese’). Basil, garlic, pine nuts, Grana Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino cheeses, extra virgin oil and a few granules of sea salt. All the other diverse variations floating around the world are nothing more than unsuccessful bogus or aberrations of the original. Pesto is an ageless benchmark and a contemporary symbol of Italian cooking around the world. It’s enough to think that for dressing pasta only tomato sauce is used more.

In the name of Mortar & Pestle

Pesto alla Genovese

Already in 1876, ‘pesto’ was entered by Giovanni Casaccia in his Genoese Italian dictionary as a word autochthonous of Genoa. The word comes from ‘pestare’, to crush something with a pestle to reduce it to powder, a mash or to the thinnest of layers. Therefore, pesto is also known as battuto genovese’ (Genoese mince or mash). From ‘pestare’ also comes the word ‘pestle’ (‘pestillium’ in Latin) that together with the mortar is the utensil used for making this sauce; a wooden pestle, that is, of hard, compact wood, such as boxwood or pear and a mortar of white marble, of Carrara, unpolished inside. The word ‘mortar’ is derived from the Latin ‘mortarium’, a recipient in which ingredients are minced or mashed, historically not only used in kitchens but also in traditional pharmacies. In the proto-kitchens of many people of the Earth, similar utensils are found, although made out of different materials, such as the ‘molcajete’ and the ‘metate’ of Central America and the Japanese ‘suribachi’.

The ancestors: moretum and agliata

Pesto alla Genovese

Genoese pesto probably descends from the ‘moretum’ of the ancient Romans, a green paste obtained from cheese, garlic and herbs, the preparation of which is described, moreover, in a verse attributed to Virgil. Pesto, as we know it today, was not well known in the times of Cristoforo Colombo (1451 -1506), the world’s best known Ligurian. But in the Middle Ages, there was a sauce, defined plebeian by some authors, which can be considered, in some manner, to be the predecessor of pesto. It was called ‘agliata’, simply a mash of walnuts and garlic. For centuries, the latter ingredient has occupied a crucial place in the nutrition of the Ligurians, especially for those who went to sea. And there were many who did, for Genoa and Liguria have had ancient maritime traditions. These seafarers ingested great quantities of it since they believed it warded off illnesses and infections during the long voyages in conditions of extreme hygienic precariousness.

The first recipes

Pesto alla Genovese

Mashed garlic is mentioned in the documents of the City of Genoa of the 17th century, while the recipe for true pesto starts to appear only in the 19th century. During the first half of the latter appear recipes that do not contemplate pine nuts and in 1863 Giovanni Battista Ratto published La Cuciniera Genovese, considered to be the first and most complete book on the gastronomy of the Region of Liguria and in which the recipe for pesto, with pine nuts, is the following: “Take a clove of garlic, basil (‘baxaicö’) or, when that is lacking, marjoram and parsley, grated Dutch and Parmigiano cheese and mix them with pine nuts and crush it all together in a mortar with a little butter until reduced to a paste. Then dissolve it with good and abundant oil. Lasagne and troffie [Liguria kind of gnocchi] are dressed with this mash, made more liquid by adding a little hot water without salt.”

Pesto alla Genovese

The presence of Dutch cheese instead of pecorino should be of no surprise; first of all, various recipes of that time mention a generic ‘cacio’ (cheese), and then because Gouda was plentiful in Genoa since the city’s maritime commerce with Northern Europe. Furthermore, the differentiation between Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano cheese is a recent one, it is very probable that until the institution of the respective consortia of protection (in the 1950’s), grana types of cheeses were used in pesto without distinguishing one from the other. Parsley or marjoram as alternatives to basil is a concession resulting from the fact that, then in Liguria, where this plant originating from India was abundant, but only when in season.

Pesto Genovese is for pasta!

Pesto alla Genovese

Ratto’s recipe for Pesto states unmistakably that it is a sauce for dressing pasta, for lasagne, and for ‘troffie’ or ‘trofiethat in Liguria are elongated and twisted gnocchi, with pointed extremities and fatter waists. These are not to be confused with ‘trofiette’ that are smaller and in fact are more used with Pesto. Trofie, kneaded out of white flour are a speciality of the town of Recco in the Province of Genoa, the same town that gave birth to the famous focaccia. Trofie and trofiette, there’s even a version made out of chestnut flour, are, therefore, fresh, handmade pasta. Genoa however is also an Italian capital of the production of dried pasta. Already in 1279, when Marco Polo was still in China, the Genoese Ponzio Bastone left a basket of dried pasta, in inheritance to his sons. Genoese Pesto honours this great tradition, so the dried pasta variation of the dish is ‘trenette’ (or ‘trinette’), with a shape similar to ‘mafalde’ but thinner than linguine or fettuccine.

Variation in progress

Pesto alla Genovese

In the 1800’s, the pasta al pesto was considered to be a working class dish and nowadays the recipe of that time has remained substantially the same. There was and there is still in Liguria the habit of adding potatoes, broad beans or French beans, and sometimes zucchini cut into small pieces and boiled together with the pasta. Especially in Genoa, potatoes and French beans are added to classic or improved (avvantaggiate) trenette, that is, ones made out of whole wheat flour, or to trofiette. Rules are not always fixed. For some, “avvantaggiate” are trenette to which vegetables have been added and there is, furthermore, a purist school that categorically excludes potatoes from trofie. In general it is said that in Liguria it’s difficult to find two equal versions of pesto, because of the variations, sometimes within the same family, such as the addition of walnuts, ricotta or other cheeses. This has happened with various typical Italian dishes, many of which have ‘terminated’ their evolution only within the most recent decades. In Italian cooking, the variations of a dish not only represent the wealth of diversity, but also an indirect legitimisation of its generally accepted version.

Uncouth Pesto

Pesto alla Genovese

It’s very possible that, as Giuseppe Gavotti wrote in 1973 in his Cucina e vini di Liguria, the original pesto was ‘uncouth’, that is, it contained a lot of garlic. In 1965, even the great gastronomist Massimo Alberini, in his I Liguri a Tavola. Itinerario gastronomico da Nizza a Lerici (The Ligurians at the table, a Gastronomic Itinerary from Nice to Lerici) made a similar commentary, letting us understand that the pesto recipes of the 1800’s were somewhat stingy with the basil, using only a couple of leaves, and abounding in garlic, using three or four cloves of it. Certainly the Arab-Persian taste, which dominated the sauces of Genoa from the Middle Ages until the 1800’s, had a lot to do with this. As well as the predilection for and the ‘need’ of garlic by the Ligurian seafarers, who considered it as almost medicinal. Invariably, today’s Pesto is far more lady-and-gentleman-like and balanced, with a far more noticeable presence of basil, preferably Ligurian basil and ideally basil from the Genoese hills of Pra, with a long, thin leaf.

PDO ingredients. When possible

Pesto alla Genovese

In the same text, Alberini underlined the role of the olive oil in the recipe; it should neither be too fruity nor too bitter. The Ligurian extravirgin olive oils are ideal. Just as Genoese basil, the exrtavirgin olive oil of the Riviera Ligure has obtained the D.O.P. granted by the European Union in recognition of its quality and typicality. Furthermore, for a pesto that does honour to the territory of origin are to be used: a) the garlic of Vessalico, in the Province of Imperia, of delicate flavour and particular digestibility, b) Italian pine nuts and c) the coarse salt of the Cervia salt flats. It’s obvious that outside Italy it’s not always possible to find all these autochthonous ingredients. The production of Italian pine nuts, for example, has noticeably dropped in recent years due to the Pine Processionary, a parasitic devastation for the pine nut pine. Therefore, in order to prepare an authentic pesto, the minimum necessary requirement is to have quality ingredients and to follow the original recipe.

It’s easier to find Grana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses on the international market, and especially advisable are those that are good and mature. It’s relatively easy to find pecorini, ewe cheeses, from Romano cheese that is judged by some to be a little aggressive to Fiore Sardo cheese, ideal when seasoned six months.

Consorzio del Pesto Genovese and Pesto Championship

Pesto alla Genovese

The Genoese Pesto Consortium has been formed by the Region of Liguria and associations of producers. Its mission, as its president, Andrea Della Gatta, chef and owner of Trattoria Andrea un Genoa, explains is “to safeguard the traditional recipe for pesto, along with all its quality ingredients and first and foremost, obviously to use Liguria basil.” The Consortium has presented a request for the recognition of quality STG (Specialità Tradizionale Garantita, Guaranteed Traditional Speciality) for pesto. The Genoese Associazione Palatifini, led by Sergio and Sara di Paolo and by Roberto Panizza, organises the World Championship of Mortar-made Genoese Pesto every two years in Genoa, to confirm its Ligurian imprint and its universality as a foodstuff of quality and taste. The Palatifini initiative deserves particular praise because the mortar and pestle, both at domestic as well as professional level, have given way to the processor. From the gastronomic point of view, as pointed out by the chef Enrico Tournier: “When we prepare pesto alla genovese with the classic mortar and pestle, we subject the instrument to the product while respecting the right proportions of the ingredients because we are the ones to decide the proportions of the doses. While when using a mixer, in order to succeed in cutting the basil we have to add more oil than otherwise necessary, thus altering the doses and in such manner we subject the product to the instrument.”

Genoese Pesto in the world

Pesto alla Genovese

Pesto has reached great popularity in the world, also thanks to the crews of the mercantile ships and the passengers that set sail from the Port of Genoa to most diverse of destinations. Pesto found itself at home in La Boca, the ‘Genoese’ district of Buenos Aires, and started to spread out in the main ports of the USA Immediately after the Second World War, some companies began exporting pesto in jars to the US. And at the same moment, the first recipes appeared in American newspapers. According to many sources, pesto reached its greatest popularity is the United States in the ‘80’s of the last century. At the beginning of the ‘90’s its popularity grew even more when Frank Sinatra started to commercialise a pesto sauce that carried his face on the label. Also its counterfeiting began, with the supermarkets invaded by approximate copies of the original. In the meantime, pesto became to be really successful in the Italian restaurants around the world. A new breed of Italians,  Ligurians chefs and restaurateur  placed it on the menus and made the  dish according to the original recipe. Zeffirino was, without a doubt, the pioneer of this generation. These days pasta, be it trenette, trofie, gnocchi or lasagne, with pesto is amongst the best known Italian dishes in the contempory world.