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Traditional Basil Pesto

From the birthplace of basil pesto.

The northwestern neck of Italy is occupied by the province of Liguria. Within it lies the glamorous Italian Riviera and the ancient working port of Genoa. While it’s fun to visit Riviera hotspots like Portofino, it’s Genoa we have to thank for pesto, the classic basil, pine nut and olive oil sauce.

In the past, long haul ocean sailors, like those that sailed from Genoa, were often at risk for scurvy because they lacked fresh vegetables and therefore Vitamin C. Pesto solved that. It’s high in Vitamin C and, thanks to the olive oil it’s stored in, doesn’t go bad.

You can make fresh pesto on your own. But let me tell you, even in a jar, Ligurian pesto is absolutely delicious and usually beats homemade. Basil grows easily in that region's temperate climate. It's harvested very young. When just two leaves have sprouted on the plant they're picked. That's something very difficult to do in America unless you have your own basil farm. Yet it's the trick to keeping it sweet and herbaceous. Roi's Ligurian pesto doesn’t suffer the hot anise flavors you get when basil is harvested later in its life.

Ligurian olive oil is also delicate and sweet, a good match for basil, whose flavors would be overwhelmed by a more robust oil. Last but not least, the pine nuts are the very flavorful Italian variety, not the cheaper, blander imports from China.

When we ask for pesto from Franco and Rosella at Roi, it’s made to order with their excellent olive oil and, perhaps not surprisingly, sent to Genoa, still the export point for northern Italy. I don’t know what the sailors eat on board these days but a part of me hopes it’s this.

Serving. For dinner, combine a spoonful or two of Ligurian pesto with grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Stir it into warm pasta with a little of the starchy water the pasta cooked in (this will help the cheese stick to the pasta and have the pesto coat the pasta evenly), then top it with a bit more cheese if you’d like. 8-10 servings per jar.

Storage. Top the jar up with a bit of olive oil and store it in the refrigerator. The oil will turn solid in the cold but will return to liquid at room temperature.

Traditional Basil Pesto

P-PTO 180 g jar, 10 servings
$12
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