Basil pesto from Liguria is a food with working class roots, eaten by sailors to stay healthy at sea. Today people around the world make basil pesto, but the best is still made in Italy. And when you use it to sauce good pasta, you have the ultimate summer dinner.
At the northern edge of Liguria lies the glamorous Italian Riviera.
In the summer it’s crammed with yachts, linen suits and fabulous sunglasses. To the south lies the huge working port of Genoa. While it’s a lot more fun to visit the north and drink prosecco seaside in Portofino, it’s Genoa we have to thank for pesto, the classic basil and olive oil sauce.
Long-haul ocean sailors—of which Genoa had a lot—were traditionally at risk for scurvy, caused by a lack of vitamin C. Before refrigeration it was difficult to keep fruits and vegetables edible on long journeys. Pesto solved that. It’s high in vitamin C and, thanks to the olive oil it’s stored in, doesn’t go bad. Sailors could keep it in a barrel all the way across the ocean and back, eating it on pasta or bread along the way. It makes me wonder what pirates did when they boarded a Genoan vessel. Did they take the pesto? Were pirates pesto eaters?
Years ago I invested in a big mortar and pestle from Liguria, and from time to time I make pesto at home, pounding pine nuts, basil and olive oil together for an interminable length of time. The results are never the same as I’ve tasted in Italy or even tasted from Roi. It’s kind of like tomato sauce. I’ve made that at home, too. But I’ve never made any as good as Il Mongetto. I think the difference is the quality of the main ingredients. In this case, the basil.
Basil grows easily in Liguria’s sunny, temperate climate.
It’s harvested young. When just two leaves have sprouted on the plant, that’s it—time for picking. That keeps it very sweet and herbaceous. It doesn’t suffer the hot licorice flavors you get when basil is harvested later in its life, in big stalks, like we usually see at the market in America. Ligurian olive oil, the other main ingredient, is delicate and sweet, a good match for basil whose flavors would be overwhelmed by a more robust oil.
When we send 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. Sailors pack it in a container vessel headed to New York. I don’t know what they eat on board, but a part of me hopes it’s pesto.