Welcome to the Pesto Parade

No matter how many times it happens, I'm continually amazed by the level of insight and understanding that comes from traveling to the source. I work with an item for years, eat it, read about it, cook with it, think I know what I'm talking about, and then I arrive in its homeland and inevitably discover that although I wasn't completely off-course, neither was I really on target. My most recent revelation centered on pesto. Now, pesto may seem a bit all-pervasive here in America, one of those trends that tops out and starts showing up in so many places that I start to look the other way whenever I see it coming. Pesto pizza, pesto lasagna, pesto on sandwiches, pesto in Pepsi . . . for a while there I was worried we were going to be labeled the pesto generation. I have to confess that for me, too much pesto was leading to a lot of, well, culinary-emotional unresto. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.) Although I've never actively disliked it, neither have I ever been an ardent pesto advocate until I went to Liguria and saw the light.

As much as pesto may seem like an overrated pretender to the culinary throne here in America, the truth of the matter is that in its homeland of Liguria, the region we call the Italian Riviera, pesto is as prevalent, as popular and as authentic, as ever. In Liguria, pesto is anything but trendy. To the contrary, pesto authenticity is cause for regular arguments amongst traditionalists. A group of Ligurian cooks can go for hours arguing about proper preparation, specific serving scenarios and the error of the ways of all sorts of improper pesto preparers.

Ligurians do seem to agree on a few pesto points. First and foremost is probably that pesto should be eaten often. Ligurians like it in copious quantities on pasta. But they also eat it with regularity on fish, in soup, or spread on focaccia (the local Ligurian bread specialty). And, depending on which part of Liguria you like to visit, you may find it added to other items as well. Beyond that basic agreement on pesto's ultimate goodness, most everything else about it seems up for debate.

I was also going to say that all versions agree on the importance of fresh basil, but then I came upon a recipe for Pesto Bianco-a white pesto made with walnuts, garlic, olive oil, milk and ricotta cheese-in Fred Plotkin's wonderful Recipes from Paradise; Life and Food on the Italian Riviera. So much for that theory. Regardless, let me share a few short pesto pointers to enlighten you about this northern Italian specialty.

Pesto Point: Everyone Has Their Own Version
The first thing I learned in Liguria is that if you're waiting to get the definitive answer on exactly what you put into a proper pesto, you're going to be waiting a long time: Ligurians are unlikely to agree on what goes into a proper pesto.

Seemingly, almost everyone in area has their version. In Valencia, they say that every person has three paella recipes: one for their significant other, one for their mother and one for themselves. I don't know if pesto positioning is quite that prolific, but suffice it to say that there are a lot of versions. The good news is that if you go to Liguria you'll get to eat a lot of good pesto while you're listening to the Ligurians argue about it.

What are the options?

Literally, hundreds. Start with the six key ingredients and then take into account that if you use those to calculate the number of pesto permutations you'll find that it adds up to 46,656 pesto versions. And that's before you mix in anything out of the mainstream.


1. Fresh Garlic
I have met a handful of people who prefer not to use garlic in their pesto, but they seem to be in the minority. In Liguria, most everyone seems to agree that garlic is a given. Melly Solari, of the excellent Ligurian restaurant, Ca Peo, sternly said, "Without garlic, it's not pesto." The garlic, of course, should be fresh and-like all Ligurian food-as mellow as possible. Over here, elephant garlic might be more appropriate. Ligurians like to remove the center core of the clove-that sprout that sits right in the middle-because they say it adds bitterness. Just gently cut it out with a small paring knife, and use the rest of the clove at will. The garlic should enhance and support the flavor of the finished sauce, but it shouldn't dominate the entire dish.

2. Salt
Salt acts to season the sauce and to keep the basil from turning brown after it's been crushed. Ligurians like to use sea salt, a choice I'd endorse wholeheartedly over our usual iodized table salt. If you're skeptical about this salt stuff, we'll happily let you taste-test different salts to see what you think. There's no question that in a sauce as simple-and as ingredient dependent-as pesto, your choice of salts will make a difference in the final flavor of the sauce.

3. Fresh Basil
Without question, one of the biggest reasons that authentic Riviera pesto is so powerfully good is the special flavor of the local Ligurian basil. While I've had a number of Americans declare outright that this is a bunch of bunk, I've got to tell you that I tasted a good bit of basil in Liguria, and a bunch more after getting back, and there's no doubt in my mind, or in my mouth, that there is a difference.

Straight out, Ligurian basil is much, much more delicate than ours, both in texture and in flavor. Because delicacy is the buzzword in the flavor of all Ligurian food, growers go all out to keep the flavor of their basil as delicate as possible. Physically they keep the leaves much smaller, never letting the plants grow to the size of the stuff we typically see around here. Supposedly the plants are grown under cover, protected from the sun's scorching. The leaves lack the strong, almost tongue-numbing mintiness that we're accustomed to in this country. Additionally, I'm sure the soil and the specific seed varieties grown play a part as well.

Of course, I'm sort of generalizing here. In Liguria they don't just think of basil as a single entity. Rather, shoppers often insist on specific sources. The regional basil of choice is from the town of Pra, about five miles from the port of Genoa. I didn't sample enough different sources to say definitively that I personally prefer the basil from Pra, but I will say that it is significantly softer and much mellower than ours.

Now, this doesn't mean that you can't make good pesto at home but that what you make isn't going to taste exactly like something you would sample right on the Riviera.

Whatever fresh basil you buy, be sure to remove the stems. They'll bring unwanted bitterness to the dish, and they won't break down into the essential creamy smoothness you get from the leaves. Take note, too, in your preparation that one of the keys to good pesto is wiping-not washing-the basil leaves. Although the latter is faster, it also rinses away some of the basil's fragrance, and is likely to dilute the intensity of your pesto. Wiping the leaves with a paper towel or kitchen cloth takes a bit longer, but Ligurians insist this is the only way to properly prepare the herb for its forthcoming pounding.

4. Pine Nuts
Not everyone on the Riviera puts pine nuts (or "pinoli" in Italian) in their pesto. Some substitute walnuts. Others blend both. One non-traditional pesto I had called for cashews. If you're using pine nuts, try to find real Mediterranean pinoli. What shoppers see in this part of the world are almost always Chinese. While the Asian nuts are perfectly fine and profoundly less costly, they also have a totally different flavor from the Italian. Not surprisingly, the latter are much more delicate, again in line with the Ligurian love of delicacy in the flavor of their food. You'll quickly detect the difference in the two nuts: the Mediterranean are longer, thinner, a lighter shade of yellow to almost ivory, whereas the Chinese are more triangular, more of a light chestnut to straw-gold color.

5. Cheese: Parmigiano Reggiano and/or Pecorino
When it comes to choosing cheese for one's pesto Italian opinions really start to diverge. Although most people seem to pick Parmigiano, it's far from a unanimous choice. Some still prefer Pecorino. Others choose to go cheese-less altogether. A number chefs use a bit of each; in the old days, a likely blend would have been two to one, Pecorino to Parmigiano. Nowadays, odds are the ratio will be reversed.

How did these two cheeses-neither native to Liguria-become such an important element in an otherwise local Ligurian sauce? The roots of this happy culinary conjoinment can be traced to the trading and political prowess of the Genoese. There was a time that the Genoese ruled the island of Sardinia, a prodigious source of sheep's milk cheese. Brought back to the Riviera by boat, pecorino became an integral element in people's pesto-making. Fred Plotkin says that this Pecorino-scented sauce was likely the original pesto. (He theorizes that it also used greater amounts of garlic and a smaller portion of nuts than would be typical today.) Parmigiano arrived in the area after Pecorino, but has become the prevalent pesto cheese in the modern era. The people of Parma swapped their cheese for Ligurian salt, all-important for curing both the local cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano) and ham (Prosciutto di Parma).

6. Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Liguria
Pesto is probably the single biggest showcase for the lovely lightness of Ligurian olive oil; its character blends beautifully with the flavors of the regional food. This is not a point that Ligurian cooks take lightly. "The oil must be Ligurian. Oil from Tuscany ruins the pesto," says the outspoken Melly Solari. Other area chefs were equally adamant on the subject: you have to use the best Ligurian oil if you want to make the best pesto. Not only does the oil have to be Ligurian, it's also got to be extra virgin. Since the oil in pesto is never cooked, it's critical that it be the best. An inexpensive, low grade, "pure" olive oil-with its greasy texture and bland flavor-would destroy a plate of pesto as surely as mayonnaise on corned beef/margarine in a classic croissant/ketchup on freshly-cooked crabmeat.

Proper Pesto Preparation

Ligurian pesto is smoother, much creamier, and almost the texture of a Spanish almond-garlic allioli. It is very different from the product we're most accustomed to in North America, which I would say is much more like chopped basil suspended in olive oil. Pesto in Liguria is opaque, thick, the color and look of a smooth guacamole.

Proper technique is a big, big part of getting the right texture. Although all sorts of spots no longer really do it, no self-respecting Ligurian cook will confess to anything other than making the stuff the old-fashioned way with a mortar and pestle. Ligurians prefer that the pestle be made of wood, the mortar of marble. The truth is that many restaurants now rely on electric blenders. Since you and I aren't from Liguria, our sensibilities won't be immediately offended if someone served us blender pesto. But there is a real difference in texture and finished flavor.

The mortar and pestle do make an enormous difference to the texture of the finished pesto. Note the linguistic similarity between the tool-the pestle-and the sauce-pesto. No coincidence, since the latter is a product of the former. In Ligurian pesto-making, the pestle is used more like a whisk, brushed softly against the sides and the bottom of the mortar, gently pulling the basil leaves to pieces in the process. I'm not sure yet if the resulting creaminess is a function of the Ligurian basil itself, of the technique or of some other Orwellian plot to protect authentic pesto from pollution by foreigners. But one way or the other, the technique creates a calm smoothness in the sauce that we rarely see over here. One key is to find a big enough mortar. Anything less than five inches across doesn't give you enough room to really mash the basil against the bottom and sides of the bowl.

What To Do With Your Pesto

Certainly, you should put it on pasta. This is probably how the vast majority of Ligurian pesto is eaten. If you already like eating baked lasagna, you'll probably love it with pesto. Pesto is a regular Riviera finish for minestrone. Pesto for soup, I've been warned, "never contains nuts." I can't say why, but everyone in the area was adamant that it shouldn't. I've tried it with and without cheese, and either works well.

For more on the wonderful food and fascinating culture of Liguria, see Fred Plotkin's excellent Recipes from Paradise.

A thousand thanks to everyone at the Oldways Preservation Exchange Trust for their assistance in my ongoing food education and their efforts to preserve traditional foodways around the world.