Northern Italy’s port city of Genoa is 20 miles long and less than two miles wide. Tightly sandwiched between coast and mountains, it is a giant balcony with panoramic views of the brilliant blue Ligurian Sea. And like other messy melting pot Mediterranean ports, including Naples and Marseilles, La Superba is a city in perpetual dialogue with the sea that faces it. Host to a cacophony of cultures—African, Arab and European, among others—Genoa has, throughout its history, produced generations of seafaring explorers and adventurers, including Christopher Columbus.
According to a legend dating back centuries, Genoa’s sailors would borrow a tiny token of their beloved city to keep them company during long, lonely months at sea: a fragrant pot of basil, which they would store in their cabins. In return, wives and lovers back home would place basil plants on their windowsills until their partners returned home safely from their voyages. This practice evolved—again, according to local lore—to the point that sailors began to grind basil leaves into a tasty green sauce and travel with it because of its long shelf life. If you believe the legend, you now know how pesto was born.
Using the Mortar and Pestle
The word pesto comes the verb pestare, for “to crush” or “pound.” Our English word “pestle” is derived from the same linguistic root. True pesto is made exclusively with a mortar and pestle; the use of an electric blender is frowned upon. A blender simply chops the basil into tiny fragments that quickly oxidize and turn an unappetizing (but still edible) black color. With a mortar and pestle, the leaves are mashed and their fibers disintegrate, releasing enzymes that coagulate and form the “glue” that integrates the pines nuts and makes a pesto paste. Another trick for obtaining a vibrant green color is making sure the basil is not moist.
Place the ingredients into a large marble mortar and mash, using a hardwood pestle. Do not hammer the ingredients with an up-and-down motion. Instead, grind them against the side of the mortar with determined, rotary movements and ample use of your wrist. Basil (a proven stimulant), and hence pesto, has long been considered an aphrodisiac food in Italy—and the obvious symbolism of the mortar and pestle doesn’t dull that reputation one bit.
In most parts of Italy, basil leaves are used simply as a garnish to other ingredients. But in Genoa, basil is a dish unto its own and the main inspiration for la cucina profumata, (fragrant food) as Genovese cooking is known in Italy. Classic pesto consists of basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and grated Parmigiano cheese. It is closely associated with Genoa and served as a pasta sauce in households and in restaurants throughout the Ligurian coast. But pesto’s fragrant flavor and versatility has also made it a popular condiment used on pizza, in sandwiches, in soups or with meat. Today, chefs around the world have made adjustments to the classic recipe by incorporating local ingredients. In California and Spain, cilantro or parsley leaves sometimes replace basil, and other versions call for almonds or walnuts instead of pine nuts. Sicilians have devised their own pesto made from pistachios.
Genoa claims pesto as its own because of its unique microclimate and basil terroir. The area of Prà, slightly east of Genoa’s port, is particularly well suited to basil cultivation. According to basil grower Stefano Bruzzone, this is due to the region’s strong sunshine, sea breezes and dense soils—conditions so perfect that local authorities have taken steps to transform it into a national basil park. Bruzzone, who grows basil year-round in greenhouses built into steep mountain terraces just 20 yards from sea bluffs in Prà, also makes pesto and claims to know the secret to the best sauce: young leaves. “Essential oils within the leaves are most pungent and fragrant within the first 50 days of the plant’s life,” he says. “Any time after that and the leaves gain a hard, licorice-like flavor. The rule of thumb for pesto is never use a plant with more than six leaves, or two tiers of foliage.”
Pesto is a simple sauce that becomes an amazingly complex ingredient. It unleashes a host of sensory pleasures—its fragrance derived from the basil, sweetness and a creamy consistency from the pine nuts, saltiness from the cheese, acidity from the olive oil, and spicy persistency from the garlic. Daniela Scrobogna, an instructor with the Italian Sommelier Association, starts her advanced students with a spoonful of
pesto as a way to learn about food and wine pairing. A wine with a strong mineral character will overemphasize pesto’s saltiness. An acidic wine will clash with the oil. A lean wine won’t stand up to the basil or garlic. By the end of the lesson, the students find an ideal match in a structured, creamy, white wine like Vermentino. Other possibilities include a slightly wood-aged Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio.
The following recipes —classic Italian pesto plus French and Sicilian variations—display the full versatility of pesto’s uses in pasta dishes as well as a soup. So distinctive is pesto’s flavor, however, that the range of wines that complement the dishes is relatively narrow. The far frontiers of that range is an exploration we leave to you.
Pesto alla Genovese
The name of Paola Oliveri’s gem of a restaurant in the Boccadasse neighborhood of Genoa, Osteria Creuza de Mä, was inspired by a wildly popular 1984 album of music celebrating the area’s tiny alleyways, fish restaurants, picturesque port and patches of pebbly beach. Chef Antonio Amato, originally from Naples but happily transplanted to Genoa, makes some of the best pesto in town. Most cooks prefer to use pesto with trenette, or little twisted braids of pasta, but Antonio opts for picage (from the local dialect’s word for “napkin”) instead. This is a flat, lasagna-type pasta, cut into rough large squares that fold onto themselves when cooked and trap the pesto within. He also uses less garlic than the classic measure because he considers its taste too strong; lovers of garlic can add more. Be sure the basil leaves are young, and not moist, and, if possible, use a light-colored or Ligurian olive oil.
This recipe yields about a cup of pesto.
2 cups tightly packed fresh basil leaves
1 garlic clove
3/4 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano cheese
1/2 cup olive oil
salt to taste
1 pound lasagna (or any non-egg pasta)
Place the basil, garlic and pine nuts into the mortar and lightly grind into a paste with the pestle. Allow the basil leaves and pine nuts to coagulate, then add the cheese and mix evenly. Continue to mix as you add the oil in a thin stream.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a generous pinch of salt and then the pasta. Boil the pasta until al dente. Lay out in strips and cut into four-inch rectangles. In a bowl, toss the pasta with one small portion of the pesto at a time, until the pasta is thoroughly coated. (Boiled, cubed potatoes and string beans are sometimes added to this dish.) Serves 4.
Wine recommendation: Select a wine with a solid structure but not excessive acidity or minerality. A wine from a relatively warm part of Tuscany will bring extra roundness and smoothness. Antinori’s Tenuta Guado al Tasso Vermentino from Bolgheri is a good one to try.
Provençal soupe au pistou
Italy’s pesto tradition migrated westward with Mediterranean currents, eventually landing across the French border in Provence. Pistou (pesto’s French cousin) is a prized condiment that, here, elevates what would otherwise be a banal vegetable minestrone to a dish with amazing taste and intensity. This version of the recipe is from the Restaurant Galerie des Arcades in Biot, a tiny hilltop hamlet near Antibes on the Côte d’Azur.
For the soup:
2 cups dried flageolet beans (or white or navy beans)
10 cups water
1 celery stick, chopped
2 zucchini, cubed
2 potatoes, cubed
1 onion, chopped
salt, to taste
2 or 3 cloves garlic
For the pistou:
1 large bouquet of basil, de-stremmed
1 tomato, seeded and finely chopped
14 cup olive oil
For the garnish:
Parmigiano cheese, grated
To make the soup: Soak the beans over-night in water. Place beans and soaking liquid in a pan, add more water if necessary and bring to a boil. Cook for 20 minutes. Drain and set aside. Place the celery, zucchini, potato, onion and salt to taste into a large pot with water, bring to a boil, and let simmer for 90 minutes. Add the beans. (Note: Some recipes call for a handful of cooked cubes or crumbles of smoked bacon for extra flavor; add with the beans.)
To make the pistou: Put basil, garlic, tomato and olive oil into a blender (yes, in France, blenders are allowed) and chop finely until it becomes a syrupy paste.
To serve: Dab a generous spoonful of pistou on top of the soup, stirring it in with a spoon. Dribble olive oil and sprinkle grated Parmigiano cheese on top. Serves 4.
Wine recommendation: In the south of France, rosé is the wine of choice. With enough body and structure to accompany a hearty vegetable soup, yet with enough delicacy and aromatic elegance to enhance the basil in the pistou, E. Guigal’s 2004 Côtes-du- Rhône Rosé is an ideal match.
Sicilian pesto di pistacchi
This pesto di pistacchi can be used as a sauce for pasta, for brushing over chicken or fish before baking it, or for spreading over toasted bruschetta.
Although the recipe is simple, requiring just three ingredients, it can be embellished with tiny cubes of cured ham or speck, pecorino cheese shavings, or blended with basil-based pesto alla Genovese. For best results, add salty accents (like cured ham) to contrast the sweet pistachios. This recipe was suggested by specialists at Sicilfrutti, a food company based in Bronte, Sicily, where some of the best pistachios in the world are grown.
1 cup quality pistachio nuts, shelled
1/2 cup light olive oil or sunflower seed oil
Salt and ground white pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 300Â°F. Place the pistachios on a baking sheet and toast for 10 minutes. Remove and let cool. Once cooled, use an electric blender to mince the nuts as fine as possible. Moisten with light olive oil or with sunflower oil until a thick paste is formed. (Extra-virgin olive oil will overpower the delicate pistachio taste.) Add salt and pepper. Top with finely grated Parmigiano cheese. Yields 4 servings.
Wine recommendations: There are two factors to consider when pairing this pesto with wine. First, pistachios are fundamentally sweet. Contrast this sweetness with a dry white wine, with dusty mineral or graphite notes. The second consideration is pesto’s oiliness, which is best matched by a wine with high acidity that will leave the palate clean. Serve with a fresh wine with long persistency like Soave, a Friuli Grave Sauvignon Blanc or a Greco di Tufo from Campania.
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