Pesto, from Genoa to the world

by Sergio Rossi, Il cucinosofo®

In the world of haute cuisine, speaking of a simple pasta sauce may seem limiting… unless it’s one of the most renown and appreciated in the world: pesto.

Up until a few decades ago, ‘pesto alla genovese’ was almost exclusively eaten in Liguria, a strip of land in Northern Italy enclosed between the mountains and the sea. It was known in other parts of the world, of course, and especially in the areas where the Ligurian people emigrated over a century ago, and where their descendants still live today. But pesto was neither used nor well known in most Italian regions – an oddity that is quite the norm in a country endowed with so many different local specialties.

Pesto is a cold sauce made with basil, cheese (parmesan and pecorino in varying quantities), olive oil, garlic, pine nuts, and sea salt. Traditionally, it is prepared in a marble mortar with a wooden pestle, pounding ingredients gradually until they turn into a thick paste. In Liguria, pesto is used to give a unique flavor to pasta, and in particular to ‘trofie’, potato ‘gnocchi’, ‘trenette’, and lasagnas.

But pesto was not always exactly as we know it today. Its mixture of selected ingredients is, in fact, the result of a long evolution that transformed a simple mince of garlic and basil, garnished with a little grated cheese, into the sauce we know now, enhanced by the flavor of Ligurian oil and the texture of nuts, such as walnuts or pine nuts. Every adjustment was aimed at achieving the best possible pasta sauce, striking the balance between sharp and mild taste.

Today the food industry often replaces the mortar with food processors or blenders, but in people’s homes the traditional method of making pesto is making a comeback, perhaps due to the popularity this specialty has gained in the last few decades, establishing itself as the most used cold sauce in the world.

People from Liguria, like me, say that a large part of pesto’s success depends on our local basil, with its unique, refined aroma. However, as the popularity of this sauce from Genoa reaches global scale, suitable basil can be found anywhere, from Northern Europe to the United States. Pesto has won over the greatest international chefs, who use it even on meat and fish dishes.

Born as a humble sauce – perhaps to give pasta some flavor during periods of abstinence from meat prescribed by the Catholic church – pesto is now a favorite all around the world. And as often happens with the simplest little things, it had an unexpected, yet certainly well deserved success.

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May 13, 2014

Pesto, from Genoa to the world