Posted by: Cooking Thyme | January 31, 2011

Go Green…………… with Pesto Genovese

Pesto alla Genovese:

The Official Dish of the International Day of Italian Cuisines (IDIC) 2011


The 4th Edition of the International Day of Italian Cuisines took place on January 17th in New York city, Already a tradition the event was a worldwide celebration of authentic and quality Italian Cuisine.

This year’s official dish is PESTO ALLA GENOVESE; this delicious landmark of Italian Cuisine was originated in Genova, Region of Liguria and is one of the most reproduced, dishes of the Italian cooking tradition. so far it has been pretty successful with a few thousands of restaurants in more than 40 countries participating.  The previous year we made Tagliatelle al Ragu’ Bolognese.

There’s no doubt, it’s the most loved raw sauce of the world and, as such, it’s just as famous as mayonnaise;  I’m talking about Pesto, about the only genuine one; Basil, garlic, pine nuts, Grana Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino cheeses, extra virgin oil and a few pinches of sea salt. All the other diverse variations floating around the world are nothing more than unsuccessful bogus or aberrations of the original.

The word comes from ‘pestare’, to crush something with a pestle to reduce it to powder. Therefore, pesto is also known as ‘battuto genovese’ (Genoese mince or mash). From ‘pestare’ also comes the word ‘pestle’ (‘pestillium’ in Latin) that together with the mortar is the utensil used for making this sauce; a wooden pestle, made from hard wood and a mortar of white marble, of Carrara, unpolished inside.

Pesto is an ageless benchmark and a contemporary symbol of Italian cooking around the world.

The recipe for true pesto started to appear only in the 19th century and in 1863 Giovanni Battista Ratto published La Cuciniera Genovese, considered to be the first and most complete book on the gastronomy of the Region of Liguria and in which states the recipe for pesto with pine nuts as the following:

“Take a clove of garlic, basil (‘baxaicö’) or when that is lacking, marjoram and parsley, grated Dutch and Parmigiano cheese and mix them with pine nuts and crush it all together in a mortar with a little butter until reduced to a paste. Then dissolve it with good and abundant oil. Lasagne and troffie (Liguria is a kind of gnocchi) are dressed with this mash, made more liquid by adding a little hot water without salt.

Ratto stated in his book that it’s a dressing for lasagne and for trofie, the latter being the speciality of the town of Recco in the Province of Genoa, the same town that gave birth to the famous focaccia.

Variation in progress

In the 1800’s, the pasta al pesto was considered to be a working class dish. There was and still is in Liguria the habit of adding potatoes or beans, and sometimes zucchini cut into small pieces and boiled together with the pasta. Especially in Genoa, potatoes and beans are added to classic or improved (avvantaggiate) trenette, however rules are not always fixed, furthermore, there is a purist school that categorically excludes potatoes from trofie.

In general it is said that in Liguria it’s difficult to find two equal versions of pesto, because of the variations, sometimes within the same family, such as the addition of walnuts, ricotta or other cheeses. This has happened with various typical Italian dishes, many of which have ‘terminated’ their evolution only within the most recent decades. In Italian cooking, the variations of a dish not only represent the wealth of diversity, but also an indirect legitimisation of its generally accepted version.

The role of olive oil in pesto; shouldn’t be neither bitter nor too fruity. The Ligurian extra virgin olive oil is ideal. Just as Genoese basil (this herb most likely originated in North Africa); the extra virgin olive oil of the Riviera Ligure has obtained the D.O.P. granted by the European Union in recognition of its quality and typicality. Furthermore, for a pesto that does honour to the territory of origin these must be used:

  • The garlic of Vessalico, in the Province of Imperia, has delicate flavour and particular digestibility.
  • The coarse salt of the Cervia salt flats.
  • Italian pine nuts.

It’s obvious that outside Italy it’s not always possible to find all these autochthonous ingredients. However, in order to prepare a pesto, the minimum necessary requirement is to have quality ingredients and to follow the original recipe.

 Pesto-on-the-Riviera Pesto ingredients

Consorzio del Pesto Genovese and Pesto Championship

The Genoese Pesto Consortium has been formed by the Region of Liguria and associations of producers. Its mission, is “to safeguard the traditional recipe for pesto, along with all its quality ingredients and first and foremost, obviously to use Liguria basil.” The Consortium has presented a request for the recognition of quality STG (Specialità Tradizionale Garantita, Guaranteed Traditional Speciality) for pesto. The Genoese Associazione Palatifini, organises the World Championship of Mortar-made Genoese Pesto every two years in Genoa, to confirm its Ligurian imprint and its universality as a foodstuff of quality and taste.

Genoese Pesto Around the World

Pesto has reached great popularity worldwide, also thanks to the crews of the mercantile ships and the passengers that set sail from the Port of Genoa to most diverse of destinations. Pesto found itself at home in La Boca, the ‘Genoese’ district of Buenos Aires, and started to spread out in the main ports of the USA Immediately after the Second World War, some companies began exporting pesto in jars to the US.

According to many sources, pesto reached its greatest popularity in the United States in the ‘80’s. At the beginning of the ‘90’s its popularity grew even more when Frank Sinatra started to commercialise a pesto sauce that carried his face on the label. Also its counterfeiting began, with the supermarkets invaded by approximate copies of the original.

Trofie and Trenette are the pasta used in Liguria, however linguine or spaghetti al dente will make a good companion to this sauce, and as well potato gnocchi. Serving pesto to dip the bread is not really the traditional way to serve this sauce and also to mix it with other sauces is not recommended. The natural way of serving pesto is with pasta cooked in the same water with green bean and potato and then dressed like a salad (away from the fire of course) in a bowl

Other chefs mix Pesto with soya and wasabi and then spread on a roasted quail in a bed of polenta mixed with dry figs…  I do not want to look like a bigot purist but I guess there is a limit to creativity, if you can call that so!

Many non-Italian chefs tend to use this sauce in very baroque preparation, and I have seen the most silly combinations around the world, things like pesto in a pizza… You can imagine how the pesto comes out of a 300/400 Celsius oven!

whatever you do not cook pesto!  VA BENE!

I will leave you with some photo's from Genova. Bella Citta 

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