What is pesto?
Pesto is a rugged sauce that originated in Genoa, the first city of Liguria. The quintessential pesto recipe - pesto alla Genovese - typically consists of fresh basil, pine nuts, garlic, Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Sardo, extra virgin olive oil and salt. These ingredients are ground together in a pestle and mortar, resulting in a rustic paste. While pesto alla Genovese is the most popular recipe for pesto, as is often the case in Italian cuisine, different regions and provinces boast their own variations of pesto.
What does the word pesto mean?
The word ‘pesto’ earns its moniker from the Genoese word ‘pestâ’, which means ‘to pound’ or ‘crush’. Traditionally, all of the ingredients for pesto were ground in a marble mortar, so, strictly speaking, pesto can refer to any sauce made by grinding together ingredients.
The history of pesto
Pesto boasts ancient roots, going back as far as the Roman age. Romans enjoyed an early iteration of pesto, in the form of a rough paste of crushed garlic, salt, cheese, herbs, oil and vinegar, known as 'moretum'.
While moretum is not dissimilar to the modern pesto alla Genovese, the famed basil pesto is - as inferred by the name - a Genoese invention, hailing from Liguria’s capital. That being said, in the Middle Ages, around the 12th and 13th centuries, when the Genoan Republic was an independent state, Genoese natives preferred a rustic sauce known as 'aglaita', a mixture of garlic and walnuts, with a touch of sea salt - the three ingredients were available in abundance in the coastal region. This early pesto recipe also forms the basis of pesto alla Trapanese from Sicily.
The introduction of basil - the main ingredient of the pesto alla Genovese of today - occurred more recently, around the 19th century. It was then, uncoincidentally, that gastronomist Giovanni Battista Ratto published his book La Cuciniera Genovese, an early cookbook which featured the first written record of Genovese pesto, in 1863. Basil grew abundantly in Liguria, though only in a finite window, while the herb was in season. For that reason, Ratto’s early recipe prescribes substitutions of marjoram or parsley. After a notable revision by Emanuele Rossi in 1865, pesto became a staple of Ligurian cuisine. In line with the flexibility afforded by Ratto’s initial recipe, many families boasted their own version of the rustic sauce. That being said, Ratto’s initial recipe for pesto alla Genovese has endured to this day, as the most popular iteration of the rustic sauce.
How to make pesto
Pesto alla Genovese is the quintessential pesto recipe. The key to making an excellent pesto alla Genovese is using true Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, high-quality olive oil – we use Italian extra virgin olive oil – and fresh basil. In selecting basil, try to get bunches with smaller leaves as these tend to be fresher and more tender. As basil pesto is a dish of few ingredients, the flavour and freshness of its components will greatly impact the final product. For our pesto alla Genovese, we honour tradition, using sweet and subtle pine nuts, as they ensure a distinct creaminess within the bright pesto. However, we encourage experimentation with other nuts, as each variety lends their own unique flavour to the final dish. Try our simple basil pesto recipe at home for yourself - we can assure you freshly made pesto is infinitely more enjoyable than that you’ll find on supermarket shelves. Follow along as our chef Roberta makes traditional basil pesto in the video below.
For an alternative, yet equally loved pesto recipe, why not try our red pesto recipe, by following the video below?
Is pesto vegetarian/vegan?
While traditional pesto alla Genovese typically includes non-vegetarian cheeses (including Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Sardo), pesto by nature invites interpretation - feel free to substitute the traditional cheese for a vegetarian alternative. If you’re looking for vegan pesto, we have a range of vegan pesto recipes available on our blog.
How long does pesto last?
While pesto is best eaten straight away, it can be kept in clean mason jars and stored in the refrigerator for up to a week.
What is the best pasta for pesto?
We typically enjoy our fragrant pesto alla Genovese with either trofie or tagliatelle. The former is a shape of pasta rarely found outside its home region of Liguria - a hidden gem, of sorts. Trofie are a proud member of the pasta bianca (white pasta) family – meaning they are made with just water and flour. To form trofie, small pieces of white pasta dough are rolled along the palm of the hand, resulting in sweet, rustic curls with tapered ends and thicker middle section. The grooves created in this process ensure trofie is a perfect companion to pesto alla Genovese, as they deftly capture the flavoursome sauce.
Tagliatelle, on the other hand, is an egg pasta which hails from the Emilia-Romagna region in the north of Italy. These long-winding golden ribbons capture pesto and meat sauces with ease, due to their increased surface area.
Other, chunkier pesto recipes pair well with hollow pasta shapes, such as cavatelli or orecchiette. These shapes are particularly deft at scooping chunks of rugged pesto.
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