Pesto, that delicious basil-bomb drizzle that puts the perfetto into pasta, as the motivation behind garlic-throwing protest mobs? The subject of investigations by Italian carabinieri?
Si, si. It turns out that this humble herby paste has a fascinating story. There’s fierce debate about the ingredients (and even where they are grown); and whether you can get a good result making it in a blender, or only a mortar and pestle will do. There’s even a pesto world championship, the Campionato Mondiale al Mortaio, held in Genoa, Italy’s home of pesto.
So how did pesto go from something that didn’t even have a written recipe until the late 19th century to a world-conquering universal favourite? And why would a pesto made without garlic provoke angry mobs in the streets of Genoa ?
One recipe to rule them all?
A classic Ligurian pesto has seven ingredients: basil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, pecorino, pine nuts, garlic, salt and olive oil. There was even a Pesto Confraternity, set up in Genoa in 1992, complete with an Order of Paladins (friends of pesto, as it were) and Knights (makers and sellers). Their statue set out “indica gli ingredienti, ma non le quantità” – the ingredients, but not the quantities, because, they said, ingredients are like the colors chosen by the painter, not to be dictated.
Okay, so that’s easy – use those seven ingredients and you’ve got pesto? Ah, well, yes. And no. For a genuine pesto Genovese, where those ingredients come from matters . The basil, cheese and olive oil should have proper European Union DOP status – the Demoninazione di Origine Pretetta, which confers special status on traditional products ranging from balasmic vinegar in Mondena to buffalo-milk mozzarella in Campania. Many Genovese say the basil must come from the famed greenhouses at Pra, near Genoa .
In 2002, the Italian police reported eight companies, including Nestle, for producing pesto alla Genovese using non-local ingredients (although no charges eventuated).
If you’re the sort that likes to make pesto as the spirit takes you – using what you have to hand, perhaps, here’s the good news: this pesto orthodoxy is relatively recent.
SBS Food chatted to John Dickie, host of Eating History: Italy (Friday' 4.30 on SBS from September 15) about whether there’s really a “genuine pesto” - Dickie’s Professor of Italian Studies at University College London, and pesto is just one of the many Italian favourites he tackles in Eating Italy, so we figured he’d know a fair bit about it.
“Any glance at the history of pesto will you that it’s made in all kinds of different ways. All of the earliest recipes we have for it, from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, say you can make it with pretty much anything, you don’t even have to make it with basil.
“They are very vague. It’s clearly something that you improvise. They [say] you can use majoram, you can use basil, you can use parsley; you can use any cheese you happen to have to hand; you could use any type of nuts you have to hand, walnuts or whatever. And it’s really only relatively recently that … you get gradually emerging in the post-war period, this prescription, this tablet of stone that says it’s got to be made with [certain] ingredients. Ligurian olive oil, it’s got to have pine nuts from a certain place, it’s got to have pecorino, it’s got to have parmesan, it’s got to have basil and salt, obviously. And garlic as well.”
Ah, but does it need to have garlic?
Is it really pesto if it doesn’t have garlic?
In 2001, pesto went political. As Dickie explains in episode 3 of Eating History: Italy, a decision about what VIPs attending the G8 conference in Genoa would eat added an unexpected dimension to street protests.
A menu devised by Liguria’s leading chefs was submitted to the Italian Foreign Ministry for approval. Among the dishes rejected? Pesto Genovese, replaced by “basil sauce” – basically, the same thing, but sans garlic.
“If you’re going to make, if you are holding the G8, as [then Italian Prime Minister] Silvio Belusconi was, and you’re making food representative of the city, then it seems very rather silly not to include garlic in the pesto," Dickie explains to us when we ask him about this decision. "But then again they had to obey all kinds of weird rules about food at these international conferences. Speakers had to be able to choose their own particular dish from a buffet, so that nobody got the chance to poison Putin...
“The story at the time was the Berlusconi personally did not like garlic. It was one of his great rules for being a salesman, that you never eat garlic because no one will ever buy anything off you if you’ve got garlic on your breath.”
The decision added fuel to the ire of anti-globalisation protestors, with some equipping themselves with bulbs of garlic to throw.
So does Dickie think pesto is pesto without garlic?
“It does to seem appear, if I remember correctly, in all these weird historical variants - the pesto with majoram and all that kind of stuff. I don’t remember a pesto recipe without it. You could substitute the basil but the garlic seems to be a constant.”
Pesto has to be made in a mortar and stirred anticlockwise
Well, perhaps if you have plenty of time, and you like to cast a loving eye at popular traditions. In Eating History: Italy, Dickie makes pesto with Gianni Malagoli, one of the chefs who cooked for the G8.
Dickie says that when it comes to using a blender, as a family man, he’s all for it. “I’ve had Genoese people say do me, ‘listen, don’t worry, just shove it all in a blender and it will be fine’. Personally, when making food for my kids, when faced with the alternative of taking an hour to make pesto with an pestle and mortar or three minutes by shoving it in the blender, I think that’s a pretty good option, compared with opening a jar of awful supermarket stuff.”
Does it make a difference to the end result? The team at Serious Eats put it to the test and say it does.
If you're short on time, try this blender version (made with the seven traditional ingredients). Or make our mortar and pestle take on pesto alla genovese:
While it is readily available in jars from supermarkets, basil pesto is simple to master at home. There are generally only five ingredients - basil, of course, pine nuts and garlic, plus olive oil and parmesan. This recipe uses the traditional method of pounding using a mortar and pestle, but some pesto recipes suggest using a food processor to speed up the preparation time.
Pesto even has a World Cup
Since 2007, pesto Genovese has been celebrated at its own international championship, the Campionato Mondiale al Mortaio. This year, the trophy went to Alessandra Fasce – pleasingly for the locals, a cook from Genoa. The international field of 100 didn’t include any Australians, although there was a representative from New Zealand.
Dickie – who was a judge at the event in 2010 – explains that the contestants all work with the same set of ingredients.
“As is made very clear in the series, I’m no great chef, and there were about a hundred people from all over the world making pesto in this marbled Renaissance hall and I had to taste them.” It was, he confesses “pretty hard to taste a difference between them … Luckily there were people from Genoa who were much more attuned to the minute differences in flavour.”
Shall we all just agree that we love pesto? If you aren't lucky enough to have a Ligurian grandmother sharing her recipe with you, how about this one from The Greedy Italians, Antonio Carluccio and Gennaro Contaldo?