Pesto alla Genovese: History, Recipe Ideas and More
POSTED August 24, 2013
One of Italy’s most prized sauces, this fragrant, green treasure features the star of Italian herbs—basil. Perfect for putting purpose into your favorite recipes with its bold, grassy flavor, pesto is more than just a pasta sauce. Go green!
A Ligurian Superstar
A marvel of simplicity, pesto is a celebrated treasure of Mediterranean cuisine. If you’re lucky enough to experience this jewel of Liguria, sitting comfortably on the terrace of a local restaurant in any village by the sea, it would be unforgettable, dream-like even. Liguria is a small but gorgeous region set up against the Mediterranean Sea in Northwest Italy. Because of its particular location situated in the hills of the Appennini Mountains, Liguria owns a unique microclimate. This amazing landscape produces all of the ingredients used to make a traditional pesto—Genovese basil, Ligurian extra virgin olive oil and even pine nuts from the Stone Pines that grow in abundance.
As you would imagine, in pesto’s birthplace of Liguria, there are customary ways in which to serve it. Trofie al Pesto is made with short, squiggly noodles, while Trenette al Pesto uses a local version of linguine. It’s common practice to serve both pasta dishes with potatoes and beans. And what about lasagna? In Liguria, the beloved baked pasta dish is layered with fragrant green pesto. As is the same with gnocchi, where it is beautifully garnished with shavings of fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano. If you have the chance to enjoy any of these pesto dishes in Liguria, with a glass of Gavi (a white wine from Piemonte) in the company of friends, there will undoubtedly be a moment in which all conversation stops, replaced simply by moans of pleasure—it’s at that moment you’ll probably wish you could stay right there for the rest of your life.
History of Pesto
Pesto is one of the high points of Italian regional cuisine. There is a bit of mystery about the origins of this sauce, but some distant form of this sauce probably existed in Persia or in the Arabian Peninsula. Some explain it as an evolution of a Salsa di Noci, or walnut sauce, which is known to have existed in the Middle Ages. Centuries later, in 1627, Salvatore Massonio gives one of the first mentions of a sauce with garlic and different herbs an his essay. In 1860, a recipe for pesto—very similar to the one we know today—was codified by Giovan Battista Ratto in his “La Cuciniera Genovese.”
Ligurians are very proud of their pesto and fiercely defend their traditional recipe. There are strict rules and regulations about ingredients and preparation methods—established by the Regione Liguria and the Pesto alla Genovese consortium. In Italy, this struggle to defend the integrity of local products, recipes and traditional methods is considered a kind of national sport. Given how ferociously certain traditional ingredients for pesto are insisted upon, it’s curious to note that in some old recipes, formaggio d’Olanda—that is gouda cheese—was called for! The rich maritime commerce with northern Europe made that cheese almost more readily available than Pecorino Sardo or Parmigiano-Reggiano. Also, many years ago, before today’s greenhouses, seasonal shortages of basil sometimes required marjoram and parsley be substituted.
More than Pasta Sauce
A traditional, and universal, recipe for pesto includes fresh basil, garlic, coarse sea salt, extra virgin olive oil and aged Italian cheese, ideally both Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano. And while you may not have ingredients fresh from Liguria, it’s easy to make a great pesto. For purists, using a mortar and pestle is essential; mashing the ingredients into a pesto gives it a more rustic look, less homogenized. But also, using a food processor may alter the raw taste from the heat that is produced. For true Ligurian pesto—short of chartering a plane to Genova—pick up a jar of DeLallo Basil Pesto. An authentic recipe made in Liguria, Italy, our jarred pesto is great to have on hand, keeping its livelihood in your pantry until read to use.
In the U.S., pesto has become more than just a sauce for pasta, but an ingredient in a number of kitchen creations. Just a few ways to feature the fabulous fragrance of pesto in your recipes:
Create a “green” pizza that replaces red sauce with basil pesto.
Knead your favorite bread, focaccia or pizza dough recipe with a spoonful.
Give your creamy dips and sandwich spreads a bold new flavor.
Dress your salad with a homemade pesto vinaigrette.
Amp up your veggies and roasted potatoes.
Top your bruschetta and crostini creations.
Give your potato or chicken salads a new edge and ditch the mayo.
Marinate your meats and seafood for a new crisp, fresh flavor.