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Pasta al Vero Pesto alla Genovese

(Pasta with the REAL Genovese Pesto Sauce)

Anne Robichaud

The variety of basil cultivated on the Ligurian coast (and which enriches the Genovese pesto with its rich perfume) is the fundamental base for this traditional dish. This variety of basil has a small convex leaf, oval-shaped; color is delicate green. Prime characteristic: its delicate fragrance. Ocimum basilicum arrived in Europe from Africa with the Romans and this basil quickly becomes the basic herb of Ligurian cuisine and of course, of the famous Genovese pesto.

The Region of Liguria has now applied for DOP ("denominazione d'origine protetta") status for its pesto (i.e., Protected Designation of Origin status, which means that "pesto alla genovese" can only come from the Genoa area). DOP recognition will be an affirmation of the Genovese saying, "Se il basilicao é foresto, di sicuro non é pesto" ("If the basil is foreign, then it can't be pesto").

I recently visited an old friend in Camogli, on the coast just outside of Genoa. Felicità is a superb cook and has been cooking "alla genovese" since she was old enough to hold a spoon, carrying on the culinary traditions of her mother, grandmother ... and so on down the line.

You certainly won't be able to make your pesto with the highly-perfumed Genovese basil (and neither can I here in Umbria!) but try this recipe and see how close you can come to a "vero pesto."

Pesto Recipe

  • 100 g of pasta (spaghetti) for every person (or about 1 lb for 5 people)*
  • a large, large bunch of basil
  • a handful of pine nuts
  • a handful of grated Parmesan cheese
  • about 1/4 cup excellent extra-virgin olive oil (feel free to contact me if you wish information on how to get the best absolutely!)
  • garlic clove (can eliminate if desired)
  • salt - a touch

Pesto was originally made with mortar and pestle ("pestaio" - hence, the name "pesto") but nowadays a blender does the job. Fill blender with all the basil it can hold and add other ingredients. Blend. If too thick, add a bit of water. Consistency should be that of heavy cream and pesto should come out of blender in dollops. Color will be light green. Mix in well with hot pasta. When draining pasta, be sure to save some of the water in which you cooked it. This water can be added to pesto if needed, to render it more creamy when mixing in with the pasta.

If freezing your pesto, do not use olive oil, nor cheese when blending (add later when serving). Use corn oil or a seed oil in blender as olive oil when defrosted has an unpleasant odor.

Before mixing the pesto in with the pasta, Felicità adds about 2 tablespoons of prescinseua ("buttermilk" in Genoese dialect) to the pesto, to add a more creamy flavor (as did her mother and grandmother when they made pesto). I asked Felicità about the absence of pecorino (sheep's milk cheese) - which is sometimes used along with the Parmesan - in her pesto. She rightly pointed out that the Ligurian coastal area has never been a sheep-herding area. Therefore, "niente pecorino!" she exclaimed.

*The Genovese serve their pesto with trofiette (a flour and water-based pasta of curious twisted shape) but any form welcomes a buonissimo pesto, (in fact, Felicità makes a pesto lasagna as well!)


Anne Robichaud lives near Assisi and gives lectures and tours. www.annesitaly.com

© Anne Robichaud, 2010. Do not republish without permission.

This essay was first published on Anne's website www.annesitaly.com. Edited by Slow Travel.

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