Different regions in Italy have their specialties. Emilia-Romanga boasts its Parmigiano Reggiano and Balamic Vinegar, Tuscany is proud of its prosciutto and pecorinos, while Lazio is the place to go for a classic Pizza Margherita with Buffalo Mozzarella. Liguria is most famous for its pesto and while we were vacationing there recently, we ate it on just about everything—bruschetta, gnocchi, fresh pasta, pizza, and potatoes. Lucky for us, we also were able to experience a cultural celebration of this beloved sauce—as we caught the “Festival dal Basilico” in Corngilia, one of the small Cinque Terre Villages. We were in Corniglia for eight nights and were delighted to see neighborhood the flower pots and planters were filled with tender Genovese basil. As it got closer to the weekend celebration, more and more basil appeared, planted in some wonderfully creative ways.
The festival culminated with a pesto making contest. Volunteers were selected from the audience, given an apron, ingredients, and instructions through the process. There were even some kids up there, starting young and keeping up with the seasoned nonne.
Like most good Italian cooking, the power and beauty of pesto lies in the simplicity and freshness of ingredients. Just as the basil is flooding the garden, it’s also time to harvest the aglio (garlic) planted last fall. Complementing the basil, traditional pesto calls for some local oglio (olive oil) and pecorino and parmigiano cheese, and a little sale (salt). And of course, pignoli (pine nuts), a native Mediterranean species, packed with protein and offering a sweet buttery flavor. Traditionally, pesto is made with a mortar and pestle, allowing the ingredients to be slowly released in order to maintain the delicate flavors. The word pesto comes from the Italian verb, pestare, which means to ground or pound, and a perfect pesto is truly an art.
Lucky for us, we came home to our garden full of basil. And just like in Liguria, we’re eating it bit by bit every day. Here’s a classic recipe that’s fun to try.
1 pinch coarse salt
60 small or 30 large fresh basil leaves, wiped, stems and spines removed
1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, peeled, any green shoots removed
3 tablespoons pine nuts
2 tablespoons finely grated Pecorino Romano
2 tablespoons finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
3 tablespoons Ligurian extra virgin olive oil
Place the sea salt and a few of the basil leaves in a mortar. Using a pestle, press and lightly pound the leaves and salt against the coarse bowl of the mortar, in a rotary motion, breaking the leaves apart. Keep adding a few more leaves and grinding them until you’ve used them all.
Once all the leaves have been added, and before they’ve been completely pulverized, add the garlic and pound it until it releases its juices. Add the pignoli and pound them into a paste. Move the pestle around the mortar to combine the ingredients.
Stir in the Pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano, then gradually add olive oil, stirring it into the paste (a spoon can be used for these steps, if you prefer). You should have a thick, creamy, homogenous, bright green sauce.
And finally, be sure to share some with friends.