Pesto is the traditional basil sauce of Liguria and the core ingredient of countless local recipes.
Pesto is believed to be a derivation of medieval agliata. As the name may suggest, agliata was made with garlic (aglio in Italian), vinegar, oil and salt and served as a condiment for soups, polentas and overtenderised meats. It was in Liguria that the recipe incorporated basil, a plant originating from the East, which used to be regarded as a magic plant, sacred to Venus. The name comes from the Greek basilikon, meaning “royal”. Nowadays, there are over sixty varieties of basil, different in aspect and scent. The Genoese type has smaller leaves. In 2005 Genoese basil was awarded a Protected Designation of Origin (DOP), which encompasses the provinces of Genoa (Genova), Savona and Imperia.
The original recipe
According to the original recipe, the garlic must be from Vessalico, a village in the province of Imperia. As for the cheese, in the past few decades, the traditional pecorino (Romano and Fiore Sardo) have been mixed with hard cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano. Pine nuts came into use in the late nineteenth century, whereas walnuts are more common inland. It is highly recommended to use extra-virgin olive oil - that goes without saying.
How to prepare pesto
The basil leaves must not be washed in running water, but gently wiped with a moistened cloth. Garlic is peeled and crushed in a mortar to a creamy pulp. At this stage, the basil leaves are added and crushed with coarse salt to better crack the fibres, in an action that presses the leaves against the sides of the mortar. The movement of the pestle must be clockwise, whereas the mortar must rotate anticlockwise. When the leaves are finely minced, it is the time to mix in the pine nuts and the cheeses, adding oil until the sauce becomes smooth.
Typical dishes and pairings
Throughout the region, pesto is a popular condiment for boiled eggs and potatoes, in addition to being used as a sauce for potato gnocchi, different local types of pasta (including trofie, bavette and linguine) as well as the more widely-known spaghetti. The Genoa-style minestrone – a vegetable soup – may also be enlivened with basil pesto sauce. Pigato Riviera Ligure di Ponente doc, can be an ideal pairing, for its intense bouquet, good acidity and persistence, to counterbalance the strong flavour of dishes seasoned with pesto.