For centuries Ligurian sailors plied the seas as part of the spice trade, bringing to Europe the exotic products of the Far East and Africa. When they returned from their long, arduous voyages, the sailors had had their fill of fish and spicy food. What they wanted instead was fare that spoke of their homeland, made from vegetables fresh from the gardens and farms that cling to the Ligurian hillsides. As a result, the dish that is now most closely identified with this region is pasta al pesto, noodles bathed in an intensely green and fragrant sauce.
The pesto recipe took the form we know in the mid-nineteenth century: the recipe first appears in writing in the Ratto brothers’ 1865 Cuciniera genovese, where it is described as “pesto is a mince of garlic and basil” and used as a sauce with which “to dress all varieties of pasta”.
Ligurians almost make a religion of their devotion to pesto sauce and its main ingredient, fresh basil. While they generally favor fresh herbs in their cooking, it is basil that inspires the most interest. There is, however, no uniformity of opinion as to the best pesto recipes or its best uses. Every village, and for that matter probably every family, has its own recipe for pesto sauce and its favorite shape of pasta to use with the sauce. For example, the Genoese prefer a sharp, pungent pesto sauce which they serve with ravioli filled with veal and cheese. Many people opt for a mild pesto sauce, sometimes with cream or butter added. In many areas, the preferred “pasta al pesto” is trenette, a sort of plump local version of linguine. In still other areas, they dispense with the pasta altogether and add the pesto to their local version of minestrone or to fish soup.
The basic ingredients of pesto sauce are common to all these recipes: fresh basil leaves, cheese (either Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino), pine nuts or walnuts, garlic, olive oil and salt and pepper. The great debate, and the great fun, about pesto is deciding on the proper proportions with which to combine these ingredients and whether to add any extras. Ultimately, with some experimentation, you can make pesto that suits your tastes exactly, just like every cook in Liguria.
One thing to remember: to make a true pesto you need to use a marble mortar, try yourself and you will see the difference in the pesto