To trace the actual history of pesto sauce, you have to go back to the 12th & 13th centuries, when the old Genoan republic stretched south from the northern Italian port region to enclose Corsica & Sardinia.
Pesto sauce evolved with time to make use of the republic’s rich bounty: basil from nearby Prà; pine nuts are grown near Pisa; pecorino from Sardinia; and Parmigiano Reggiano from Emilia-Romagna; & also Ligurian olive oil and sea salt.
Some people think that Italian pasta, adapted from the Chinese noodles, found its place in Italy. Pesto sauce has been inexorably linked with Genoa’s culture and traditions ever since.
Today, not only does the region host a bi-annual World Pesto sauce Championship, open to competitors from all across the world, but a group of enterprising pesto lovers plans to put this delicious sauce forward as a candidate for UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage food list.
The Meaning of Pesto
The Italian word for pesto ‘also known as pestare,’ actually means to pound or crush. The pesto sauce was originally prepared with a marble mortar & wooden pestle.
The main ingredients were crushed with a circular motion of the pestle in the mortar. A must-read book, “Pesto Genovese: an Ageless Benchmark of Great Italian food and cuisine,” writes that the ancient Romans ate a mixture called momentum, made by crushing cheese, garlic & herbs together.
Since the term pesto is a generic word for any food made by pounding, it leaves the original pesto sauce dish recipe open to flexibility and many ways to prepare the sauce.
What Ingredients Should You Use at Home?
According to Sergio Panizza, one of the major organizers of the World Pesto Championship & the co-owner and founder of the famed Genoan restaurant Il Genovese, there are three secrets to great pesto. The first one is using fresh and local produce.
The next one is putting in the hard work, smart work & preparing it by hand. Lastly, he advocates one Pesto ingredient in addition to the seven classic food ingredients below:
Basil leaves in Pesto Sauce should be young, sweet, and fresh: Try to pick the smallest leaves you can find, or you can grow your own too.
Pine nuts must be lightly toasted before being crushed: You can crush the nuts yourself in a dry frying pan rather than fork out for pre-toasted kernels.
Garlic should be fresh for Pesto Sauce: Cut peeled cloves in half & then remove the green germ, if present, which can irritate the stomach & impart a bitter flavor.
Olive oil should be of top-notch quality, and sea salt works much better when coarse, providing traction to break down the other food ingredients.
How Should You Use Pesto Sauce?
Let’s get one thing straight, pasta/pizza & Pesto sauce pairings are serious business. Sure, you can spoon your pesto sauce onto any old pasta, but certain shapes will enhance it.
In Italy, pesto sauce is served with gnocchi & the tasty short Ligurian pasta twists, trofie, which you can also find through specialist Italian retailers or you can buy from online supermarkets such as Ocado. Sometimes green beans & potatoes are added to the paste – but sometimes this incites controversy, even in Genoa.