Basil pesto originates from the coastal region of Liguria, Genova to be exact.
Traditionally, it consists of basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, and cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino.
Most people like to eat it with fresh trofie or trenette, but it also goes well with Spaghetti or potatoes. It also goes very well with freshly made flatbread.
Naturally, as with most classic Italian recipes, there are as many versions as there are cooks. In fact, everyone seems to have a secret recipe.
You will unlikely ever find two versions of pesto that are exactly the same.
The main variables tend to be the choice of oil and which cheese to use.
I personally prefer a to not use Pecorino cheese as I find that it can be overpoweringly pungent for this delicate dish.
History of Basil Pesto
Basil pesto was invented in Genova, an ancient port city in Liguria, and has added a fresh herbal twist to countless dishes.
It is said that pesto originated from the ancient Romans who ate a paste called moretum.
Moretum was made by crushing together ingredients such as cheese, herbs, and garlic.
Its name stems from the word pestare, which means to pound or to crush. This, of course, refers to the original method of making the sauce with a pestle and mortar.
Following tradition, I use a mortar and pestle to crush and grind our pesto by hand.
Modern food processors or blenders will also do the trick, but avoid over mixing, which releases too much oil from the pine nuts and bruises the greens.
Making pesto properly is another good case for slow food because it should ideally be made shortly before it is eaten, like so many good pasta recipes.
It is also one of the many recipes where you need to be very flexible in terms of quantities. Tasting and adjusting them during preparation is a must.
The quantities in the recipe are just a guideline, and you will have to adjust them based on how the ingredients interact during the pounding process.
Some purists will insist that you have to use a pestle and mortar to make real pesto. I like to say, whatever works for you. If you are in a rush, use a food processor.
If you fancy making pesto by hand use a pestle and mortar. It’s as simple as that.
However, to my mind, there is no substitute for pounding by hand, and I recommend using a stone pestle and mortar.
Traditionally, pesto is made using a wooden pestle and marble mortar, but how many of us have one of those sitting around?
For me, pesto made in a food processor tends to require extra olive oil and the machine is too harsh on the ingredients. This makes both the texture and flavour somewhat bland.
A stone mortar and wooden pestle make sure that the basil leaves do not darken. The steel blades of the food processor can produce very dark green and slightly bitter pesto.
However, people have been getting great results by putting the blades in the fridge and the basil leaves in ice water before gently blending. Thanks for the tip, Christoffer!
If you’ve made this recipe, I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a little note in the comments below on how you got on and don’t forget to rate the recipe.
Pasta with Basil Pesto
- 2 Garlic cloves
- 20 g Pine nuts
- 25 g Basil leaves
- 25 g Parmegiano
- 25 g Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 200 g Spaghetti
- 1 pinch of Salt
- Cut the garlic into small chunks and grind them into a smooth paste in the mortar.
- Once the garlic is crushed into a smooth paste, add the pine nuts and salt and grind them in a circular motion to combine with the garlic into a smooth paste.
- Now add half of the basil to the paste and continue grinding until the basil is fully broken down and incorporated into the paste. Repeat with the rest of the basil. This might take 5-10 minutes.
- Once the ingredients are combined into a smooth paste, add the Parmegiano and keep mashing to integrate into the pesto.
- Finally, add the oil to the paste and give it a final mix, ensuring that all of the ingredients have thoroughly combined.
- Cook the spaghetti according to the packet instructions. Do not throw away the pasta water when done!
- Once the pasta has cooked, mix it with the pesto and a ladle of pasta water in a bowl. Mix thoroughly to break up the pesto and fully combine.
- Serve with a helping of freshly grated Parmegiano and Enjoy!