When we talk about Italian products, we think especially to cheeses and cold cuts, but how can we forget to mention the pleasant toppings that we use to enrich our wonderful pasta? Among these, one of the most important is certainly Pesto Genovese, which hasn’t an excellence mark, but it is made just with the best Italian products, as Basilico Genovese DOP, Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano and Pecorino DOP. But what ingredients should have a pesto to be defined “Pesto Genovese”, and what differentiates it from pesto “alla” Genovese or pesto alla ligure?
History and curiosities
Pesto Genovese, different from the generic pesto “alla” Genovese, was born in Liguria, and in particular in the wonderful Genova.
It is not simple to identify exactly its origins, but we can say that it is a very ancient product. The first evidences, in fact, date back to the Ancient Latins age, when the poet Virgilio, in its Appendix Vergiliana, refers to a paste made with cheese, pine nuts, oil, salt and aromatic herbs, called “moretum”.
Even in the Middle Age there are some considerations about the ancestors of pesto, which in this period was called “agliata”. The reason of this name is due to the evident presence of garlic, which was pressed and mixed with nuts and vinegar. The paste was used to conserve foods and even to prevent some diseases, considering the numerous benefic effects of garlic.
During the centuries, the traditional “agliata” has been replaced by the modern version, which appears for the first time in a cooking book of 1863, written by Giovan Battista Ratto, who describes it with the following words: “take a garlic clove, basil or marjoram and parsley, grated Dutch and parmigiano cheese, mixed with pine nuts and pressed in a mortar with some butter, until it becomes a paste. Melt it with abundant oil."
As time went by, butter has been eliminated from the original recipe, while the excellent Italian cheeses have replaced the generic Dutch cheese, and the aromatic herbs reduced to basil.
Production and Regulation
Despite it is not a PDO, PGI or TSG product, Pesto Genovese is subjected to a specific Regulation, which protects the production and the selling of this topping, defending it from the imitations. The Regulation controls the choice and the percentage of the ingredients, the area of production and the working methods.
A product not in compliance with the Regulation cannot be called “Pesto Genovese”.
The ingredients are: Basilico Genovese DOP, not less than 25%, national extra virgin olive oil, Parmigiano Reggiano DOP or Grana Padano DOP, Formaggio Pecorino DOP, garlic, pine nuts, sea salt and eventually walnuts.
Even the provenience of ingredients is controlled by the Regulation. In particular, Basilico Genovese and PDO cheeses have a specific Regulation. The extra virgin olive oil must be produced in Italy, as garlic and salt. Walnuts from “iuglans regia”, instead, must be produced and gathered in the European Union, while pine nuts from Pinus Pinea can be produced even in the Mediterranean area.
Basil is washed and dried carefully, then it is pressed with the other ingredients until it becomes a homogeneous paste. This operation is made raw, never cooking the product.
Instead, when we talk about pesto “alla”Genovese or pesto alla ligure, we refer to products without the requirements imposed by the Regulation of Pesto Genovese. They are a variation respect to the original recipe, in most cases equally tasteful, but not at the level of Pesto Genovese.
In particular, reading the ingredients list, we can find the term “alimentary fibers”, because manufacturers add other aromatic herbs, as parsley. Even the PDO ingredients of the original recipe can be replaced by generic products.
Another important aspect is that the product must never be pasteurized. This thermic treatment, in fact, would prolong the duration of the product, but reducing its quality. The real Pesto Genovese can be found only in the refrigerated aisle.
Many manufacturers and some important chefs prefer to add a pinch of butter or margarine, as they do many years ago. This kind of product will be more bodied, more amalgamable to pasta, but also richer in fat.
Finally, another aspect is the preparation of the mixture. Pesto, in fact, as the name suggests, must be pressed carefully with adequate loads. Electric mixers and other instruments can warm the ingredients, while the blades can oxidize basil.
Anyway, verify that the pesto you are buying has the term “Pesto Genovese” with its specific mark. The product is candidate to receive the TSG recognition, which would represent another warranty for this important Italian product.
Taste and characteristics
The real Pesto Genovese can be described as a cold sauce, and not a salsa, because it is not cooked.
Each jar of pesto can show a different color, but always with a certain shade of green, from lighter to darker, depending on the color of basil. The texture, instead, is quite dense and homogeneous, because of the richness of ingredients, which become denser with the addiction of olive oil.
The real elegant touch of Pesto Genovese is its smell. Strong, persistent but at the same time very scented, thanks to the perfect melting of ingredients. You can feel immediately a garlicky note, which is soon dissolved by the inebriant scent of basil and cheese.
At the palate, Pesto Genovese is able to give amazing sensations. The presence of the seasoned PDO cheeses can be felt immediately, with a salty and slightly spicy taste, typical especially of Pecorino.
One of the doubts about Pesto Genovese refers to the serving suggestion. Even in Liguria, in fact, this great topping is often mixed with potatoes and green beans. The original recipe does not include these ingredients, but we can consider them as an alternative way to enrich pesto. Potatoes are boiled with pasta, in order to obtain a higher amount of starches.
Pesto, in fact, should not be cooked never. On the contrary, we should blend it with some cooking water, rich in starch, which will melt the tipping, making it more bodied and bound to the other ingredients.
Pesto Genovese has been always used to enrich good pasta recipes, first of all the famous “trofie” or “trofiette”, typical from Liguria.
Even lasagna is great with pesto, which enriches the taste of pasta cooked in oven with mozzarella cheese or simply with some besciamella.
Pesto Genovese anyway is a versatile topping, good to exalt and enrich many dishes.
For what concerns wines, we should say first of all that a product with garlic and basil will not tolerate a red wine, which would become bitter and metallic. Choose a Pigato DOC from Liguria, sapid and dry, or a local Vermentino, as Riviera Ligure di Ponente Vermentino Riviera dei Fiori DOC, made in the province of Imperia.