Any one who is always cutting corners and looking for the easy way out of kitchen chores, has never made an authentic pesto. How can I be so sure? Because the easy peasy pesto is made in a blender or food processor and that never gives the authentic texture — such as we get when eating in Genoa.
Although the perfect pesto must have the right texture, there’s much more to it than that. One of the reasons we always get a genuine pesto in Genoa is that the Genoese invented this sauce. So of course they make it better than anyone else.
But it’s not enough to be Genoese — even a pure-blood native of Italy’s most international port, with a family tree going back to the darkest year of the Middle Ages, will not make a top pesto if he (or she) doesn’t use the traditional large-leaf basil.
Until you have seen the sweet basil as grown in Genoa and the surrounding areas, you have no idea of the size of its leaves: they look like lettuce leaves. And this is one of the cases when size is important: those leaves help to give a Genoese pesto the authentic texture I mentioned at the beginning.
With so much at stake when you start out on making a pesto, you may think it’s hardly worth while bothering, that any pesto you make will be a complete travesty. Wrong. You will make a superb pesto with the basil grown here, Majorca’s virgen extra olive oil, Spanish pinenuts, those plump purple-skinned garlic bulbs widely available and parmesan or Sardinian pecorino cheese you’ll find at specialist outlets. But you will have to follow a few very simple rules — and one of them is pounding the leaves in a mortar with a heavy pestle.
As I mentioned last week, basil has a great affinity with pasta and tomatoes — as well as with many other ingredients. A plain tomato sauce flavoured with scads of well crushed basil is one of the simplest and most magnificent ways of serving pasta — and basil.
Even easier, and with a more perfumed punch, is a sauce made with pounded basil and garlic (to taste) and lots of virgen extra olive oil. The aroma and taste of this basic mix is quite stunning. This combination of flavours is one I never tire of.
There is nothing mysterious about pesto: it’s an easy sauce to make although it is somewhat more laborious than the two mentioned above. And more expensive. The extra cost comes mainly from the pinenuts (piñones). They have never been anything less than dear and the Spanish ones, which are the best, are currently selling at €58 a kilo.
That sounds like an awful lot of money, but when you get down to the economic nitty-gritty, it’s not as much as it seems. In any recipe that calls for pinenuts (and that includes many Majorcan classics) we are using only small amounts. So even with a €58 price tag, the extra cost isn’t exactly ruinous when a recipe calls for 30-50grs.
If the amount of pesto we were making needed 100grs of pinenuts (€5.80) the sauce would be enough to make pasta for 10 people: 58 centimos per head doesn’t make it an expensive ingredient.
You can make pesto with the small-lead bush basil (it has a lovely fragrance) but you will always get better results with the large-leaf variety. And pesto can be made in a blender or a food processor, but it will never be as memorable as those sauces in which the leaves are pounded in a mortar with a pestle.
If I had to make a pesto without a mortar, I’d prefer to chop the basil very finely with a sharp knife or an hachoir, than to submit it to the swirling blades of a blender.
The quantities of ingredients for a pesto (pinenuts, garlic, grated parmesan or pecorino, and virgen extra olive oil) depend on how much basil is being used and also on personal taste. Some people like a garlicky pesto and others prefer an intense presence of one of the two cheeses.
My personal preference is for a really strong basil taste, so I use handfuls of it and less of the other ingredients. But I never cut down on the pinenuts: their slightly gritty presence is absolutely essential. When I’m feeling extravagant, I add more pinenuts.
If you want to make a really fine pesto, you must never skimp on the ingredients. Use only virgen extra olive oil and genuine freshly grated Italian parmesan or pecorino.
Grated cheese from a packet will not do, even if it is imported from Italy.
This is one of those sauces in which every ingredient must be of the highest quality. We make it only a few times a year so it’s best to splash out and use nothing but the best. At least the pasta is cheap.
The making of a pesto with a mortar and pestle could hardly be less complicated: you are adding ingredients to suit your personal taste and the amount of basil you have.
Pound the leaves in the mortar with some coarse sea salt and when they have wilted and released some of their juices, add the cloves of garlic and pound until they are reduced to a paste. Add at least 50grs of pinenuts (more if using a lot of basil) and keep pounding until you have a thick paste.
Then stir in the freshly grated cheese. You can then start to add the olive oil, little by little to begin with, as when making mayonnaise. Stir the sauce with the pestle (clockwise or anti-clockwise, it doesn’t matter) to get the ingredients amalgamated. The sauce should be thick.
If you have made more than enough pesto for one meal, put the remainder into a jar and cover it with olive oil to a depth of one centimetre. Those who grow their own basil and have vast amounts of it may want to make pesto for the rest of the year. Don’t do it.
When pesto is kept for a longish time, the garlic and the pinenuts oxidise and you end up with a sauce that has a definite rancid taste. The best way round this problem is to pound the basil leaves with the salt and reduce them to a paste. Add the olive oil, but only enough to make a very thick, almost solid, mixture.
Transfer it to a jar and cover with at least two centimetres of olive oil. Check the jar from time to time and, if necessary, add more oil. When you want to make a pesto, continue as above, using as much of the thick basil paste as you need, plus the other ingredients. That way you get fresh pesto every time.
The Genoese use pecorino, a basic ewe’s milk cheese made all over Italy. They prefer Sardinian pecorino, which gives their pesto a particular taste. You’ll find pecorino at the supermarket of ElCorte Inglés in the Avenidas and a few other specialised outlets such as the charcuterie La Crème at the start of Calle José Tous Ferrer, next to the Mercat d’Olivar. Parmesan also works beautifully but it has a much milder flavour.
Some people use walnuts or almonds instead of pinenuts and both are perfectly acceptable — but the result is not a genuine pesto. Walnuts give the sauce a robust rustic flavour and they are worth trying. Almonds produce a more elegant finish and they, too, make a nice change — or an improvised sauce when pinenuts aren’t available.
The fact is that a sauce made with lots of basil, virgen extra olive oil, garlic and nuts of some kind will always add a magic touch to pasta dishes. But don’t call it pesto unless it it is made with pinenuts.
Making pesto described above so that you are always making a fresh batch, is an excellent way of prolonging the basil taste into the winter months. You can also do it by using two other simple methods: with vinegars and oils that have intense basil flavours.
You can make extremely good perfumed olive oil. Simply slice, chop or pound basil leaves, transfer them to wide jar, fill it with virgen extra olive oil and let the basil macerate for at least four weeks in the pantry. You can then strain the oil into a bottle, but basil addicts prefer to keep the basil and the oil in happy harmony until the oil has been used up.
You can use your basil oil on salads, pasta, rice and it also works wonders when drizzled over drained boiled or mashed potatoes. A delicious and truly simple pasta dish as a starter can be done with spaghetti or tagliatelle.
In a frying pan big and wide enough to take the amount of pasta you are using, slowly sauté finely chopped garlic (to taste) in some of the basil oil. When it is golden and crisp, add the cooked pasta, drizzle generously with more oil, toss well and serve. Sprinkle with grated parmesan or pecorino cheese. It will bring back memories of a basil-saturated summer.
Perfumed oil can be made with most kitchen herbs. Thyme works well and you can use whole sprigs that will keep their shape. Rosemary, sage, fennel leaves and fresh oregano are also worth trying.
Basil-flavoured vinegar is a worthy addition to any pantry because it helps impart nuances of the herb to salads and other dishes long after you have used up basil-flavoured oil. Basil vinegar in a vinaigrette is very special and if you add a few drops (not a drizzle) to boiled potatoes they will also have a lovely taste. However, when making herbal vinegars you must always buy good wine or sherry vinegars.
At El Corte Inglés you will find vinegars made by some of the country’s top wineries such as Miguel Torres or Majorca’s José L. Ferrer bodega in Binissalem. Always buy the dearest vinegar you can afford. The best are extremely good but they always cost a bit more. However, it is money well spent.
Many cooks prefer cider vinegar as it is less aggressive. This is worth bearing in mind because a strong vinegar, even when made from wine, can overwhelm every other ingredient in a recipe. But the maceration of herbs in a small bottle of vinegar will always temper it somewhat.
There are two main methods of making herbal vinegar: one uses neat vinegar and for the other the vinegar is heated to just below boiling point before being poured over the herbs. Most professional cooks prefer neat vinegar.
Make basil-flavoured vinegar by putting the leaves into a wide jar and crushing them against the sides with a wooden spoon or a small pestle. If this step is done in the jar none of the juices will be lost. Fill the jar with the vinegar of your choice, put the lid on, and leave in a sunny place for at least four weeks.
After that time, strain the vinegar into decorative bottles and add a sprig of fresh basil, which will make for easy identification if you have several bottles of herbal vinegar in the pantry.
Decorative bottles of different sizes are on sale at El Corte Inglés in the Avenidas (5th floor). The best cider vinegar I know of is called Zapiain and it is on sale at the Club del Gourmet of El Corte Inglés.