Pesto today

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

Somewhere on its path to global ubiquity, pesto became a catchall name for any random herby sauce thrown in a blender." Lesley Pariseau - Saveur

"middle-class ketchup"

"the mid-week meal saviour" Tony Naylor

Before I start on today's post let me say thank you to all the people who left me happy birthday wishes. I'm touched, but I honestly didn't really want to go on about the birthday thing - it was just that the picnic was so wonderful, and so was my dinner out.


Ok - enough of that. Pesto. Yes I have written about pesto a long, long time ago. It was probably one of the very first things I did. So I checked and indeed it was - December 2nd, 2016 - summer - well it's a summery thing - is the date - and I started blogging in that July - so five months in. Which probably demonstrates its popularity. Even back then people were experimenting with other herbs and nuts, but that experimentation has gone a whole lot further today.


What brought on the idea of writing about pesto again are two things. One an article in The Guardian called Hey pesto! The definitive A-Z of the world’s most versatile ingredient by Tony Naylor and the second was my birthday cookbook - Use it All from the Cornersmith ladies, Alex Elliott-Howery and Jaimee Edwards. (Now if ever there were a couple of Millennial names those must be it!). That Guardian article is well worth a look.


Both of these sources had lots of suggestions for pesto other than the classical Pesto Genovese from Liguria, whose fans say things like:


"Now pesto can be anything we want it to be. It’s become a catchall term for anything vaguely herbaceous and thrown into a blender. But the Genoese will tell you this isn’t true. They will tell you that pesto is an alchemy that can exist only in its birthplace. 'The basil must see the sea. If it doesn’t see the sea, it is not Genoese.' Roggerio Rossi

Also traditionally, you use it with trofie pasta, not just any old pasta, and you don't cook the pasta with it. You tip your cooked pasta into a bowl, add a ladleful of pasta cooking water and toss with the pesto, If you do it in the hot pan the cheese will melt and stick to your saucepan. According to most chefs you shouldn't cook with it ever. It should be used as a final flourish - as in the Pistou soup of France, or as a dressing. Never actually cook it they say. And then they go on to provide all manner of recipes in which pesto is a prime ingredient.


If the basil is not grown by the sea, it may not be pesto Genovese, not even just pesto, but it's certainly something worth experimenting with. 'The sea' - which sea? If you grow it near the sea in Australia does that count? The really interesting thing though is why haven't people experimented with pesto before? When I say 'before' I mean before the 1980s as this seems to be the era when pesto really exploded on to the scene.


According to Wikipedia its origins go way back to the Romans who had something very similar called moretum. During the middle ages there were a variety of pounded sauces but without the herbs which the Romans did use, until in the 19th century the Genoese added basil and created the pesto we all know and love and can buy in a home brand jar in the supermarket for a couple of dollars. Increasingly we all make our own - well if we have a food processor because most of us are too lazy to make it in a mortar and pestle.


It does seem that we should though. Both Felicity Cloake and Daniel Glitzer of Serious Eats, who both tested out all the ways of making it, decreed that it did indeed taste better if you bashed it in a mortar. Well the name 'pesto' basically means 'bashed' from the verb 'pestare' to bash, pound, crush. Which incidentally is sometimes used as an excuse to justify making all those different versions that you see today. The excuse being that pesto is just bashed things. Daniel Glitzer even went so far as to see if different mortars and pestles made a difference - yes - Italian marble and a wooden pestle. Well now we are really getting into the slightly precious territory.

Those cooks who would really like people to make their own are very willing to say that it can be made in minutes - no seconds really - in a food processor. I have to say the first time I did make it myself - in a food processor - I was blown away by the taste. And I even did that wrong as I put everything except the oil and the cheese in together. Really you should blend just the garlic (if you are using it - lot's don't) and the pine nuts first, before adding the basil, and then the oil. I think it might have been one of the first things that my sons started to make for themselves.


I can't find out why it became such a big thing in the eighties. The craze began in America I believe, but Italians had been in America for at least 100 years by then. I can find no urban mythical 'origin' story, so let's just say that somehow or other it caught on. Or was it Jamie in London? No I think he's too young. Whoever it was that started the craze it rapidly caught on, and then - because this is modern times - people started experimenting.


"Liguria’s best-known export lost its distinctive character. Sailing forth from the great trading port of Genoa, pesto conquered the world—but as it settled in foreign places, it acclimated and assimilated. Its success rendered it indistinct, nationless." Lesley Pariseau - Saveur


Is it just we foreigners who have messed with it? I think not because there is a red pesto made with tomatoes in Sicily which is very traditional. And even if it is us foreigners, why didn't we experiment before. I understand that today we have access to all manner of ingredients, and equipment that makes experimentation easier, but surely the odd peasant, who only had a pestle and mortar, might have wondered if they could bash some herbs with some nuts and some oil to make something tasty. This beautiful version here is made with parsley - a common enough herb. I suppose the Brits didn't have oil - or did they? Surely at least the rich did? And surely the chefs to the aristocrats and to Royalty would have been trying their darnedest to invent something new to impress their masters' guests, not to mention their master? So why didn't they dream up something as simple as pesto using the greens and nuts that they had available? I simply do not understand this because surely they were just as inventive as people today. Alas I do not think that people are fundamentally more intelligent these days, they just have more previous knowledge to build on. And that previous knowledge in regard to pesto was there in Ancient Rome for anyone to experiment with. And if today the gurus are saying you should use a pestle and mortar, and that there are just basic requirements - greens, cheese, olive oil - the garlic and even the nuts seem to almost optional, not to mention the squeeze of lemon juice that many say is the final thing that gives it zing - then why were previous generations over the past 2000 years unable to come up with alternative pestos?


“I think about pesto like chess. You have a limited framework, but within those limits, you have many possibilities. Every week, the basil changes, the cheese changes. But it’s also the same. Pesto is always a reflection of the present moment. It’s impossible to reproduce the same pesto on another day. It also depends on where you’re making it and eating it, who you’re eating it with, how you feel at that particular moment. It depends on the stato d’animo. In other words, pesto is a state of mind." Roberto Panizza


He's one of the purists and is only talking about Pesto Genovese, but even there he admits there are differences. That statement would apply to anything cooked though surely?


That experimentation extends to what you do with the pesto of course. Even Delia has a few different ideas - her Pesto rice salad - shown here is one of my all-time favourite summer salads when you want to do something different to potato salad. I've probably given out this recipe before, but I love it so much - and this does have lemon juice in it which demonstrates that those who favour the last minute squeeze of lemon are right.


As I said Delia only has a few ideas but if you look on the Taste website there are 1180! Donna Hay has 38, Bon Appétit has 26 and Jamie Oliver has 34. Those numbers, of course, are not just for different kinds of pesto, but include things to do with the pesto that you have made, but still it's an indication is it not of what a versatile dish - if you can call it a dish - this is?


The simplest variations just vary the green component, the nuts and perhaps the oil. But some are rather more radical. Just one example, plucked from many, is this one from Bon Appétit of Lamb meatballs with raisin pesto - well I think the raisins are a substitute for the nuts, and the herb is mint. It has a five star rating on the website and certainly looks tempting enough to try one day. I might put it in that jar of things to try.


I rather liked the idea of one made with celery leaves, cashews and Parmesan from the Cornersmith book, which was stressing how pestos could be made with greens that were a bit limp. They had several other suggestions. And these days you will find that most cookbooks have at least one pesto recipe. I was somewhat surprised that there wasn't one in the Coles Magazine this month. Maybe next month.


Pesto is certainly a thing that has gone viral and one theory for all of this innovation and experimentation is that it's all down to social media.


"Recipes are amazing things, somewhere between magic potions and passports to a different way of living. They take dishes that belong to one cook and teleport them to another. It used to be that dishes moved at the same pace as human beings themselves – very slowly, as populations migrated from one place to another. When printed cookbooks became common, recipes were able to travel more widely. But it’s only now that recipe sharing has gone fully global." Bee Wilson - The Guardian


I glanced at a few comments on the lamb meatball recipe and found that virtually all of the commenters had made some slight change to the recommended ingredients and/or method. I don't know whether that means that recipes change because of the ability to communicate via the internet, in whatever way, or whether it shows that people have become more confident and experimental in their kitchens:


"certain recipes – whether it’s pulled pork or za’atar chicken [pesto?] – “snowballing” from chefs to restaurants to “casual coffee shops” to “your own kitchen counter” Kristen Miglore - Food 52


What's next one wonders. Hummus I think is a contender. There are also an almost infinite number of variations on that. Maybe it's because it's such a simple recipe. Mac 'n' cheese perhaps, even toad in the hole! Kimchi seems to be beginning to be tampered with. It's no longer just cabbage.


"certain standout recipes allow us to skip past “all the canonical versions” with unexpected hacks or surprising ingredients that lead us to a smarter way of cooking." Kristen Miglore - Food 52


And will pesto cease to have a moment in the sun, or is it now a pantry staple - even if it is in home-brand jar?


"In the end, what makes a recipe live are the humans who keep it current by cooking from it, adjusting it, and writing angry notes on the page." Bee Wilson - The Guardian


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