When thinking of the sauces in Italian cuisine, we tend to classify everything as either a white, cream-based sauce or a red, tomato-based sauce. But when doing this, we are often prone to forgetting Italy’s most famous green sauce. From being the sole sauce topping your pasta to a complementary ingredient in a myriad of different recipes, it has almost as many uses as there are recipes for preparing it.
Naturally, we are talking about pesto. While it may have been virtually unknown several decades ago, pesto has become as common as the pizza shop down the street. Though, beyond actually eating it, few people know anything about it.
Our word pesto comes directly from the Ligurian/Genoese verb pesta, which means “to pound or crush.” Originally, of course, this comes from the Latin root pistum (meaning “crushed or pounded”) which also, via Old French, gives us half of the name of the kitchen tool that is essential in making pesto, the mortar and pestle.
Specifically, in culinary terms, pesto as we know it is a mid-19th century variation of two older sauces: the Roman moretum, which consists of pounded garlic, salt, cheese, herbs, olive oil, and vinegar, and the Medieval Genoan agliata, which was a mash of garlic and walnuts.
To make the traditional pesto alla genovese, it simply requires olive oil, basil, pine nuts, salt, cheese, and garlic; yet, with the core of the sauce simply meaning “pounded or crushed,” there are variations of the dish from region to region within Italy and adaptations of the dish outside of Italian cuisine. Sometimes, almonds replace pine nuts, mint is included along with the basil, or different types of hard cheeses are used. Calabrian-style pesto involves adding grilled bell pepper and black peppercorns, while Sicilian-style pesto involves adding tomatoes. In places where it is difficult to obtain traditional Italian ingredients, substitutes like arugula, black olives, coriander, spinach, and mushrooms have been used to make variations of pesto, such as with the Peruvian pasta dish tallarines verdes.
The first known use of the word pesto in the English language occurs as a recipe published in the 17th edition (1850) of William Cobbett’s Cottage Economy and, again, shows a variation from the traditional: “Pesto. Take basil, marjoram, parsley, onion or garlic, pepper, salt, and a bit of cheese..and beat all well in a mortar; mix it with boiling water into a smooth paste. In Italy they add fine oil, and you may add fresh butter.”
Offering some advice from her 1937 cookbook, Good Food from Italy, Marcelle Morphy states that: “When used with pastas, such as macaroni,..the pesto is diluted with 3 or 4 tablespoons of boiling water.”
While there have been countless other mentions of it in the English language, one thing is certain: we love pesto in all its forms, and if you haven’t found the right pesto for you yet, do not worry, there is always another variety.