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Episode #227: Pesto Perfection – A Local’s Guide to Italy’s Favorite Green Sauce

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When it comes to Ligurian pesto, think beyond the jars lining your supermarket shelves. This vibrant, aromatic sauce is best enjoyed fresh, bursting with the fragrant notes of basil, the nutty richness of pine nuts, and the sharp, savory punch of Parmesan, with a hint of Pecorino cheese and importantly, the local Extra Virgin Olive Oil. We learn tips from Ligurian food expert Enrica Monzani on how to make the best pesto at home and great ways to serve it. 

liguria tour

Show notes
In this episode, we welcome back Ligurian-born and bred Enrica Monzani, founder of the wonderful food blog A Small Kitchen in Genoa – full of recipes and food stories from the Italian Riviera.  Enrica hosts cooking classes in her home kitchen and organizes food tours in Genoa and culinary retreats around Liguria and also runs online cooking classes featuring the dishes from her region. She has joined us before in episodes 163 on delicious local dishes, 133 on products to buy in the region, and 106, sharing the lesser-known places to visit in Liguria. If you want to learn how to make some of the delicious dishes of Liguria, check out her incredible cookbook – The flavours of Liguria and we are delighted to collaborate with Enrica on a wonderful luxury food and wine tour of Liguria, where you can experience these incredible dishes and the unique and exciting Liguria region for yourself.  Here, Enrica shares her insights into Liguria’s specialty pesto. We guarantee pesto tasted in Liguria will taste nothing like anything you have tasted before. She also shares tips on making your own, about the care taken in its production, as well as the different nuts and surprising cheeses used historically in recipes over the years. 

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Ligurian cuisine is not only Enrica’s field of expertise, it is her life’s passion
  2. She does cooking classes Genova(Genoa) for people visiting the city. She shares her cuisine with them and also leads food tours of the city. She has people discover her region through food
  3. Enrica’s first Ligurian cookbook, Liguria in cucina: The flavours of Liguria is out now, available worldwide here and here for UK & EU
  4. Katy is a big fan of Genoa and finds it different from many other places in Italy and it almost feels like a secret city. If you don’t know someone, you might have a little trouble finding some of the amazing spots that Enrica will take you to. On her tours, she’ll take people down narrow alleys of the city to find the hidden restaurants and street food
  5. Enrica took Katy to some amazing hidden shops, including a really beautiful interior design shop, which she loved, but also with her being a cook, she took them to some gorgeous food shops
  6. Shops in Genoa are often run by families for decades, even as long as centuries – but some of them not even the Genovese know about. So many hidden gems
  7. You do need someone who will take you to these places. because walking by – a shop might not even have windows, so you wouldn’t know about it. There’s a particularly amazing chocolate shop with no front windows. You might discover it because of the smell of chocolate leading you to the door, but if not, you’d never know it was there. It is a peculiarity of Genoa
  8. Katy finds Ligurian cuisine to be so delicious. She loves to return to the region to eat! If you haven’t tried it, it’s quite healthy, very fresh, and different to other regions in Italy. You can have a listen to some other episodes that we’ve done with Enrica specifically about food in Liguria – episodes 133 and 163
  9. Enrica designed our (sold out for this year) Untold Italy Food and Wine Tour of Liguria where guests are definitely going to get up close and personal with some delicious Ligurian pesto

The history of pesto

  • Pesto refers to everything that is pounded in a mortar – so ‘pesto’ means beaten or pounded. The mortars were the ancient tools of the cooks. They had mortars and knives – they didn’t, of course, have blenders back in the day
  • There are many pesto sauces around Italy. The Ligurian basil pesto became so popular around the world over the last 50 years that it became known as just pesto
  • It originates as a very ancient recipe dating back to the Middle Ages, though the pesto recipe as we know it today with basil, pine nuts, and parmesan developed over the centuries
  • The base sauce, the ancestor of pesto, was a sauce made of garlic and oil, which was very common on Middle Ages tables because garlic has antiseptic properties, so it was mainly used a lot to sanitize food
  • People use it a lot for seasoned meat, fish and vegetables
  • Then little by little, when making this sauce, which usually was made in the mortar, they started to add fresh herbs
  • Liguria is well known for using fresh herbs as a main ingredient in lots of their recipes. So they start adding fresh herbs, but not necessarily basil. There are old pesto recipes that use parsley, marjoram,  sage, and various other different herbs. Then someone decided to put just basil in this sauce, and unsurprisingly it became really popular
  • The first written recipes of pesto that can be found in Italian cookbooks date back to the end of the 1800s. So it is a relatively new recipe for the Ligurian/Italian cuisine
  • Then other ingredients of pesto, like parmesan cheese, and pine nuts, also developed over the centuries because probably the first nuts that were used in pesto would have been walnuts
  • Walnuts were the ancestors of pine nuts in the recipe, probably using the walnut sauce to season pasta came from the Arabic countries, who the Genoese traded with during Middle Ages. Walnuts were eventually replaced by pine nuts, which have a milder flavor
  • Now, they use Parmesan cheese. In the past, they used to use lots of Pecorino cheese because Pecorino was coming from Sardinia, which was a colony of the Genova Marina Republic. The Sardinian Pecorino cheese used to be shipped into Genova and then from there, sold elsewhere in the north of Italy
  • Pecorino has a spicy, salty flavor and is very strong. This is why when they make pesto nowadays, they don’t use that much pecorino  – it is predominantly parmesan cheese in the sauce because Pecorino tends to be overwhelming.
  • A fascinating part of pesto history is that in the old recipes, they also used the Dutch cheese Edam in pesto. This is because of the trade between the Genoese and the Dutch. They had strong relationships and there was a very big community of Dutch living in Genova. So, that cheese was readily available and cheap so was used in the pesto
  • Those days are long gone and nowadays, the recipe has been codified. The sauce you will find in every restaurant and in every cook’s home in Genova, as well as in the jars, besides the preservatives, consists of basil, pine nuts, parmesan cheese, a hint of pecorino cheese, and Extra Virgin Olive Oil (Enrica emphasizes that the oil is last but not least as it is a very important element of the pesto)
  • When you see the pesto sauce in the shops in Genoa it is made fresh, it’s so bright green – it looks and tastes amazing. You can smell the basil, and you immediately want to try some. You can do that in little shops all around the city – a taste of this freshly made pesto which is a real flavor bomb
  • Pesto in jars is a very different beast from the fresh pesto because they have to use preservatives and they use a different kind of basil because the one used for making fresh pesto is a tender basil, which is harvested when it is tiny. The leaves are tiny, tender and bright green
  • In the jars, they use preservatives like salt and ascorbic acid, which makes the sauce a little bit acidic – fresh pesto is never acidic – it’s a completely different sauce
  • You will find tasting it that it is something else entirely and you will understand why this is one of the most loved sauces in the world!

Regional differences in the basil

  • When Katy’s family comes to Italy, they always try to get to Liguria because everyone loves the zingy and fresh pesto. It’s an exciting thing to have that they can’t have in Australia
  • The variety of basil is very specific because there are more than 60 varieties of basil in the world. The one we use is the Genoese basil which has a mix of special essential oils
  • Any basil has a cocktail of essential oils – the Genovese basil has a special mix where the essential oil of mint is not too strong which makes a big difference to the other varieties of basil. It’s a very mild basil by itself
  • You can look for the seeds of this plant if you want to grow it in your garden or on your balcony
  • Along with a different kind of basil being used, the terrain it is grown is very specific and important
  • All the places in the hills where the basil is grown, and the glasshouse there are next to the sea. Most of them have a sea view if you visit
  • The sea breeze blows through the leaves and the minerality of the sea, the humidity in the air, and the composition of the soil all affect the final product and this basil even has DOC certification. So only the basil produced in Liguria with certain criteria, in terrain and means of production can be considered DOC
  • Watching people collecting basil in the region is really fascinating. They position planks of wood which people then balance on to pick the basil leaves by hand
  • When they harvest basil, they make a bouquet, like a bunch of flowers, and they wrap them in paper. It is amazing to see how quickly these people work to hand-pick the basil
  • This experience is included in our Untold Italy tours of Liguria They visit what Enrica feels is one of the nicest basil farms, overlooking the sea. They visit these greenhouses by the sea and see all the people collecting the basil by hand. It’s a very nice experience that Katy is jealous of, as she has not yet go to experience this herself
  • The production methods is very manual, but they do have to harvest a huge amount of basil to keep up with the demand
  • The Ligurians use a lot of basil for making pasta, not just in restaurants, but at home. There are also the big producers that produce pesto that can be preserved for some days or the pesto in jars lasting much longer – it is a huge production

Making pesto

  • If you have amazing ingredients, you can maybe get away with just throwing it in a blender and you will get a nice sauce, but when Enrica does her cooking classes, she teaches people how to do it with a pestle and the mortar, the old way. It’s physically quite tough work, but in the end, you do get the best pesto ever
  • Working the basil in a mortar made of marble, which is a cold stone, preserves all the essential oils of the basil. It is a way of protecting the essential oils of the sauce
  • Enrica does have some tips and tricks if you want to make it in a blender though – as she usually does at home, as she needs to prepare big batches for her family

Tips

  • Remove the basil leaves from the stem. Be thorough about this because basil is not like parsley where you can use the stems because basil stems are bitter and watery, and they will really affect the flavor of your pesto
  • Basil easily spoils. It tends to bruise very easily and if it bruises, the essential oils of the plant oxidize themselves. So you have to handle it carefully. Try to be gentle when you wash it. If you use the salad spinner, do not overdo it. The best way is to let it dry on a table, on a teatowel
  • Basil also tends to oxidize due to heat. When you use a food processor, the blades, when they turn, generate heat, so it is good to keep the temperature of your sauce as low as possible. There are two tricks. One is putting both the blades and the cup of the blender in the refrigerator or in the freezer before you do the pesto
  • The second trick is to put the oil that you are going to use in the sauce in the fridge half an hour before. When you take it out, it’s cold. That cold oil will naturally lower the temperature of your pesto which will consequently preserve the essential oils and mean a brighter sauce
  • Another trick is, that whenever you put the ingredients in the blender, keep half of the oil aside and add it at the end without the blender. Just pour the extra oil inside the sauce and then stir gently with a spoon. That way the oil will not emulsify with the water inside the sauce. That half of the oil has to be added, even if you use the blender, at the end and then stirred with a spoon
  • Enrica has spent a lot of time and tested many times over the year to uncover these tips
  • When having pesto and pasta, you should always water down your pesto with the boiling pasta water before you add it to your pasta
  • This is because pesto, when you make it, is a thick sauce. You have to dilute it with hot water when the pasta is still boiling because t you need the starch
  • In this case, you want to emulsify the oil with the water to get that extra creaminess. Even if you use pesto from a jar, always dilute it with the boiling water of your pasta
  • Katy learned this trick from her mother-in-law and found that it was a game changer. Always use your pasta water in your saucesIf you boil fresh pasta, always save a cup of boiling water to use, if necessary, after you have seasoned your pasta. Because fresh pasta like trofie, and lasagnas, tends to keep on cooking, even after you have drained it. So you might need extra water to add if needed to keep the creaminess

Pesto dishes

  • To serve fresh pesto, you can simply just spread on a piece of bread – make a simple bruschetta with bread and pesto
  • It was conceived as a sauce for seasoning pasta, and of course, you can use it to season your pasta
  • Enrica’s personal favorite is a traditional kind of lasagna that they make in Liguria – in Genova, called Mandilli de sea
  • This literally means ‘silk handkerchief’ in the local dialect because they are sheets of lasagna, the size of a handkerchief, so they are pretty big
  • These sheets are boiled one after the other. You place a sheet on the plate, then you spread some pesto on it, and then you go on adding layers and layers
  • You have 5 or 6 layers and then you serve it with some extra cheese on top
  • This dish is one of the most common ways of having pesto if you are visiting Genoa. This is nothing like the Italian lasagna you may think of with bechamel sauce and ragu, baked in the oven. But they still refer to the sheets as lasagna
  • Another common way of having pesto is with potato gnocchis, or even better with a Ligurian fresh pasta called trofie or trofiette. It is a curly, fresh pasta traditionally made by hand, though not so much as it takes so much time. If you go to any restaurant in Liguria, you will find trofie pasta with pesto
  • You can also use pesto to season any dry pasta. The most common pasta of the region is trenette. Trenette is a very long spaghetti or linguine-like flat pasta. They add it to boiling water with vegetables. This is the proper way of making pasta and pesto is by adding diced potatoes and green beans. You drain everything together and season the pasta and vegetables with pesto. You will also find that in many restaurants in Liguria, as well as finding it is something people commonly do at home
  • When Katy’s twins were very young and they spent a week in Santa Margherita Ligure, in late September when there was no one really there – which was beautiful. That’s all the twins would eat at around 2 or 3 years old – they just wanted trofie and pesto, or as they called it the green wiggly worms

Oil matters

  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil lasts for a year to a year and a half, so you can use it for a while but it has to be decent quality oil and the proper type – ideally Ligurian
  • Ligurian extra virgin olive oil is the best one for pesto because it’s a very mild oil
  • Ligurian oil is known for its mildness, fruitiness and freshness
  • It’s quite different from the other oils in Italy – it’s not too spicy or too bitter. It does not overwhelm all the other ingredients
  • If you are making pesto, invest in a very good Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Always Extra Virgin, not plain olive oil
  • There are a handful of ingredients, but you need to select them very carefully
  • That, as well as being careful about the methods involved, from picking the leaf to putting it in the mortar and pestle or the food processor is what creates a good pesto

Liguria beyond the Cinque Terre

  • As we discussed on our first podcast with Erica, there is so much to Liguria Beyond the Cinque Terre
  • Katy doesn’t need an excuse to go to Liguria, but in particular, suggests that if you really want to taste something that’s really fresh and different, go visit.  If you go to Rome and order pesto, you’re likely not going to get the best version of it (but of course in Rome you get the best carbonara,  alla gricia and cacio e pepe)
  • Some of you have likely been there to the Cinque Terre, but it’s so worthwhile going beyond those little villages and exploring some more of Liguria
  • The Cinque Terre are fantastic destinations, but if your aim is to try the best food, Cinque Terre is not the best place. This is why Enrica makes tours in the west or the east of Liguria because the Cinque Terre villages have become too touristy and crowded to get the best traditional restaurants with the best quality ingredients
  • If your focus is the beauty of the villages, and hiking the hills, it’s an amazing destination (though we suggest avoiding peak day times), but if food is your focus – pesto is better in Genoa!
  • There are so many beautiful villages in Liguria. You can just jump on the train and a short ride will take you up and down the coast where you can find so many beautiful little villages. It all feels like a little secret – stunning but without that mass tourism

Get in touch with Enrica

Visit Liguria on a food and wine tour

Want to find out more on all that Liguria has to offer, take a look at our Untold Italy Food and Wine Tour of Liguria created in collaboration with Enrica.

liguria tour

About our guest – Enrica Monzani from A Small Kitchen in Genoa

Enrica Monzani is a born and bred Ligurian food writer, photographer and cooking instructor. She is behind the bilingual food blog A Small Kitchen in Genoa where she shares recipes and food stories from the Italian Riviera. 

She organizes regional cooking classes for visitors in her home kitchen in Genoa and on-line cooking classes in English. She also leads food tours in Genoa and other culinary retreats and experiences in Liguria.

Enrica’s virtual Italian Riviera cooking course is available on the e-learning platform Udemy and she has joined Untold Italy Tours to design their small group Ligurian tour

You can find Enrica on these channels:

Enrica’s wonderful book full of Ligurian dishes:

Liguria in cucina: The flavours of Liguria

Liguria in Cucina: The Flavours of Liguria

Places mentioned in the show

Food & Drink

  • Genovese basil – variety of basil known for its use in the traditional Genoese pesto sauce
  • trofie – a type of small, twisted pasta from Liguria
  • trofie al pesto & gnocchi al pesto – great dishes to try local pesto
  • Mandilli de Sea al pesto – found only close to Genoa, translates to silk handkerchief.  Thin pasta layers in pesto
  • trenette – long flat dried pasta a bit like fettuccine or linguine, but thinner

Resources from Untold Italy

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