Pesto Pistou…how it all started

Tomatoes & Pesto

Since a stint living in Nice in the 1990s, I am often drawn back the distinctive flavours and very individual recipes of the Riviera coastline which stretches from Nice in France, across the Italian border into Liguria and on to the Tuscan border, passing Genoa, the home of pesto, along the way.  Whilst it’s not possible to truly recreate the ‘cuisine of the sun’ miles away in the UK, I’ve set up this blog as a way to record my experiments with similar ingredients albeit with a British twist from time to time.  Thrown in too, some tasting notes on the local wines, little known away from the Riviera itself.  How I look forward to being back there again…..

So, where to start? It would seem apt to kick things off with a post to explain the name of this blog so here’s the lowdown on the provençal sauce, Pistou and its Italian cousin Pesto Genovese.  Their recipes share many ingredients, namely garlic, basil, olive oil and cheese (usually pecorino and/or parmesan).  Writing in his book Cuisine Niçoise, former Mayor of Nice, Jacques Medecin explains the key difference between the two – it’s all about which side of the Franco-Italian border you reside on:

“I make no attempt to settle the question of whether pistou migrated from Nice to Genoa, or vice versa, but let me simply say that the Ligurians like to add 100g of pine nuts to the ingredients pounded in the mortar”.

The reference to the pounding of the sauce in the mortar is an important one.  Pistou, a word from the Nicois dialect, means “pounded” as does the Genoese word Pesta.  To this day, purists use a pestle and mortar believing that the use of a blender causes the capillaries in the basil leaves to close up which stops them from releasing their full aroma.  The blender method has become acceptable in today’s modern kitchen however, and the speed of making it means there is always fresh pesto (or pistou) in my fridge just waiting to top a bowl of pasta or a vegetable soup.  The pounded version is well worth it when time allows.

Pasta & Pesto

Recipes for both pistou and pesto vary widely depending on the cook or the village where it is being made, and the debate about whose sauce is best rages on.  How much garlic should be used? Which cheese works well and how strong should it be? In Liguria, some add cream, others ricotta.  One thing that everyone is clear on though: the sauce should never be heated up on its own prior to serving.  Simply stir a spoonful into hot pasta or soup at the very last minute.

Here is my version of basil pesto which will keep well in the fridge (best used within two days of making) and the freezer if frozen the same day. I’ll be posting a variety of pesto recipes in the coming months together with ideas for dishes they can be added to.  But we won’t just concern ourselves with pesto here.  The blog is about the food (and wine) from across the Riviera – think socca v farinata and salade niçoise v cappon magro – and we will touch on tips for travelling in the region as well.

Thanks for taking the time to look at the blog.  Feedback will be happily received!

Basil Pesto

25g basil leaves
20g pine nuts, toasted in a dry pan
10g pecorino romano
10g parmesan
1 small clove garlic, crushed
40 ml extra virgin olive oil
tiny pinch salt

Put all the ingredients in a food processor and whizz on high speed for a few seconds to form a paste.  Stir in more olive oil if you like a slightly runnier consistency.

Basil Pesto

 

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