Forget Everything You Thought You Knew About Pesto
“The jars you buy in the shop are gross. It’s not a sauce. Pesto is expensive to make because you can’t compromise on the quality of ingredients.”
Photo courtesy of Emilia's Crafted Pasta.
Brits get a lot of stick for the way they abuse Italian cuisine, and not without reason. Along with the dodgy high street chains, there's our treatment of pasta as a carb fest rather than elegant dish, our insistence on pouring Prosecco from a tap, and, as Antonio Carluccio (a.k.a the Godfather of Italian food) reminded us last year, the ongoing bastardisation of spaghetti Bolognese.
"The jars you buy in the shop are gross. It's not a sauce—you can see big bits of everything floating around. It's heavy and oily and really strong."
I'm in the kitchen of recently opened Emilia's Crafted Pasta near London's St. Katharine Docks with head chef and Italian native, Simone Stagnitto. But it's not Dolmio spag Bol sauce that's getting his goat today. It's the favourite of hungover students and post-work, tired AF fridge foragers alike: pesto.
"You shouldn't be digesting pesto all day," Stagnitto laments. "And it shouldn't be £1 for a jar. Pesto is expensive to make because you can't compromise on the quality of ingredients."
Judging by the vexation in his eyes, I decide this isn't the right moment to come clean about the jar of Sainsbury's basic green stuff lurking in my own fridge.
Stagnitto explains: "I grew up in Genoa in Northwest Italy, which is the home of pesto. No shops sell pesto because they know no one will buy it. You make it at home or buy it from this one producer in the local area who makes it well."
He adds: "It's the same with restaurants. If you go to a restaurant in Genoa, you never order pesto because the one at home is better. It's true. Why waste money at a restaurant where it's worse than yours."
Before I book a plane ticket and start knocking down nonnas' door for a taste of the proper stuff, Stagnitto offers to show me how he makes his pesto. But it comes with a warning: "Well, I can tell you the ingredients. They're set down in the official recipe which you can Google [I checked, it is a real thing]. But the quantities are a secret."
Disclaimer given, it's time to get down to business.
Stagnitto reels off the ingredients: "You just need fresh basil, Parmesan, pine nuts, Pecorino, garlic, and extra virgin olive oil."
First, the all-important basil, which Stagnitto explains must come from a small area in the hills above Genoa. The leaves from that droopy plant on your kitchen windowsill aren't going to cut it.
"The real basil you should use has really small leaves which are from a specific area. It's like PDO [Protected Designation of Origin] basil," says Stagnitto. "It tastes lighter."
He picks the basil leaves from the stems scattered on the kitchen counter in front of us.
"But it's really expensive, like £10 a bunch. So we use organic UK basil which I'll admit is really good if you know how to make pesto properly," he continues. "This is my grandmother's recipe but it's a little different because we're in London."
Thankfully, Stagnitto also turns a blind eye to the traditional way of washing the basil leaves.
"The original recipe says you should wipe the leaves with a wet cloth," says Stagnitto with a smile. "Making pesto is an infinity job."
Next, it's onto the cheese. I smell the sharp, distinctive aroma of Parmesan before I see the quarter wheel plonked onto the worktop.
"The Parmesan is from Emilia-Romagna, it's the PDO Parmesan. It's best if you use an aged one because it taste better. We use the 24-month-aged one which is really good," Stagnitto explains, cutting a hefty wedge.
He continues: "Then we use Pecorino Romano. You can use a different type of Pecorino for pesto, some people prefer the one from Sardinia which is stronger. Then you have to use adjust the proportions of Parmesan and Pecorino. The quantity and quality of the cheese is key to making the sauce creamy."
I lean in for a closer look and am swiftly shooed away. Stagnitto says: "Don't take a picture now. I don't want you to see the amount I'm weighing out."
Cheese secretly weighed and grated, it's time for a lesson on pine nuts. They're added to the extra virgin olive oil in a blender—another time-saving swap in place of using a traditional pestle and mortar.
"You have to use European pine nuts, rather than Chinese ones. The Chinese ones don't make pesto," stresses Stagnitto. "The European ones are more expensive because the pines are shelled by hand but the taste has more body."
The basil and cheese are added to the blender and whizzed.
Stagnitto then lets me in on the biggest secret to perfect pesto: "The key is the texture."
I ask him to elaborate on how to achieve a flawless texture. Of course, like everything else, it's not that simple.
Stagnitto shrugs: "You just know the texture if you are born in the city where the pesto is from. Go east or west from Genoa and everything changes. People have different attitudes in the kitchen, different recipes, they do things that we think is crazy."
"For example, some places cook the pesto!" he exclaims. "A place just an hour away from Genoa does a lasagne with pesto."
Pesto blended to the desired consistency, Stagnitto sends me on my way with a little pot and a few last tips: "I've put some more oil on top to seal the pesto. Make sure you add salt to your pasta water—it helps with digestion. Oh, and the best pasta to use is casarecce."
It's safe to say I won't be going back to the jar at the back of my fridge anytime soon.