Pesto Genovese: The original recipe and history

Nothing says summer and sun like a classic, creamy basil pesto. Most people do know that pesto is of Italian origin, but just how old is the recipe and what makes it so special?

A story of local food traditions

The classic “Pesto Genovese” has its origin in the small city of Genova in Liguria, Northern Italy. Here, the Italian gastronomist Giovanni Battista Ratto was the first to officially write down the recipe in 1863 with his book on local food cuisine, La Cuciniera Genovese.A similar sauce with cheese, garlic and nuts grated together had been cooked for many years already, so this was nothing new. What was special about Giovanni’s recipe was that it contained basil that grew widely in Liguria and was not that common elsewhere at the time.

Pesto Genovese quickly became a staple in Ligurian cuisine and since then, this recipe has been adjusted and developed to the pesto recipe we have come to know and love today.

The meaning of “pesto”

The word pesto stems from the verb “pestare” which means “to pound” or “to crush”. Traditionally, the pesto was made in a marble mortar by crushing the ingredients with a wooden pestle. The selection of ingredients, however, have caused quite a debate through time. Even today, Italians are split on the topic of whether to use parmesan or pecorino cheese. 

Even if you do not have access to Mediterranean pine nuts or Ligurian olive oil, you can still recreate much of the good old Pesto Genovese taste in your kitchen. 

The original recipe

Below, you can find the original recipe for the Italian Pesto Genovese:

  • 50 g fresh basil leaves
  • 1 dl good olive oil
  • 6 tbsp freshly grated parmesan (e.g. Parmigiano Reggiano)
  • 2 tbsp freshly grated pecorino (e.g. Fiore Sardo or Pecorino Romano)
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 tbsp pine nuts or walnuts
  • A hint of sea salt

How you do it

If you are going by the traditional methods of using a mortar, start with the garlic and sea salt. Add in the fresh basil leaves and crush it with soft, circular motions to release all of the great oils. Add the pine nuts and crush them as well. Then the grated cheese. Crush it all until all of the pesto has a similar substance. Then, slowly add in the olive oil while still crushing the ingredients. That’s it!

Alternatively, you can blend all of the ingredients together in a blender. A bit easier, but not quite as authentic, right?

Toss the pesto in a fresh pasta or savor it on a nice slice of homemade bread. The Italian way.


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