The Way To Make Traditional Pesto, Alternative Pesto, and Some Ideas For What To Do With Pesto

Today is the day of the International Pesto Championships, to be held – where else – in the beautiful palazzo ducale in Genova, and today’s winner is Alessandra Fasce.

Anyone can enter but now the original hundred competitors have been whittled down to ten. The outgoing champion is 86 year old Alfonsina Trucco, who has used the same mortar and pestle since she was six. Other champions have ranged from housewives and pharmacists to a young American sous-chef, and a German-based deli owner.

Contestants must use a marble mortar and wooden pestle (no stick blenders allowed). You can buy traditional pesto-making mortars and pestles here. I asked the Associazione Palatifini, organisers of the competition, why. They helpfully explained,

“Traditionally in Liguria we use a  marble mortar and wooden pestle.Basil leaves are fresh and the pestle crushes them by rubbing against mortar’s walls.If you use a stone pestle you risk the basil moldering during the preparation or you could get little pieces of stone in the pesto.The mortar need marble because the marble keeps the temperature cool even as the pestle is working against it and also because the stone is quite soft (can be carved into the right form) but strong.”

Un momento del campionato mondiale di pesto al mortaio in una foto d'archivio, Genova. ANSA/LUCA ZENNARO
Competing in the pesto championships.

Traditional ingredients of pesto

And they can only use ‘traditional’ and ‘genuine’ ingredients. Which are:

  • fresh PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) Genoese basil
  • Italian pine nuts
  • aged Parmesan cheese,
  • Fiore Sardo cheese (Pecorino Sardo),
  • garlic cloves from Vessalico (Imperia)
  • salt
  • PDO extra-virgin olive oil from the Ligurian Riviera’. This is specified because of its sweet and fruity taste.

For more information about PDOs follow this link.

Judges are looking for dexterity, sauce colour, milling refinement, texture of the pesto, and flavour balance.

One of the run-up events in the pesto championships
One of the run-up events in the pesto championships

Alternative pestos

However, at the risk of being deemed a complete heretic, I have to admit to using my stone mortar and pestle and achieving a very good, though I say it myself, result.

And another admission. In my view the pesto ‘method’ is perfect for developing and experimenting.

  • You can substitute the basil, for example, for garlic scapes, tomatoes (to make red pesto), a mix of herb flowers (basil, sage and rosemary; or fennel, lemon balm and marjoram), tatsoi, or even peas. Some people use curly kale (ugh), cavolo nero (excellent) or  Brussels sprouts. The SD team is particularly keen on using radish leaves.
  • You can substitute the pine nuts for hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans… or all sorts of other nuts. Niki Segnit, in her Flavour Thesaurus, advises:

“if you don’t like the resinous flavour of pine nuts in pesto you’ll find that walnuts make a fine, and far less opinionated, substitute.”

  • And you can experiment with the cheese too.

Massimo Bottura, in his Masterclass, An Evolution Of Pesto, is of the same opinion:

“If tradition doesn’t respect the ingredients, you must change the recipe.”

He makes all sorts of substitutes. Instead of only using basil, he also includes mint and thyme for a slightly lighter, more summery taste (he advises against sage and rosemary which both overpower). He adds the woody stems to the pasta water. He also posits that breadcrumbs are better than pine nuts explaining, “pine nuts are too heavy, too fatty”. He thinks the garlic is overpowering. He simply rubs a cut garlic around the glass of his blender…. no, he doesn’t use a pestle and mortar.

Traditional pesto recipe

However, this is the official traditional recipe, which is, of course, hard to beat. Make the pesto as quickly as you can or it will oxydise and begin to turn an unalluring brown. Store the pesto with the surface covered with cling film.

  • 100g basil
  • 35g/¼ cup pine nuts
  • 450g/1 lb mature Parmesan cheese (follow this link for the definition of ‘mature’), grated
  • 35g/⅓ cup grated Sardinian pecorino (sheeps’ cheese)
  • 2 fat garlic cloves
  • 2½ tsp smoked sea salt
  • 80 ml/⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  1. Wash the basil gently in cold water and dry, also gently, in a clean, soft tea towel
  2. Crush the garlic and nuts in the mortar and pestle
  3. Add the salt and the basil leaves, using a rhythmic, circular movement to crush the ingredients against the side of the mortar
  4. Keep going until you’ve used all the basil and green liquid drips from the pestle when you raise it in the air
  5. Add the cheeses and mix
  6. Pour in a thin stream of olive oil, mixing as you do.
pesto made to the traditional recipe
Pesto made to the traditional recipe

Things to do with pesto

There are many things you can do with pesto – simply treat it as a kind of seasoning – but here are some ideas:

Simply add to pasta - instant sauce
Simply add to pasta – instant sauce
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