Posted by Heather Jarman
Yesterday I made pesto with the basil leaves remaining on my end-of-summer basil plants. I knew it would only be a crude Tuscan imitation of the refined Ligurian original, one province to the north of Tuscany. I’d learned from Alessandra, a cooking teacher I use for my tours, whose grandparents are from Genoa, the capital of Liguria, that the flavour of Ligurian basil is more delicate than our basil. She once managed to find in Lucca some basil imported from Liguria, and the pesto she taught us was an entirely different, more balanced sauce. The basil didn’t dominate the pine nuts, parmesan and olive oil (the more delicately flavoured Ligurian variety, of course). She warned of the futility of buying Ligurian seeds and growing them here; they turn into Tuscan basil — it must be our soil or climate or both. If you want to taste authentic Ligurian pesto, you have to go to Liguria and find someone who makes it herself.
I don’t have a food processor, so I make pesto by hand in a mortar. Marcella Hazan gives the recipe and technique. She recommends putting the whole leaves, garlic cloves, pine nuts and salt into the mortar, and ‘Using the pestle with a rotary movement, grind all the ingredients against the side of the mortar. When they have been ground into a paste…’ The first time I tried this, after 20 minutes of nearly continuous, grueling grinding, the leaves still hadn’t been reduced to a paste. Now I chop everything first using a mezzaluna and then grind it in the mortar. But every time I wonder whether Marcella’s recipe is wrong (she was born in Emilia Romagna, not Liguria), whether I have the wrong type of mortar and pestle or whether my grinding technique is wrong or what. Watching YouTube helps a little; finding recipes helps but frustrates. The recipe from the Cosortium of Genoese Pesto romanticises about the touch of the artist. Obviously, I need to find the artist. Not a famous chef whose personality will be stamped all over his pesto, but a commoner, like the man who won this year’s Pesto World Cup, a pharmacist from Genoa.
One of my clients understood perfectly. It was her family’s first trip to Italy, and I would have expected them to be doing the Coliseum on Monday, Michelangelo’s David on Tuesday, the Leaning Tower of Pisa on Wednesday and Venice on Thursday. My heart leapt when she said: ‘I told my travel agent we didn’t want to visit anything we could see on the internet. We wanted to get to know Italians and how they live in their own country.’ That’s what slow travel is about.
(The photos show some of the people you can meet in my territory around Lucca in Tuscany.)
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Heather Jarman helps you discover the hidden culinary treasures of Lucca in northwest Tuscany. You can join me for a day, a week or as long as you like. Try to include a weekend so you can come to a sagra. Find out more at Sapori e Saperi Adventures and follow Heather’s own adventures on her blog.