It’s early on Tuesday morning at Genoa’s Mercato Orientale and a light summer rain still lingers in the air. Softly fragrant and warm. Dozens of men and women are quietly and efficiently focused on the business of setting up their stalls stopping only occasionally to bid someone buongiorno. Fragrant bouquets of basil line the stalls their uniquely intense perfume rising up into the damp air. This isn’t just any old basil, it is DOP Genoese Basil, a herb that became a traditional crop in Genoa from the 19th century as gastronomes came to recognise it for its quality and versatility. Ask any stall holder how to use it and they will tell you that it’s for the pesto, a sauce that is as quintessential to the region as the herb itself. The specifications for making it are very precise indeed: Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Sardo cheeses, Tuscan pine nuts, garlic from nearby Vessalico, salt and extra-virgin oil from the region’s Taggiasca olives. And, of course, bright green Genovese basil. So my recipe is far from perfect. It is, however, simply beautiful and, every time I make it, I imagine myself in that market gently passing through, my hands softly brushing over the leaves in order to release their scent into the air. And so I am alive.
A generous handful of pine kernels, toasted
2 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
Sea salt flakes
A very large bunch of fresh basil
6-8 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
120g Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated
x1 lemon, zested and juiced (optional)
How I make it
Place the pine kernels, garlic cloves and salt into a large mortar and pound them into a very smooth paste – this takes just under 10 minutes.
Add a handful of the picked basil leaves and work into the mixture with the pestle, continue to add the leaves until they’ve been used up (if time is short, you can crush the garlic with the salt in the mortar and then add it and all the basil leaves to a food processor. Pulse a couple of times then add the pine kernels and pulse a couple more times).
Slowly drizzle in the olive oil while stirring with the pestle until emulsified. Add the cheese, taste and stir in a little more salt if you wish.
In the summer, I add the zest and juice of a lemon to lift the pesto a little.
This will keep in a sealed container in the fridge for up to five days. Here I’ve simply stirred it into pasta with new potatoes and steamed green beans for my version of the classic Ligurian dish, trofie con patate, fagiolini e pesto.