With only a mortar and pestle, a winner was crowned this weekend in Italy, at the Genoa Pesto World Championship. Shunning modern equipment like blenders or food processors, contestants may only use a mortar and pestle, often passed down through a family for generations. Derived from the word pestare, meaning “to pound”, the traditional ingredients are ground to a rough paste. A marble mortar is most prized, having a coarse interior. Ideally this is paired with a wooden pestle which will keep cool as it rubs the marble, helping to avoid cooking the delicate pesto. With the unique qualities of the local Ligurian basil, garlic and pine nuts, hand grinding will best release their characteristic flavors for the sauce.
Heading out of the major seaport of Genoa, fishermen historically packed jars of pesto to remind them of home. Sailors would add it to soups or toss it with pasta. Today’s American cooks also spread it on sandwiches or bruschetta, add it to salads or dressings and create variations with whatever ingredients are on hand. Using a blender is the preferred modern convenience as it grinds the ingredients. Follow the blender recipe below or check out the Official Pesto Championship Recipe using a mortar and pestle.
YIELD: 1 ½ pints
12 oz. olive oil
3 oz. pine nuts, lightly toasted
6 oz. basil, fresh leaves
1 Tbsp. garlic, chopped
4 oz. Parmegiano Reggiano cheese, grated
4 oz. Romano cheese, grated
salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
1. Place half the olive oil in the blender. Add pine nuts, basil and garlic.
2. Blend, add remaining olive oil as needed to keep ingredients moving. You may need to stop blender periodically to push ingredients down. Do not over mix.
3. Once incorporated, stir in cheeses by hand and add more olive oil as needed.
Best used at room temperature, fresh made pesto may be stored in the refrigerator for a week or frozen for up to six months. Drizzling a layer of olive oil over the pesto helps prevent browning, inhibiting oxygen.
- Basic pesto with less basil and pine nuts, add roasted red peppers or sun-dried tomatoes
- Mixed greens (spinach, parsley, arugula, oregano, thyme, chives) and pine nuts
- Basil and roasted almonds, then cook with plum tomatoes
- Spinach or cilantro with pecans or almonds
- Watercress, arugula or basil with toasted walnuts
- Frozen peas, basil and lemon juice
- Olives (brine and oil-cured), capers and mint
- Grated zucchini and toasted almonds
- Mint and toasted almonds or pistachios
- Parsley and pumpkin seeds
Recommended, pre-made pestos can also be purchased locally at:
- Whole Foods (Sauces ‘n Love Pesto, Scarpetta Pesto)
- Takoma Park Silver Springs Co-op (Whole in the Wall Pesto)
- The Italian Store (Pesto Alla Genovese)
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