When to comes to food, I’ve never believed that authenticity is paramount. Like language, cuisines evolve. I spent quite a while bemoaning text speak, lols and so on but came to realise that, while it might not be how I choose to express myself, it all makes perfect sense to plenty of people. Everything is in motion and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
What does piss me off, linguistically and culinarily, is when definitions are stretched to the point of meaninglessness. “Literally” was a useful word, goddamit! And so was “pesto”.
I remember when pesto first became a thing in the UK (a good couple of decades before saying “a thing” became a thing). I was in my teens and it blew my mind. Before too long along came “red pesto” made with sundried tomatoes (they were still pretty exciting back then too). But these days so many things get called “pesto” it’s hard to keep up.
Sacla, the best known manufacturer here and, almost undoubtedly, suppliers of my first pesto fix, now make 12 different varieties, not including the “free from” and organic versions.
The people of Liguria must surely disapprove? The north-western Italian province is pesto’s spiritual home. They like the stuff so much they have a bi-annual competition to see who makes the best.
But no truffles or chargrilled aubergines for them. Ligurian pesto must be made by hand, with pestle and mortar, using only basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic, salt and pecorino and parmesan cheeses.
No doubt delicious but perhaps a little restrictive. The word “pesto” is derived from the Italian for “pounded” so, technically, any sort of paste is a pesto. But that’s going too far the other way for me though towards meaninglessness. A look at the ingredients on all those different Sacla jars reveals little common ground.
Alan Davidson, in the indispensable Oxford Companion To Food notes that “Sometimes other nuts are used, walnuts perhaps or in the small port of Camogli, hazelnuts.” Also: “A full discussion my be found in Plotkin.”
This Plotkin chap - Fred - of whom I was previously unaware, turns out to be a much-feted American food writer and expert on Italy. His book Recipes From Paradise contains 16 different pesto recipes including one bulked out with spinach “for when basil is costly” and versions without nuts or dairy.
They still all contain basil though and I think I am willing to be even more fluid on this point.
I have therefore come up with my own Pesto Manifesto:
Anything I am going to refer to as “pesto” must contain three thing: something green, some nuts and some cheese. That’s it.
Having decided this when it came to lunchtime today and my foragings in the fridge and cupboards turned up some spinach, blue cheese and hazelnuts I decided I was within my rights to call the resultant concoction a pesto. I ate it with yet more courgetti and a tomato salad. It was pretty tasty so I think I can live with a little Ligurian disapproval.
Spinach, Blue Cheese And Hazelnut Pesto (serves 2)
- large handful of spinach
- 40g blue cheese (I used Blue d’Auvergne)
- 50g chopped roasted hazelnuts
- 1 garlic clove
- juice and zest of half a lemon
- Put everything in a food processor with some black pepper and blend to desired consistency. I like it with discernable nuttiness. Taste for salt and add more if needed.
- Serve with courgette spaghetti or, hell, the real thing, a good gr and a few more hazelnut pieces scattered on top.
Ifs And Ands
- This whole thing is about ifs and ands! The possibilities seem endless.
- I think next up feta, rocket and pistachio for me. What else have you tried?