Posted by: tomciocco | July 15, 2008


I carry a bit of a torch for Liguria, it’s true (see my previous post, also including the same Piagto wine, called TAKING DELIGHT IN THE LOCAL). Jen and I spent part of our honeymoon there, and if absolutely FORCED to make the ridiculous choice of which of which Italian region has the best food, I’d (probably) choose Liguria.

Ravioli are Ligurian. Foccaccia is Ligurian. Liguria is the source for everything from the simplest plates of grilled fresh anchiovies flavored with nothing more than salt, to some of the most complicated dishes to be found anywhere in the Italy, such as Cappon Magro or Cima alla Genovese  

But one Ligurian dish – one SAUCE to be most precise – is known and eaten by gastronomes and “gavons” worldwide, and that is none other than the magical verdant paste known as PESTO, or most accurately, pesto alla genovese.  My use of the word “paste” in the previous in the previous sentence is not a haphazard one. The word “pesto” is derived from the Italian verb “pestare” which means to beat or pound. And indeed pesto should be- and I’m a stickler about this (and so should you be!) – has GOTTA be made in a mortar and pestle – SEE?! “pesto”, “pestare”, “pestle”…

And with these words, I hear mouses clicking off in search of less involving pursuits, but that’s OK…Listen, I’m not going to tell you that I haven’t made pesto in a food processor or a blender, or that if you do that you’ll grow hair on your palms, but I promise you that once you get that hang of making pesto by hand, you may never go back to your dark, Satanic mills…

When we discuss “pesto” it is far better to discuss “pesti” (plural, that is). As is so common in Italian foodways regarding culinary parochialism, there are nearly as many pestos as there are steep and sunny little fishing villages along the Ligurian coast itself. Recipes revered in this town are roundly reviled just a few clicks up the coast. The most fascinating part of all of this variability is the almost scriptural adherence to a fixed number of ingredients. The variations in pestos are ones of PROPORTIONS. For example, pestos from western Liguria (called the “ponente”, meaning “setting sun”) tend to be more garlicky, while those from eastern Liguria (the “levante”, or “rising sun”) tend to be cheesier. Some towns very close to the Tuscan border include walnuts. Other areas use a bit of ricotta or a sprig or two of parsely, but pesto is predominately made from seven (7) and seven (7) ingredients alone, and they are: basil, salt, garlic, pine nuts, parmigiano reggiano, pecorino, and olive oil. 

Making a great pesto is INFINTELY more closely tied to the cook’s TECHNIQUE and the QUALITY/AUTHENTICITY of his or her ingredients, than WHAT is going into the maul…On the technique side of the ledger, a perfect pesto requires that, a few leaves at a time, and with a generous pinch of coarse salt, that the basil leaves be circulated and crushed against the mortar’s wall. The (coarsely chopped) garlic is next. This should be first pressed or “expressed” with a firm hand on the mortar floor and then heavily ground in the “corners” until fully mashed…The nuts are all about POUNDING! They can go in all at once, and they’re boken down by raising the pestle and striking the mixture until the nuts are reduced to a grainless, unctuous paste. The grated cheeses are “creamed in” in a sort of brisk, circular motion, and the oil drizzled in a bit at a time accompanied by a wide, but gentle stirring action…

Yes, this is  A LOT more work than dumping all seven ingredients into a mixy, and BLASTING it, but I don’t think it’s hard to see why the mortar and pestle method is going to yield a sauce with a finer consistency, and superior flavor…

And so to the ingredients. Here’s one that going to get some folks steamed: REAL pesto can only be had in Liguria. Can you make an extremely satistifying, yea, even transcendent pesto in Portland or Pakistan? Yes. But THE most important element in pesto – the basil – is the first (high) hurdle…

The very type of basil native to Liguria, though perhaps not strictly impossible to find outside its borders, to my knowledge is not readliy available anywhere but there. Further, the sweet climate that Liguria provides to the plants also significantly contributes to the perfumey sweetness of its basil.

The other essential ingredient in making authentic pesto is good LIGURIAN olive olive, and preferably oil made from the Tiaggiasca variety. What goes for the basil, goes triple for the olive oil. Tiaggiasca olives grown in Liguria (almost the only place they can be found) produce very light, lime-colored, fragrant, and buttery-sweet oils. The difference in the use of this oil versus a big, fat Apulian oil, or even worse, a twangy, peppery Tuscan oil for me is the differnece between a sauce that is just OK to one that is nearly sublime…Fortunately, Taggiasca/Ligurian olive oil IS available at good specialty stores, and if you can put your hands on it (unfortunately it tends to be pricey too), take the plunge, and see what a HUGE difference it makes in the final product.

And one could even argue that the particlar types of local, hard sheeps’ milk cheeses made in Liguria’s steep and rugged upland valleys are never available her either, though to be fair, the Ligurians are as likely to be using a good Pecorino Sardo  (Sardinian sheeps’ milk cheese) than anything else, and these cheeses are readily available at good cheese shops…

Yes, the pesto in Liguria is indeed SUBLIME, but if you’re willing to use up a little time, elbow grease, and a pick up few special ingredients, I GUARANTEE that you’ll fall even more deeply in love with this saucy little sauce…

And saucy it is! Pesto (best served over linguine, trenette [like narrower egg tagliatelle], or most traditionally with the hand-rolled pasta called trofie [TRO-fee-eh]) is a BEAR of a dish to match with wine: it contains enough basil to choke a mule, ripe with RAW garlic, and three full-flavors fats to boot…Most whites shrink from this onslaught, and most reds clash badly, but there is one local Ligurian white grape variety – Pigato – that for me is better than any other with this pungent sauce. Pigato in this role plays the enveloper, the absorber if you will. The pesto is the Costello to Pigato’s Abbott, if you’ll allow…Pigato has a big, soft, round body with understated,yet somehow completely immovable flavors and aromas. Pigato’s great success in pairing with pesto is due to its ability to bend but never break under the brazen advances of the great grass-green paste. Not surprisingly, it goes well with fattier white fish as well. The notes:

Colle dei Bardellini Pigato Riviera di Liguria Ponente 2007 

Colle de Bardellini Pigato


Yellow-gold color. Slighly chalky nose of yellow cherries, herbs, and almond milk. Fresh flavors of mango and sweet grapefruit with briney undertones hung in a medium-full, slightly “oily” frame. Finishes with a long and delicate bitter-sweetness. This is the sort of wine that only reveals its great charm by paying it a bit of attention (and letting it warm up just a bit).



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