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Pestles & Pestos

There are some pieces of equipment which call you into the kitchen. Anyone who cooks often will know and appreciate the joy of a sharp knife. Preparing food is often foiled by blunt knives. Inefficient tools can be enough to turn you off cooking altogether. I hate cooking with my mum’s ‘non stick’ pans, for example, because they don’t cook food properly. Food is made to catch the corners of saucepans and caramelise, that’s how you know you are coaxing out the delicious sugars. The caramelisation, the caught edges, that’s where flavour happens. In Mum’s slippery-smooth saucepans this is impossible.

Just as tools can discourage you, so they can entice you.

I inherited from Nonna Eugenia a marble pestle with a wooden mortar. It’s a thing of great beauty and weight. I don’t think it’s been used for years, at least in the kitchen. It was being used as a doorstop by Aunt Teresa when I first spotted it. Teresa never cooks, and when I pointed it out she explained that she had never used it, and that it belonged to her mother, Nonna Eugenia. She said I could have it. I’ve been looking at it now for some weeks, thinking about what to christen it with. It’s the kind of object which commands only a worthy concoction be made in it. The answer struck me like a green lightning bolt. Pesto.

Now I’m sure most people have had a go at making pesto. Definitely most of us have bought it. But the bogey-green, cupboard-flavoured, big-brand stuff is not what you should base your experience on. Good, homemade pesto is a very wonderful thing. Punchy, savoury, heady with basil and rich with oil and nuts, this is one of pasta’s best sauces.

The term pesto comes from the Genoese verb pestâ, which means to pound or crush. According to tradition, the ingredients are 'crushed' or ground in a marble mortar with a wooden pestle. It is from the Latin root that the term ‘pestle’ comes.

What could be more fitting then, than to baptise my marble mortar with pesto.

Though it originates from Liguria, pesto has entered the Sardinian culinary conscience for a number of reasons. The original recipe calls for the cheese content to be made up of half parmesan and half pecorino sardo. The hard sheeps’ milk cheese which is made all over Sardinia is an essential ingredient. There is also the island Carloforte, which I have yet to visit but have heard much about. Just off the South coast of Sardinia, it was first populated in the late 18th century by Genoese coral fishermen. They brought with them their food traditions, including pesto.

There is only one recipe for pesto which I will ever make, and that is Marcella Hazan’s. Marcella is one of my favourite Italian recipe writers, not least because of her frequent use of both extra virgin olive oil and butter in Italian recipes. Whilst butter is rare in Sardinian cooking, I love the combination of the two fats, as they each contribute to the finished dish. The butter lends a sweet, creamy subtlety, and the oil a rich, pungent green flavour. This pesto recipe is based upon hers and benefits from the addition of both.

Makes enough for 2 small jars (6-8 portions)

2 large handfuls fresh basil leaves

100g pine nuts

1 clove garlic

Good pinch salt

30g grated pecorino

30g grated parmesan

20g butter (softened)

70 ml Extra Virgin olive oil

You can mix the whole lot in the blender and I won’t judge. But there is something infinitely satisfying about doing it the old-fashioned way.

Pound the nuts, salt, garlic and basil until they form a rough puree. Pour in the olive oil stirring all the time. Stir in the cheese and softened butter and mix well, until a creamy sauce is formed. Taste and check for seasoning, adding more salt if necessary. It should taste really punchy as the flavour will be diluted when it is served with pasta.


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