Pesto, or Pistou? They’re almost, but not quite, the same,.
Pesto, the green sauce we all know and love, originated in Genoa, in the seaside region of Italy’s Liguria. There, basil grows with abandon, and it is said that cooks in the Middle Ages were the first to grind it in a mortar and pestle with the local pine nuts and garlic, anointed it with olive oil, and added sheep’s milk cheese to thicken it. This is where the green sauce’s name originated, in fact, for the word “pestare” means “to pound”, thus pesto means pounded. Which is sort of what you do when you combine ingredients in a mortar and pestle.
Pistou is a sauce from the Cote d’Azur and beyond, which some say was inspired by the Gevnovese who arrived in Marseille by boat, bringing their culinary riches with them. This may or may not be true. What is more likely is that the cooks of what is now the French Mediterranean took the basil they had and ground it with the garlic that sprouted in their fields, crushed it in their mortars and pestles, added oil from their olives and called it “pistou” which means…dah dah….to crush, in Provençale.
In Genoa, Pasta; In Provence, Soup
In Genoa, pesto is generally tossed with pasta. In Provence, pistou is added to vegetable soup. Either way you slice it, these gorgeous green sauces originated with the seasons, the land, the region, and the overarching simplicity of peasant cuisine.
Here I make a hybrid sauce, inspired more by Provencale cuisine for I use the almonds which grow with abundance in Provence even though a traditional pistou contains no nuts at all. But the beauty of cooking and creating is that one can take the best from everywhere, and that’s what this sauce does. It remains very simple and, indeed, if you have no nuts, no nuts are required though the almonds add their almost sweet flavor to the sauce and once they’re touched by some hot pasta water, they thicken the sauce enough to coat the pasta. There is no cheese in my sauce because cheese feels like an interloper, a mask to the fresh herbal flavor. That said, cheese also provides some protein so add it if you like.
Keep Summer Flavor on Hand
I like to make an abundance of this sauce in summer, and I freeze a certain amount for use throughout the year. Why? Because everyone’s palate needs a lift as the days shorten and memories of summer fade. And I always think that if I’ve got pesto, I’ve got dinner. You can thaw it and use it in so many ways – poured over steamed fish, grilled steak or poultry, toast, squash, potatoes – and when you’ve made your own it is so much more fresh than anything you can buy.
Mortar or Blender
If you’ve got a large mortar and pestle, use it to make this sauce. Otherwise use a blender or food processor, remembering not to grind the ingredients too fine, as you want a bit of texture. Then if you’re going to freeze the sauce, freeze some in ice cube trays so you have cubes of flavor to add to soups and sauces. This sauce keeps very well in the freezer for several months. It keeps in the refrigerator for a day or two.
You are welcome, and Bon Appétit!