Pesto recipe is tyical of Liguria and is traditionally the cradle of aromatic herbs. The use of aromatic herbs for the Ligurians is a tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages, with different habits, based on social categories: the rich share their banquets with refined spices, while the poor used it to flavor soups that are not too tasty. This ancient tradition seems to have given rise to pesto, a cold condiment obtained from basil, in dialect Baxaicò and Baxeicò (from the Latin basilicum). This plant, of Arab origin, boasts a curious botanical name: Ocimum basilicum, literally royal herb.
But let’s get back to pesto: the original recipe dates back to the second half of the 19th century; the first to mention it seems to be a well-known gastronome of the time, Giovanni Battista Ratto in his work, La Cuciniera Genovese. The recipe is as follows: “Take a clove of garlic, basil (baxaicö) or in the absence of this marjoram and parsley, Dutch cheese and Parmesan grated and mixed together and some pickles and pound everything in a mortar with a little butter until it is reduced in paste. Then dissolve it with plenty of fine oil. The lasagna and gnocchi (trofie) are seasoned with this mixture, adding a little hot water without salt to make it more liquid “.
Despite its relative youth, this recipe seems to date back to the evolution of a much older recipe, the agliadda (agliata), a 13th-century garlic-based mortar sauce that was used for the preservation of cooked foods. But we certainly cannot overlook a famous legend that tells of a convent on the heights of Prà (Genoa) named after San Basilio, in which a friar who lived in that house collected the aromatic herb that grew on those hills (called basilium, in honor of St. Basil), he combined it with the few ingredients brought to him as an offer by the faithful and, crushing everything, he obtained the first pesto which was gradually perfected. During the nineteenth century, pasta with Pesto did not undergo any particular changes and at that time it was considered a popular food. But it is likely that the original pesto was under much stronger influence from its ancestor: that is, that it had a lot of garlic. This is fundamentally for two reasons: the Arab-Persian influence that dominated the sauces of Genoa from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, but also the predilection and “need” of Ligurian seamen for garlic, considered almost a medicine for long periods on board.
In fact, Pesto has achieved great popularity in the world also thanks to the crews of merchant or passenger ships that sailed from the port of Genoa to distant destinations: in La Boca, a Genoese district of Buenos Aires, in the seaside cities of the USA. In short, despite the fact that pesto is not so “dated”, it boasts a very curious history, made by the sea and by the most ancient popular traditions.