I'm home in San Francisco and in the middle of a fall harvest cooking class in my kitchen and still I can't get the Cinque Terre out of my head. I'm supposed to be thinking clove zabaglione, roasted fall vegetables, braised beef in Cabernet and poached pears but I keep flashing back to basil, pine nuts and fruity Ligurian olive oil.
I remember hearing years ago that in Liguria, where pesto reigns supreme, they never pick basil over 6-inches tall. After being there, I now know that to be true but there's a whole lot more to the story.
The first class I had with my students in the Cinque Terre, I invited Felicita, the owner of the albergo, to come and show us how she makes pesto. After all her family has been in the Cinque Terre for generations, she'd have to be pretty good at it.
We all think we know how to make pesto. Throw all the ingredients into the food processor and pulse until you have a bright green puree. Nope, not here, think again!
You can't start with just any basil. It has to be Genovese basil and it's true, it can't be taller than 6-inches. The leaves have to be small and really tender. Pick the leaves from the stem meticulously making sure you don't get any stem whatsoever. Wash the basil and place it on towels to dry. There can't be any water on the basil at all.
Now you need a mortar and pestle. Felicita's mortar was passed to her from her mother who got it from her mother. She thinks it's about 100 years old.
What about the pestle? It has to be made of beech wood, she told us. (The next day after our lesson, I got so excited when I saw a man selling beech wood pestles in the market. I bought one but had to draw the line when it came to the 25 pound mortar! I've carried a lot of things home in my suitcase but not this time.)
You place the basil (two big handfuls for two people or about 80 leaves) in the mortar and with the pestle you grind the basil until there's shinny green liquid at the bottom mortar and the basil is pulverized. Next you add a clove of garlic and continue with the pestle until the garlic is also pulverized. Add about 2 tablespoons of Italian pine nuts (Felicita picks them herself from her trees) and mash them until the mixture is a paste.
She said some people like to add a combination of Pecorino and Parmigiano but it's all personal preference. She prefers a good handful of Parmigiano and again she grinds the mixture to make a paste. And finally don't forget a good splash of Liguriuan olive oil and mash until you have a creamy consistency.
I slathered as much as I could on a tiny wedge of bread. How was it? It had to be the sweetest, most delicate, bright emerald green pesto I've ever tasted. I thought about the pesto we make with strong, bitter, tough basil... How did I feel after that lesson with Felicita? Like I couldn't make pesto again anywhere outside Liguria.
How often does Felicita eat pesto? "At least 3 to 4 times a week!" she said.
I can see why!