Text & photographs: Marcella van Alphen
Seated with my back against a century-old dry-stone wall, I am overlooking the small picturesque harbour of Manarola in Cinque Terre where a few fishing boats dance on choppy waves. Colourful houses built on the dark cliff above the turquoise blue Ligurian Sea in Italy set the backdrop. I contemplate the view when the passionate manager of Nessun Dorma, Simone, walks towards me with a big smile, carrying a large wooden crate full of basil plants.
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He is about to teach us a new skill that has made Ligurian cuisine known all over the world: let’s pesto!
Pesto, now sought after all over the world, originates from the nearby city of Genoa and is known in its purest form as pesto alla Genovese. Its main ingredient, basil, was imported to the harbour city from India as Genoa had been a major trading port ever since the 6th century B.C. For the well-known pesto alla Genovese, the DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) basil from Prà, just outside Genoa, is used with its small, tender and fragrant leaves.
The other ingredients for the pesto alla Genovese are proudly presented by Simone:
- A few pinches of Sicilian sea salt
- A bit of Vessalico garlic
- Pine nuts from the Migliarino – San Rossore Park near Pisa
- Chunks of Parmaggiano Reggiano cheese
- Chunks of Pecorino Sardino cheese
- Extra virgin olive oil from Liguria
“Two equally important tools are needed to make a good pesto”, Simone describes pointing at the mortar made of Carrara marble and the pestle made of olive wood (or sometimes pear wood). “The softness of the wood against the hardness of the marble allows for the basil leaves to be crushed in an optimal way.”
A good pesto is the same colour as the fresh basil leaves: bright green. Often colourants are added to make a bad pesto look good but this is not an option with a real pesto alla Genovese. The secret? “Do not give the leaves a chance to oxidise!” Simone explains.
For this reason, we are working under a parasol, and as soon as the basil leaves are carefully separated from the stem (any piece of the stem in the pesto would make it bitter), Simone plunges them in ice-cold water. “Lowering the temperature slows down the oxidation process, so we have a bit more time to work before the leaves turn black”, Simone details.
As we touch the marble mortar, we notice that it feels porous. This could lead to an exchange of air with the crushed basil: Simone crushes a small piece of garlic mixed with a few flakes of sea salt and spreads it all around the inside of the mortar. He enthusiastically explains: “Garlic is a natural anti-oxidant. Beyond adding flavour to the pesto, this prevents the oxidation process that starts as soon as you crush the leaves.”
After rinsing and drying the basil leaves by simply shaking them delicately, the hard work is about to start.
The mortar is filled with the basil leaves and two pinches of pine nuts. It is time to gently yet firmly crush it all, rolling the pestle along the curved marble, squeezing the oil out of the basil leaves and pine nuts to the sound of Simone’s encouragements.
The leaves turn into a rather watery mix that does not look like pesto yet. To obtain the right texture we add the cheese and keep crushing it all with the pestle. The mixture is sticky and thick and ready for the last and very important ingredient: the olive oil. “It is not only added to get the right taste and texture but also to preserve the pesto and prevent it from oxidising!” Simone explains. The pesto can be kept for three to four days in the fridge.
For now, after this hard work with the magnificent view on Manarola, it is time to taste our homemade pesto. It is about lunch time and Simone opens a cold bottle of dry Cinque Terre DOC white wine. Pavarotti’s voice echoes from the speaker with songs from the characteristic Nessun Dorma opera and guests start flocking in the most popular bar and restaurant of Cinque Terre. A waiter brings a plank covered with olives, focaccia, cold cuts and bruschetta. We cheer. Pesto has never tasted that good!
- The Nessun Dorma bar/restaurant is a very popular spot in Manarola, Cinque Terre and it does not take bookings. There is often a long wait to get a table. The only way around it while enriching your experience in Cinque Terre is to book a pesto workshop!
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.
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