Pastes, sauces, purees. They crop up all the time in cooking and with the right sauce at your disposal, possibilities for meals are endless. Pesto is one of those all-round sauces that can truly do it all, and it’s always worth having some in your fridge for a rainy day.
There are hundreds if not thousands of different sauces around the world made with greens, herbs, vegetables and spices. Depending on the region and the cuisine the ingredients can veer in any direction but there are some that have become so classic, they’re known all over the world. One such creation is pesto, an ancient recipe that has seen a dramatic rise in popularity since the start of the 21st century.
As a sauce, pesto began its journey in ancient Rome where they used to prepare a thick paste of cheese, pine nuts, oil, salt and herbs that they called ‘moretum’ which roughly translates to ‘cheese and garlic’. There was also a very humble version of the sauce made during the middle ages which were known as Agliata sauce, and this was made with walnuts and garlic in lieu of pine nuts.
But the pesto we know and love today can be traced back to Genoa, Italy in the province of Liguria. This was made with the familiar combination of basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and parmesan (or pecorino at a stretch) and this sauce was most often paired with pasta although some people also used it to dress and grill meats and fish.
Italy wasn’t the only country with an answer to pesto however and in Provence, France, there was a version of the sauce called pistou. This was a blend of basil, parsley, garlic and grated cheese. Unlike the Italian avatar, pistou was used as an accompaniment to a hearty vegetable soup, aptly called a soupe au pistou. It’s thought that although we tend to see the Italian version being the most commonly followed recipe these days, it was the French pistou that was the root of the name pesto that we use today.
Savoury, creamy and packed with the showstopping flavours of garlic and herbs, pesto is a solution to every dinner problem. And since it requires very little finesse, it’s easy to make in large batches and store in the fridge for later. The only catch is that it traditionally requires pine nuts, which are hard to source and often very expensive to buy when you do find them. Luckily, you can easily substitute pine nuts for cashews and obtain a similar flavour and texture at a fraction of the cost. Here’s how to go about it.