We were basking in the glow of a fine, sunny day after a meal that went perfectly with it. A table full of satisfied bloggers, journalists, and tourism folks chattered away around a long table on the roof of L’Agave, a restaurant crammed at the end of an old railway tunnel overlooking Liguria’s biggest rock. Wine bottles, mostly finished, glistened in the sun. That’s when I heard a story that would roll around in my head for the rest of the trip.
“When Carlo Petri was convinced to come to Levanto to evaluate the city as a città slow based in large part due to its historic Pasticceria Bianchi, founded in 1889 and still run by the same family, the founder of the slow food movement was impressed enough to look around some. After a couple of days exploration, he came back to the Pasticceria and announced that he was so impressed with the population’s dedication to to the fine points of creating good food and respect for the ingredients that had he come years earlier he would have headquartered the organization in Levanto instead of Bra.”
So now you know where to go for the best of traditional Ligurian cuisine. Like pesto. Not just any pesto, but Pesto DOP. Pesto done right.
We got a little demonstration of the process at a place in Levanto called La Nicchia Pest.ifera
Ok, so here’s what you need. Basil, of course, but not that large leaf, bred for fast growth basil you might find in an American market. You need the tiny, tender leaves of basilico genovese D.O.P., which you pick with the roots so it’s absolutely fresh when you separate the leaves seconds before you make pesto from it.
Then you need a mortar and pestle; it’s not called “pesto” for nothing, you know. It should be a white marble mortar from Carrara marble and the pestle is of wood that’s engineered to fit the mortar perfectly.
For one helping of pesto, you use half a clove of garlic with the center sprout removed (because it’s too potent for the pesto). You add it to the mortar with a tablespoon or so of first-quality pine nuts (expensive these days!), a pinch of salt and a handful of basil leaves and you bash away at it for half a minute or so.
Then you start circling the mortar with your pestle the mixture becomes creamy. It’s easier than it sounds and kinda sexy, so I made a little video:
They you add some of that incredible olive oil they make in Liguria as well as some Parmigiano-Reggiano and stir with a wooden spoon. That’s it.
Yeah it’s easy. It’s not about muscling the ingredients, it’s coaxing them gently to be happy together.
And now I know exactly what you’re gonna ask. “Ok, yeah, that’s a lot of attention to detail and an inordinate degree of respect for the ingredients. C’mon, does it make that much of a difference?”
So the kind folks made some pesto from exactly the same ingredients but used a blender. The difference was far greater than you’d imagine. The high speed of the blender effectively “cooks” the basil. Cooked basil tastes not unlike spinach. After tasting the real thing, you’ll never go back again.
So, don’t go to Levanto if you want to continue eating bad pesto with undue pleasure. Otherwise, come and enjoy life, walk the old train tunnels to Framura or Bonnasola, eat fresh delicacies from the sea overlooking Liguria’s biggest rock, take a boat trip and wave to the tourists crammed into the Cinque Terre cities and pay attention to the good things in life. It might change your outlook just a little.
Corso Italia , 16
If You Go
Where to Stay: Country Life
Ca du Ferra Farm and Relax
B&B amidst organic vineyards
Where to Stay: City Life
A Durmì, Levanto
Garden rooms in the heart of Levanto
This demonstration of Pesto-making came to us thanks to Officine del Levante on the occasion of the first edition of the geography festival, Festival delle Geografie