Pesto, by hand

I could eat pesto until my hair turned green. It has everything that good eating should have – the freshness of the season, through the basil, the pungency of the garlic, the twists and depths of flavour of the olive oil and the Parmesan, the chunky texture of the nuts, and the romance of thousands of years and millions of hands making it, loving it.

And yet, remarkably, none of these powerful forces overcomes any of the others. Toss a spoonful around the mouth, and you should be able to taste all the players, each making its mark bit by bit. That’s real quality.

I first ran into pesto in a very down-market, though highly attractive, Italian eating house, entered after a climb up rickety, dark stairs. I remember clearly the day I asked the waiter what the pesto Genovese, listed as a daily special, was. There was a sharp intake of breath and a rolling of eyes, together making for that wonderful moment that comes from a combination of frustration and contempt. You could tell this very Italian man thought that this Australian, all Australians, were drongos, or the Southern Italian equivalent.

‘Pesto,’ he said, extending to his full height, ‘is a very old dish from ma country. It is made from basil, the besta cheese and virgin olive oil.’ What he could well have added was this: ‘What you are about to take may well affect you terminally.’ It did. Life without pesto would be, well…

In Genoa, where it all began, they say, they are horrified if you use anything but a pestle and mortar to make the sauce (pesto – pestle, get it?), but in other parts of Italy they are not so strict, and use various knives and whizzers. I am not prepared to compromise. There is no doubt the version made with a pestle and mortar is wildly superior to that made in a machine, and not just because it suits my romantic nature. It is better in the same way as Casablanca is/was better on the silver screen than it is/was/will be on TV.

50g pine nuts – You can use walnuts if you like. Some Italian food historians suggest that walnuts were in fact the original, others pine nuts. Use what’s available, then choose what you like.

1 teaspoon salt, preferably rock salt

2 teaspoons black peppercorns

1-3 cloves peeled garlic, depending on your need for it

1½ cups best quality olive oil – Don’t compromise here.

5 cups basil leaves

200g Parmesan, grated – Of course Parmigiano Reggiano is best, but it is also very expensive. The difference between it and Grana Padano is there, but even I can cope without it here, given the price difference.


Mix the nuts, salt, peppercorns, garlic and a little of the oil, and crush them in the mortar. It’s a good idea to crush the garlic with the back of a knife before you attack it with the pestle. If you haven’t got a mortar, you can do all this with a kitchen hammer, but I bet you wouldn’t do it twice.


Add most of the basil leaves – leave a half a cup for later – a handful at a time, and work the lot together, adding a little oil here and there to assist the blending.


Add the cheese, and pound it all together.


Put the lot into a bowl and gradually add the rest of the oil, working the mix with a wooden spoon. Work in the rest of the basil. That’s it. Don’t worry about how long it lasts. It won’t.

Try the following:

  • Pesto on toast, with finely sliced tomatoes and black pepper.
  • Steamed spinach, chopped, tossed with pesto.
  • Boiled potatoes, drained, and immediately tossed with stacks of pesto. y The loin of lamb – or the fillet of beef or chicken – stuffed or wiped with pesto, and roasted.
  • Any vegetable- or cheese-based ravioli, tossed with pesto and given a double whammy of Parmesan, a little melted butter and black pepper.
  • When making bread, mix pesto through the dough as you mix it; or roll it in before the last proving.
  • Scrambled eggs, mixed generously with pesto (sigh); or boiled eggs on toast with pesto.
  • Eggplant, sliced in half, roasted (gently) until tender, given a thick rub with pesto, and grilled.
  • The boiled rice from a local takeaway, given a new lease on life with pesto.
  • Anything – with pesto.

WINE: There is something about garlic and red wine -I’m sure they make Italy such a civilised place. There’s lots of underlying richness in pesto that needs some acid from a younger wine to cut through it. Don’t pull out your prized bottle of twenty-year-old red. Try a young Coonawarra shiraz (it may be labelled ‘Hermitage’) or a cabernet from southern Victoria (Geelong, Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula).