Italian word for the week: Pesto


Pesto (n.m.)

The word pesto comes from the Italian ‘pestare’, meaning ‘to pound, or crush’, or indeed to ‘pestle’, and is of course also cognate to our noun ‘pestle’ (Italian: ‘pestello’, Latin: ‘pistillum’) – so there is absolutely no need to ever again get confused about which is the pestle and which is the mortar (Italian: ‘mortaio’, Latin ‘mortarium’): the bowl in which things are crushed, as well as being the things that are crushed in the bowl, as in builder’s mortar. No more confusion. Or is there? Well, ‘pesto’ means ‘pestled’, with a pestle – but logically the popular herb-based condiment could be called ‘mortaio’, being the stuff that is pestled, in the mortar, as in builder’s mortar. But it isn’t… And that’s the end of the matter. We are always looking for relationships between words within and across languages, but we do not always expect these relationships to be obvious, or even entirely logical.

How to make pesto

To make pesto – authentic, classic Ligurian pesto – you will need, in order of appearance, a large pestle and mortar, some bashed and peeled garlic, a pinch of sea salt, some extra-virgin olive oil, some lightly toasted pine nuts, lots and lots of fresh basil, and two parts hard cheese to one part sheep’s cheese. Arrange all these on a firm table. Take the pestle in your right hand (unless you are left-handed, or you have already forgotten which one’s which) and pestle the garlic, with the salt, in the mortar, turning the mortar regularly with your left hand as you go. Add the oil and pestle again, then the pine nuts – it will start to become creamy. Then add the basil. You don’t have to tear the basil first – or, heavens forfend, chop it – because we are going to pestle it, with shoulder, and a regular, gentle turning of the mortar with our left hand. Then in go your cheeses for a final pestling. Serve immediately, with pasta, focaccia or anchovies.

Classic pesto is Ligurian and the best classic pesto comes from Prà, just to the west of Genoa, where the sea air and sharply ascending mountain slopes combine to create the perfect micro-climate for its production. There’s a huge basil farm there with temperature-controlled greenhouses and a little factory where they make and bottle the pesto. But you don’t have to be in Prà to grow basil; you can grow it in Partick. It does need lots of sunshine, lots of water, lots of love and, above all, lots of warmth… So a stone pot on a sunny windowsill is ideal, though old tomato tins with a couple of holes punched in the bottom will work just as well, as these will also retain the sun’s heat.

How to grow basil

Eat the contents of four 400g tomato tins, wash the tins out, punch two holes in the bottom of each with a suitable instrument and put them in your handbag, along with a trowel or, failing that, a strong metal spoon. No, seriously. Don’t ask questions. Just do it. It’s going to be fine… Now go to the supermarket and buy, or preferably steal, a living basil plant. Then go to the park. Yes, seriously. I promise. It’s going to be fine… De-pot the plant by inverting the pot and tapping the bottom, then gently tear the plant apart at the roots to thin it out – there are in fact lots of pale, overgrown plants in that pot and they need room to establish; one supermarket plant will do four tomato tins. Add a few small stones to the bottom of each tin for drainage, then re-pot the plants with as much of the original compost as you can salvage and top up brim full with rich, dark soil from a flowerbed. Firm the plants in so they are all standing, then take them home and pop them in the sink with a couple of inches of water for a couple of hours to water in while you find saucers for them and read some ancient poetry. Don’t worry if they droop at this point: they’ve been in a supermarket for a week and they are poorly; but they are young, hopeful and eager to live: they will pick up. Place them on the windowsill and leave them for a few days. After that, keep the soil moist (not waterlogged) – ideally, spray the leaves generously with lukewarm water at the warmest time of day, when you can. They should do fine, but if you are struggling to grow basil in Partick, there are two supermarket plants’ worth doing pretty well outdoors in Bath, in a warm, sunny, south-facing and sheltered spot, with a sheet of slate behind them to capture and keep the sun’s heat – as the image above, I am proud to say, gloriously illustrates. You only have to ask.

Useful phrase
Sto facendo un po’ di pesto questa sera, ti dispiacerebbe se usassi un po’ del tuo basilico?

I’m making a bit of pesto tonight, would you mind if I used a bit of your basil?