Pesto is an Italian classic. Little jars of it can be found in every corner of Europe - but when we eat Barilla or Bertolli, are we eating true pesto? Christian Diemer investigates - and also discovers some truly transnational Italo-European delicacies...

When I moved to Russia from Germany, at a certain point all I longed to eat was not wurstel and crauti, but pasta and pesto.

Photo: Flusel (PD)
Home-made pesto (this pestle and mortar may not be allowed by the "Consorzio del Pesto Genovese")

In a megalomart in the suburbs of Saint Petersburg I dared to start my search: "Pesto?" Net, shto takoye, what is that meant to be? "Pasta"? I was showed tomato paste, vegetable puree. What I would have meant by "pasta" is called "makaroni" in Russian: spaghetti, Maccaroni, Girandole, Papardelle, Pansoóti, Trofie – in Russian it is still all "makaroni".

In reality, there was pesto in the supercentre. Of course there was. Largely unknown not only in Russia but even in Germany until one or two decades ago, the mixture from the Italian region of Liguria has recently seen a spectacular success story throughout the entire European continent. There can be very few German students who have not secured their late-night survival with a glass of it from time to time, and considered themselves a lot more "Italian" than their housemates with the pile of frozen pizzas in the fridge.

However, there are critical palates on the European continent. The Barillas, Bertollis and Buitonis sold large-scale from Porto to Saint Petersburg (and obviously also from Palermo to Milan) may promote themselves as embodiments of an unadulterated Italian art of life and enjoyment. But are they really?

More than 50% of the premium paste consists of ingredients that have no place inside a true pesto: potato flakes, cashew nuts and whey products.

Barilla's pesto Genovese – proudly produced according to the "traditional knowledge" and "simplicity" of the pesto's "history of passion" – ennobles its main ingredient of 46.1 % sunflower oil with a homoeopathic dose of 1 % olive oil, "native olive oil extra", to be precise. Bertolli's pesto verde – a composition of "selected, high-end products such as for example basil, Grana Padano, pine kernels, and Bertolli extra vergine olive oil" – highlights the brazen trickery of an inconspicious "for example". More than 50% of the premium paste is made out of ingredients that according to the pesto puritans have no place inside a pesto: potato flakes, cashew nuts and whey products.

So what actually belongs inside a true Genoese pesto? The "Consorzio del Pesto Genovese", a non-profit organisation for the surveillance and purity of the "pestum delicti" in fifteen statute articles, has the answer on its website. This must be it, and nothing else:

Photo: Jörgen Kofler (CC-SA)
The pine nuts for pesto can only come from the Mediterranean Stone Pine, or pinus pinea.

50 grammes of basil leafs, of which the quality and variety standards accord to the denominazione "basilico genovese". Alternatively a semi-finished mixture of basilico genovese and olive oil can be used – the same olive oil of which otherwise...

...half a glass needs to be used: oil of Ligurian origin ideally, and of course extravergine.

Stay away from the grated cheese in the supermarket: a wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano DOP (expensive) or Grana Padano (still expensive, but a bit less expensive) must be freshly grated for an amount of 6 spoonful. So do 2 spoonfuls of Pecorino Romano, Toscano, Sardo or Siciliano.

2 cloves of garlic, rather mild than hot.

1 spoonful of pine kernels, obtained from the pinus pinea tree and thus from the Mediterranean area.

A few grains of coarse salt.

The ingredients are not all, of course. "Pesto" derives from Italian "pestare", "to crush". In a mortar of marble and with a pestle of wood, all these ingredients are to be crushed by a carefully rotating movement that gently tears up the fragrant sprigs of basil without cutting or squeezing them. If (!) you are really using a food processor, in the inexcusable absense of a marble mortar, it must be ensured that the pesto does not warm up. The result, however, should then honestly be called "straccio" and not "pesto"...

Pesto alone is no good without the right pasta (although it can be used to refine meat, fish grilled vegetables or the famous Minestrone as well). The Ligurian pasta classic for pesto are trofie, a thick, rolled type of pasta from durum wheat semolina. Trofiette are their finer counterpart. Only those dilettantes without a marble mortar at hand would substitute flat linguine – or trenette, as they are called by the pesto-loving Genoese – with vile cylindrical spaghetti.

For whatever type of pasta the advice applies to boil a potato along with it to make the noodles more sleek and to prevent them from sticking to each other. For the same reason, before adding the pesto to the pasta, it should be carefully diluted with a bit of the pasta water.

In a "Europe of the regions", the Ligurian grail of pesto is now a clear and binding part of our culture. But what would a Europe of the regions be without a Europe united in diversity? And some of the unorthodox pesto variants from outside Italy are just too delicious to be excluded from this pasty bouquet of Europe. Here are E&M's favourites...

IN -1105 DAYS