A Cook's Diary

Is It Still Pesto Without Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pine Nuts?

Reading food blogs and magazines, and watching a lot of food shows on TV, I come across the word “authentic” quite a lot. Pesto, for instance, is not “authentic” pesto unless made with pounded (no food processors or blenders, please!) basil and garlic, “authentic” Parmigiano-Reggiano (not Parmesan!), extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper and ground pine nuts. Because Alex does not like nuts, we rarely add nuts to pesto. We also use Parmesan from the deli section of Rustan’s, not Parmigiano-Reggiano. Is our pesto real pesto?

I read that pesto is not "authentic" pesto unless made with pounded (no food processors or blenders, please!) basil and garlic, "authentic" Parmigiano-Reggiano (not Parmesan!), extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper and ground pine nuts. Is that so?

A jar of pesto

What exactly is pesto?

Itchefs-GVCI, a network of chefs, restaurateurs and culinary professionals working in the Italian cuisine industry outside Italy, has an interesting article on the subject.

…in 1863 Giovanni Battista Ratto published La Cuciniera Genovese, considered to be the first and most complete book on the gastronomy of the Region of Liguria and in which the recipe for pesto, with pine nuts, is the following: “Take a clove of garlic, basil (‘baxaicö’) or, when that is lacking, marjoram and parsley, grated Dutch and Parmigiano cheese and mix them with pine nuts and crush it all together in a mortar with a little butter until reduced to a paste. Then dissolve it with good and abundant oil…”

Does that define “authentic” pesto? I call it one man’s recipe that just happened to be the first to be published. Pesto had been around for much longer and, before Battista Ratto, pesto was made without pine nuts. Even granting for argument’s sake that Battista Ratto’s recipe is definitive of “authentic” pesto, then, the contemporary pesto with no Dutch cheese and with no herbs other than basil, but with the addition of lemon juice, salt and pepper cannot be authentic at all.

But let’s not even stop there. Just what do the “authorities” say about the cheese in pesto? Aaahhhh… that is has to be Parmigiano-Reggiano.

What is Parmigiano-Reggiano? Is it the same as Parmesan? Is it a “must” in pesto?

In a nutshell, Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano can be the same depending on where you are and whether your country follows the European standard on what is considered real Parmigiano-Reggiano.

What makes cheese Parmigiano-Reggiano is a matter economic protectionism. In the 1950s, a consortium was was formed which led to the passage of a law. The hard granular cheese made from unpasteurized cow’s milk cannot carry the label Parmigiano-Reggiano unless produced in certain regions of Italy using strict criteria for aging. These wheels of cheese are stamped, as required by law, and that is what makes them Parmigiano-Reggiano. If made made elsewhere even with the exactly same ingredients and following the same strict criteria for aging, it cannot be legally called Parmigiano-Reggiano. Mostly, such cheeses are called Parmesan.

In Europe, however, Parmesan is Parmigiano-Reggiano. To put it more illustratively, it is illegal to sell Parmesan that is not Parmigiano-Reggiano in Europe.

Outside of Europe, however, what is sold as Parmesan can be (a) Parmigiano-Reggiano (yes, the Italian stuff), (b) a cheese produced beyond the borders of the law-designated regions of Italy using the same ingredients and process OR (c) an imitation.

Is Parmigiano-Reggiano essential to pesto? No, it isn’t. When making pesto, the cheese should add a robust flavor but not moisture. Hence, it has to be hard (aged) cheese. The cheese also adds a thick creaminess to the sauce which allows it to coat slippery things like pasta better. Pecorino, manchego and gouda are just as good.

Does pesto have to have pine nuts?

Let me go back to the Itchefs-GVCI article.

Mashed garlic is mentioned in the documents of the City of Genoa of the 17th century, while the recipe for true pesto starts to appear only in the 19th century. During the first half of the latter appear recipes that do not contemplate pine nuts…

It was Battista Ratto in La Cuciniera Genovese who made a definitive inclusion of pine nuts in pesto. Granted, he may have simply been documenting how pesto was made in the Ligurian city of Genoa during his time which would make the the inclusion of pine nuts an addition borne out of the evolution of pesto rather than a “must” among the ingredients. And any cook with half a brain should know better than to take one man’s recipe and declare it as THE only authentic recipe without considering historical context.

The ground pine nuts add texture to pesto and, like cheese, help it stick better to pasta. But, seriously, any nut can do that. Well, except coconut which isn’t a real nut anyway. Macadamia, walnuts and pili are all wonderful additions to pesto. For those who, like Alex, are not fans of nuts, just add more grated hard cheese to the pesto to help the sauce cling to pasta.

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