On a winter’s afternoon as the evening seeps through the kitchen windows there’s nothing more evocative than preparing a paean to summer in the hope it might encourage the swift return of long days and much needed sunshine.
One of the things I often make to remind myself of warm days dining al fresco, as I did on my Flavours cooking course last year, is to make pesto. Mixed into a steaming bowl of fresh pasta it is very satisfying and delicious; it is both comforting in its warmth but also a reminder of everything I miss about Italy.
Of course, making pesto the traditional way is quite time consuming rather than whizzing the ingredients in a food processor. Yet we know all good things come to those who wait and so for this important kitchen ritual I turn to my trusty pestle and mortar.
That final phrase isn’t strictly true as I don’t have just one but a collection of around seventy, so it’s a matter of choosing the appropriate design for the job in hand!
My fascination with these food preparation objects started many years ago. My mother came from Brazil and so I grew up with this in the kitchen and still see it as part and parcel of food preparation. One of the smells I associate with home is crushed salt and garlic which was the main ingredient in our dishes at a time when ‘anything foreign’ was looked upon with some suspicion.
As I grew up I was interested to see the different shapes and varieties and soon began to study the topic. Each time I use my pestle and mortar I am linked with ancient civilisations, as these objects have been in use for thousands of years.
The Italian link though is never far away and the word used in English for mortar not surprisingly comes from the Latin mortarium which is defined as a receptacle for pounding, whereas pistillum means pounder, so you can see where the origins of ‘pestle’ were found.
I also think of the kitchen where we learned to prepare so many interesting classics of Italian cuisine; it is a truly inspirational villa and well worth visiting on a Flavours course.
I digress; you will discover references to pestles and mortars in Egypt from around 1550 BCE, the Bible and in early Rome too. I was interested to see that examples of this utensil can be found all over the world and they vary enormously in size, shape and materials.
The Molcajete, for example is a version which was used by Mesoamericans such as Aztec and the Mayans and were often made of basalt and you will find them used often in Mexican cooking today.
Although in a modern kitchen some use electric chopping devices of one kind of another, for me there is a very distinctive taste and texture when crushing basil leaves, olive oil and pine nuts by hand.
My favourite pestle and mortar for this purpose is made of granite and it is large enough to take any number of basil leaves I want to fit into it.
The beauty of this slow method is that you can really sense the ingredients and it becomes an art form, like mixing pigments.
This art form also means that each outing will result in a slightly different creation and taste. When using natural ingredients both basil leaves and the cheese itself can vary considerably depending on season, maturity and region. Olive oil too differs from year to year and also the length of time and conditions in which it has been stored. So, expect to be surprised!
For our magic spell to tempt back the sunshine you will need a bunch of basil (with the leaves stripped from the stalks). A large clove of garlic, around 25g of pine nuts, 40g or so of Pecorino cheese (from Sardinia preferably) grated, a pinch of sea salt and around 60ml of beautiful extra virgin olive oil. If you have difficulties in sourcing Pecorino do use fresh Parmesan.
Some people wash the basil leaves and it’s up to you but I don’t, never have and never will, sorry. Begin by placing the basil leaves in the mortar with salt, chopped garlic and pine nuts.
Keep rotating the pestle until all the ingredients are crushed and combined. You can make a decision how far you wish to go with this process. When satisfied add the cheese, work that in then drizzle the olive oil a little at a time, mixing again each time you add. Check the seasoning is correct and adjust according to your taste.
Either grab some crostini or a heap of steaming pasta and add the pesto, take a mouthful and close your eyes….bliss!
If you miss Italy, hot days and delicious food then pine no longer. Click here for information, regarding available Flavours courses in the art of painting, cooking or Pilates.