Monthly Archives: May 2020

Time for Pesto

Italian cuisine is not only regional; it is also seasonal. Insalata Caprese (mozzarella, tomato and basil) is not served in the winter. Spicy, hearty Pappardelle al Ragu Di Cinghiale, does not please on a hot summer’s day. When spring arrives it is time for pesto.

Ligurian Basil (photo

Pesto is a sauce synonymous with Liguria and pesto alla genovese unites the region. Unfortunately, for those of us living outside of Italy and craving pesto, it is incredibly hard to find the real thing. Too often a jar labeled “Genovese Pesto” contains some basil, spinach, canola or safflower oil, pecorino cheese or grana padano, ground walnuts or cashews, lemon juice concentrate, dried minced garlic, salt and pepper.

For those looking for the remembered taste of spring on the coast near Genoa overlooking the Ligurian sea, its time to shop for fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese and extra virgin olive oil, and if you are a purist, pull out the mortar and pestle. (If not, a food processor is found in many an Italian kitchen, although here’s a low tech option.)

Ligurian Garlic (photo by

For those with pandemic time on their hands: in the mortar pine nuts are muddled with fresh garlic and salt; basil leaves are added with a drizzle of olive oil and vigorously worked with the pestle into a smooth paste. (Both words – pestle and pesto – derive from the Italian verb pestare, meaning to crush or clobber. Late Latin – pisto. ) Finely grated cheese from Parma is stirred in at the end.

The ancient Romans used to eat a similar paste called moretum, which was made by crushing garlic, salt, cheese, herbs, olive oil and vinegar together. The use of this paste in the Roman cuisine is mentioned in the Appendix Vergiliana, an ancient collection of poems where the author dwells on the details about the preparation of moretum. During the Middle Ages, a popular sauce in the Genoan cuisine was agliata, a mash of garlic and walnuts. Garlic was a staple for the seagoing Ligurians.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil (photo

The introduction of basil, the main ingredient of modern pesto, occurred in more recent times and is first documented only in the mid-19th century, when gastronomist Giovanni Battista Ratto published his book La Cuciniera Genovese in 1863.

The recipe for pesto alla genovese was often revised in the following years. A recipe from La Vera Cuciniera Genovese by Emanuele Rossi (1865), which is quoted in Grande Enciclopedia Illustrata della Gastronomia, began with “Put three or four garlic cloves in a mortar with some basil leaves (depending on how perfumed the basil is, at a rough proportion of four or five leaves for every garlic clove) …”

In 1944, The New York Times mentioned an imported canned pesto paste. In 1946, Sunset magazine published a pesto recipe by Angelo Pellegrini (1904 – 1991) who immigrated from Tuscany, at age 9, to the state of Washington. In 1948, he wrote The Unprejudiced Palate, an important work in the history of food literature that remains in print. Genovese pesto was not immediately embraced by the American public and did not rise in popularity until the late 1980s.

Ligurian basil is known for its mild, elegant flavor and delicate leaves. In the region, basil is grown according to DOP (denominazione d’origine protetta) standards, set in 2005, which protect the integrity of the product and emphasize its specific terroir.

Trofie Pasta

The type of pasta is also important. Linguine trenete (a thicker version of traditional linguine) or short, twisted trofie. Said to have been invented in the Ligurian seaside town of Recco when a pasta maker rubbed her hands together after kneading a batch of dough and the curled pieces that fell away became trofie. Also, remember that in Italy the pasta is dressed, not drowned, with pesto alla genovese, as with any other sauce.

Genoa native, restaurateur, and self-styled ambassador of pesto, Roberto Panizza created the Genoa Pesto World Championship in 2007 with a bunch of like-minded friends.

Held every two years, it’s a competition to promote the product and teach the world how to make it properly in a mortar with a pestle. According to the championship website: “Behind pesto is history, and art, and a quality of life.… The contest can be won by Italians or by foreigners. But above all, the winner is Pesto, a healthy, natural and democratic sauce.”

Pesto Trivia: During the G8 Summit that Genoa hosted in 2001, Silvio Berlusconi, then the prime minister, decreed that garlic be left out of the pesto served at the official lunch. Worse, he stipulated it be called “basil sauce” rather than pesto alla genovese. The locals were horrified, and protested by throwing garlic at him.

Tuscan Traveler is Back and Tuscany has Changed

Tuscan Traveler has been on hiatus for about a year and for nine months of that time Florence and Tuscany existed without change – packed with tourists, full of art and history, replete with fabulous food. Then the world turned upside down and Italy helped lead the way with Covid-19 cases, but also with testing and treatment – experiences that helped the rest of Europe and the United States. Tuscany, to date, has 9,445 cases and has lost 854 people to the virus.

Florence has been locked down since March 9, a much stricter practice than is occurring in 90% of the United States. This gave way to views of the city much more like it was 500 years ago than today. Films using drones can be found here and here. An empty Renaissance urban landscape.

Coronavirus update April 27, 2020 from the Sachi art school in Florence:

Last night, in a televised address to the nation, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte outlined Phase II of the government’s response to the Coronavirus crisis. Described as “coexisting with the virus,” Phase II will see the gradual easing of restrictions starting May 4, but there is a system in place requiring each region to inform the Ministry of Health on the curve of infections and on the success of the measures. Conte stressed that the decision to ease the restrictions could be reversed if the coronavirus epidemic shows signs of worsening again.

An update is expected in mid-May, but for now the plan is to further lift confinement measures on May 18 (retail shops, museums, libraries, and cultural sites), and then again on June 1 (bars, restaurants, hairdressers, and beauty salons). Conte confirmed that schools will not reopen until September. As of May 4, the following will be allowed:

Outdoor individual exercise (at any distance from home), keeping a social distance of 1 to 2 meters.

Takeout food from restaurants (food must be eaten at home or in the workplace)

Movement from one municipality to another, but not between different regions except for proven work-related matters, health reasons, or extraordinary circumstances

Visiting relatives (no large family gatherings or parties allowed)

Funerals with close relatives in attendance (no more than 15 people and social distancing must be kept)

Visiting public parks (local authorities will determine which parks can be opened, depending upon how feasible it is to respect health and safety measures).

Returning to one’s own home from a different region

Reopening of factories, building sites, wholesale, and real estate

Note the following restrictions:

Anyone with a fever must stay home by law

Protective masks are required on public transportation (this is a central government requirement, but local regional measures in Tuscany are currently stricter.            

Masks must always be worn when leaving your home). The price for protective masks should not exceed €0,50.

Church services remain banned

South of Tuscany

As seen worldwide, the virus moved countrywide in Italy. The main concentration originated in the north, but before the nation locked down there was a rush to the train stations by those with families in the south and the virus came too. For small hill towns like Nerola outside Rome this was especially devastating since there is no local hospital and the population is made up of older residents.

The name Nerola is probably derived from the Sabine word nero or nerio, which meant “strong” and “brave”. The inscription on the fountain in the piazza of the town hall “A Nerone tuum Nerola nomen habet” traces the origin of the name back to the Roman emperor Nero, whose ancestors had distant Sabine origins.

The Sabines divided into two populations just after the founding of Rome. The population closer to Rome transplanted itself to the new city and united with the preexisting citizenry. The second population remained a mountain tribal state, coming finally to war against Rome for its independence along with all the other Italic tribes. After losing, it became assimilated into the Roman Republic. It is in these low mountains that Nerola sits.

The town’s defining characteristic is the castle. The Castello Orsini di Nerola or Castello di Nerola is a medieval, Romanesque-style castle situated atop a hill above the town proper. The original castle likely dates to the 10th century, but documentation places the castle in the hands of the Orsini family by 1235. In that century, the outline of the castle, with merlonated walls, a moat, and towers was built. Ultimately, the castle would be sold in 1728 to Cornelia Barberini and Giulio Cesare Colonna. It was used as shelter by the Garibaldini in the 1867 attack on Rome. It now functions as a hotel and conference center.

Today, the castle presides over a town completely quarantined by the Italian government with the army moving in to enforce the order. With a population of 1,900 people, Nerola was declared a red zone in the first week of April, after 77 coronavirus cases were found, many at a local nursing home. The mayor, Sabrina Granieri, tells of the shock of the town’s residents, who were not even allowed out to shop for groceries (supplies were delivered to each home), but expressed their hope that testing of the entire population may help to inform the national response to the virus. (See interview with the mayor.)

All those who have a special affection for Florence, Tuscany and Italy, we wish that it will not be long before we can return to spend time with friends, reacquaint ourselves with favorite pieces of art, and savor that scrumptious Tuscan cuisine.