Posted by: lizlitzow | February 26, 2011

Beautiful Basil

you can almost smell it

Basil has an old history and has been around for over a thousand years. Basil was sought after for many reasons, infusions made from the leaves were said to relieve pain and fatigue, while its essential oils were used in the production of perfumes and liqueurs.

Italy’s most famous basil is grown in Genova. The variety is actually known as “genovese” and is characterised by small to medium-sized leaves, oval in shape and bright green in colour. It has a delicate flavour with none of the minty aftertaste associated with varieties grown in other parts of Italy.

The best basil is produced in a very small area which stretches from Voltri to Pra on the right bank of the Leira just to the west of the city of Genova. The basil from Pra remains a niche product, constantly in demand from quality restaurants and other discerning customers who are prepared to pay a premium for a bunch of this fresh basil.

Production demands constant attention all year round, seven days a week. The young plants are raised in heated polytunnels, clearly visible from the autostrada which crosses Genova. Cultivation is carried out in precisely defined stages.

The harvest takes place while the plants are still young, their leaves small and tender. The method of selecting the plants is tiring and very unusual. Those involved in the harvest stretch out on wooden boards placed a few centimetres above the ground, on the pipes which heat the polytunnels. In this position they select and thin out those plants which are mature enough, allowing the ones which remain to grow further and enjoy more light. They are then prepared for the market.

The recipe for pesto only goes back as far as 1863, around the time of Italian unification.  Pesto is easy to make and will be better than most prepackaged offerings. An exception to this is the bottle of pesto we bought at Portovenere at a pesto specialist. It was heavenly. If you can’t make it to Portovenere try this at home.

This will make enough pesto for 4 – 6 servings of pasta. It can be made in a food processor, but using a mortar and pestle will give a better result. You will need –  about 120 grams basil leaves, 25 grams pinenuts, 2 cloves of garlic, peeled, and a pinch of coarse salt.

make your own pesto

Put the ingredients into the mortar and crush to a paste with the pestle. It is easy, don’t be scared. My mortar was a bit small, so I added the basil leaves in batches.

I think a mortar and pestle is better than a food processor

Once you are happy with the paste, work in 50 grams of freshly grated parmesan cheese. Then gradually add 120 ml olive oil, working thoroughly with a wooden spoon until it is smooth and creamy. It will keep in the fridge for a week if stored in a covered jar. I’ll bet it won’t last that long, it is too delicious.

yummy pesto

The use of basil is  not restricted to pesto. It is the perfect ingredient for adding to bruschetta, pizzas, mozzarella, tomatoes and fresh salads. Basil leaves are very tender and bruise easily, so it is better to tear them with your fingers than to cut them with a knife.

Click here to see lovely Portovenere and the pesto shop.


  1. You know what? I’ve made this a million times and never bothered (or succeeded) in understanding how to describe the quantities, as I do it more or less on my faulty instincts. (In other words, it doesn’t always turn out the same way.) So I’m really glad to have this, which I will definitely share with friends who ask.

    • I’m sure you could fiddle with the quantities and it would still be good.

  2. I adore pesto. It’s such a handy thing to have, and can jazz up so many dishes.
    Interesting to hear more of the humble basil plant.

    • I love it too. It has such a fresh taste.

  3. I have a pot of supermarket basil sitting on the windowsill pretending to be homegrown right at this moment! I am sure this is what I was going to do with it too… thanks for a lovely description of the process. Heretically I sometimes make pesto style sauce with rocket (arugula) when I can’t get basil, it’s very good too x

    • Rocket pesto is deliciuous. I know it is not traditional, but who cares? In this area they do a cavolo nero pesto as a sauce for pasta. It is excellent.

  4. Yum. Can smell it from here.

    • I love basil, the look of it, the smell, the taste – yum.

  5. Basil pesto is a staple here in summer, I made it tonight in fact & tossed it with some pasta, beautiful, its the smell of summer itself isn’t it.

    • It is just lovely, I can’t believe I have taken this long to make it. I will never go back to buying it – except at Portovenere.

  6. Oh, I can smell it already! LOL
    It looks so delicious Liz!

    Anyway, we have kind of mortar and pestle, a traditional one made from a dark stone, but very wide like plate even wider, various size actually.. we call: cobek (mortar) and ulekan (pestle), and most of people here still use them to process some food to get an “original” taste, even though now they start use blender, but they believe the taste should be different.. I think that almost the same case with you above 🙂

    Oh, I am left by so many posts here. I promise to come back, and check them tomorrow. I have bad internet this time. Thanks!

    • Thank you for visiting. I think the cobek and ulekan would be better than a blender.

  7. Thanks to all the great comments on our basil story. A bunch of basil on the kitchen bench, apart from looking and smelling divine, is said to keep flies away. After the floods, we here in New Farm have been inundated with flies, so instead of using a fly spray I am about to give basil a go!!! It is also gorgeous in the salad with fresh mozzerela di bufala, tomato and basil with a beautiful olive oil. Enjoy….

  8. Fresh basil! I spend a week or so each year in Riomaggiore, in the Cinque Terre region. Nothing’s better than going to the local COOP and buying a bunch of just picked basil. It is sold in the store wrapped in wet newspaper with the roots and soil still intact. I know the local farmer who brings it into the the store and ususally can see him picking his crops across the valley every morning. Basil, some fresh tomatoes and mozzarella with a drizzle of olive oil makes the most wonderful “capresi.” Fresh from Luguria is special.

    • That certainly is a great area for basil, and buying from the farmer is very special – lucky you.

  9. Basil promotes apetite! Another version is to substitute the pinenuts with walnuts as I learned many years ago in Milan. It is so wickedly addictive, I just love it!

    • It would be delicious with walnuts, I’ll have to try it.

  10. Yummm! I can smell that pesto all the way here! And now I know what to do with all the basil plants we’ve got growing in our herb barrel – thank you for the recipe. 🙂

    • Lucky you having basil growing. Bugs ate all of mine in Brisbane and it is too cold here to grow it yet.

      • I had that problem with the ‘annual’ basil I got from the nursery originally. Once I switched to ‘perennial’ basil, though, I’ve found that it is one of the easiest herbs to grow… at least in my garden.

        I tend to break off a long-ish shoot complete with leaves, and just stick it in the ground (no rooting powder), dig in a handful of compost, water it in well, and they usually take root. I’ve given loads away to friends that way.

        Thyme, on the other hand, dies all the time. I think it might be a herbal hint that my usual wail of “I don’t have enough time!” is in fact quite correct. 😉

      • I think with any herb it’s position and soil. In our previous place I grew amazing herbs – the dill grew like a tree and the Thai basil (usually difficult to grow) sprang up everywhere. I was giving away armfulls of herbs & making bottles of pesto, but in our next place – I can’t even grow basil & if it looks like doing ok, the possums eat it!!!!

        Sent from my iPad

  11. I can practically inhale the basil just from the photos!

    • Basil has the most divine smell.

  12. I love basil, love its aroma and taste. Most of the time I add to the meals either fresh or dried basil. But the pesto basil is one exquisite sauce, love it with spaghetti and on pizzas.

    • Pesto is one of my favourite things to eat.

  13. Last year I planted along with basil some ‘boxwood basil’. Tiny tiny leaves that are very tender. I stripped them and sprinked on bruschetta-no need to cut. Has anyone seen this is Italy?

    • Those tiny leaves are wonderful, I don’t cut them either. Basil is used in dozens of ways in Italy in summer – so delicious.

    • I think the basil with the tiny leaves is Greek basil & is slightly different in flavor but still divine. A bunch of basil in water on the table in summer is thought to keep the flies away – it’s beautiful fragrance would be great even if it were not so.

      Sent from my iPad

  14. […] pasta will depend almost entirely on how good the pesto is. You can make your own – click here to see some information on lovely basil and a pesto recipe – or, if you are really lucky, you […]

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