Lore in a Vessel
By Sandra A. Gutierrez
If one could save the taste of summer in a vessel, it would undoubtedly be found in a jar of pesto. Pesto is the thick, uncooked, Italian sauce made with basil and so rich in texture and flavor, that it captures the absolute essence of the hot summer months.
Pesto represents the perfect marriage of pungent flavors; its sumptuous taste obtained from the amalgamation of sweet green basil leaves, plump garlic cloves, spicy pine nuts, and sharp Parmigiano-Reggiano is gutsy and potent. Pesto is a merger of flavors transformed into a creamy luxury, a sensuous emulsification; the resulting love child born from an affair consummated between an overpowering herbal base and the liquid gold of the Mediterranean—olive oil.
Not a taste for the faint hearted, this Genovese born condiment is a testament to those with strong, bold, audacious, and daring palates. A dollop of pesto is enough to transform a simple bowl of pasta into a sensuous gourmet delight. But there is more than flavor behind a bottle of pesto. This is a sauce built upon legends.
Basil, the quintessential herb of summer and member of the mint family, is surrounded by lore. Its name originates from the Greek word “basileus” or “king”. One legend tells that basil was discovered by Saint Helena in the mountains of Jerusalem, where she arrived in search of the Holy Cross. It is told that she stopped by a barren hill on which a single and sweet smelling plant grew strong. So powerful was the scent of the tiny green leaves, that she had it dug out; burried under it, she found the divine treasure she had been seeking for. Saint Helena is believed to be responsible for restoring the cross as a holy symbol of Christian worship.
This aromatic herb, reminiscent of cloves, lavender and anise, was the inspiration for many authors. John Keats did not escape basil’s scented muse. In his gothic poem Isabella or The Pot of Basil, he wrote about a young woman who after discovering the slain body of her lover, buried his head in a pot of basil and watered it with her tears. The plot thickens as upon making the gruesome discovery of Isabella’s secret, her brothers—the actual murderers—steal her basil pot and escape from Florence, where Isabella is left to go mad.
Of course, garlic is the king of legends. During the Dark Ages, garlic was said to ward off the “evil-eye” and to frighten vampires; it was also believed to ward off the black plague. On a lighter note, no one said it better than Tomas Nashe, the sixteenth century author of “The Unfortunate Traveler”, when he wrote: “Garlicke hath properties that make a man winke, drinke and stinke.”
Olive oil itself is formidably surrounded by legends and beliefs. Greeks believed olive oil was the gift from Athena to the mortals of Attica—hence the name of the city of Athens. Ancient Romans exalted its curative and calming powers—thus offering olive branches as a symbol of peace. Middle Eastern civilizations used olive oil for its restorative powers and Eastern civilizations embalmed their dead with it. Olive oil burned the nights away during ancient times--the most famous example celebrated during Hannukah when the Maccabi burnt a small amount of oil for seven days and seven nights. In the Bible, the Archangel Gabriel promised Adam that if he drank oil it would " cure your pain and all sickness".
Cheese was of course a child of happenstance, born when milk soured during long travels and produced delicious curds that sustained the appetite. Every civilization that managed to domesticate mammals subsisted on some form of fresh cheese or another, usually kept in brines or wrapped in leaves. These ancient methods for producing cheese have survived to date and many civilizations today still use them, having mantained the basics of the techniques for making cheese--albeit their humble beginnings--and allowing them to travel through time without much evolution. Modernization has transformed the way some people make cheese; thankfully, the rennaisance of sustainable farming has brought many of these original methods back to the forefront. Humankind still has feta, queso fresco, farmer’s cheese and buffalo mozzarella, direct descendants from the glorious past of cheese.
There are also plenty of mentions of cheese in literature. From Job, to Beck, to Shakespeare, to Elliot, cheese has played if not the principal, at least a secondary character in literary works from books as varied as the Bible, and children’s literature stories such as Heidi. James Beard, the late food writer of the twentieth century, wrote that “Cheese is probably the friendliest of foods. It endears itself to everything and never tires of showing off to great advantage.”
So as you set off to collect the ingredients that will be transformed into this delicious green sauce, think of the history—both the real and the imagined—that has found its way into a jar of pesto. Upon tasting the first bite of your pesto-enhanced meal, take in its flavor with all of your senses and allow yourself to be awed.
Copyright ©Sandra A. Gutierrez, 2007; All Rights Reserved.
8 cloves garlic
1 cup Pine nuts
6 c. packed fresh Basil leaves
¾ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
¾ cup Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 Tbsp. Olive oil
In the bowl of a food processor or in a blender, pulse the garlic until chopped finely. Add the pine nuts and pulse 2-4 times, or until they are chopped roughly. Add the whole basil leaves into the mixture and process while at the same time, adding the olive oil through the feeding tube, in a very thin stream. Continue adding the oil and processing until the mixture has become a thin, light green paste. Remove the basil mixture from the processor and place it into a medium-sized bowl. Add the grated cheese and fold it into the pesto. Transfer the pesto into a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Drizzle the remaining 2 Tbsp. of the oil over the entire surface of the pesto. Refrigerate for up to 1 month—constantly replenishing the olive oil surface. This recipe yields about 3 ½ cups.
Copyright ©Sandra A. Gutierrez, 2007; All Rights Reserved.