The taste test: pesto sauces

Pesto’s ingredients are simple: fresh basil, Parmesan cheese, pine nuts, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and salt. Supermarkets and delis all now offer this classic Ligurian sauce. We’ve been tasting them and it’s not a pretty story. But first, the panel. You may recall that, two weeks ago, the Lebanese Gastronaut (LG) came out as an aficionado of Italian extra virgin. Since this oil is fundamental to pesto we invited her back. She arrived with a gift of her own pesto recipe which was slipped into the blind tasting without her knowledge. Joining her were the Epicure Publisher (EP), the Gourmet Celeb (GC), the Discerning Litigator (DL) and the Gluttonous Pig (GP).

The ingredients on a food packet have to be listed in a hierarchy of volume, from the most to the least. If, on a pesto product, you see the essential “extra virgin olive oil” listed last or not at all you should worry. Seggiano did well in our extra virgin tasting last time, so it’s a pity they didn’t see fit to put any of it into their Raw Basil Pesto. It merely lists “olive oil” and also has cashew nuts largely replacing pine nuts. Morrisons’ Italian Deli Pesto was a grade below, only able to afford rapeseed oil and “medium fat cheese” with a little bit of pecorino thrown in. This did not go down well: “unacceptable” (LG).

Further below these came Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Pesto Alla Genovese. We could indeed taste the difference between this and decent pesto. Although the ingredients were comparatively authentic, the basil seemed old and chewy: “like dead grass in engine oil” (GC). From this emerged our clearest piece of advice – don’t buy pesto in glass jars. Of our bottom 10 products, eight were in jars. Carluccio’s Pesto Genovese: “over-vegetative” (EP). Asda’s Extra Special Italian Pesto Alla Genovese: “medieval mint sauce” (GC).

We did eventually find a few to recommend. Third came Tesco Finest Pesto with Green Basil. It had more extra virgin than vegetable oil, Grana Padano cheese and used lemon juice as its preservative: “decent pesto” (EP). Second was Purely Pesto, made by an enterprising young company in Suffolk: “rough-hewn but authentic” (GP). Two freshly made deli pestos performed well too, from Lina Stores and the reassuringly named Giacobazzi, both in London.

Our clear winner was another fresh pesto – LG’s confection. Interestingly, she omits the cheese, adding Parmesan afterwards. It seems wrong to leave this respected food writer’s work unattributed. So, just this once, we’ve tucked her name in at the top of the recipe.

Nada Saleh’s pesto

60g fresh basil leaves

45g pine nuts

6g organic garlic

pinch Maldon sea

salt flakes

4-4½ tspns extra virgin olive oil

Place all ingredients in a food processor and blend for about 50 seconds to reach a smooth texture. Taste and adjust the salt and oil if necessary. Place in a sealed container and refrigerate.

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