She unconsciously hummed along with the music playing in the background, humm de dum de da. It was from Milan she explained, as a smile triggered by an ancient memory flitted across her face.
The heavy wooden chopping board belonged to her mother, the cleaver had been borrowed from my mother and the basil was picked just moments before from her own garden. Ro was chopping up herbs for pesto, again, it was the third time in two weeks.
My grandmother still makes her pesto the old way. It’s the way she learned growing up, the way her mother did it for ten children, the way thousands of Sicilian women did before her.
As I watch her wash the basil in the metal scolapasta she says “It’s late in the season, you have to pick around the woody parts to get the good leaves but there is still plenty out there if you are patient“.
Her knife rolls through the fragrant herbs like an old habit and she tells me, “You have to start with a little bit at a time, you can’t just put it all on the board, it won’t turn out fine enough. Don’t use one of those blenders though, they just crush it. Pesto tastes better when you make it by hand.”
Still humming to the music she talks of how her mother would make fresh pasta each autumn. On a string stretched from one side of the big open kitchen to the other they would hang it to dry before packing it away in a cool closet for use through the winter. Her sisters would do the same thing in their kitchens years later, but Ro never made pasta…
The second youngest, and shall we say slightly rebellious, child in a family of ten Ro didn’t learn how to cook when she was young – there were more than enough older sisters doing that particular chore so she was put to work cleaning instead.
When Ro married Poppy in her early 20’s she couldn’t, as she says, “even tell the difference between a pork chop and and a ham“, although she did know how to saute onions and vegetables in olive oil… we’ll assume that one runs in the blood!
The first pie she ever made for my grandfather called for ‘starch’ in the filling and let’s just say she discovered quite quickly that ironing starch is very different to corn starch… although the former still made a beautiful looking pie, the taste left something to be desired.
However five children, a Sicilian appetite, and 1940’s and 50’s newspaper clippings meant she learned her way around a kitchen pretty quickly and almost all of our favourite family recipes come from Ro.
Over the years I’ve learned most of them by following along during summer vacation, Thanksgiving and Christmas as she whipped up various feasts.
During our last trip we spent a full two weeks at mum’s farm, it was the longest visit I’ve had in many years. It gave me an opportunity to pick grapes from the vineyard and tomatoes from the garden, drink cups of tea on the veranda, eat far too many muffins, and learn how to make Ro’s pesto.
Pesto made this way simply tastes better, it’s fresher, more fragrant, more true. Maybe it’s because it takes a bit more work, or perhaps it’s just simply the way it should be.
Ro celebrated her 88th birthday a few days ago – she’s a gorgeous thing isn’t she? Happy Birthday RoRo, I love you.
It’s times like this, standing in my own kitchen cooking a dish passed down through the generations, that remind me I need to get in gear and create a cookbook for my family. But first I need to get to Sicily…
Do you have classic family recipe? If you’ve posted it feel free to add a link to your comment. I’ve also turned this recipe into the Calendar Printable for March.
Sicilian Grandmother Basil & Walnut Pesto
Pesto made this way is fresher, more fragrant, more true. Maybe it’s because it takes a bit more work, or perhaps it’s just simply the way it should be. As my Sicilian grandmother says, “Don’t use one of those blenders, they just crush it. Pesto tastes better when you make it by hand.”
- fresh basil leaves, a large bowl worth
- garlic, 2-3 cloves
- white onion, scant 1/4 wedge
- olive oil, maybe 1/4 cup – or more, or less…
- sea salt, big pinch
- walnuts, small handful – roughly chopped
- Parmesan, small handful – grated*
- Hearty pasta noodles* – 500 g [1 lb]
- Parmesan, sea salt, extra basil leaves
Chop basil until it almost creates a paste – 8 to 10 mins. Chop onion and garlic until it almost creates a paste.
Scrape into a large bowl and drizzle in olive oil, whipping with a whisk for a couple minutes. Stir in Parmesan, walnuts, and salt to taste.
Toss through hot pasta. Serve with extra Parmesan.
Sharpen your largest knife. Make sure there are no stems in your bowl of basil leaves.
Place a handful of basil on a large board and chop roughly, repeat with another handful until all basil is roughly chopped.
Roll knife through basil for approximately 8-10 minutes, occasionally flipping and scraping into a pile until it has almost turned into a paste. When you think you’re done keep cutting for another minute. Push to edge of board.
Finely dice onion and garlic then roll through until it has almost turned into a paste. Scrape into pile of basil and chop to combine. Scrape into a large bowl.
Drizzle in olive oil while whipping mixture with a wire whisk – you’ll probably use about 1/4 c of oil, maybe more, maybe less. Whip, whip, whip for a few minutes, my grandmother insists this is very important. Stir through grated Parmesan and chopped walnuts. Add salt to taste.
Makes approx 1 1/2 c of pesto.
Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and dump hot pasta directly into pesto mixture, keeping a bit of the water aside if you want to add it later on.
Serve pesto pasta with extra Parmesan, sea salt and extra basil. Serves 4-6.
- Basil: If buying from a grocery store get two bunches of basil.
- Parmesan: To make this dairy free/vegan you could add a couple pinches of yeast flakes and a bit extra salt, I haven’t but you could…
- Pasta: I used a dry Italian pasta in a shape called ‘filei calabresi’, it cooks up very much like fresh pasta and the roll catches all the sauce, divine. To make it gluten free use an alternative grain pasta.
vegetarian // gluten free // sugar free // option for: dairy free // vegan
Laura (Tutti Dolci) says
What a beautiful story and a delicious recipe! It’s easy to see why pesto tastes so much better when made by hand. Lovely post!
Thanks Laura, it really does!
Tina @ bitemeshowme says
I’m touched by this post. Love Grandma and how she makes it old school still. I suppose that’s how they did it back then, no different now if it can still be done.
Exactly – I don’t even think she owns a food processor!
Anna @ The Littlest Anchovy says
What a beautiful post and what a precious recipe to have. The next time I make peso I am going to crush it like this.
Thanks Anna, I hope you do, it is so good
Jane @ Shady Baker says
This is a beautiful post JJ, full of colour and family memories! I will be trying this recipe soon, I have heaps of basil. All that chopping could be good weekend therapy!
haha that it is!
Claire @ Claire K Creations says
What a lovely post JJ. I can’t believe your RoRo is 88! She looks so young. I kept having to re-read to see if she was your grandma or mother! Such a beautiful recipe made even better by how lovingly it’s created.
Such a great post JJ. Just beautiful and so is your RoRo indeed.
brenda hayes says
Very nice job, and you made Ro’s day!!She has her own official copy to show her friends. She said it was the best birthday present ever!! Thank you.
Oh good 🙂
LOVE this post Jen, Ro is a beautiful lady – as are you xx
aww thanks Em xx
Aunt Cathe says
Who doesn’t LOVE Ro’s pesto!? and just spending time with her at the farm. What a lovely birthday gift. The photos really put you in the kitchen. Thanks Jen! Love you and miss you.
Oh I love this story!!! It is so touching and heart felt, the way food and family should be! I hope you do get to Sicily and discover even more food traditions.
What a beautiful lady too 🙂
LOL! my pesto bush needs picking… it is getting a little woody and has flower heads :/
Here is a recipe I grew up eating and learned the recipe from the mother of a boy I went to school with!
Oh so do I, ‘pesto bush’ – love it!!!
Peter G | Souvlaki For The Soul says
Great post JJ! Love the pics and the story. I’ve always used a processor to make pesto so seeing it made by hand is glorious! Love the recipe too!
My grandmother used to make pesto in this way too. It is a wonderful method and much more fragrant than blender pesto. Beautifully written post!
You are completely right JJ! I love this so much! I reread parts of it again and again, it’s so beautiful seeing Ro’s time-weathered, experienced hands making that finely chopped, fragrant pesto. You know, I’ve never actually had an Italian mamma explain pesto making to me but I make my pesto very similarly to this (but I do the garlic and nuts in my mortar and pestle with some chilli flakes and then add in the chopped herbs and olive oil). I will try her exact method next I time. Thanks for sharing this beautiful post with us. And yes, Ro is so beautiful, love that portrait photo of her xxx