Pesto - Origin of the iconic sauce!

Even if Pesto is one of the best known icon of Italian food in the world, not all people know the roots and the traditions that, in 2018, led to this wonderful sauce being nominated as a Unesco intangible heritage.

Special ingredients and tools

Typical of Liguria, a region in the north-western part of the Belpaese, the sauce, through its peculiar ingredients, tells us a lot about the land and the city, Genoa, gave it birth. Basil, Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino, extra-virgin olive oil, pine nuts, garlic, are indeed all typical products of this territory and of those from neighboring regions. There is also another element, though, that makes Pesto special: the traditional process used for its preparation. In fact, in order to give it the correct taste and flavor, it’s necessary the use of marble mortar and wooden pestle.

Receipt and preparation

Before we deepen its history and the legend attributed to its origin, though, we would give the opportunity to the amateur cooks among our readers to learn how to recreate this wonderful sauce directly in their homes. Below you will find the real and authentic receipt of Pesto genovese:


  • place two cloves of garlic and a few grains of salt in a marble mortar and pound with a wooden pestle to a creamy consistency;
  • add a handful of pine nuts and continue to crush with the pestle;
  • add a few basil leaves at a time and continue to pound in a gentle rotating motion;
  • Finally, add the two types of cheese and the extra virgin olive oil. Pesto is now ready to taste!

Within legend and reality: history and origins of Pesto

The legend tells that the well-known sauce was casually realized for the first time by the hands of a friar who lived on the heights of Genoa. It would appear that the monk was searching for herbs in the vicinity of the monastery and that, once in the kitchen, he added some ingredients (pine nuts, walnuts and cheese) received as an offering from the visiting believers. Both the herb and the monastery were named in honour of Saint Basilium.


For all the charm of the legend, however, it seems that the origins of Pesto are actually much older and less random than this story would have us believe. First of all, some historians even trace its origins back to the ancient Romans. During the Roman Empire, there is evidence of a green sauce called “moretum”, which was made with cheese, garlic and herbs. The preparation and use of this sauce was so widespread that it was even described in a poem attributed to the famous Virgil.

Later, and more precisely during the Middle Ages, another ancestor of Pesto appeared in the Ligurian region: ‘Agliata’, a sauce made from walnuts and garlic (‘aglio’ in Italian). Genoa was a great maritime power, one of the four maritime republics, and most of the population lived off this type of economy. Although the sauce was used by the entire population, it would seem that it was particularly popular among seafarers to prevent the many diseases caused by the poor hygienic conditions of long sea voyages.


After all these curiosities about Pesto, it’s time to get down to business, or rather, as a true Italian would say, “è ora di mettere le mani in pasta” (literally, to put your hands in pasta)! Follow our receipt, make your home made Pesto and let us know how it tastes!


How to Make Homemade Pesto?

The Italian Language School (ILS), owned by the Singapore Italian Association Limited, a no-profit and non goverantive Italian Association, every 2 weeks delivers Italian language courses run by qualified Italian mother tongue teachers. Courses online and at the ILS venue at walking distance from Dhoby Ghaut, Somerset and Orchard Road MRT stations, and each class includes 4-8 students.