There is more than one way to skin a cat, or make a pesto as the case may be, discovers Katy Fentress as she talks to some experts.
“I have never bought a store made pesto in my life and given that pasta with pesto is something that we eat once a week, over the eight years I have lived in Kenya I have definitely come up with some delicious variations made with locally-sourced ingredients”.
We are talking to Maria Grazia Pellegrino, the owner of the newly opened Upendo Pizza at the Yard in Westlands. The conversation has just moved to that Italian staple pasta sauce: pesto. Maria Grazia has two children and their insatiable appetite for pesto has provided her with ample opportunities to fine-tune a classic recipe that symbolises Italian’s love for all things delicate, delicious and creamy.
The word pesto is derived from the Italian word “pestare”, which means “to pound, or crush”. The first thought most people have when they think of pesto is of the classic Genovese (from the Northern Italian port of Genova) pesto which is made up of pine nuts, basil, parmesan and olive oil. The truth, however, is that up and down Italy there are a good handful of variations on the traditional recipe and, as Italian food and culture has spread across the world, people have happily lapped up the idea and given it a twist of their own.
Here in Kenya, the Mombasa-based company Jars of Goodness specialises in making six different types of pesto which include their popular sun dried tomato variety and coriander, mint, pistachio and olive ones too. Jars of Goodness are about as close to a store-bought homemade pesto as you can get in this country and if you do come across them—unfortunately the only stockist in Nairobi is Monty’s at Sarit Centre—they come highly recommended.
“My business started small and I initially limited myself to making jams” says Neelma Malde, the owner of Jars of Goodness, when we reach out to her over the phone to find out more about her pesto line. “When I began selling the products, I realised I needed to keep on coming up with new flavours and as I loved making pesto for myself and grow some of the ingredients I need for it in my shamba, I began to create an exclusive line”.
Neelma has noticed that there is definitely a growing desire for pesto amongst her customers and says people are increasingly asking her for advice on recipes and serving suggestions. “Pasta isn’t the only thing that benefits from a generous serving of pesto” she points out and she isn’t wrong. You can spread it on bread as part of a cheese and ham sandwich, drip it over a focaccia, smother your baked potatoes in it or dollop it into a minestrone… Whatever way you choose, you will not go home sad!
“Where I come from in Sicily we don’t actually make pesto Genovese so much,” Maria Grazia tells us. “Our traditional pesto is called Pesto Trapanese (from Trapani a port on the Western side of the island) and it is made by pounding together garlic, fresh tomatoes, almonds and basil. Another popular Sicilian variation is a pistachio pesto but it isn’t actually a pasta sauce and more something you dollop on top of a creamy pancetta pasta”.
Maria Grazia, who has not yet begun serving a pesto pizza but says if the demand is there she might end up doing it, recognises that her Kenyan friends are no longer satisfied with the low grade Italian industrial pestos that are available at supermarkets and are looking into making their own. When it comes to knocking up an unforgettable homemade pesto, she encourages people to give it a try as it is a pretty straightforward process. “Don’t worry about using a pestle and mortar,” she advises, “sure, that’s the more traditional way but if you stick all your ingredients in a blender the results will still be delicious and it will be ready in a tenth of the time”.
Maria Grazia maintains a more traditional approach to her Pesto Genovese although she sometimes makes the odd tweak here and there replacing pine nuts with toasted almonds and cashews and experimenting with a rocket leaf pesto variation. Neelma’s offerings instead are reflective of the variety of ingredients we have here in Kenya. Neelma uses cashew nuts in her coriander version but sticks to pine nuts for the Genovese, saying she feels it doesn’t taste quite right without them. She does however confess to using Kenyan parmesan because, she says, Italian parmesan would make it cost too much for her customers.
“Do I replace Italian parmesan for Kenyan?” Maria Grazia looks up from the question laughing. “Sometimes when I don’t have any Italian I do, although I would prefer you not tell anyone! But no, seriously… it’s fine to replace it but it’s probably best to mix it up with some pecorino and other hard cheeses to keep in creamy and flavoursome”.