A’Mare’s mortar is a thing of beauty. It’s made from a whopping 30 kilograms of marble from Massa-Carrara, a province in Tuscany, Italy, in a town south of the port city of La Spezia. The hefty fellow sits snug in a timber trolley that is rolled to your table when you order the signature pesto pasta. The mortar’s partner in crime comes too – a handmade pestle crafted from beechwood sourced in Alto Adige, in Italy’s north.
And what a glorious moment it is when the trolley arrives because you’re about to get a ringside pesto-making performance that culminates in you eating some of the best pesto you’ll ever encounter.
It’s also a how-to guide on perfecting pesto alla Genovese, the immensely popular bright and energetic sauce that hails from Genoa. The one take away after watching the experts do it at this elegant Sydney Italian restaurant is that not all pesto is equal.
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The difference between a just-okay one and a superb one starts with a little elbow grease. Keep your food processor in the cupboard and instead pound your way to glory. “Whatever you do, don’t use an electric mixer – it will burn and oxidise the pesto,” says A’Mare chef-owner, Alessandro Pavoni.
There are a couple of other ways of avoiding oxidisation too, starting with making sure you make pesto at the very last minute. “Literally while the pasta is cooking because fresh is best. You should also add the basil at the very end to to keep it as green and flavoursome as possible. Using marble helps the basil against oxidation too, and keeps the natural flavours and aromas. Using the biggest mortar you can also keeps the pesto paste as cold as possible,” he says.
And like most successful cooking adventures, you need to use quality ingredients – “that’s fundamental,” Pavoni says. He suggests using baby basil leaves because they’re the sweetest, and “my secret ingredient at A’Mare is that I utilise a blend of pine nuts and macadamia nuts,” he says.
Pavoni also removes the core of the garlic, or the germ. “Ever since I was an apprentice, I’ve been removing the core of the garlic. The core upsets your digestion; removing it seems to be better for everyone. My first chef taught me that and I’ve never changed my habit.”
While the internet has lots of discussion about the benefits of removing the core, essentially it comes down to the fact that as garlic ages, it turns green and becomes bitter.
This should make about 230 grams of pesto, enough to cover about three serves of pasta.
A’Mare’s signature pesto
Serves 3 (makes about 230 grams)
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Pasta of your choice, about 90-100g per person (the restaurant serves its pesto with trofie)
For the pesto:
20g pine nuts
90g extra virgin olive oil
If you’re serving the pesto with pasta, fill a large pot with water, add lots of salt and, when the water is boiling, add your pasta and cook to al dente.
For the pesto, preheat the oven to 130°C.
Meanwhile, remove the core from the garlic and discard, then blanch the garlic in cold water 3 times. Place the macadamia and pine nuts on a perforated tray and toast them in the oven for 20 minutes. Grate and combine the pecorino and parmesan.
In your mortar, add the garlic and the toasted pine and macadamia nuts and start pounding the ingredients. Hammer down your pestle and finish with a circular movement. Once the nuts and garlic become a paste, add salt and basil (salt will help crush the basil). You want to hammer the ingredients, move the pestle in a circular movement then scrape down the ingredients into the mortar and repeat. It will take a little while to form a paste.
Once all the ingredients are perfectly smashed, add the cheeses to the mortar and mix. Cheese will help the pesto become creamy.
When it’s combined, add the extra virgin olive oil very gently, and mix with a spoon. The oil will help prevent the oxidation of the pesto. The pesto is now ready.
When the pasta is ready, drain it and add to the mortar (if your mortar isn’t big enough, you can use a bowl). Mix through the pesto, making sure you combine every bit of sauce. Get your plate and spoon out and enjoy the pasta. Buon appetito.
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