Rocket pesto – non si fa!


Pesto di rugula con spaghetti

If you’re here for a recipe for rocket pesto – scroll down! If you’re happy to sit through a little theorising and food history – read on!

Here’s a theory. It’s probably not an original one. Britain, being an island nation, has always existed as place of immigration and trade. As such, British society has been always been informed by integrating new ideas, new tastes, new cuisine. It’s intrinsically mutable and always has been, despite what certain more conservative types might believe. Just think of how the chicken tikka massala – which isn’t Indian, but certainly didn’t have its origins in Britain – has become a British national dish.

Italy, on the other hand, is a mountain nation, with the spine of Appennines, the Alps in the north, broken only by the Po Valley. The Ancient Romans might have imposed themselves on much of the known world, and they certainly integrated foreign ideas (such as the cult of Mithras say), but by and large it was a more stringent process of integration: people became Roman, Rome didn’t change. It was the Eternal City. It still is.

The rest of Italy, meanwhile, even during the Ancient Roman period, was a place of villages and rustic poverty. It largely remained so over the centuries. People were born and died in the same village, in the same valley, eating the same food, for generations. And there’s only one way that food was made – the way nonna did it, and the way mamma did it, and the way figlie then learned to do it.

Although Italy has of course opened up, especially since il boom of the 1950s, it remains a place where traditional and convention rule supreme. And those traditions and conventions remain very regional (after all, Italy has only been a nation just over a century and a half). Radio and TV early in the 20th century, then motorways and corporate chains of supermarkets and junk-food outlets later on, may have destroyed most comparable regional variation in Britain, but not so here. They do have corporate supermarkets here, for example, but Italians are holding out better against the insidious neutralisation of regional variation we’ve seen in the UK. Mussolini might have tried to force a specific linguistic culture, for example, on Italians using new media in the 1930s, but it didin’t work. The people we buy some of our meat and dairy products from on the farmers’ market say their dialect is different to that of their closest village. They say they even argue with people from the neighbouring village about how things should be done, how certain dishes should be made.  Regions – even individual villages – are enormously proud of their traditions and their regional foods, and rightly so. Campanilismo, it’s called – an association with all things within sight of your town or village’s belltower (campanile).

Non si fa!
There’s a classic utterance in Italian: non si fa, which literally means “that’s not how one does it,” but it’s probably closer to “it’s not the done thing”. If people from neighbouring villages bat that expression back and forth between them, just think how foreigners cooking nominally Italian food are looked upon.

So I knew I was risking a non si fa when, looking in the fridge and trying to decide what to have for lunch, I hit upon using up some slightly sad looking rocket by making pesto. As pesto is made with basil. Not rocket (aka rucola, rugula and Eruca sativa). Never rocket. There are regional variations of pesto of course. But they all use basil. The classic form we know in the UK is pesto alla genovese (Genoa pesto), made with basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and Parmigiano Reggiano. Pesto alla siciliana (Sicilian pesto) includes tomato and almonds instead of pine nuts. Pesto alla calabrese is made with red peppers.

Internationally we’ve varied it in many ways. I’ve made it with nettles (Urtica dioica or similar varieties like Urtica urens) before. Nettles are a great free food, and very nutritional. It’s a good use of wild garlic (Ramsons, Allium ursinum) too, if you’re lucky enough to happen upon some. And, heck, I’m sure I’d heard of rocket pesto before. Though I suspect it must have been a recipe from back home. Jamie Oliver does mention using rocket for pesto here, calling it “slightly more American”. Though I’m not sure why rocket is any more US than UK in terms of adapting Italian cuisine. (I say adapting. An Italian would probably saying messing up, or violating, or ruining. Or would simply not recognise it as in any way related to real Italian food.) Either way, the US is an immigrant nation too, so like Britain historically has cuisine that’s had to adapt and evolve.

Anyway, rocket. Rocket is an interesting crop. I remember when it first started popping up in British supermarkets in the 1990s. It was dead trendy, right posh. Did we really not eat it before the 1990s? No, apparently not. My wife keeps telling me it was popularised as food crop by a colleague of hers, Dr Stefano Padulosi. Dottore Padulosi is an ethnobotanist who garnered the name of the “Rocket Man”. Why? Because when he worked for the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute he noticed rocket growing among the ruins of Pompeii – so the story goes. How apocryphal it is, I don’t know – and initiated a program to encourage its consumption. (IPGRI is now Bioversity. Part of its remit is to encourage the use of food crops marginalised by the increased intensification of agriculture through the 20th century.)

The Ancient Romans (them again) had eaten its leaves and seed, the latter being considered good for the production of, er, male seed. Though the same source mentions how the early Catholic Church tried to suppress its cultivation because of its dirty, dirty aphrodisiac association. So apparently, by the late 20th century it was one of those marginalised food crops. Outside Italy it was basically unknown. So we have Dottore Padulosi and his colleagues and their work to thank for introducing us to this plant, for popularising it internationally. Rocket is not only delicious in its pepperiness, it’s easy to grow and it’s also nutritionally rich. It’s a great source of vitamins A and C, folates, calcium and iron, among other goodies.

So the idea of making pesto out of rocket seems like a good idea – it’s tasty, it’s inexpensive, it munges up nicely in a blender.

Here’s my recipe. It’s flexible.

3 good handfuls of rocket/rugula/rucola/roquette (you could also use wild rocket, Diplotaxis tenuifolia, a similar species but from a different genus)
1 clove of garlic
80g (approx) pine nuts, lightly toasted
60g (approx) pecorino (You should probably use Parmigiano-Reggiano, but hey, it’s not like this is an authentic recipe. Use whichever you prefer or have in your fridge! I liked the idea of the sweeter pecorino in tandem with the pepperiness)
2-3 good slugs of extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Whizz the whole lot up in a food processor. Add oil to get a thick but not runny consistency. Season to taste.

If you’re old school, you could use a (large) mortar and pestle, with the cheese pre-grated and the leaves coarsely chopped.

Making it with a pestle would have a nice poetry to it, as the word pestle has its roots in the Latin pistillum, which is from pistus, the past participle of pīnsere, the verb to pound, crush. The word pesto itself comes from the Italian verb pestare – also to pound, to crush, from the same roots.

So get pounding and crushing! Unless of course you consider it non si fa.

Addedum, 19 October 2012:
Last night a Sicilian friend said her mother used to make pesto with rocket, and it was perfectly si fa.

Addendum 2, 11 January 2013:
My ignorance increasingly shines through when I look back at my old posts; but that’s ok. Blogging is a process of self-education as much as anything else.
Anyway, I’ve just read John Dickie’s excellent history of Italy and its food, Delizia. It has a lot of interesting stuff about pesto and what it can contain. “Genovese pesto today is a pulp of basil, leaves, cheese, garlic, pine nuts and olive oil. But according to the earliest dictionary definition, which was published in 1844, pesto was a condiment made fom a pounded mixture of garlic, oil, cheese and either basil or parsley or marjoram. Pine nuts were not mentioned. Neither was pasta. In 1844, it seems, pesto was a flavouring most often used in soup.” [Note the closely related southern French pistou still is a flavouring most used in soup.] The book has loads of other interesting things to say about how pesto alla genovese has evolved and how the version that’s deemed most “traditional” – with local Genovese basil, pine nuts etc – has only really been codified relatively recently.


Filed under Food misc, Rome

2 responses to “Rocket pesto – non si fa!

  1. Fran the wife

    What’s the opposite of non si fa? Si fa? This is delicious and has a beautiful deep green colour which makes it more appetising. Although I have to say, the nettle pesto you made using nettles from the wastelands of South London was pretty good too.
    What’s this Bioversity place of which you speak? It sounds like it’s full of excellent people doing excellent work promoting the use of biodiversity in agriculture for a sustainable future.

  2. I’m sure Fran the Wife is correct, that this Bioversity place is full of interesting people, including, indeed, Stefano Padulosi who would tell you, I’m sure, that it was a small boy, wandering the ruins of Pompeii, that he encountered rocket, the memory staying with him until he had a chance to reinvigorate the sector.

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