In India, basil or tulasi as it is referred to in the local language, invokes a definite image of sanctity that is often incorporated into the architectural design of traditional houses where it might be grown in a separate pedestal in the center of a courtyard as a symbol of worship. This is one species of basil appropriately referred to as o.sanctum or holy basil that has also had medicinal uses since ancient times.
One day at work, many years ago, a friend gave me a plastic bag full of recently picked basil along with a small white card that had instructions on how to make a sauce out of it. That of course was Italian basil, a species that enjoys protected designation of origin status when grown in Genoa. Pesto in Italian literally means “I pound”, a unique way of celebrating how a sauce is prepared, that to me, especially in the summer, has continued to be a revelation as to what basil can do. Below is a method to prepare pesto:
Pine nuts (or pignoli as they are referred to in Italian): Using around 1/4 cup of sautéed nuts to 2 packed cups of basil is a good starting proportion.
Hard cheese, preferably Parmigiano reggiano (freshly grated)
Garlic (small piece)
Olive oil (good quality whose flavor is not too strong)
Coarse sea salt
To a mortar, add some coarse sea salt, garlic, and pine nuts and pound the mixture using a pestle into a paste. Add basil leaves in small quantities and pound to form a dry green mixture. Adjust the proportion of ingredients to taste. When the desired amount of pounding has been done – and this seems to proceed effortlessly while having a conversation, and a drink – add a gentle stream of olive oil while continuing to pound and grind until a thick creamy consistency is reached. Add enough cheese and mix to get a richer, more solid consistency. Pesto thus formed is best used immediately, if not it oxidises and loses flavor pretty easily, even when stored in the refrigerator. However, freezing it in ice-cube trays like my friend suggested, and then storing the cubes in an air tight freezer box extends the shelf life to an extent. Making pesto using a food processor or blender can be delicious, but the flavor extraction (pounding and grinding versus cutting/chopping and blending), and the ability to regulate texture are variables in comparison to using the mortar and pestle. Is the extra time and effort worth it? Maybe some of the time?
There are many types of fragrant herbs used in the kitchen, and each of them has a distinct botanical name. However, from the standpoint of taxonomy, I cannot think of any herb besides basil where the name of the genus, ocimum, is a testament to the fragrance of the plant whether it is viewed religiously (ocimum sanctum) or royally (ocimum basilicum - where basilicum derives from Greek to mean king1). Neither can I think of a sauce besides pesto that conceives of incorporating the flavor and fragrance of a herb into a simple emulsion of nut-oils and olive oil, in the process, opening up many other possible variations of this concept.
1. Basil. An herb society of America guide.