Mor­tar the point

The Weekend Australian - Life - - FOOD & WINE - JOHN LETH­LEAN leth­lean@theaus­

I woke in a fog. The mo­bile, fuzzy, dream­like state fol­low­ing a solid sleep that be­gan only af­ter 5am and ended be­yond the sec­ond tap on “snooze”. About two hours later. The hours that pre­ceded that bliss­ful sur­ren­der? A kind of semi­con­scious nether-world that kicked in around mid­night.

Raw gar­lic. Raw, home­grown gar­lic, to be pre­cise, a ver­sion of my favourite al­lium with extra horse­power.

I al­ways think I’ll get away with it but usu­ally don’t: for me, apart from be­ing an al­most es­sen­tial com­po­nent of any­thing I put in my mouth bar tooth­paste, gar­lic in its raw form is also a se­ri­ous stim­u­lant, truly a case of plea­sure and pain. And I’d just main­lined too much, a com­bi­na­tion of im­ma­ture zeal.

Why don’t I trust recipes when it comes to an­chor notes such as gar­lic, an­chovy, chilli — and re­dis­cov­ered pas­sion? For pesto.

Put your hand up if pesto — clas­sic basil and pine nut pesto alla Genovese, not your new­fan­gled vari­a­tions — was one of the first things you ever “cooked”.

I reckon that’s about half Aus­tralia’s baby boomers right there, a broad de­mo­graphic I have trou­ble iden­ti­fy­ing with for rea­sons of van­ity and denial.

Pesto got spun more times than Cul­ture Club in the 1980s when a lot of peo­ple my vin­tage first dab­bled in the kitchen. It was a simple thing that re­lied on cor­rect pro­ce­dure, a par­tic­u­lar tool and qual­ity in­gre­di­ents. Oh, and time. Lots of pound­ing and ro­tat­ing with a pes­tle. In a mor­tar.

Trou­ble is, the in­gre­di­ents weren’t al­ways that easy to pro­cure, the pro­ce­dure was time-con­sum­ing and be­cause we hadn’t yet heard of slow food, we all thought elec­tric ma­chines a ma­jor pro­gres­sion from the Stone Age. So cor­ners in­evitably were cut.

A lot of Aus­tralian pesto circa 1985 was made with aw­ful basil, a hard, salty Aus­tralian cheese mar­keted as

parme­san (but self-ev­i­dently not), tired olive oil, im­ported gar­lic and ran­cid pine nuts. In a food pro­ces­sor.

No won­der the stuff in the jar took off in su­per­mar­kets be­fore too long and ended up in packet pasta meals on shelves made in fac­to­ries owned by multi­na­tion­als; it was hor­ri­ble, but marginally bet­ter than that garbage-in, garbage-out home ver­sion.

The real deal, as I re­dis­cov­ered re­cently at a res­tau­rant in Syd­ney where they made it at the ta­ble with beau­ti­ful in­gre­di­ents — by hand — is as good as it al­ways was. Ab­so­lutely sub­lime.

An emul­sion of gar­lic and salt, qual­ity basil, parmi­giano reg­giano, pecorino, un­toasted pine nuts and fruity olive oil. That’s all, but that’s ev­ery­thing.

With firm, de­cent pasta such as penne or stroz­za­preti (ev­ery Ital­ian will have a view on which is the ap­pro­pri­ate shape, but I’m Aus­tralian and re­ally don’t have the energy to get hung up on that sort of thing) and a lit­tle of the starchy cook­ing water to loosen the emul­sion, it re­mains just a won­der­ful, creamy, ol­fac­tory blast of a com­pan­ion to the world’s most es­sen­tial starch. And it’s so easy.

First, grow some basil. And gar­lic, which you will hang to dry for a few months.

When that’s done, buy your­self a big mor­tar and pes­tle set from an Asian gro­cery where they sell for sen­si­ble prices, some qual­ity cheese (two types, parmi­giano and pecorino) and pine nuts (did you know we don’t pro­duce pine nuts in this coun­try be­cause of those bloody cock­a­toos?). Plus, since it’s a fun­da­men­tal com­po­nent of the “sauce” and shouldn’t be skimped on, the best and fresh­est Aus­tralian olive oil you can af­ford. It’s then just a mat­ter of fol­low­ing the pro­ce­dure. By hand. A pro­ces­sor is ac­cept­able but will pro­duce an un­wanted bit­ter­ness when what you re­ally want is fra­grance. Mash the gar­lic with a lit­tle salt, add the basil, then the grated cheeses and pine nuts and, fi­nally, the oil. That’s it.

Google “Lu­cio’s pesto” and you can save your­self the cost of his book, al­though I’d ar­gue The Art of Pasta is worth ev­ery cent to have it on your shelf.

So why did this sta­ple from my 20s-30s fall out of the reper­toire? Too many bad meals with crappy pesto added to ev­ery­thing from quiche to sal­ads? Busy years with a young fam­ily when con­ve­nience ruled? Or too many bad nights fol­low­ing an ex­cess of raw gar­lic? I sus­pect it was the lat­ter. I found this on­line: “If you have low-grade headache or at­ten­tion-deficit dis­or­der then take off gar­lic from your meals for a min­i­mum two to three weeks to mon­i­tor the im­pact. If you feel the dif­fer­ence af­ter three weeks then con­sider low­er­ing or elim­i­nat­ing onion and gar­lic from your diet.” As we all know, there’s a lot of rub­bish to be found in the in­ter­net.

Make your­self some beau­ti­ful pesto, team it with re­ally good pasta and re­mind your­self of why this stuff went bal­lis­tic in the first place all those years ago,

But have it for lunch. Sleep is al­most as es­sen­tial as pasta.


The per­fect pesto, this one from Lu­cio’s Res­tau­rant in Syd­ney’s Paddington

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