Food and family creates a perfect recipe

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on August 13, 2018

Pesto tastes like summertime to me.

A special recipe for this delicious basil-based, garlic-infused sauce has been honed over
the years by my maternal grandmother, my nonna. Around this time of year, when her garden is in bloom and her basil plants are booming, she whips together her signature mouth-watering pesto as part of an annual quest to stock her freezer for the winter months.

In my experience, food and family go hand-in-hand, and the preparation of that food is a very intentional act of love. Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen once wrote: “When we invite friends for a meal, we do much more than offer them food for their bodies. We offer friendship, fellowship, good conversation, intimacy and closeness…. We offer our guests not only our food and drink, but ourselves. A spiritual bond grows, and we become food and drink for one another.”

The same can be said of cooking for family, whether on a regular, day-to-day basis, or for special occasions. From a young age, I have fond memories of summer days assisting my nonna in the family kitchen as she canned peaches and made tomato sauce, which we’d enjoy throughout the year. So having grown basil this summer in a modest herb garden on the balcony of my new apartment, I visited my nonna to learn her secret to making pesto from fresh ingredients. 

The recipe she uses was passed onto her years ago by “some of the girls at the club,” nonna told me, referring to a social club in Toronto she still frequents. The club was started by immigrants from Italy’s northeastern province of Friuli, which borders Austria, Slovenia and the Adriatic Sea, the area where nonna was born. When she made the trans-Atlantic voyage to Canada in the 1950s, she brought with her a joy of cooking and an appreciation for home-grown food that hasn’t diminished, even as she approaches her 89th birthday this September.

In the kitchen, she takes her time and doesn’t rush, giving the recipe her full attention. She measures every ingredient carefully. To her, this care is no different than the care and precision of a sculptor in creating a work of art.

When it’s time to add my freshly picked basil to the other ingredients, she tells me to fill the food processor (“Inpinisila,” she instructs, in her native dialect). Then we share a hearty laugh when she tells me to remove the garlic’s “heart” — her at my look of bewilderment and me at what seems an incredibly odd request. Apparently, the “heart” is the small piece in the middle of a clove (sometimes light green in colour, depending on the freshness of the garlic) that is revealed when garlic is sliced in half lengthwise. By sliding the heart out along a little groove, the garlic becomes easier to digest, nonna says.

She tells me that a former co-worker introduced her to pesto when she first arrived in Canada. The co-worker hailed from the Italian region of Liguria, where pesto as we know it today was born in the mid-1800s. She assumed my nonna was familiar with pesto but, funny enough, my nonna had never tried pesto even though it was invented a mere 400 kilometres away from where she was born and raised. 

I’m not at liberty to share her particular recipe as I’ve been sworn to secrecy. But the original Italian recipe is so imitated that the Chamber of Commerce of Genoa has published the “official recipe.” It comprises seven ingredients: Ligurian basil leaves, cloves of garlic, extra virgin olive oil, parmesan cheese, pecorino sardo cheese (made from sheep’s milk), coarse salt and pine nuts.

As for the pine nuts, nonna specifies, they must be bought from Bulk Barn, as that’s been her go-to store over the years. The pine tree that towers about 10 feet above her house is full of them, too, she admits — but those are for the birds. 

When the blend was ready, we removed the lid — and the payoff was instant. A fragrant aroma filled the kitchen. After scooping the pesto into a jar, nonna grabbed a piece of bread and handed it to me. She added a drop of extra-virgin olive oil to the remnants in the food processor and we hungrily scooped it up, enjoying the fruits of our labour.

This shared experience is like a bridge to connect the gap of the “old world” of my nonna and the world she shares with me. Recipes like these are the culinary roots of our family heritage — and bring to life the sounds and smells of home.

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