Visiting Italy always prompts me to make some reflections on the differences and similarities that Britain and my mother country display, whether it’s their cultures, their weather or their food. Discussions on British and Italian food, in particular, never fail to set me off on to a tirade on the ubiquity of the so-called Italian food in UK supermarkets, food chains and media. In Italy, my mum seemed surprised when B. hardly needed any help with the language in the menus: pasta, pizza, spaghetti, panino, risotto, minestrone, arrabbiata, ragù, salsa, prosciutto, tiramisù, bolognese are only the first that come to mind. The seemingly natural British disposition to absorb other traditions and cultures and the fact that Italian food at its best is very simple has triggered an invasion of dishes of (apparently) Italian origin that have long lost resemblance to the mediterranean cousins they come from. While on the one hand I can’t help but love being able to find Grana Padano, Taleggio, ricotta and Prosciutto Crudo di Parma almost as easily as I would in Italy, on the other the whole “Italian-inspired” food mania depresses me a little. Italian food is great because it is simple, easy and tasty. Based on a few key ingredients that, as things stand now, are imported from Italy or other mediterranean countries at the expense of the environment (think of the packaging and transport), our wallets and the British producers. As amazing as Parmigiano Reggiano is, what about British cheeses? Ask the cheesemonger near you, do your own research: you will be pleasantly surprised by the diversity out there.
Never one to shy away from confrontation (or you could call me argumentative), here’s the evidence. A translation of the classic Genoese recipe for pesto into its British twin. Young and peppery spring leaves such as watercress, spinach and rocket instead of basil, walnuts instead of pine nuts and locally grown cold-pressed rapeseed oil instead of imported extra-virgin olive oil. For the cheese I went for a Quickes extra mature cheddar, but you could try an extra mature Lincolnshire Poacher or this good-looking Old Winchester. Don’t be afraid to ask your cheesemonger, because any respectable one will a) share your passion for cheese and b) be more than willing to make you try the cheeses to help you decide. Go for a salty, complex flavour that leaves a strong aftertaste in your mouth. British ingredients sorted, now this recipe just needs a new, less Italian name.
In a pestle and mortar, crush the leaves with some sea salt. You might need to do this in more than one stage, depending on the size of your pestle and mortar. Don’t exaggerate with the salt as extra mature cheeses are usually quite salty. You can always add more before serving. Add the chopped walnuts and the cheese. Mix well and pour in the rapeseed oil. Mix, taste and finish with some freshly grated black pepper and some salt (if needed). If you prefer a finer texture to your pesto, you can blend the dry ingredients in a food processor and then mixing in the oil by hand. Add to your drained pasta cooked al dente and serve, or spread on some toasted slices of good bread.