It is easy to imagine that pesto has been around for ever. In fact, Sacla’s jarred version of this basil sauce – the first mass-produced pesto distributed in the UK – only appeared on supermarket shelves in 1991. Even in Italy itself, pesto is a relatively modern creation. Historically, the Roman sauces agliata and moretum combined garlic with nuts or oil and cheese, and there are old Georgian walnut-and-oil sauces that possibly influenced the seafaring home of pesto, Liguria, where preserving basil leaves in olive oil was commonplace. But the pesto alla Genovese we know today – named after the region’s capital, Genoa, made with pine nuts and Parmigiano-Reggiano – only became a “thing” in the 19th century. (Possibly because greenhouses had belatedly made the industrial production of small basil leaves practical. Bigger ones can taste unsuitably minty and lemony.)
An instant hit, the original fresh, pestle-pounded pestos were light and grassy, made using mild, buttery Ligurian olive oils and modest amounts of parmesan and Sardinian pecorino. Jarred versions have always been comparatively salty and deeply savoury, a great wallop of flavour. Still the UK’s best seller in this £38m-a-year market, Sacla’s pesto is no exception to that (190g, about £2.30; 5/10). However, that bullishness has not inhibited pesto’s success – nor has brands incorporating cheaper ingredients such as cashews, grana padano cheese and sunflower oil (including Sacla). The sauce is now ubiquitous, whether dressing pasta or jazzing up everything from soups to potato salads. But are any of the supermarket own-brands better than Sacla’s? And are the fresh, chiller-cabinet pestos worth the extra expense?
The Fresh Pasta Company, which owns the Mattarello brand, makes an ostensibly superior, very expensive pesto (using Genovese basil; 130g, £5.49), also available through Ocado. It has an incredible colour (think: algae on an Amazonian pond) but this far cheaper pesto is still vibrant and much better. It has a good chunky texture and, while it tastes predominantly of salty grana padano and garlic – the basil is more a diaphanous presence – it does so in a way that is smooth and bold. It leaves most jarred pestos for dead.
This pesto gives it the big ‘un (50% Ligurian basil, extra virgin olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano and, erm, added bamboo fibre) but conspicuously fails to deliver. It has a good fragrance but a loose, oily, slightly gummy consistency. The basil has been pulped into mulch that carries such scant flavour you could be chewing wet grass. Like so many jarred pestos, this tastes neutered and cheap. Its cheese flavour is discernible, but skulks around and shrinks beneath a dominant, unpalatably acidic top note.
As mesmerisingly green as the baize on a newly installed pub pool table, this looks fantastic, but tastes flat. It sets you up for a great gust of basil and aged parmesan that never quite happens. Likewise, the promising toasted pine nuts bobbing in there fail to assert themselves. Sure, it is significantly more rounded and interesting than the jarred Waitrose 1 pesto but, for a fresh sauce, it is relatively bland and dogged by some curiously astringent, prickly flavour compounds that flash in its wake.