Nine years ago today, I was sitting in a restaurant in Tuscany, deciding on lunch with my eyes, nose and ears. The olive trees whose fruits were pressed in the kitchen just before opening and the fragrant sweet basil rolling like emerald waves across the countryside were visible from my cliffside window seat. One long “baa” from bleating ewes that graze and provide their milk for Pecorino Romano cheese and my senses made the selection for me. I’ll have the pesto, per favore.
What arrived was an artful and gravity-defying tall swirl of bucatini topped with a curled sage leaf. In retrospect, the sturdy slope of pasta may have been a nod to the venue. It would make sense; we were dining in Montepulciano – which I translate as “Commanding Mountain” – an earthy Renaissance town, high on a hill with a vibe that envelops your soul. This hill of pasta was not overdressed. It needn’t be given the organic treasures in its sturdy walls. Bucatini is a “spaghetti tube,” pasta strands hollowed in the center so the sauce can fill the space. It’s one of the details of authentic Italian pasta preparation that makes this vegetarian dish so rich in subtleties that dazzle your taste buds and make it tough to replicate as bucatini is scarce in America. The texture of a thick, pesto-infused cylinder of freshly made semolina pasta accounts for the first fabulous tickle of your taste buds. What followed – the release of the inimitable blend of mortar and pestle crushed garlic, hours-old, fresh-pressed olive oil, finely grated cheese and herbs – was spectacular. An alchemy all its own in this medieval Tuscan enclave known better for its grapes and wines.
Truth be told, it was the color that initially piqued my curiosity. The pesto was shades lighter than any I’d had or made in the States. Basil is deep green. This was medium green, like celadon. I wondered what this could be as I savored this culinary delight. First twirl around my fork revealed that it wasn’t slick, so not likely it contains more olive oil than I’d experienced previously. Perhaps it has more grated cheese? A slightly more yellow Parmesan or an additional grate of the whiter and brighter Pecorino Romano could temper a basil pesto’s tint. But its pungency suggested something else at work. Curious to the last mouthful, I asked our server about it. Clearly familiar with the question, she grinned and nodded. “Si. Salvia.” My puzzled face sent her looking for the word in English. “She thought for a moment, and as she did, another patron leaned over and said confidently, “Sage. In Italy it’s called the ‘miracle herb.’” “Ah! Si, signore! Grazie.” She looked at me and said with great pride, “Sage.” I noted this in my travel journal – at that time, a pencil and paper exercise.
Back in Connecticut the following spring, as soon as the temperatures were holding steady above 60 degrees, I pulled out that journal page and planted basil and the no-longer-secret herb, sage. Experimenting with sage as a key ingredient in pesto has been fun for nearly a decade now, and I’m content with the proportions my loved ones’ palettes find most appealing. Not that you can go wrong with pesto. No experiment in the last nine years yielded anything but a fresh and fragrant paste that works as a pasta toss, panini condiment and coating for baked fish. But for all of the above, I’m partial to one third sage leaves and two thirds basil for the color, texture and punch those proportions pack, close to what I discovered that August day in Italy years ago.
And pesto is as quick to make as it is delicious to eat once you have your ingredients assembled and a blender or food processor handy. Two cups of basil and one cup of sage leaves (no stems), 1/3 cup each of fine grated aged Parmesan and Pecorino Romano, 6 gloves of garlic pressed or minced and 2/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil. Pulse the herbs, cheese, garlic and oil until your preferred consistency. Salt and pepper to taste and you have homemade pesto for your pastas and paninis all fall and winter, as pesto freezes beautifully in glass jars. Dalla mia cucina alla tua (from my kitchen to yours) Buon Appetito!
Lisa Bernard is semi-retired, leaning into life and love on horseback, with pescetarian foodie finds and her treasured family, faith and seasonal rituals in Litchfield County, Connecticut. She shares her travels, peaceful encounters with wildlife and other city-turned-country-girl activities in photos, blog posts and columns in Lakeridge Life Magazine and on Instagram @LisaBernardWriting. Share your story ideas and comments below or send privately to LisaBernardWriting@gmail.com.