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How we grow and use Basil

Paolo Arrigo

Once again members were literally treated to a taste of Italy when we welcomed back Paolo Arrigo from Franchi Seeds together with his mother, Theresa, who demonstrated how to make pesto using basil supplied by a supermarket, which during winter, has to be imported from Jordan. Whilst Theresa set to work Paolo told us about its introduction to Italy by the Romans who fed it to their horses and used it to treat ear infections. Surprisingly they never ate it themselves believing that it made you mad.

He commenced his talk by dispelling the mistaken view that all of Italy enjoys a Mediterranean climate by pointing out that the cooler alpine climate occurring in the mountainous regions is well suited to growing many vegetables that can also flourish in our gardens. Basil is no exception and advice was given on how best to ensure a continuous supply by making three sowings a year, commencing with sowing in pots under glass in March and April, followed by the main crop outdoors in May. A final sowing is recommended in pots sown during August that can be brought under glass to ensure a supply into the autumn.

Basil is the main ingredient of pesto where it is combined with pine nuts from China, Pecorino cheese and olive oil from Liguria. Parmesan cheese may be used instead of Pecorino, though the latter is considered preferable because it has a higher salt content. Garlic may also be added as an optional extra. Pesto takes its name from the verb ‘to crush’ and is traditionally made with a pestle and mortar. Its preparation was ably demonstrated by Theresa using a plastic hand operated mincer to crush the basil before mixing it with the other ingredients. Never chop basil with a metal knife as it causes it to blacken. With the proof of the pudding being in the eating, members were invited to sample the freshly prepared pesto spread on chunks of bread passed around at the end of the talk. The meeting concluded on a musical note as Paolo entertained us on his 90 year old piano accordion.

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