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I bought pesto, pissed

I may be a food editor, but I am far from an accomplished cook. My staples are a Tesco meal deal, canned tomato soup, and crackers with some variation of spread. What I was thinking when I decided to purchase ridiculously overpriced truffle pesto in Italy is … not as much of a mystery as I’d like to pretend. I was in the middle of a day of wine tasting (without a spittoon), and I was lured in with free samples of everything from biscuits to chocolates to eventually, the pesto. It stayed in my suitcase for two weeks as I travelled, before I brought it to college where it sat in my cupboard for a month as I decided how best to use it.

Fortunately, I live with Jack, a second-year Univ medic who has spent the past few years’ worth of holidays working as a chef. When not producing an essay, he’s usually cooking something exotic I haven’t heard of. Unlike me, he actually enjoys being in the kitchen and was more than happy to take responsibility for my tiny €16 jar of pesto. His idea was to make his own pesto and compare the two for quality and price, which I can only believe will prove embarrassing for me and my (drunken) retail choices.

His immediate recommendations included buying the ingredients to match the quality of the pesto, meaning not the cheapest I could find, but focussing on more than the price per unit. I decided the best way to go about this was to ask him to do the shopping, with a promise of reimbursement, and after a quick trip to Tesco, he was cooking – or rather grinding – to the tune of Eminem’s Without Me.

Jack had several ideas for dishes that would incorporate pesto, from pizza to steak sandwiches, but settled on the student classic, pesto pasta. The beginning of this process was to grind together garlic and salt to a desired consistency in a pestle and mortar (or a blender for those without the muscle/energy), before toasting pine nuts on a low heat to draw out their flavour. Next, all these ingredients, and the basil, were added to the pestle and mortar, and ground to a “pesto-like paste” (I did ask, but no further clarification was forthcoming). Then Parmesan was grated in and combined using the pestle and mortar, until a lighter colour appeared, and olive oil was added to form a desirable consistency.

Upon its completion, I was given a taste. The freshness and quality of homemade was much better than shop bought, for the small price of £2 (ish). All that was left was to compare it to the €16 (£13.96) pesto I’d brought back from Italy. My pesto tasted strongly of its key ingredient, truffle, though it had a hard time sticking to the pasta and was largely lost, and any hint of basil or nut was disguised in a relatively thin sauce. Its umami flavour is admittedly difficult to balance (or so I’m told) and frankly was more interesting to eat, than comforting or pleasant. Jack’s pesto on the other hand was much creamier – indicative of a greater Parmesan content – and made for a rich dish that I’d happily eat any day of the week. It was thicker and coated the pasta well, though it was noticeably plain in comparison to the depths of the truffle.

On the whole, given the sheer chasm of a price difference, Jack’s pesto is a clear winner. Cheap, easy to make, and still delicious to eat, I can only wonder at what I was thinking, spending so much on so little. My truffle pesto did have one redeeming quality: it was unique to anything else in our flat. As an occasional treat, to enhance a classic dish and shake up the usual routine, it was well suited. But if I were given the choice between the two day-to-day, regardless of price, I would choose the comforting, creamy option every time.

If the quantities given in the recipe seem vague, it is because Jack produced this pesto measuring each element from memory, with an ease and familiarity derived from years of love for his craft. I could only watch with admiration, and gratitude that I have the opportunity to benefit from his skill. For anyone with a similar love for food, I would strongly recommend exploring ingredients and techniques in the kitchen, or alternatively as I have done, befriending a chef.

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