Italian job: Eight pesto sauces put to the taste test 

"It was easy to eliminate quite a few jars from our Top 8 as they were grainy and stringy, some with little flavour. Happily, we found many decent examples to add to our cupboards."
Italian job: Eight pesto sauces put to the taste test 

Picture: iStock 

Pesto means pounded (where the word pestle comes from), giving us a clue to the ancient beginnings of this famous sauce. We can make it with fresh basil, as in Genoa, where it originated, but also parsley, wild garlic leaves, spinach and kale. Pine nuts are traditional too but can be expensive, so substitute with peanuts, almonds or cashews.

Stay local with rapeseed oil instead of olive oil, or sunflower oil for a lighter texture, though olive oil works best for me.

Parmesan and Pecorino Sardo provide bite and creaminess. Dried out cheddar and fresh cheddar will do at a pinch for immediate use. And don’t forget to buzz the rinds of cheese in a blender or grate until fine.

Allow 50g each of cheese and nuts to 150g oil, two garlic cloves and a large bunch of basil leaves. Properly sealed homemade pesto with a skim of oil on top will keep for months. It can be frozen, too without the nuts, which can be added after defrosting for better texture. Around 10% protein makes this a good match for pasta’s carbs, and there are added benefits of the greens, oil and garlic.

It was easy to eliminate quite a few jars from our Top 8 as they were grainy and stringy, some with little flavour. Happily, we found many decent examples to add to our cupboards.


Yummie Foods Rocket Pesto 150g €5

Yummy Foods rocket pesto. Pictures: Eddie O'Hare
Yummy Foods rocket pesto. Pictures: Eddie O'Hare

Rocket leaves, Parmiggiano Reggiano, garlic, cashew nuts and salt provide natural flavours and textures. The result is a lovely resonance of Italy with a generous Parmesan flavour. It seemed a little liquid at first but chilled in the fridge, it hardened enough to spread on bread for delicious bruschetta, as well as on penne. A top product. Made in Watergrasshill, where it is available via NeighbourFood. We bought in O’Driscolls, Ballinlough, Cork.

Score: 9

Genovese Pesto Verde 160g €5

Genovese pesto. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Genovese pesto. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Olive oil, 18% pine nuts, 14% fresh basil, vegetarian hard cheese, fresh garlic, and sea salt. Pine nuts are not over-processed and retain their bite, which with the basil combined to create a traditional pesto. Low salt at 0.3%. Made in Dublin and available online at Genovese.ie, we bought in O’Driscolls, Ballinlough, Cork.

Score: 9.25

Barilla Pesto Rosso 200g €2.99

Barilla Pesto Rosso
Barilla Pesto Rosso

With salt at 3%, this is a salty pesto, but the richness of the tomato pulp and concentrate, offset by balsamic vinegar and sugars means it goes a long way on pasta, diluting the salt nicely. Cashew nuts replace pinenuts, and sunflower oil is used. There is 2.2% basil, the cheese is Pecorino Romano which blends well in a well-textured, creamy, oily, pulpy sauce that all tasters liked.

Score: 8

Alce Nero Organic Pesto Rosso 130g €3.95

Alce Nero pesto
Alce Nero pesto

One of the only pestos we found that doesn’t have nuts, this can be added to pasta (or on bread) for a school lunch in keeping with allergy guidelines. 55% dried tomatoes, 18% tomato pulp, 7% tomato paste, sunflower oil, olive oil, apple vinegar, Parmesan and Pecorino cheeses, chilli, pepper, salts of 2.2% make a fresh, lively sauce with good texture without nuts. Made in Italy, we bought in Bradleys, Cork.

Score: 8.25

M&S Pesto Rosso 190g €2.60

M&S Pesto Rosso
M&S Pesto Rosso

Good texture, with a rich natural flavour of 42% tomato puree and some sun-dried tomatoes and 10% basil, there is a decent 26% olive oil, but it’s not too runny. Pecorino Romano gives it creaminess, as well as the 2% cashew nuts and 1.3% pine kernels. Sea salt and salty cheese add up to a low enough 1.3% salt. Use on pizza bases or spread on bread before topping with sardines or tuna.

Score: 8

Dunnes Stores Simply Better Italian Basil Pesto 190g €2.50

Dunnes Basil pesto
Dunnes Basil pesto

The 49% basil has a little stalkiness to it, perhaps added to by bamboo fibre which takes away from the plumpness of the leaves. However, the rest of the texture of Pecorino Romano and 33% olive oil (with sunflower oil) helps. Cashew nut flour is used, which is unusual and there are some pine nuts which give a little bite. 0.93% salt in all, including the cheese, is reasonable.

Score: 7

Sage Lovage & Walnut Pesto 250g €3.99

Sage Lovage & Walnut pesto
Sage Lovage & Walnut pesto

An interesting combination of rapeseed oil, 9% lovage and 9% parsley provides a mix of local ingredients. There are also walnuts, garlic and Parmesan cheese. Salts are a low 0.47%, but the black pepper gives it plenty of flavour. The texture is runnys- we suggest serving over tagliatelle. It divided tasters, one not liking it, and the others finding it strongly flavoured and interesting for a change.

Score: 7

Lidl Italiamo red 190g €1.99

Italiamo Pesto Rosso
Italiamo Pesto Rosso

A nicely strong tomato flavour from passata and dried tomatoes and 10% basil. The pesto’s creaminess comes from the 2% Pecorino Romano with grittiness from the 3% Grana Padano cheese. We missed the presence of full-bodied olive oil as sunflower oil is used instead. Cashew nuts and garlic powder add flavour. Salt at 1.99% and wine vinegar are not overdone.

Score: 7

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