With two BBC Northampton grow-your-own slots under my belt – and having successfully brewed herbal tea last time, I got ambitious when I welcomed Helen Blaby and producer John Alexander back to the allotment last week. How hard could making pesto on air be?
Once I’d got past the logistics of getting a heavy pestle and mortar up to the plot (perfect for the kitchen, but not so portable!). Plus, all the ingredients I couldn’t realistically grow (oil, cheese, lemons), I was ready to go.
Unfortunately, the weather had other plans. After taking a rain-check (more like a torrential deluge check) on the day we originally planned for recording, we were lucky with a clear and sunny day and Helen and her microphone arrived among the glorious wild flowers standing sentry to my plot.
While I’m a bag of nerves before each recording, there’s something about Helen’s reassuring approach that means we drop into natural conversation once the recorder is rolling.
Knowing Helen is not a basil fan, I explained that the word pesto refers to the process of grinding or crushing, rather than the ingredients and in fact, it can be made from just about anything. On the day we tried varieties made with deep green chard, peppery rocket and – just for comparisons sake – basil.
Again, knowing that not everyone gets on with pine nuts (I myself suffer from the horrible “pine nut mouth“), I also paired the chard with pistachio, the rocket with almonds and the basil with walnuts. The backbone of any good pesto is garlic. I was delighted to be able to pluck some fresh bulbs from the ground for this recording and oil, in this case Mellow Yellow rapeseed from local Farrington Oils.
In the best Blue Peter tradition, I’d made samples of all the pesto earlier, but did a demonstration on the shed table with the chard and pistachio recipe – all in the interests of dynamic radio audio of course! I can admit now that the multi-tasking challenge of pounding in the mortar while maintaining conversation led to omission of oil in the mix, but thankfully no-one listening could see and Helen and John were too polite to mention it!
Thankfully the pre-made pestos had all the ingredients present and correct and we were able to sample the different flavour combinations. Even my home-grown basil pesto wasn’t enough to convert Helen back to this aromatic herb, but she was a big fan of the rocket, with its balance of peppery spice, and sweet garlic and almonds. My personal favourite is the buttery chard, nicely enhanced by the richness of the pistachio and oil.
My other tip was pepping up your pestos with a good squeeze of lemon. It’s not in every pesto recipe, but I think it gives a fresh and tangy lift – and can cut through the oiliness, which can be cloying.
As John said after recording, he had never realised how simple pesto was to make – and wouldn’t be buying it in jars any more. Grow, grind and enjoy your own!