What is Pistou – The French Pesto Recipe & Translation

PISTOU…or pesto? Pesto is a very commonly known and commercially produced basil/olive oil/garlic condiment used in Italian cuisine. Pistou, it’s lesser known cousin, is a basil/olive oil/garlic condiment used in French cuisine.

The main difference is the pine nuts – which are used in the Italian version and not in the French.

The traditional French version of pistou is made only with garlic, basil, olive oil and salt. It is now common to see it made with Parmesan or other cheeses and sometimes with a tomato thrown in for extra flavoring.

What Does Pistou Mean

The word itself – pistou – is a Provençal word derived from the latin pestare which means to pound. Pistou is made by “pounding” the ingredients together using a mortar and pestle.

Food processors have taken over from the mortar and pestle, but Patricia Wells notes in her cookbook that only by using the traditional method of the mortar and pestle will you be able to retain the bright green color.

The sauce is best made within one to two days of using. To store it longer, cover it with a thin film of olive oil and keep it in the refrigerator. It can also be frozen immediately in tablespoon and 1/2-cup portions.

Pistou can be used as a sauce for pasta or as a flavoring for steamed vegetables, grilled fish and chicken. Perhaps the best known use is in Soupe au Pistou. This Provençal soup showcases a wide variety of garden vegetables.  It certain regions, bacon, sausage or ham is also added.

It’s said that this classic of Provençal cuisine was created in the 18th century by a duchess in order to seduce a marquis. Let yourself be seduced by this recipe for Soupe au pistou.

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Pistou Recipe


•    4 cups fresh basil, finely shredded or cut with scissors
•    1/2 cup chopped parsley
•    1 teaspoon coarse salt
•    3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
•    1/2 cup freshly grated Gruyère (or Parmesan)
•    3/4 cup olive oil
•    freshly ground pepper


1. Place a half of the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and blend. When the purée is smooth, pour it into a bowl.

2. Purée the rest of the ingredients and add them to the first batch.

3. Stir in the cheese. Use immediately or refrigerate for up to 2 days.


To keep the sauce longer than 2 days in the refrigerator, cover it with some olive oil.

You can also make the above recipe by processing the basil, parsley and olive oil.

Pour the mixture into a freezer bag and freeze it flat. When you need some pistou, break off some of the frozen mixture and add in some pressed garlic and cheese.

Pistou Soup Recipe

This recipe is adapted from the original recipe from J.-B. Reboul.

Pistou Soup has become more and more complicated with ingredients like leeks, beans, onions and carrots. They’ve all evolved from this simple vegetable soup.

“This soup, originally from Genoa, is only popular in Provence, even here it is not widely made.” J.-B Reboul, La Cuisinère Provençale, 1897.


•    1 lb. green beans
•    3 to 4 small potatoes
•    2 tomatoes, seeds removed
•    4 oz. angel hair pasta or vermicelli
•    4-6 Tablespoons pistou (or pre-made pesto from the grocery store)
•    gruyère cheese, grated
•    water
•    optional: vegetable broth


1. Pour 8 cups water into a soup pot or dutch oven. (You can also use 4 cups water and 4 cups of vegetable broth.

2. Clean the green beans and dice into small pieces. Place in the pot.

3. Peel the potatoes and dice them. Add them to the pot.

4. Cut the tomatoes in half and remove the seeds. Dice the tomatoes and add to the pot.

5. Turn the heat to medium low and cook for about 1 hour.

6. About 15 minutes before serving, break the pasta into 1-inch pieces and add to the soup. Cook until the pasta is done.

To serve:

Place a tablespoon of pistou/pesto in each of 6 soup plates. Add some grated gruyère to each bowl. Ladle in the soup and stir.

Bon Appétit !


Debra Fioritto is a winner of the 2006 Culinary Trust's Julia Child Endowment Fund Scholarship and specialises in culinary travel and tours to France. She is an expert in the history, legend and lore of French cuisine and has eaten her way through most of the regions of France.

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