The French have imposed their own pronunciation on the Italian minestrone to describe a hearty soup of boiled vegetables and pasta. The Provençal pistou is a garlic, fresh basil, grated cheese, and olive oil pomade, descendant of the Genovese pesto, which contains pounded pinenuts and most often sauces pasta. A soupe au pistou is a minestrone into which, at the moment of serving, a pistou is incorporated. Beyond that point of definition, no two are alike and, despite Italian antecedents, all are jealously Provençal.
Some people prefer to cut all the vegetables into tiny cubes and boil them rapidly for about 20 minutes; others cut them into chunks, adding certain at different times and cooking until the potatoes begin to disintegrate and the squash has melted to near dissolution. Some add chopped tomato to the soup and none to the pistou. The Varois consider white beans and squash essential to a smooth body (fresh basil and large squash, from which slices are cut, are stocked in all the local shops for 6 months of the year, both destined only for use in soupe au pistou); in the Alpes-maritimes, white beans are rarely added and the use of squash is either unknown or thought to be heretical.
Soupe au pistou has been fairly widely popularized in American kitchens—and American friends never fail to be astonished at the goodness of a pistou that has been patiently pounded in a mortar rather than violently emulsified in a blender . . .
The thing, in itself, is like some unleashed earth force, sowing exhilaration in its wake—but, in that wake, nothing else may be savored, for it has a distinctly paralyzing effect on the palate; one may as well make it in quantity and plan to make a meal of it . . . And it is a sure wine-killer, so one may as well settle for a well-chilled, light-bodied, dry rosé.
The pistou is most often mixed into the soup before its arrival at the table, but, not only is it kinder to those guests who are shy of garlic to serve the fearful paste apart, but also the ritualistic aspect of each person’s serving himself from the mortar deepens the joy and the group involvement; soupe au pistou creates an atmosphere that deserves to be pampered.