What's The Difference Between Pesto And Romesco?

Homemade romesco sauce

Short answer
While pesto and romesco are both quintessential Mediterranean sauces with plenty of similarities, they taste completely different and can in no way stand in as a substitute for one another.

Long answer
Sometimes called "Spanish pesto," we're such big fans of romesco that, put it this way, if we weren't making pesto, we'd probably be making romesco. While the Italians prefer to keep the recipe for their beloved pesto within very strict parameters, the Spanish are far more relaxed. You'll find that romesco varies so much throughout the country that it's almost a sauce that refuses to be pigeonholed, and we love it even more for it.

Both romesco and pesto make use of their countries' world-class olive oil and garlic, and in the case of Sicilian pesto, tomatoes too. You'll usually find [hydrated] dried peppers and paprika in romesco recipes, both of which give the sauce a deep, smoky vibe that has a completely different taste profile from pesto.

Depending on the region, you may find breadcrumbs or even chickpeas added to give the sauce extra body, while some recipes suggest using hazelnuts rather than almonds. Others recommend parsley, lemon juice, onions, and even cumin.

While pesto's undisputed life partner is pasta, romesco's is BBQ. The sauce was honed over many years by the fishermen of Tarragona in Catalonia to add a fresh, punchy flavour to their daily catch. If you've never eaten romesco with barbecued sardines or mackerel, we urge you to give it a try.

Amazing orange-red colour of romesco sauce

The following recipe is a good starting point for romesco sauce, but bear in mind that a truly authentic romesco will make use of chillies (normally ñora, but sometimes piquillo or choricero). It just happens that we prefer the sweetness of bell peppers.

Romesco recipe for four servings

Ingredient Quantity
Roasted red peppers 120g
Sun-dried tomatoes 60g
Almonds 60g
Sherry vinegar 10g
Roast garlic 7.5g
Paprika* 6g
Cayenne 2g
Salt 2g
Olive oil if needed

* You have a few options when it comes to paprika. We love the chorizo vibe of pimentón (which is a sweet, smoked paprika), although others prefer hot, spicy paprika or just plain-Jane paprika. You chose your favourite.

For the very best results, we like to roast our own bell peppers because the supermarket versions don't carry the same smoky taste as freshly grilled peppers. It's no great hardship. Simply quarter the pepper and discard the seeds and white membrane. Place the pieces, skin side up, on a baking tray and grill until the skin is completely blistered. Allow them to cool for a couple of minutes, and then peel off and discard the blackened skin.

If you prefer the simplicity of shop-bought roasted peppers, simply drain them from their brine, rinse in cold water, and pat them dry.

We also like to roast our own garlic by wrapping a bulb in tinfoil and roasting it in a 200°C oven until our kitchen starts to take on a wonderful garlic smell, around 20 minutes. If that's too much hassle, just use fresh garlic, but halve the amount.

Drain the tomatoes from their oil but retain the oil. It contains tons of flavour and is far too good to be thrown away.

Add the peppers and tomatoes to a food processor, along with the garlic, almonds, vinegar, paprika, and cayenne, and blitz until the sauce reaches a smooth consistency.

Transfer everything to a mixing bowl and stream in the oil from the tomatoes, stirring constantly until it reaches your ideal viscosity. Add more olive oil, if necessary.

Serve on top of grilled meats, fish, and vegetables, making sure to save some to use as a dipping sauce.